A NOVELLA BY KATIE GEORGE
Published by Katie George at Shakespir
Copyright 2016 Shakespir
THERE IS THIS thing called memory. Fortunately, memory exists, but unfortunately, memory exists. Imagine if one could simply erase a terrible, excruciating episode in which slanderous words were said; but also imagine if one could simply erase the moment his or her child was born. This is why memory is crucial, as it builds a human’s ability to remain human, while instructing applicable, important lessons.
Memories are not always trustworthy, as most know. Babies do not exactly remember things; college students do not always remember the answers for their semester finals; and the elderly do not always remember where they placed their car keys, though they placed them in the same spot for forty years, every day in the drawer by the kitchen sink.
Yet while a memory can be devilish, it can also be an angel. Maybe an angel in disguise, but if one had no memories, would that person even be an individual?
There is a desert, in the basin of wild Arizona, where four souls lay on their backs underneath a chilly, starry night. They’d been placed there unbeknownst to them, along with a few jugs of water, two blankets, and a few canned foods. There was nothing else, except the clothes on their backs, because they were not expected to survive long.
There were three men and one woman. One of the men was young, maybe seventeen or eighteen years old, with Hispanic features. As he lay asleep in the dirt, his lungs quivered with anticipation, because even in this dreamless night, he had good thoughts. He had a man’s body, but inwardly, as most know, he still obtained a child’s mind.
A white man slept beside him, splayed out like a long giraffe on the ground. He was a tall man, around six five, with cropped gold hair, the color of gold light, and he was handsome even as he slept. He possessed good looks, and he was asleep rather quietly, barely moving at all.
Beside him lay the woman, whose blonde hair stuck to her sweaty skin. Her eyes fluttered underneath the lids, because, unlike the others, she was dreaming, but it was a nightmare. She kept rolling over, back and forth, in between the two white men, because she was scared. Yet even in the starlight, the woman held a classic but simplistic beauty. Her fingers deftly twirled a ring around the bone of her finger.
The man to her left was not awake, but he wasn’t really asleep either. Rather, he was in the place between, when one is groggy and unaware of the atmosphere around him. He had longish brown hair with specks of butter that was held back by a loose bandanna. He was not as tall as the other white man, but he was stronger.
The night bore down on them with the bright intensity of dying stars that did not care for the poor souls sleeping on the desert depths in the ruggedness of rural Arizona. Instead, they twinkled and died long before their light even shined on the planet Earth. The sun did not seem to care either, because when it finally did expel light onto the ground, it did not kill them, and instead, it allowed them to awake in the squalor of nothingness.
When the first rays of dawn climbed over a blanket of mountains to the east, the woman was the first to rise, a sheen of sweat covering her brow. She was breathing so hard that she could not hear the ringing in her ears, and she did not cry, though she felt like collapsing into a heap of nerves. This was a haunting dream, she decided. Then she took in her surroundings: The dusty vista before her, the approaching sun, and the fact she was here. Then she looked to her right, and noted the young man and the tall man, and she felt her breathing hitch. She stood up, terrified, and saw the other man sleeping next to her indented shadow in the dirt. She began to hyperventilate, backing away from them, terrified, but not knowing what to do, she nervously fell over onto the ground, a tear dripping down her nose.
There was a fogginess covering her mind, a shroud. She tried hard to remember anything, but keenly, she knew that for whatever reason, her mind was not functioning properly. A few minutes later, she understood her name was Andrea Primond, and she was a graduate student. She did not know who her parents were, or if she had siblings, or if she attended medical school. She did not know if her favorite color was red, or if her favorite book was by Dostoevsky. This electrified the endings of her nerve cells.
She sat watching the men, analyzing each form. The young man seemed youthful and naïve, Andrea decided; the tall man was handsome, but she could not judge his character; and she immediately hated the man with the bandanna. She did not trust him in the slightest.
“Okay, Andrea,” she whispered, because she was not sure if she was Andrea or not. She just knew the name from somewhere. “There are three men there, right there, and you’re not going to run, at least not yet.”
She shuttered, the hairs prickling on her arms and the back of her neck. This was extremely idiotic. Maybe they’d drugged her, and they were sneaking across the border, or something completely moronic. She wondered how she knew what a border was when she did not know anything about herself, and this triggered a new wave of anxiety to spill over her brain.
“What have I gotten myself into?”
A lot of time had passed now, as the sun continued to rise, and she had the urge to urinate. She walked to the nearest cactus, hoping the men would not awaken before. As she peed, which was humiliating even when no one was watching, she noticed the ring on her finger for the first time. Sickened to the core of her stomach, she twisted the thing away from the bone, pulling as hard as she could, but it would not budge. Eventually, she was able to free it from her finger, after a moment or two of spellbound panic. When it was loose, the ring gleamed in the risen light, the reds and oranges and pinks highlighting the spectral glow of the silver.
Andrea lifted the ring to her eye to better examine it and noted the scrawl on the side. Forever. Beside it: A. L. P.
She intrinsically knew what a ring on one’s right hand meant: A wedding ring. But she had no idea if she was married or not, and to whom if she was. Yet Andrea, thinking for herself in a haphazard manner, stuffed the beautiful item into the dark pocket of her shorts, not allowing herself to think another moment about it.
Yet the thoughts continued to tick, like time on a winding clock.
The young man was the first to wake after Andrea. He raised his head, and he took in his companions, but no shock or terror bedaubed his face. He rubbed his eyes before returning glasses to the perch on his nose. Instead of terror, dread replaced the grogginess. Andrea watched as he stretched out his arms, and then she hurried to him, grabbing his wrist between her palms. “Do you know what is going on? Why am I here?”
The young man shook his head. He was scared by her spasm-like movements, and his lips quivered. He was nervous. “I… I don’t.”
This awakened the other two men. The tall man raised his torso and his eyes widened in utter fear, while the rugged man beside him jumped up and cursed. Andrea became like a frightened pup, curling behind the young man, as the other two assessed their new ecosystem: the fierce, open desert, and the people with whom they had been left.
“What in God’s name is this?” The rugged man lifted his weathered hands to his longish hair, drawing the fingers through it with wonder. His facial features conveyed what Andrea felt. She knew he did not remember a thing, except maybe that he once had short hair.
The other man, the tall man, had bright blue eyes, the color of the sky. It was a normal blue, a boring blue, but they had a new hue to them: Terror. The man sat, breathing, his lungs moving his body into motion. “What is going on?” It was a whisper. His voice faltered.
Andrea moved a few feet away, afraid for her life. She did not trust the rugged man, and the young man knew something she did not. She could feel it in his eyes. The tall man also could not be trusted, but he did not seem as vicious as the man cursing up a firestorm.
“My name is Peter,” the tall man began, looking up in Andrea and the young man’s direction, his eyes laced with water. “Who are you?”
“I am Andrea,” the woman said, desperate.
“Sandro,” offered the young man, digging his feet across the dirt. “What is your name?”
The rugged man turned his back, flashing electrifying sea-colored eyes. He was downright frightening and somewhat repulsive. “I…I don’t know.” His voice was acidic, and Andrea felt her skin melt.
“You have to know,” she said, though it sounded like a squeak. She wondered if he heard her.
Peter watched this interaction in silence. The truth was, he did not know if his name was Peter or not. He only remembered Peter as the name of a biblical figure, though he wondered how he knew what the Bible was. He must be a Christian, he decided. He fiddled with a hangnail on his pinky finger, noting the trepidation in the woman’s voice. Her brain was sizzling, because she was the only female in the group of these men. Peter would not hurt a fly, but how could he say the same for the man with the long hair? He oozed a poison called trouble.
The rugged man shook his head, his eyes registering fear. “I… Call me Arlo.”
“Arlo?” Sandro asked, his accent pronouncing the name in a Spanish way.
Arlo used the first name he could think of, and even then, he did not know if it was a name or not. All he could remember was a novella, one about a ship headed into a heart of darkness in the Congo. He did not know if he loved to read, and he did not know why his hair was so long. He did not like it, and he angrily realized his chin was covered in a scruffy beard, along with a mustache. He cursed the ground, before hurrying over to Peter. Hissing in his face, Arlo shouted, “What is this? You better tell me right now.”
Peter straightened up, afraid of a fight. “I don’t know anything at all here.”
“I don’t believe it,” Arlo spat, watching his saliva droplets land on Peter’s clear skin. “Why are we here?”
“Stop it,” squeaked Andrea, tears falling down her cheeks. Sandro stood and blocked her from the fight.
Arlo moved a few inches closer, feeling a rise from the scare he was giving the man. He could take him in a few punches. “You know something, don’t you, Peter? Is that even your real name, huh? You a liar?”
Peter shook his head. “I know nothing. Except that I once read the Bible.”
“You telling me that you have no memory?” Arlo’s voice tightened. “How can that be?”
“Arlo, let him be,” Sandro’s young timbre begged. In fright, he rubbed a watch strapped across his skinny wrist. It was black. “Let’s not fight. Let’s be diplomatic.”
Arlo stopped in his tracks, yanking on a heavy ring on his finger. He stared at its gleaming in the light, and he stopped to breathe, like an animal after a long, failed prowl. He stuck it up to the sunshine, watching the embedded word shine.
Beside Sandro, Andrea’s body stiffened. That was not possible, she knew. Impossible.
Arlo ignored the ring, his nostrils flaring. “Is this some kind of a joke, friends? What’s the punchline?”
Peter stood up, an impending skyscraper, though he was lanky and would topple over if a wrecking ball like Arlo attacked him. Peter smoothed off his pants and picked up a water jug nearby, taking a swig. Sandro and Andrea watched his movements, waiting for Arlo to strike him, but the latter man turned around and observed the desert landscape before him. As Arlo quieted himself, Peter looked to Andrea and Sandro.
“You two,” he whispered, “what is this?”
“How would we know?” asked Sandro, flippantly. He was very short in stature compared to the leggy man before him and had to tilt his head upward to meet his eyes. Sandro’s mien was still boyish, with naïve and bright eyes, and the hint of a smile plastered on his lips. Now, however, there were no smiles.
“You were awake before me. That’s why you should know.”
Andrea was quiet—a thinking quiet. She analyzed the situation, but knew she was not exactly an analytical person. This, she knew, but she did not know her birth year or the person she loved most in the world. A blossoming headache bloomed in the depths of her skull, its petals and tendrils rooting around each nerve. It hurt.
“I was awake only a minute before you, man,” Sandro angrily responded.
Peter’s normal blue eyes latched onto the lithe form of Andrea, who was staring at the ground, her lips open, the high cheekbones exposing a hint of her European ancestry. She was beautiful, he decided, but he was not attracted to her. She seemed very fragile, but he did not know her from Adam, and he decided to keep this to himself. She may be the one person he could trust out of the bunch, and he had to choose wisely. It was also possible that she was playing him, but he wondered if that were true. She seemed like a nervous wreck. “You.”
Andrea did not look up.
“You,” he repeated until she finally stared at him, her eyes vacant of recognition.
She nodded. “What?”
“Who are you again?”
“My name is Andrea. Honestly, that’s all I know,” she said, her voice cracking at the end. Then she jutted her finger out at him. “But I don’t know if you’re being honest. I don’t know if any of us are being honest, actually.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” interjected Arlo, spitting on the ground. He widened the gap between his legs, his stance primal and incandescent.
Sandro’s eyes took on a heated appearance, the brown of the iris burning red. “There is no need for this hatred between each other. We need to be working together.”
“I just asked the girl a simple question.”
She rolled her eyes, a heavy sigh breaking between the pink lips. Peter watched her, noting she bit her lip when she was angered, like a bear awakening from winter’s sleep. She narrowed her eyes, too, which was quite funny, maybe even hilarious, in a different setting. “A girl, huh? What a lovely personality you have.”
Arlo smiled, though it was a manic gesture, and the green of his eyes popped like a light bulb just before it is burst. “This is what happens when trust does not exist.”
Peter picked up the two blankets, hoisting them over his back. Sandro and Andrea followed suit, taking the jugs of water and some of the canned food.
Arlo observed them and snickered. “So, what’s your plan, captain?”
Peter ignored the taunting tone. “We walk. We’re no good here sitting in the middle of the damn desert. If we keep walking, we might find a semblance of life.”
“Do you think hiking through the blistering desert is the best idea in this weather?” Arlo readily argued. “I say we wait until the night, when we won’t be as inclined to dehydrate. That’s basic, captain.”
“I agree,” Andrea admitted, shooting the Arlo a glare. “We need to conserve our water as it is, and moving about…”
Peter frowned. “It gets freezing in the cold.”
“That’s a tough question, then, ain’t it?” Arlo laughed, giddily. He was the epitome of a jerkwad, but he pulled off his bandanna and tied it around his mouth. “This preserves water loss in the mouth. But,” he said, retying the bandanna across the top of his head, “this protects me in the abominable desert sun. Which is better? Let’s play a which is preferable game? Death or life?”
“Shut up, man,” Sandro said, taking a sip out of the jug. Already the sun was beating down on them with a fierce sucker punch. “We need to find some sort of shelter. Like a cave, or a rock. We’ve got to save our skin from the sun.”
Andrea nodded. “I can trace our path with a cairn or something. Just in case, for whatever reason, we need to head back. Breadcrumbs, so to speak.”
“I thought we weren’t traveling in the daytime,” interjected Peter, who was obviously hurt from the shoot-down of his idea. That in itself was ridiculous.
Sandro answered, “We won’t for long, but obviously, man, we need to find shelter first.”
“Covering up is always big, even though it’s hot,” Arlo said, scratching the back of his head. “So, Andrea, I’m sorry, but taking it all off isn’t the wisest thing right now.”
“Who says I would give you a show?” she shot back.
“Cut it out,” yelled Peter. “This bickering will get us nowhere.”
“Exactly my point,” Sandro said. “Exactly my point.”
“So, how exactly are we going to find a cave in the middle of the wide, vast, and flat-looking desert here?” Andrea asked. It was a question on everyone’s mind.
The three looked at Arlo, watching as he stood on a bit of a dusty incline. In the morning light, he cast a shadow that was as dark as his thoughts. Sandro thought he looked somewhat like an antihero or a villain, from one of those old western flicks. The young Hispanic man watched as Arlo analyzed their surroundings and wagered internally that Arlo would be the one to make it through the night and through this hell. Peter was a bit more reserved in his opinion of Arlo. He thought the man was a bubbling equivocator, or maybe even a vigilante of his own supposed justice. Peter wanted to give Arlo the benefit of the doubt, but he also knew that trust was not something he had much of in this time, or these neck of the woods. Andrea, however, was the one people might have thought would take a more emotional, supportive stance on the character of Arlo’s person. Maybe she would wait a while to weed out why he acted the way he did. Instead, Andrea felt a dagger of pain in her gut every time she looked at him. His stance before her catapulted her into a jagged sepulcher. He was terrifying and crazy in her eyes. He was someone she would not be able to trust in a million years. She would have to watch her back, because no one else would.
“Well, we could scout the land. A few people going different directions,” Peter offered, though he doubted this tactical analysis.
Sandro spouted off, “We could find a big cactus.”
“Or build a trench,” said Arlo.
“You can’t be serious,” laughed Peter.
“While you little chickens are down below me planning nothing, I can tell you that, from up here on this tiny hill, I see something in the distance.”
“What do you mean? It could be miles away. It could be a mirage.” This time, Sandro was the one to argue.
Arlo looked down on them, his bright green eyes menacing. “Come look for yourself, amigo.”
Sandro walked to the spot where Arlo had glowed before him only moments before. He looked out into the desert, where the only things he could see were dirt, cacti, and dunes. He looked up at Arlo, closer to the man than ever before, and was spellbound. The guy was a total nightmare, but also a dream. “I don’t follow.”
Arlo pointed far out, just as Peter and Andrea finally made their way up to stand beside them.
“Dunes,” Peter said, his eyes wide. “Sandro, we could have a perfect shelter if we make it to those dunes.”
“Would we waste a lot of energy by making the trek? Those dunes could be miles and miles away,” said Andrea, wanting to be part of the group, already feeling on the edge due to her genitalia.
Peter stared, the dunes on his mind. “It’s worth the risk. We’d sweat our water reserves away if we just camp here until nightfall.”
Sandro clutched his water jug closer to his chest. “I think we should head that way.”
“Should I trace our steps?” asked Andrea.
“It couldn’t hurt,” Peter responded. “This is the first place we remember.”
For a moment, the group sounded like a makeshift team, on the surface at least. On a deeper level, this thought was incredibly hollow and impossible. Arlo was observing the others, as they prepared for the long walk. Andrea had collected a few handfuls of ruddy rocks to place every quarter mile or so, which he thought was pointless.
Whoever had dropped them off here had not left a single footprint, or tire marking, or even helicopter landing indention in the dirt. It was puzzling. They had no shoeprints except the ones they’d made since the early morning. Arlo knew that someone was watching them, and this forced him to recalibrate, and to understand who in their group was lying, because someone was. He wondered if it was Peter—but something screamed that it was the kid.
Peter was the normal, stereotypical handsome guy. He was tall, with short hair, and blue eyes. Hell, he was even clean-shaven to the core. Arlo would bet a thousand bucks that he and Andrea would hook up sometime along their journey, if they weren’t split into a thousand pieces beforehand. Peter had been acting like he knew what to do, but in all reality, Peter was scared out of his mind. The guy had it written all over his face, and Arlo could understand the fear. But Arlo did not have this fear, and this was why Arlo did not think Peter was the mole.
That left the kid and the woman.
The kid, Sandro, seemed a little off to Arlo. He had been rather hasty in his conversation, like he was on speed or something. Arlo wondered how he knew what speed was but not his real name. This did not really matter, anyway, because Arlo knew he had been conditioned to think he needed to remember something. Maybe that was the trick. How did he know he needed to remember something, if he remembered nothing?
He was distracting himself from his thoughts. Sandro, the kid, was young, but he was also a bit shifty. He was definitely on Arlo’s suspect list, which fueled his belief that he needed to get under the kid’s skin. He needed to make a steady acquaintance with him, to ensure Arlo’s sense of control. Arlo understood the concept of death, and he was not afraid of it, but once he began to remember—if it was possible—he knew he would begin to have fear. He knew his memory would return because he wanted to remember something.
Besides Sandro, there was the woman. She was pretty, but not overly so. She appeared shy, but she was protective of her being and seemed independent. She hadn’t let him completely tear her to shreds with his comments, as some women would have. Instead, she had begun to bite back, and that was when he started liking her—to a certain degree of course. Andrea—that was her name—was not exactly someone he could trust, but there was something with her. Something he could relate to, and he wanted to know what that something was.
The others had taken their meager supplies, and since Andrea wanted to use cairns every so often, she handed him her water jug. He offered to carry the rocks she’d collected, but she had glared at him with a bright intensity. She hated him—which solidified his interest in her, possibly even more so.
“So, we head to these dunes…” Sandro began. He cuddled it like a baby. He was starting to perspire. He wore a cotton shirt and a light jacket, plus jeans and tennis shoes. He was really hot, but he also knew that it was imperative to cover up to keep his body cool. Somehow, these contradictions made sense to him, and he was a talker. He needed to stay sane by commenting on things. He understood in the past twenty minutes of his being awake that Arlo, Andrea, and Peter were not exactly big talkers.
But that idea began to snivel away when Arlo kept his pace with the young kid, and Sandro’s eyes widened at an up close and personal view of the man’s beard. Sandro could not keep a few hairs on his chin—let alone a mustache and beard.
Arlo’s voice was unique: It was like a rumbling gun, big and powerful, and somewhat dangerous. “We head to those dunes, and we survive. You got a girl you need to get home to?”
“I wish I could remember a girl.”
“All we got is Andrea. Think of Andrea,” Arlo supplied, turning his head to the woman, who was ahead of them, swaying her hips as she walked. She did not mean to, of course, but Arlo was beginning to define what an imagination was. Peter was trying to keep up with her, but with the heavy blankets on his back, it was nearly impossible.
Sandro cocked his head. “I don’t want to think about Andrea. She’d be the one to kill me in my sleep.”
“Quiet, but deadly.”
Sandro nodded, appreciating Arlo’s inkling of friendship. “Exactly. I’d bet a hundred bucks that she’s going to kill someone, sometime, and somewhere.”
“I’d bet a thousand bucks.”
At the lull in their conversation, Arlo lowered his voice even further. “So, what do you think about Peter?”
Sandro shrugged, moving a piece of black hair that had fallen onto his sweaty brow. “He’s obviously confused as to what’s going on It’s understandable, but I’m not…” At this, Sandro cocked his head again, arching an eyebrow. “I’m not sure if we can trust him.” This made Sandro feel a bit taller, as if making an alliance with Arlo would protect him from the deadly sunrays of an Arizona summer sun. Or, in Arlo’s opinion, from whatever the hell had placed them in the desert—and was no doubt watching their every move.
“Can you read minds, Sandro?”
Sandro smiled. “There’s something funny about him.”
“I think it’s the hair.”
Ahead of them, Peter was working hard on trying to remember anything. From what he had gleaned—which was nothing, except the short term memories of the morning—he had come to the conclusion that he knew nothing. He worried about the bearded man, who obviously wanted to pick a fight with anyone who breathed, and he also worried about the woman ahead of him. She seemed independent enough, but it was obvious that Arlo would not be afraid to attack her if need be.
Even worse, he probably had no qualms of attacking Peter.
Peter heard the whisperings of Sandro and Arlo behind them. He began to wonder if they knew something he did not, which infuriated him, because here he was dragging two fleece blankets through the mid-morning sun, while the two men behind him giggled like little teenagers. Peter decided, just for fun, to talk to Andrea, but it was impossible to keep up with her. She was untouchable.
Andrea, ahead of Peter, also had issues with trust. She hated Arlo, she felt Sandro was as naïve as a salamander, and Peter was somewhat decent. But how could she trust any of them—when it was likely that someone was lying to her, if not all? She probably should have followed the three men, so they would not look at her, or in case one pulled a gun, but if she died, oh well. This was a nightmare. If she did not even know who she was, why live?
Inherently, she knew she had to live, because she would remember something eventually. Right? Why did she even know what a memory was? She stuck her fingers into her pocket, groping the ring against her palm. She thought again about how Arlo had an identical one, at least from her vantage point, ten feet away. But this did not trouble her when her thoughts had to remain on making it to the dunes—alive.
She wondered what the deal was. She looked up into the sky every so often, as if a spaceship would beam her into the cosmos, but nothing happened. No cloud was in sight, and no life—except the barren desert filled with cacti, snakes, and scorpions—abounded. She held a pile of rocks in her arms, and they seemed more living to her than the cacti she passed every ten feet.
A few minutes later, she stopped to leave a pile of rocks, a formative cairn. In reality, she could pick up rocks when they were needed, but carrying them a half-mile or so made her feel like she had something important to do. It gave her a goal, and as a result, a want to carry out that goal.
Eventually, the flatness of the ground began to incline—just a few feet here and there—in their approach to the dusty, cacti-covered dunes in the distance. Andrea hypothesized they were maybe two or three miles away, which was plenty of time for a murder to happen. Yet even with her distrust, she believed she would make it in one piece to the dunes.
Peter was struggling. The hotness of the sun was not at its peak yet, but he was not sweating like a pig, and the blankets he carried on his back seemed to be made of steel weights. He wanted to pause, but he could not risk what Arlo might say if he did. He had to keep up his guard, and not show any signs of weakness. Peter hated himself for these thoughts, but he wanted to stay alive and not croak behind any fears he had. He had plenty of fears.
Meanwhile, Sandro and Arlo were trying to come up with books they had read in the past. Sandro could not remember anything, whereas Arlo handpicked a few. To pass time, Arlo kept Sandro up to speed on the plot and what he thought about each read, and this connected the two in an extraordinary way. Not only was Sandro learning to trust the bearded man, but Arlo was gaining insight on Sandro’s true personality. And he was watching—with the precision of a hawk’s eye—to see if Sandro would stumble and reveal something about the predicament.
The dunes inched closer and closer, until, around noon, Peter fell over, a limp form on the dust. Arlo and Sandro stopped in their tracks while Andrea shrieked, before setting herself into motion. She rushed to him, feeling the hotness of his brow, any sweat invisible. She threw the two blankets away from him and ripped his shirt off his hot body, which was turning red. She quickly fanned him, before yelling at the men behind her, “Get me a water jug!”
Sandro began to hand the jug to Andrea, but Arlo placed a hand on Sandro’s, ending the request. Andrea whispered into Peter’s ear, “Please tell me you can understand me.”
Peter nodded, his breathing irregular, his heartbeat racing like a bullet. “Water,” he croaked.
Andrea stood up, eye-to-eye with the two men behind her. “Give me the water jug, now!”
Arlo stepped forward. “We can’t waste our water, Andrea.”
“It’s not a waste. We have to pour it on Peter.”
Arlo shook his head. “We’re in the desert, and unfortunately, Peter’s a pansy. He can’t handle the sun after two hours of walking, well…”
“Give it to me, damn it,” Andrea screamed, reaching for Sandro, but the boy stepped away from her.
Arlo walked over to Peter, with his jug of water, and poured a little of their reserves onto his scorched body. “That’s it,” he countered, moving away. “We don’t know what’s going on, and if he’s about to die already, the boy doesn’t have a chance.”
Andrea stared at Arlo, before hurrying back to Peter, who licked some water droplets onto his tongue. “I don’t know what to do,” she whispered. She wanted to cry, but no tears came. She held him by the shoulders. “I don’t know what to do.”
Peter’s heatstroke—which was what Andrea believed this condition to be—had occurred quickly, under a hot sun, but not a critically hot sun. The hottest part of day was hours away, but maybe something coupled with Peter’s heatstroke caused him to drift away. They were still a long way off from the dunes, and dragging him would cause more problems. The nearest cacti were fifteen feet away at the least, and with uncooperative Arlo and Sandro, Andrea was at a loss.
Andrea knew they had to protect their water, but Peter was a human being, part of their team. They knew nothing about his history, but from the way Arlo and Sandro observed, a few feet away, Andrea wondered if this meant they wanted him dead all along.
Peter’s lips were cracking under the sun. “I don’t know how to help you,” she said, cupping his chin in her hand. He smiled at the gesture.
Peter moved his lips, slightly, as if he had to say something.
“Yes?” Andrea asked. “Anything, Peter.”
He jutted out his tongue to the base of his lip. “Them.” It was a small word, but with great effort, it had the grandeur of a mountain. Andrea looked behind her to see Arlo and Sandro—fifteen feet away—taking refuge under the base of a cactus. She was angered, but Peter grabbed her, bringing her back to him. “Not them.”
“What? Peter, stay with me.”
Peter began to fall into a coma, his unconsciousness staggering. In a matter of twenty minutes, Peter had fallen to the ground and died. When his spirit gave up, and his lungs ceased to quiver, Andrea covered him with a blanket, hiding him from the noonday sun. A tear spilled onto the blanket, but there was no more she could do.
She stood up to continue the journey, but this time, did not carry any rocks.
She did not want to return to the place where a man had died carrying her blanket.
She did not want to return to the place where she had awoken into a nightmare.
Arlo and Sandro stood up, walking past the body, with Sandro making the sign of the cross. “You believe that stuff?” Arlo asked.
Sandro nodded. “It’s funny you say that, because I was just realizing that I remember the story of resurrection of Jesus Christ, but not the woman who birthed me.”
“Interesting,” Arlo said, though he did not believe a lick of the last part of Sandro’s testimony.
While Sandro had a religious experience near the body, Arlo felt something quite different: Fear. It was as if the trepidation in Peter’s blue eyes had transported into Arlo’s body, because the cockiness of his position was diminishing. How was it possible that mere hours after first meeting him, this man was now dead? Peter had done nothing wrong.
Arlo poked the man’s body with his boot, wondering if this was somehow a trick. Yet it was not a trick, because when he lifted the blanket from Peter’s face, the body had already started to smell like rancid meat. Arlo broke away, falling, shock covering his face. Sandro watched him in confusion, and Andrea was already far enough down the path that she did not look back to see what was happening behind her.
“Are you okay?” Sandro asked, his tan skin gleaming with sweat from the rays.
Arlo shook his head. “No, man, I’m not.” He stood up and followed Andrea, saying nothing to Sandro, because he did not trust him. Sandro could play games all he wanted, but now that Peter was dead—not that it was certain he had not played a joke on them—Arlo wanted to speak with Andrea.
She was up ahead, taking each path with a mixture of distress and adrenaline. She had witnessed a man die, and it had been under her watch. He was either in hell or heaven now, she decided, though she wasn’t exactly sure how to get to either place. She remembered nothing about any religious teaching—except a cross dangled from her neck, and she had no recollection of its meaning or the person who had bought it for her.
“Arlo,” shouted Sandro, watching as his acquaintance walked like a madman in the direction of the female figure ahead of them. Sandro turned back just in time to see the blanket—and body within—whisked into the air before disappearing completely from view. He blinked a few times; the sight would never grow familiar to him.
Meanwhile, Arlo pounced across the feet of rock to the woman. He seemed ready to kill, like Andrea was a gazelle on the Serengeti, and he was out for blood. “Andrea,” he called out.
Andrea stopped cold. She recognized the sound of that, the lilt to his voice, and this terrified her. She thought of the ring, and this caused her to tear up, more than witnessing Peter’s death. She did not turn around, but she felt him approach like a ghost, tingling up her skin.
She turned around, queasy. She was ready to vomit, but not from heatstroke. As Arlo came nearer, his green eyes gaining more electricity with each inch, Andrea’s lips quivered, and her heart ached.
Arlo saw that she was fragile, but he was not sure if this was a practiced fragility or the truth. He felt a gentle breeze stir his grown-out hair. The woman before him did not look familiar in the slightest, but then again, neither did the endless desert depths. He watched as she stopped in her tracks, her frown haunting.
“I know you,” she cried out. “I think that’s pretty obvious.”
Arlo cocked his head, unsure. “What do you mean?”
Sandro had caught up by now after running a full sprint to catch up. His legs were not as long as the bearded man’s. He did not go close to them, knowing something was bound to happen—something dangerous and magical. This is what they had been waiting for the whole time.
The dunes glittered in the background as Andrea pulled a slim ring from her pocket. “What is this, Arlo?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know.”
“You’re wearing the same one on your finger.”
He glanced down at his ring finger, and a new form of shock covered his soul. He pulled off the band and lifted it to meet Andrea’s, and he knew they were the same. He also noted the engravings on both, different initials. He lifted his face to meet hers, and her eyes were closed. She stood feet from him, because he knew she was scared of him. He was also somewhat scared of her. “Andrea, do you remember me?”
She shook her head. “Absolutely not.”
“I don’t remember you, either.”
“Can we get to the dunes?” she asked, turning her back, her long hair fluttering in the breeze. He watched it, wondering if had used to be entangled by his fingertips.
She hurried away from him, and he stood at his place, utterly confused by this situation. What was happening? Sandro moved close to him a few minutes later, and said, “You two were married?”
“How the hell am I supposed to know?” he snapped. He turned his head, assessing the curve of Sandro’s lips, the feigned innocence in his eyes. Was it possible this kid was telling the truth? He softened his tone and said, “Sandro, I need you to be honest with me.”
He gulped, and he knew Arlo saw this moment. “Y-yes?”
“Are we going to die in this damn desert?”
Sandro seemed to ponder this query for a while, before answering the question like a faux psychic. “I’m as sure as a jackrabbit. I don’t know, man. I’m sorry.”
Arlo’s eyes twitched. “I want you to do something for me.”
“Yes?” Sandro stood a little taller.
“Whatever happens out there, in those forsaken dunes, do what you gotta do to ensure Andrea’s safety.”
“Chivalry?” He was skeptical, which angered Arlo.
“Call it what you want, but she needs to live.”
“And we don’t?”
Arlo tensed, wanting to charge the kid before him, but understood that Sandro might be the key to unlocking this damning mystery. “No, we don’t.”
They were silent all the way to the dunes. Ahead of them, Andrea did not hum, or sing to herself, or anything vocal, but inside, her mind was as loud as a bomb. It felt like a bomb had exploded, too. Shrapnel thoughts pounded each rift in her thinking, painting the gray brain matter red with blood.
Finally, she heaved her feet up the dunes, and found a smart indention in the sand. She started digging with her hands, digging as hard as she could. When Arlo and Sandro appeared, she said one simple word with the authority of a whip: “Dig.”
“What’s your plan?” Arlo asked.
“We dig a makeshift trench and hoist some clothing above it. It will keep us cool until nightfall.”
“Any objections?” Arlo nudged Sandro. “So, who’s donating their clothing for the cover?” He looked at Andrea, who ignored him.
Sandro shrugged, but said, “I volunteer Andrea.”
She acted like she did not hear, and the three hurriedly used their hands to bring the sandy rocks up from the place that had been their home for years—longer than any of the remaining three could trace back their ancestors. Of course, if they could remember any of their ancestors.
It took a long time, how long they could not estimate, but the sun was starting to descend. It felt extremely hot, and they did take ample sips of water, saving a good quantity. Their legs were somewhat achy, but not overly so. When they finally had dug a small space that would house the three of them, Arlo and Sandro both expectantly looked to Andrea, awaiting instructions.
“Why are you looking at me?”
Arlo smiled at Sandro, who nodded in understanding. They wanted to volunteer her to give up an article of clothing, but she did not understand this. “Well, you’re spearheading this project,” said Sandro.
A sprinkling of freckles had appeared on her nose, though her face was red from the heat and her hair was curled from sweat. She ripped off her shirt, leaving her in a bra and undershirt. “We’re each going to donate. We should have brought that freakin’ blanket, but there was something voodoo-like about it.”
Sandro took off his jacket, his fingers brushing against the buttons. It was a cotton jacket, thankfully, and he wore an undershirt like Andrea. They both looked to Arlo, who shrugged. “Unless you want to see my skin, I have nothing to give up.”
“Give it up then,” said Andrea. “We’re going to be getting very personal over the next few hours anyway.”
“Okay,” Arlo said, smiling. He took off his shirt, and the three of them worked on setting up their makeshift tent cover. When they had spread the three articles of clothing over the trench, they wiggled inside, Sandro in the middle. He fell asleep first, within a few minutes, and with the sound of silence, Andrea sat up a bit and observed the sleeping Hispanic and the bearded man, who stared upward at the sun shining through the clothing. When he saw her analyzing him, he frowned. “Hi, Andrea,” he whispered, waving.
She waved back, before lying down. She fell asleep a few moments later.
Arlo had a hard time falling asleep, because he was scared. Terrified, really. He hadn’t had this much fear until now, until he had begun to anticipate the bond he was feeling with Andrea and Sandro. He knew that somehow they had to be connected beyond this experience, and this was what terrified him. If it was really possible that he and Andrea had been married before, he was certain he would murder whoever had done this to them. But he also wondered if it was a cover, if he and Andrea had been set up to think they’d been married, when in reality, it was a no. If someone had erased his memory, why leave a wedding ring on his finger? That’s what it was, no doubt.
He made sure they were both asleep before lifting the ring to his eye, where he analyzed it with a critical iris. It was a beautiful ring, silver and laced with a few intricate carvings, along with the initial engravings. He placed it back on his finger, and realizing that he had to sleep to be on his best game, he closed his eyes, and began to dream.
The three slept under the haze of clothing and the devilish sun, whom the Aztecs and Maya had celebrated as a god. But to the three sleeping souls living in fear, it was the opposite of God: It was Satan.
The sun still had not dropped when Andrea awakened. She lifted her head, feeling the sweat burn her skin, and saw Sandro holding Arlo, who was turned on his side away from her. She wanted to reach out and touch his long hair, but she refrained, and found the scene enlightening. Sandro was clutching Arlo like he was his father. She sat her head back on the ground, smelling her stench from the sweat and grime covering her body. She was surprised she hadn’t seen any bugs yet, because she would no doubt scream then.
She tried to think about what happened while she slept, but she did not dream anything she could remember. Now, thinking back on it, she was not even sure if her name was Andrea. She fingered the wedding ring, watching as it sparkled in the light. The initials—A. L. P.—still remained, like little claw marks, but how did Andrea know her name was Andrea, when it could have been Annie, or Anna, or something like that. Sure, she guessed her name was Andrea Primond, but the name had seemed fuzzy when she remembered it, and it seemed even fuzzier now.
Sandro woke up next, like a bear from a long winter slumber. He stretched out, punching Andrea in the head. She did not yelp, because she had seen it coming. Sandro had dreamed, but nothing of importance. He was groggy and had a massive headache, one from a lack of water: dehydration. He wanted to reach back and take a gulp from the jug, but he did not want to wake up the true sleeping bear beside him—Arlo.
He looked over to Andrea, who blinked her blue eyes at him, and he moved closer to her. Her breath was not fresh, but he knew his did not smell good either, and he tried not to judge. He positioned his body to the side, so he could prop his head on his arm. She did not like him staring at her, so she said, “What?”
“Are we going to die in this damn desert?” He repeated the words Arlo had asked him.
She shrugged, her shoulders moving, so that he noted the redness of her skin. She was naturally somewhat tan, but now each individual freckle on her body was darkening, waking from dormancy. Sandro would be crazy not to think she was attractive, but she was not a Playboy model. She had more of a sleeping beauty look to her, one which would be best defined as a longtime beauty. She was not a fleeting woman.
In this moment of her indecision, Arlo had opened his eyes, but acted like he was still asleep. His eyes opened with the precision of a knife landing into a bloody heart, and his heart roared.
“Do I know? Absolutely not. But for whatever purpose we’re here, whatever diabolical plan someone has for us, someone’s going to live.”
“Why do you think that?” Sandro whispered, his voice betraying his age. He was younger than he acted.
She did not shrug this time, but leveled her eyes with his. His eyes were a raw, adolescent brown, and she did not want to lie to him. “Peter’s dying words were them. Who is them? Someone’s watching us.”
Arlo angrily gritted his teeth. She needed to keep these observations to herself, especially when Sandro was not to be trusted. He still wasn’t sure if he could trust Andrea herself, but after his vivid dreaming, he had seen their relationship bloom in his eyes like a psychedelic drug. He thought he knew his connection to Andrea, and he even knew her real name. He’d dreamt a name too, but he was now Arlo. He did not know why they were there, or who had set them up, but he knew how he was connected to Andrea. Maybe, though.
“Them?” Sandro asked, his eyes blinking fast. “What did he mean, aliens? That’s impossible. That’s child’s play.”
“Is it?” Andrea said, narrowing her eyes.
“I think we’re having a severe case of amnesia. Something stupid happened. Maybe we were in a plane crash.”
“With no wreckage? C’mon, Sandro, you’re smarter than that.”
He turned beet red. “Okay, it’s possible that someone dropped us off at that spot.”
“No footprints, no car markings in the sand,” she retorted.
Shut up, Arlo wanted to scream.
“So, we’re talking snazzy spaceships. Listen to how you sound, Andrea.”
She turned away from him, looking upward. “Whatever is happening is abnormal.”
“I can agree with you on that.”
They were quiet for a long time after that. Andrea was busy thinking, sifting through ideas of a science fiction nature. Was this a government conspiracy? Aliens? A case of amnesia—suffered by four different people? Was it the end of the world? A dream? A dream within a dream? Russians? North Koreans? A time warp? She could not think of any plausible explanation, but she continued to think.
Arlo was also sifting, not through ideas, but through memories.
Sandro shut his eyes when he stopped talking with Andrea. He really should have been paid better for this. He was a primetime TV actor in a Mexico City telenovela, who had Hollywood roots, too. He’d gotten a hefty stipend for his participation before he landed in Phoenix to begin the “greatest role of his career,” commented his employers, employers of whom he still did not know the identity. He was guaranteed a hefty yearly salary for the rest of his life when the job was finished.
All he knew was to act like a naïve kid who knew nothing about why the other three had been taken to the desert with no memory. In reality, he knew close to nothing, but just enough to be on the frontlines so he could give a full report to his employers later.
Employers even he had begun to question, especially when Peter died. In all honesty, Peter’s death confused him. Like Andrea and Arlo, Sandro was trying to shove the pieces into a puzzle. Yet some of these pieces were missing and could not be salvaged.
Sandro tried to piece together some of the evidence he knew. He had been taken on a private jet from Phoenix to a private airfield in the middle of the Arizona desert, a location he could not name because he had not been told its coordinates. After this, he had been briefed by a frightening woman on the plane, who gave him a drink and explained the basics of the project.
She had been nice. She explained that their employers needed to do this mission in its entirety because it had catastrophic ramifications. It was an honor to be considered for the project, and the payday afterwards would definitely be ginormous for young Sandro. He was to wear a black watch that doubled as a hidden sound recorder. It was of high quality, he knew. There was a hidden camera in his eyeglasses, which made him feel like a spy. In reality, though, he was still a lowly child actor.
Despite the private plane, the money in his bank account, and the strange woman who’d briefed him, he doubted the authenticity of this project if it revolved its footage around a watch and a pair of dirty glasses, whose lenses contained no prescriptions.
But he had to face the facts: He was a lot richer due to this project. But a man was dead. Somehow, even Sandro, a somewhat seasoned actor, judged Peter’s death. It seemed to quick, and it was unexpected. A man like Peter—dead from a heatstroke? He began to wonder if he was part of the experiment while being part of the experiment. He wondered if they were watching him, and if he would die. He had no communication with them during the process.
His thoughts scattered when he opened his eyes to see Arlo intently staring at him, his green eyes as feral as a cat’s. He sat up, the dark paralyzing him, the dark—except the green eyes—frightening him. “Whoa man, you scared me.”
Arlo nodded, once, then twice. He twisted out of the trench and went outside to pee, finding solace in this moment of aloneness. The sun was setting, casting a mirage of glowing colors around them. Their makeshift tent was toxic, from a mixture of disgusting human odors. He needed fresh air, to recalibrate, and to continue to figure out why his dreams had intermingled with memories of Andrea. Andrea, he knew, was actually Alexandria Primland-Lovell, or so he thought.
His memories had been vivid, like living through the present in technicolor. He had seen the day he asked Alex on a date. Alex had been twenty-one then, a junior in college, while he was a makeshift high school teacher of mathematics. In his dream, he heard Alex whisper into his ear, curling up to him, “I wish you could be my teacher, Mr. Lovell.”
In the present desert, Arlo cursed these memories. It was possible they did not exist, but were what he wanted to believe. The fact he had found someone as docile as Alex—Andrea, whatever her name was—was hard to believe. He had been relatively tame after college and becoming a teacher, but he knew he had been a bit of a free spirit. In all his memories, he remembered dragging his fingers through cropped hair. He did not have a scraggly mountain-man beard, and he wore a ring proudly on his finger like a king wore a crown.
Alex had been the love of his life, that was for sure. He’d dreamt of their wedding day, when she walked down the aisle in a snow-colored gown, from which her beautiful form was accentuated by icicle-like lace. He knew the intricacies of her body, and he knew that Alex was destined to become a great anthropologist. She went to graduate school while he worked hard at the high school. His dream was to be a writer. They owned a dog and named it Al. They owned a dinky apartment, saving up all their cash to eventually buy a starter home to bring a baby home to.
Arlo, however, did not really know Mr. Lovell, the mathematics teacher who was married to Mrs. Alexandria Primland-Lovell. He was not that man anymore. Mr. Lovell was kind-hearted, a romantic, and a lover of rules. Arlo, though knowing himself only for twelve hours, was the opposite. He had a mean bone, he hated the idea of romance, and he hated all rules.
Andrea and Sandro watched him from the tent. They needed to get ready soon, so they could cross the desert or whatever Arlo had in mind. Each person had spurts at a time in which lucid plans came to mind. Sandro saw the puzzled stance Arlo acquired as he stargazed. That was one thing about the desert: The night sky was orgasmic, like a spellbound collection of dusty glitter. The surreal ambiance cast a lonely glow on the form of Arlo, who shivered in the cool air. He went back to the tent to collect his shirt, throwing it over his head, as he saw the two people pretend to sleep.
“Wake up. It’s time to get moving.”
Andrea and Sandro clothed themselves and walked into the cold night air. It was going to be a bitter walk, but it was better than the scorching hotness of the day. They huddled closer together as they hoisted their water and food to their chests. They shared a can of chili, washing it down with a few gulps of water. They still had a jug and a half left, which was quite a reasonable amount. Their bellies were growling, their lips chapping.
Arlo tried his hardest not to stare at Andrea while she walked. He had known her intimately in his dreams—his memories—and it was hard not relating to her now, when she could be the key to his amnesia. He was getting his hopes up, he knew, but he felt something stir in his heart, even though it was absolutely ridiculous.
Andrea, meanwhile, talked with Sandro, interrogating him. “So, do you remember anything about pop culture?”
“What’s pop culture?” Sandro asked, cocking an eyebrow. “Ah, I’m just teasin’. I know my favorite movie is El laberinto del fauno, and in English, it’s Pan’s Labyrinth.”
“What’s it about?”
“Irony. It’s a fantasy movie. I loved it as a kid, and it’s still my favorite. It’s pretty gruesome, though.”
“I think my shtick, back when I was someone more than this, was reading. I liked mysteries.”
“Really? Reading puts a sour taste in my mouth.” He shook his head, the starlight shining silver in his hair. Snap, he realized. He and Arlo “shared” a common love of reading.
“Yup. Legal thrillers, I think. John Grisham was my man.”
“Ah,” Sandro said, pleased Andrea was opening up with him. “Hey, Andrea.” His voice had taken on a somber timbre, and Andrea was suddenly stiff. “I promise this won’t drag you down. I was simply going to ask you: Do you remember any of your family?”
She looked at him. “My family?”
“Yeah. Like, did you have brothers or sisters? Mom, Dad?”
She stared at him. “Do you remember yours?”
“No,” he lied, his tongue rolling smooth over his words. “I don’t remember a thing. Just the fact that I had one.”
“Well, it’s the same thing for me.”
Arlo’s heart pounded violently inside his ribcage, threatening to burst open. He was not sure what to do, so he walked ahead of them, ready to explode. He was sick and tired of this mystery, of not knowing who was who and what was what. The endless mirage of dunes glinting in the nightlight was mystifying him, and eventually, his thoughts became centered around the sky, rather than any of the dramatics of the past few hours. Even when the mind is frantic, it sometimes finds a respite.
He was not sure how many hours passed when he turned and saw Sandro peeing in the nearby dune. The woman beside him—whose name he could now not keep track, whether it was Alex or Andrea—was not looking, and instead, she started heading in his direction. Arlo twisted around, continuing past the dunes.
He was not sure how long they walked, but it must have been ten miles or so, when his legs finally gave out. They had made it past the collection of dunes, and the flat earth surrounded them to the east. It was like witnessing the crushing of a dream. He cursed and fell flat against the curvature of the hump beside him. Sandro and Andrea eventually caught up to him, tired themselves. They finished off the half-jug, saving the other for the next night.
“Are we camping here until tomorrow? Okay, well, actually until tonight?” asked a restless Sandro. Even though he had exerted himself to his physical limit, he still felt like continuing onward.
“We probably should,” breathed Andrea. She felt the rhythm of her lungs moving up, down, up, down, and then she lifted some skin on her hand, watching as the veins remained in place while the skin folded.
Arlo shook his head. “I have a bad feeling.”
“Bad juju?” Sandro’s eyes glinted in the moonlight. In fact, through the wispy clouds, the moon glittered on as it always had, though to the other two, it was the first moon they could remember. It was not unusual, though, because they understood it was as commonplace as a worm after a rain shower.
“Where are we?” Arlo croaked. “We’re going to run out of water, and then we’re going to run out of food. We have two cans of chili left. We have no clue where the hell to walk, and oh, in the meantime, we have to figure out why our memories have been wiped from us—like they never existed.”
Sandro gulped. Andrea’s eyes were closing. Eventually, Arlo stood up. “We still have a few hours of darkness left. I think we should head on.”
“I think we should rest,” argued Sandro, who stood up, but realizing he was a good bit shorter than the bearded man, he sat back down next to Andrea, who was assessing her fingernails. One had grown funny, like it had been broken and grew back in.
“Yes. We’re tired.” Andrea said, not feeling very well. She had a headache, and the grumble of her stomach was disconcerting.
Arlo, knowing the importance of other people, headed back to them. He was tired anyway, and he did want to stay close to the two beside him. In a lot of ways, he felt like their guardian somehow. He did not consider himself the trio’s leader, but he knew that if something bad were to happen, he was the one who would have to defend them. He was going to have to play dad.
“When you look up into that blanket of stars, what do you see?” asked Arlo, his eyelids closing. They needed to prepare a shelter, not sit like this. Eventually, the sun would come up, a blistering ball of energy, and zap their skin cells.
“I see nothing but light,” croaked Andrea.
“I think of aliens,” said Sandro.
“I think of life. How out of all those planets, somehow we’re here? The odds are infinitesimal. We’ve got to keep our spirits up. If this planet is surviving in the hostile universe, we can make it out of this desert.”
Sandro and Andrea nodded and murmured a response, pleased with the observation. Eventually, they worked together on another trench, and fell asleep for a solid eight hours, before waking up around four o’clock the next afternoon. It was day two, and their supplies were running out.
They were bored out of their minds waiting for the next dusk. They did not want to risk any more heat damage with their bodies. Andrea was red all over, her skin turning crisp from burning. Sandro had gotten even tanner, but he was still hot, and the only thing he wanted was a cold shower. He did not even care about food and water—yet. Arlo, meanwhile, did not care if his skin was dry or not. He had been dreaming even more the past night, sometimes of his wife, but others of people he did not recognize. People who were important in his life. He was too busy thinking to worry about his body.
The long hours from four o’clock until dusk were spent mostly loafing around. A few times, someone got out of the trench to pee or his or her legs. At least this trench had more space than their first one, which guaranteed more individuality rather than sleeping on top of one another.
Still Andrea had learned nothing from the past few hours. She only had memories of the past day and a half, not of who she was before the nightmare. Somehow, this did not bother her, and she finally began to open up more to Arlo in addition to her relationship with Sandro.
It was around six o’clock when Arlo stood up to exit the tent to pee. Giving him a few moments, Andrea stood up and walked out behind him, intending to finally talk to him one-on-one, without any distractions. Distractions being the complete and utter form of young Sandro.
Sandro was still listening, as best he could, but when he noted Andrea’s leaving the tent, he stretched as far as he could from the position he was currently dying in. It was starting to cool down, but the inside of the makeshift trench was still sweating him dry.
Eventually, Sandro gave up on trying to listen in on their conversation. He would not jeopardize their trust by leaving the tent, and he would only hope they talked about something ridiculous, like the weather. No crazy conspiracy theories.
Meanwhile, Arlo felt Andrea’s presence. He wondered if he was scaring her and she was going to chew him out, or something completely ridiculous. Instead, as he observed the skyline, Andrea stood beside him. She looked at him, at the scruffy beard, the long hair, and the sweaty bandanna. “You know, Arlo, you seem like a decent guy.”
“I only get decent?” he chuckled, a hint of his drawl coming out. He observed her out of the corner of his eye, her eyes fixated on the beauty of the natural atmosphere before them, one he wondered if they would somehow forget in the future.
She smiled. “Decent is not that bad. Come on, you can’t complain. We don’t even know each other that well.”
“How do I know I can trust you?” Arlo’s voice cracked, and he turned to her, his eyes like darts, she the board they pierced.
Andrea shrugged. “I don’t know. How can I trust you?”
“You can take me by my word.”
“You better be lucky I don’t take all my beliefs from fact.” She twirled her finger around the cross dangling from her neck. “Sandro explained what this means to me, and I believe it completely.”
“And you can trust Sandro because…?”
“He wouldn’t lie to us, Arlo. I trust you, too. What could you possibly know about what’s happening?”
He scowled, his brows creasing. “Is this some form of reverse psychology? Since you don’t trust me, you act like you do, hoping I’ll break under the pressure?”
“Arlo,” she breathed, “that’s not what it is at all.”
“You see, there are a few things that are happening between us. I remember you. I’ve been dreaming of you.”
She stood a few feet away from. The look of disbelief that crossed her face was impenetrable, and she shook her head. “That’s impossible.”
“Alexandria Primland-Lovell is your name.”
“No. My name is Andrea,” she said emphatically.
“Even if I am dreaming lies, I believe them more than whatever else is a possibility.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
Arlo lifted his arm so he could drag his hand through his wispy hair. “In these dreams, I was your husband. I was the love of your life, and that was something reiterated in these dreams.”
“How could you possibly know that? Dreams do not have to be memories. They can be made up, Arlo. How else did you think I would take this? ‘I was your husband. I was in love with you once, but somehow we ended up in the desert with nothing in our brains but dirt and lies.’ Damn it, Arlo, I am not your wife! I never was! And to think you want to trust me by lying to me… That is absolutely insane. Whatever is happening to us is not based on our adoring, insatiable passions, or whatever you—as a palpitating romantic—believe. Instead, we have to go by this with reason and faith. I never knew you before yesterday. And if I did—if I did—the before does not matter anymore. We’re not those people, Arlo.” She pulled the ring from her pocket and threw it in his face.
He allowed it to hit above his eyebrow, and it barely stung, but his heart was burdened with the knowledge that his relationship with Andrea had further fallen. She would think he was a nut, and that was okay. Maybe she was right. Maybe the vivid dreams he was having were all a fabrication. Maybe his mind was making up things to compensate for something that used to be there.
When he returned to the trench, he found Sandro buttoning his shirt. Andrea was digging into their second-to-last can of chili, ignoring Arlo altogether, which was fine with him. The more there was quiet, the more he would have a chance to think. Sandro acted like nothing was amiss, and in reality, he did not know what had just transpired between the two white people he thought had some serious sexual tension.
A few minutes later, the three of them were back on the long trek, this time into the semi-flatland area with limited plant life. Since they had no other plan, and were quickly running out of supplies, they decided to cross the open land, noting the mountains to the west, and to the north, and to the east. They were surrounded by dunes and peaks, and Arlo’s sincerest hope was that, with the mountains lurking nearby, a river would also stream. They needed to replenish desperately, and he knew full well that the closest lining of mountains was twenty or thirty miles away. They could get pretty close to that range in the nightfall, but their energy was diminishing, as the morning would mark three days in the open desert.
Silence filled their journey, because they had nothing to talk about, and because Andrea and Arlo did have tension. She kept as far away from him as she could, while he led the way. Sandro intermittently walked beside both, trying to strike up any conversation he could with either of the two, though this failed miserably.
Hours passed into more hours, and the need for water passed into more need for water. Eventually, they only had half a bottle left. As the sun begin to streak across the sky—flashing its purple and pink tendrils—the three fell at the base of a large tree on the edge of the mountains. The crags jutted up tall beside them, beautiful and magnificent, and somewhat alarming. They were desert mountains, but somewhere within them, a stream of water was babbling, urging them to drink from its youth.
“Mountains,” croaked Andrea, whose lips had become bitterly chapped. Sandro’s were even worse, the skin ripping off in shreds.
Arlo handed them the remaining jug of water. “It’s almost daybreak. We should keep going, to see if we can find a place to build a trench or not.”
“Why not just stay here?” asked Sandro, who gulped a large portion of their water. His skin was becoming disgusting to look at. With his aching legs, there was no way he wanted to walk more, even though his one desire had not changed: to take a nice cool bath in water.
“We’re tired, Arlo,” Andrea said, her hair limp against her skin. She looked at him, her eyes blue but watery. She was losing weight.
Arlo nodded, breathing out through his nose. “Well, we’ll stay here then. I’m going to see if I can kill something for us to eat.”
“No,” Andrea protested, grabbing his arm. It was their first physical contact, and she regretted that she remembered nothing from feeling his skin on hers. She wanted to have a sudden memory, so she could say, Yes, Arlo, you were right. But nothing happened, except the brief intensity of his stare. “You need to rest.”
Arlo and Sandro stayed up to watch the rising of the sun, cascading a mirage of colors above the mountaintops. The glow was ecstatic, causing both men to smile, because they were impressed by something that beautiful. Andrea, in the middle of them, was asleep, her head resting on the trunk of the tree. However, Arlo did not wish for any bugs to crawl into her butter-yellow hair, and he placed her head on his shirt, as a makeshift pillow. He thought she would wake as he rearranged her position, but she was asleep to the world, exhausted. Sandro also took off his shirt, falling asleep on the wet heap, but Arlo decided to remain awake for a few more minutes. He tried to force his thoughts out of his head, but they kept coming back to the woman peacefully resting on his shirt.
Arlo stood up and disappeared. He needed his space, and as the cool of the night was replaced by the warmth of the morning, he went to the base of a mountain, looking up at its stature. When he turned around, he recognized he was a mile away from the tree where his two friends slept. He saw a valley they could climb through on their way out, a little indention, a natural pass they could use to their advantage in the next night. He wanted to be prepared, since they had survived two days, and their resources and wants were fading. Arlo wondered when Andrea and Sandro’s spirits would die, and he thought the same thing about himself.
Instead of thinking about Sandro or Andrea, Arlo thought about himself. He thought about who he was before this mess. The questions began to tick and tock in his brain, like a clock’s hands cursing time: Who am I? What have I done? Who have I become? He did not know the answers to the questions, just that he had these questions. Before, he was certain someone watched them; now, he had doubts. Arlo looked up into the bright, blue, white sky, and wondered if it was possible he was being watched. Was it possible that he was supposed to feel pity, that he was supposed to feel protective, of two people because they were with him?
In all reality, they were dragging him down. He could escape with the water and food and try to make it out of the mountains alive. He wasted time by being with the woman and the kid. They could figure it out themselves. He did not know if he wanted to live or not, but he was sick of wasting time. He was sick of not knowing. He was sick of it all.
He fell asleep on the mountain, under the hot sun. It was a mistake that woke him a few hours later, when his baked skin was peeling off red, like slivers of shredded mozzarella. He cursed himself as his eyes adjusted to the light, and he hurried back to the tree, his legs groaning in response, lead weights. Andrea and Sandro were fast asleep, enjoying the shade, but they took up the majority of the space. A nearby tree caught his attention, and he fell asleep under it. It would be his last few hours of peace.
The screams woke him first. He heard them like they were gunfire, and he was the thief outrunning the shots. He shot up, hitting his head against a tree branch. Ants covered his skin, and he flicked them off, speeding off in the direction of the other tree. During his pursuit, he noticed his comrades running as fast as they could to the mountains, and not wasting any time looking back, he sprinted as fast as he could to them, his legs burning, bursting, breathing. He wanted to die.
He wasted no breath screaming after them, instead watching as they hurried to the natural pass, glad at their luck of running in that direction. He caught up with them a few moments later, his strides overtaking theirs. They looked shocked to see him, and tears dripped down Andrea’s face.
“Arlo,” she cried as she fisted her arms back and forth to keep her balance.
They dashed over plants, rocks, and cacti, trying not to break an ankle in the process. That would be stellar. Arlo still did not know what they were outrunning, but judging from Sandro’s heavy panting, and Andrea’s tears, he understood it was deep, dark, and disgusting.
Eventually, Sandro screamed, “Here!” He fell over into a crevice under a rock, big enough for the three of them. Andrea grabbed Arlo by his skin, leaving marks embedded into his shoulder. The two fell over each other into the space, needing the cover.
“What? Tell me. If you don’t, I’ll skin you both alive.” Arlo was breathing like he’d been in a bear attack, and he still had no answers.
Andrea covered her lips, shushing him. Sandro looked like he was about to cry, and he grabbed Arlo’s hands, squeezing them tightly. He did not say anything, but Arlo could recognize his expression from a million miles away: It was fear. Fear that Arlo now thoroughly possessed, just by judging the terror on his friends’ faces.
No sound. For what seemed like an eternity. Sandro watched a bug crawl up the side of a rock. Tears still dripped from the pools of Andrea’s eyes. Arlo thought of beer, something he had remembered in a dream.
Eventually, Sandro whispered, “It’s been a long time. It’s probably gone.”
“What is it?” Arlo whispered, though his voice was deep and the whisper turned into a command.
Andrea nodded. She stretched out a little more, letting her leg dangle on Arlo’s lap. What did she have to lose? She could afford letting loose with Arlo and Sandro. If they were mass murderers or rapists, they would have either killed or raped her by now. “We… We were asleep. You were away.”
“Yeah, where did you go?”
“Not important. Just tell me what happened.”
Sandro looked to Andrea, as if she was responsible for this tale. She picked a beetle from her skin. “We were sleeping, and we hear a jet.”
“A jet?” Arlo was unconvinced. How did he not hear it? His sleeping tree was only a quarter mile away from theirs, which would be nothing from the air. His lungs collapsed into a large bout of laughter. “A jet. You can’t be serious.”
Andrea looked like she was going to slap him. “The jet was nothing we’d ever seen before.”
“How many jets do you really remember from before forgetting everything, huh?” Arlo asked, his tone dripping with anger. It was really the stress speaking, but he did not forget about his mental thoughts at the base of the mountain. About how easy it would be to slip away with the goods… To escape.
Sandro responded before Andrea could cuss Arlo to pieces. “It was like a freakazoid, man. It was not very big, and it was very stealthy. It was transparent, man. Transparent. It literally blended in with its surroundings, like some kind of freakin’ chameleon.”
“It was like something I’d never seen before,” Andrea seconded.
“A chameleon jet? Listen to how y’all sound, and tell me what I am supposed to believe. And you, of all people, Andrea, have a very tough position to convince me with your evidence. How do you know you weren’t dreaming? You guys are obviously dehydrated. Sandro, you look like you were placed in a fryer to be a fried chicken nugget. Same goes for you Andrea.”
“Curse you, Arlo!” spat Andrea.
Sandro shrugged the comments off. They were all on edge. “We weren’t dreaming. It was above us. I saw it glimmer in the light. It was right above us, Arlo. Watching. Just sitting there, watching. Andrea woke up, saw the same thing, and she was running before I could even grab the water jugs and the remaining can of chili.”
“It was just watching you?”
“Just floating above us,” Andrea said, her eyes revealing what Arlo knew to be truth. She believed what she had seen.
“How can I trust you?” Arlo asked, sitting up, pushing her leg off him.
Andrea flushed. “You’ve gotta be kidding me. Just because you got your feelings hurt does not mean…”
“You literally think, that by running a mile away from this spaceship, you’re safe? The thing is probably right above us right now. We’re not going to outrun a thing like that, if what you are saying is true.”
A few clouds poked out above them. Clouds, for once. Andrea shrugged in the present moment. “I want to at least know I tried everything I could. If I die anyway, at least I did something to try to prevent it.”
Arlo nodded. “Let’s all calm down. What we need to do is rest. Again.”
It was impossible to sleep, but they closed their eyes under the cover of rock. Eventually, what seemed like hours and hours later, the three fell asleep, this time all vividly dreaming.
What woke Andrea was the falling splat of raindrops. They were not thick, but they were something, and they were on her lips. She licked the chapped, rugged craters on her lips, before pushing on Arlo and Sandro, who awoke in unison. Above them was heaven: Rain. It fell on them like a mist. The technical term was a sirimiri, which was something between mist and actual rain, but the three raised the half-full and empty jugs, letting them gather some rain. Meanwhile, Sandro stripped down to his underwear, allowing the rain to cleanse his skin. Andrea and Arlo were not as brave, and instead, fell asleep under the promise of a shower.
Beyond, a giant thunderhead lurked. A real rainstorm in this neck of the woods occurred once or twice a year, but a storm of this proportion had not been seen in quite some time. It was miles and miles away, almost a hundred miles if they were honest, but there was no trace of it above the trio. Instead, a mini pop-up storm had triggered hope deep in their souls.
Maybe they were not as bad off as they thought. Maybe they would be delivered from this living hell.
They awoke at dusk and decided on a best plan of attack. Trekking through mountainous terrain was extremely dangerous in the dark, especially with creepy crawly things, stray rocks, and the supernatural phenomenon of the invisible spaceship. Arlo knew Andrea believed her testimony, but he doubted it with his entire being. An invisible spaceship? Give me a break.
They journeyed past the rocky terrain for nearly four hours, deepening into the mountain channel, finding themselves transported into a beautiful scene of utter ethereality. Eventually, though, Sandro fell with a crunch to the ground, and their journey was over.
He had been jumping giddily, trying anything to stay awake through the bitter yawns. No one had spoken in close to two hours, and he was exhausted, lonely, and depressed. However, his attempt at staying awake had caused him to slip down a little ravine. His ankle twisted into a contorted ball, and he fell to the ground, grasping in pain.
“Sandro!” screamed Andrea, rushing over to him.
“I don’t know… I was a bit of an idiot, and I fell.”
Arlo started to yell, but something deep inside told him not to, and he kept his comments at bay. He would not turn into a ruckus-making circus, especially when his voice was small against the roar of something nearby.
He turned around, his back shielding the two on the ground from the moonlight. The clouds were rolling away. “Do you hear that?”
“Water,” whispered Andrea, who covered her mouth. She looked at Sandro and hoisted him up by the armpits. “There’s a river. Come on, Sandro, let’s make it to the river.”
Arlo moved back, supporting the young man with his shoulders. Andrea supported his left side, and Arlo took the right. They moved in the direction of the river, which sounded like the trumpets of angels at heaven’s gate. The darkness had no power over them with the hint of redemption feet away.
It was more like a half-mile away. They had to pass a thousand cacti, a few brambles, and hidden snakes, but when they finally found their fountain of youth, bisecting two mountains. It was a narrow river, but the water was before them, a twinkling ocean oozing its saving grace, droplet by droplet. It did not matter if brain-eating amoeba inhabited the river’s depths; they were dead anyway.
Sandro broke free from Andrea and Arlo five feet away from the riverbed. He dove into the water, despite the chilliness of the desert night, and Arlo sank down to his knees, lapping the water into his throat like a dog. Andrea filled their jugs with water, rotating between drinking from the jug and pouring it down her burning gullet. Tomorrow, in the protective atmosphere of day, she would wash herself from the hot, dirty memories of their journey.
Sandro climbed out of the river, soaking wet, and he hurried back to where Andrea drank from the jug. “Thanks for carrying me, Mother Andrea.”
“How is your ankle?”
“It hurts like hell, but I’ll be okay.”
Arlo stood up too, before moving along the river, scouting a good place to rest and make a shelter. He assumed they would want to stay here for a few hours in the morning, to recover and gather energy. Then they could make their way down the river, until they found a semblance of human life.
When he turned back a few minutes later, Andrea and Sandro were both asleep against a rock. Arlo walked back to where they slept, analyzing the innocence of their faces, and he fell asleep beside them.
Sandro was the first to wake in the morning, around nine or ten o’clock. His watch read the time as ten, but Sandro was not sure if it was accurate or not. He looked down into the river, and for the first time in their ordeal, he felt like telling Andrea and Arlo the truth of his mission. For once, he was not afraid that Arlo would beat him to a bloody pulp, because Arlo was trusting him. Andrea loved him, and she would be angry at the revelation, but appreciative that he’d been honest.
Yet when Andrea’s eyes opened, like two petals falling from a tulip, Sandro gulped and took a bite of chili. They were depleted of food. Arlo’s main goal in the morning was to grab fish from the river so they could eat. The notion of raw fish was disgusting to Sandro, but he knew there was no other way.
Andrea whispered to Sandro, “I’m going to go down the river to bathe. Please let me have my privacy.”
He nodded, inching his back straighter against the rock. “Of course, of course.”
Andrea carefully wove her way along the creek until she was surely out of sight from the guys. She stripped down to her bare skin, the grime covering her like a disease. It was cool in the morning, especially in the mountains, but she wanted to have her body a blank slate again. She wanted to be free from disgust. Plus, if she waited until later, there was a chance Arlo would intentionally stumble down the river and find her disrobed.
Her body clamped as she dangled her foot above the chilly water. Eventually, she gave up with trying to ease into the process and jumped in. The water froze her, and she screamed in response. Each cell in her body tensed, and she felt like her body was ripping. She wanted to cry, because the cold stung so bitterly, but she quickly lowered her head into the water, scrubbing her hair clean. She was sick of the dirt, and the dirt was leaving.
She did not care about the possibility of a roaming snake in the river, or a man-eating piranha, or an invisible alien spaceship flying overhead. All she cared about was cleaning the blackness under her fingernails. She felt one hundred percent better when she left the river, dripping. She stood for a moment, observing the scene, the narrow river she’d washed herself in. She did not want to soak her clothes completely, but her teeth chattered.
She threw on her clothes and headed back in the direction of Arlo and Sandro. When she neared them, she was about to shout something stupid, just to alleviate any tension, when she heard a hiss. A snake slithered past her, heading for the mountains. She was confused by this and hurried to Arlo and Sandro, quietly sighing in relief when she noted Arlo splayed out on his back, watching as Sandro limped into the river, crossing it and splashing around. The kid was ridiculous, Andrea thought, and she was about to splash him, when she heard something louder than the river. It sounded like two rivers meshing together.
“Sandro!” she screamed. “Get out of the river!”
Sandro yelled in return, “What’d you say?”
Arlo shot up like a rocket. He motioned Sandro over, but the young man was hobbling. He continued to twirl around in circles, until he fell over in the shallows of the river. Suddenly, he was dragged down under the water but bobbed up a few moments later. Andrea rushed to Arlo. “What’s that noise?”
Suddenly, recognition dawned. “Get on that rock, that high rock. Get on it now.”
“Arlo?” she asked. She was too far away from him to claw at him again, but he jumped into the river.
Sandro looked back at him, breathing. The river was narrow at first glance, but it was at least a half-mile in width, and Sandro had been propelled to the middle. The roar continued to heighten in volume, causing Andrea to stand on the rock. She tried to see through the crags of the space between the two mountains, but instead, her heart plummeted into her chest.
It was a flash flood.
“Arlo!” she wailed. “Get out!”
Sandro was trying to swim toward Arlo, but the latter knew it was hopeless, especially when he looked back to see a rush of water coming toward him like a bullet train. If he had been a superhero, or a man of more courage, he would have swam to the young man. But instead, he rushed as fast as he could in the direction of Andrea’s rock, which stood a good fifteen feet above the river. In moments, the flash flood had appeared, roaring forth like a colossal giant. Andrea was wailing, screaming as Sandro’s eyes saw the end of his life drawing near. It was a scary wave of water, and she lowered herself to help Arlo climb onto the rock. He hurried as fast as he could, even though he had lost most of his energy in his attempt to save Sandro.
When Arlo had wedged himself onto the rock, huffing and puffing like a drowned man come to life, they both screamed as Sandro was flung under the water. His last time above the water had been a stare in their direction, his warm brown eyes pleading and desperate. Now, though, his body had disappeared. The roar of the water was like the wail of the dead, mourning another lost soul.
Andrea sobbed, holding onto Arlo, who watched in shock as his friend was hurtled down the river. He did not cry, but instead felt Andrea’s clinging to him. They had no food, their jugs were gone, and they were both soaking wet. Most importantly, they had lost Sandro. They had lost their friend. Unlike Peter, Arlo knew this death was no joke. This was real, because there was no way anyone could fake a flash flood death.
Sandro was dead.
“Arlo!” breathed Andrea. She pointed upwards, at the edge of a lower mountain.
Arlo turned his head, looking in the direction in which Andrea pointed. A lone figure was staring down at them. Chilled to the core, Arlo grabbed Andrea’s hand and coarsely said, “We’ve gotta get out of the open.”
“We’re surrounded by water.”
“Can you swim?”
“I don’t know.”
“We’re going to take a little riverboat ride. On the side of a log. I don’t want you to let go of my hand, you got me?”
Knowing this was a desperate plea, Andrea nodded without hesitation. She followed Arlo as he jumped into the edge of the river, which, only minutes before, had been desert rock. He grabbed a large log adrift in the water, and motioned for Andrea to grab hold of it. She obeyed, and the two floated off down the river, holding onto the log and each other.
They said nothing, because they were in a mental lockdown. They did not exactly know what was happening, and terrified, they refused to look at one another. Their group of four was now down to two.
Finally, a mile or so down the river, Arlo finally shouted, above the catastrophe of the flood ahead of them, “Andrea, it’s just you and me.”
She looked at him, her eyes filled with tears. “I am sorry, Arlo.”
“I treated you terribly. Forgive me.”
“I forgive you. I am sorry for abandoning Peter. I should have helped him.” He looked away, staring at the harsh texture of the log. His hands were bleeding from holding on, and his arms were tattered and bruised. He looked haggard, but he was more torn in the inside than anywhere else on his body.
She nodded. “What’s going to happen to us?”
Arlo inched closer to her, needing physical contact. “We’re not going to make it. Something’s with us. It’s been with us.”
She wanted to wail again, but there was nothing in her throat—except stark, frigid terror. She nodded, valiantly, and leaned over to Arlo. “Do you believe your dreams?”
“That we were married, you mean?” He lifted up his hand, where one ring rested on the proper ring finger, and the other was tight against his meaty pinkie. Andrea laughed, impressed the rings had stayed on in the midst of this trauma. It was a funny laugh, one that was mournful at the same time. “Even if we weren’t, it was a nice thing to dream, especially in this nightmare.”
“If we live,” Andrea shouted, her lungs hurting, “let’s take a trip somewhere. I can’t remember a whole lot of places on the map, but one stands out. Green. Tennessee.”
“Tennessee sounds familiar.”
“Want to come with me?” Andrea posed the question above the growl of the water which was both her foe and friend.
Arlo cocked an award worthy smile. Just for a moment, Andrea pretended this was a date. Man and woman, together, learning about each other, in a scenic location. But if this were truly a date, Andrea wouldn’t be dripping wet in a shirt and shorts, and Arlo would dress up more than jeans and a ratty button-up. She imagined him appearing at her door, with a bouquet of flowers, clean-shaven, his green eyes not as ravenous for memories. He would appear in dress clothes, and she would wear a tight dress, and they would go out, arm-in-arm, to a restaurant.
But this was not a date, and this was not the present. Andrea hoped it was a memory, but she was daydreaming. It was solely her imagination, and this crippled her. Instead of a table for two in a cozy little villa, they were holding on for dear life by the threads of a fallen log. Instead of romantic chatter, their teeth were chattering, their hearts broken after the deaths of their comrades.
“Of course I’m coming with you,” Arlo said, his voice returning to its husky tone. “Tennessee sounds good right about now.”
The log suddenly tipped over from the force of the water, and Andrea fell under, gagging with the imploding of her lungs. She kicked and screamed, her lungs burning, her brain on fire. She kicked upward, finding Arlo reaching out for her as he was pulled farther and farther away from her down the current.
“Arlo!” she screamed, but the sound was muffled.
He kicked as hard as he could, their hands barely grazing. He screamed for her. He cried for her. He feared for her.
Andrea and Arlo separated around ten o’clock. Andrea was forced onto a nearby rocky beach, where she vomited everything in her stomach. Her matted hair clung to her skin while the regurgitation fell from her lips. Tears mixed with the taste of bile. She looked around the raging river to find Arlo missing from view.
She turned around, crying out for him. She almost hopped back into the river, but what would that do? She rushed down the riverbank as fast as her legs would carry her. After about a mile, with one tiny glint of his head above the water, her legs gave out. Though her heart wanted to carry her on, her body slammed that door shut. Unless Arlo could find a strip of land soon, they would be separated for some time.
When she had enough energy to stand, she took her time. She walked along the bank, the sun rising in the sky, the water cursing her every step. It had taken both Sandro and Arlo from her grasp. Finally, as the river took a curve, she saw Arlo. He was soaked to the core, but he was running in her direction, the look on his face of utmost relief. She raced for him, her legs cracking under the pressure. Her body almost fell to the ground again, like a rag doll, but his green eyes caused her to keep going. Keep going.
Her voice cracked, “Arlo! Arlo! Arlo!” She did not remember him, but he was her hero in this moment. He did not save Peter, but he tried to save Sandro. He was not going to leave her behind. His name was not Arlo, her brain screamed. It’s… It’s… Thomas.
A snapshot encapsulated her brain. One single photograph, sizzled in her mind like an egg. Thomas, holding a newborn in his arms. Arlo, the man before her, stood out in the hot afternoon, watching her. He had stopped moving all together.
She vomited more, blood mixing now. She cried out for him.
Arlo was sprinting to her, like an animal on the hunt. She smiled as she felt the arms wrap around her waist. She blinked back the tears as they rushed. Thomas… Thomas Lovell.
Arlo was screaming, “No! No! No!”
Andrea’s vision turned to black. She did not know what was happening, but she was happy, as she entered a dreamlike state.
“Stop!” Arlo screamed. For the first time within the entire ordeal, a tear dripped down his cheeks. They were taking Andrea. They were taking her.
The figures watched as Arlo fell to his knees. They had his wife in their arms, holding her lifeless body. He placed his hand over his mouth. There was no way they would ever go to Tennessee. Not ever.
He fell over, collapsed, in the dreamlike world Andrea had fallen into only moments before.
Andrea dreamt. She dreamt of Tennessee, because her mind was infatuated with the place, at least now. There was the scent of flowers in the air. Purples, pinks, blues—they were all staining the tulips in an array of beauty. The sky was a baby blue, mixed in with puffy cumulus clouds. Arlo was there too, sitting in the grass, as she picked up a dandelion, blowing its spores into his face. He laughed at her. Sandro appeared too, his dark hair a contrast to the verdant greens of the grass. He was smiling, picking strands of green and placing them in his lap. Even Peter was there, his form far away, but he waved at her. His hand was moving back and forth like a windshield wiper.
Andrea lay on the grass. She was content. The sun was moving steadily across the sky, and eventually, the moon would appear. But Arlo, Sandro, and Peter were with her. They made the night sky less frightening.
Arlo slipped his hand in hers. She kissed his thick hand. Sandro moved next to her and asked what her favorite Russian novel was, and did she like movies? “I don’t know,” she replied.
Then the green turned black. The night was alive. Peter stood over her, his blue eyes the color of the baby blue she’d seen what felt like moments before.
Andrea snorted. It was funny. What did he want? She rolled over on her side, watching Arlo stare upward. He did not look at her, instead focusing on the heavens. She traced the side of his jaw. “Arlo,” she said, moving closer to him.
“Them.” His lips moved, but his body did not. His green eyes were dead.
She sat up, confused, her mind battered. She heard a scream. Sandro. The same scream he’d screamed when he was dying.
A knife wedged in her gut. Sandro was beside her, gagging, though no water was nearby. She watched him drown and die in thin air. She grabbed him by the shoulders. “Sandro!” She looked at Arlo and Peter for support, but they did not look at her.
“Sandro, stop! Breathe. Just breathe.”
He was gagging, and even though she kept beating him on his chest, he continued to gag. His eyes became dead, just like Arlo’s green eyes had become.
She stood up and observed the night sky. “This is a dream,” her conscious said.
“Yes, it is a dream.”
Andrea shot up, her eyes buzzing. She began choking, just like she had seen Sandro do. She was in a dark room, with no light anywhere visible.
Her eyes fluttered and adjusted like they had just been planted inside a rainbow-leafed kaleidoscope. Her heartbeat was ramping up in speed, but something dripped beside her. She felt a rush of a substance in her veins, and the heartbeat returned to a normal pace.
Her wrists were tied to metal poles beside her. She tried to move but could not, and this terrified her. She screamed, but realized she was screaming and could hear nothing. This terrified her even more. Her lungs quaked with the pressure of her silent screams. Her throat became raw. Her senses were collapsing, because the darkness was taking away her light.
She eventually gave up, her arms falling slack at her side. She could not tell if she was crying or not, and time was passing, but with no way to see how fast it was rolling beyond, she imagined Arlo’s face, keeping it in her frame of vision. She remembered his spirit. She remembered him: Arlo.
Sandro and Peter’s faces came back to her with expert clarity. But the one she loved best was Arlo. His entrancing eyes, the rugged beard, his determination. She wanted his presence desperately.
Andrea tried to fall asleep, but it was impossible. Suddenly, what could have been ten minutes or ten hours later, something hot breathed on her neck, and Andrea convulsed. Her shrills still were deaf to her ears.
“We don’t want to scare you,” a voice began, shrill and broken. It was English, but rough English. Each syllable took seconds to process.
Andrea could not say anything in return. She was terrified.
“You are in the dark because it is what is best for you.”
She felt her head nod back and forth.
The presence that had been breathing on her neck had vanished, but she would have bet a million dollars it was still in the room with her. The way its breath had trickled down her neck, scaring her, taunting her… She shuddered.
The muffled voice said, “You must have many questions.”
“Yes!” her mind screamed.
“We won’t answer all of them, but you do have a right to some answers. Your real name is Alexandria. You are from Fremont, California. You are studying to become an anthropologist. You have one husband, a man named Peter Lovell, and the two of you have a daughter named Sofia. You are twenty-seven years old. You are a Caucasian of Slovak descent who identifies as Protestant.”
Andrea was silent. Peter Lovell was her husband? Impossible. Peter. The name shook her to the core. She had watched Peter die, and his dying words had yielded, Them. How could she trust these people, these people who had taken her memory, had taken her ransom, and had taken her Arlo? Peter Lovell was not her husband. It was impossible.
“Your memory will return to you, after a series of difficult tests. Endurance tests, you could call them.”
She doubted this and bit her tongue so hard it bled down her chin, dropping onto her bare leg. Mental torture.
The lights clicked on overhead. She expected to see a green alien standing above her with a lightsaber to chop off her head. Maybe he would be a Nordic alien and carry a sword. She expected a giant monster, a three-headed Hydra perhaps, to reveal him or herself from the shadows.
Instead, Arlo lay on a clear table, smashed to the glass. He was shackled and stared in her direction. His eyes adjusted to the light, just as hers did, hurting them both with intense headaches. The room felt like it was spinning, but it wasn’t. Behind Arlo, a tall woman in a black dress cocked her head gently. She cocked a gun, pointing it at Arlo’s head.
Andrea’s lungs shook as she screamed. Her body hurt from all the aches. She was terrorized by this inner feeling of the utmost dread, in which it suffocated her. She had experienced so much strife in the past few days that she was ready to collapse, to let her body give in completely to dying.
But Arlo—right before her, his eyes frantic, his body slammed chained to the table—was reason enough to fight. She could not let him die before her eyes. She had already seen this with Sandro and Peter; to watch Arlo die would be like dying herself.
Her voice finally found itself. She gathered enough air to scream, and nothing was preventing her from her sobs. She wailed as Arlo’s eyes found her own. He was like a deer caught in the scope of a rifle, his body quivering on the table. Watching Andrea in pain like this ripped his chest open, like a bullet had already wedged between his eyes. He did not care about his past with her, because it did not matter if it was fake or real, imagination or dream, anymore. What mattered was surviving. Surviving mattered.
“Memory is a gift,” said the woman. Her voice was clear now, not muffled like before. Through the liquid flowing from her eyes, Andrea caught a vivid image of the woman who was threatening to destroy her life. She was white, the color of a piece of computer paper; her hair was red, like blood; her lips were blood red, also; her eyes were brown, but contained a hue of vicious, inky, deadly black. Her black dress was the color of her integrity.
Her heels clattered against the floor as she moved closer to Arlo. She watched as he quivered on the table. His fear was growing by the moment. A person like this could act like she’d shoot him, but reposition the barrel and kill Andrea instead.
“Andrea,” he whispered, his chapped lips painfully opening. She could not hear him, but her tears convicted him anyway. She was never going to be Alexandria to him. She was only Andrea, the person with whom he’d traveled into Hades.
“What do you want?” questioned Andrea, whose remark stirred something in Arlo.
The woman did not smile, nor did she frown. “We want answers.”
“If I don’t remember anything, how would I have your answers?”
The woman shook her head. “You’re not thinking properly, Alexandria. You may not know you have the answers, because you two are the answer.”
“Stop speaking in damn riddles.” Arlo gritted his teeth, a mixture of grime, bile, and saliva spitting out of his mouth.
The woman lowered the gun. She took a seat in a chair near his head, blocking Andrea’s view of his eyes. Somehow, Arlo’s eyes took away a lot of the pain. Now that she could not see him, Andrea cried out even more. She moaned, she cried, she died a bit.
The woman pushed her hand through his long hair. Andrea half-expected a giant desert mouse to pop out of his dirty hair, but instead, he clenched his teeth as hard as he could when the woman touched him. She whistled and wiped her fingers across his face, down his nose, across his lips. When she lowered her face to his, he spat in her eyes. She should have expected that.
The woman did not even flinch.
Instead, she slapped Arlo across his bearded jaw. Blood dripped from his tongue. Andrea shook her chains against the poles, but there was no chance of freedom. There was no chance of escape. Instead, Andrea had to watch Arlo’s impending torture. In the moment of the slap, his body had tried to free itself, but it was idle now. She heard him moan, and this broke her.
The woman turned around. She did not move, but her scowl was enough to slap Andrea upside the head.
Inside the deepest pit of her mind, Andrea found herself contemplating how to protect Arlo. She could not watch him take beatings much longer, especially in their tired state from the desert days. He was wearing out, emotionally and physically.
“Do you think your words will help him?” crooned the woman. She left the table and moved closer to Andrea, so that they were face-to-face. “Do you think you can save him?”
“I can try!” she shouted, biting her tongue. Blood dripped into her throat.
“Exactly. You can try. Now, tell me who he is.”
“His name is Arlo.”
The woman batted her eyelids that seemed to be drowning in inky mascara. She shook her head. “Incorrect.”
“He is Arlo. His real name might be Thomas Lovell, but he is Arlo to me.”
“Incorrect,” the woman flushed.
“Why are you doing this to us? Why can’t you just stop?”
The woman stood up, brushing off her skirt. “You two are both extremely weak. You need rest, hydration, and food. And, unfortunately, we will have to restart the process.”
“Restart the process?” breathed Andrea. “What process?”
“I am sorry, but I am not at liberty to discuss that with you.”
The woman left the room and walked into a dimly lit hallway. Then she hurried into a full room of scientists, government officials, and people like herself. People like her stood to one side of the room, while the others observed them with scrutiny. It was hard to see foreign creatures mirror the human species, the woman understood.
“It failed again,” she barked. Her words stung. “Another failure.”
“They won’t be able to handle another round of treatment,” inserted a wiry doctor on the human side of the room. “They’re not physically, emotionally, or spiritually able anymore. This is the third round, and two more bystanders have died as a result. The next go-around, our test subjects could easily die.”
“But we have no conclusion, except this medicine does not work. That is what our deal was: To continue until we find favorable results.” Her mouth went wet, her tongue curling against the throat. She enjoyed the human body, because it was wickedly adaptive to her thoughts. She liked humanity but hated it at the same time.
A female government representative shook her head. “Under punishable law, we agreed to the terms set by them”—at this the lady’s skin crawled, the atmosphere pungent with sweat and dread—“so that we have peace, while they continue their research. They get to set the appropriate times for treatment.”
The humans blinked toward their leader, the wiry doctor, who finally nodded. “Give it another try.”
The woman returned to the examination room, where Andrea and Arlo stared each other in the eye. The look was something unrecognizable to her, something mysterious, something even borderline crazy. Unable to identify what it was, the alien said nothing and exited the room.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
I might believe in aliens. I’m not sure.
The long, open desert... And four strangers who remember nothing of their past lives, loves, and experiences. There is something about one's memory that propels life's journey. But for those who do not remember, what is bound to happen next? Utmost survival comes to play when these four individuals join together to unlock the mystery surrounding their amnesia while trying to stay alive in the scorching summer desert. Unfortunately for them, something is observing...