Fatigue crushes the edges of my eyes; vision has long since blurred to a pulsing haze. I can feel the sun burning my bare back. I try to ignore the pain in my legs, but I can’t. It’s too hard. The sand sinks beneath my pounding feet, slowing me down. Costing me precious seconds. I hold my frantic pace, sweat stinging the cut on my lip.
The bleak desert landscape stretches as far as the eye can see. Nothing moves in the blazing heat. Nothing except me. I can only hope I’m running the right way.
Because if not, I’ll end up as dead as Karl.
My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth, shockingly dry, and I’m getting a pain in my chest. My body groans for rest.
But I can’t stop.
Karl and I weren’t the only ones in that car.
I focus on it. It helps me forget about the pain.
How could I have done that?
It was all my fault.
I hate myself.
Scrambling, leaping over a pile of boulders that impede my progress, I squint at the horizon. Flat as far as the eye can see. Gasping for breath, I pause for a painstaking moment. I glance behind me, but I can’t see the result of my stupidity. It’s too far behind me. All I see are my footprints in the sand, stretching across the distance.
How far have I run?
I take off in a full sprint again, heading either for a saving grace or a shameful death. I start to count strides, trying to calm my racing thoughts. Trying to suppress the images in my mind.
1, 2, 3, 4…
17, 18, 19…
42, 43, 44, 45…
Soon I break the hundreds.
I’m getting heat exhaustion.
235, 236, 237…
Then I break a thousand.
My breathing tightens. I’m choking for breath.
1123, 1124, 1125…
I hardly notice my pace is slowing.
1145, 1146, 1147…
Suddenly, my legs stop responding. My arms flail. I hit the ground. I can feel the burning sand on my cheek.
I lie on the ground, unmoving. I really should get up. But maybe I can’t. Maybe I’m too tired.
My brain is shutting down.
I can’t think.
I’m going to die all alone.
But one image is still plastered to the front of my mind. A hasty tourniquet. A shirt soaked with blood. I have to get up.
I will my arms to push. They don’t obey me.
I try again, this time harder. Slowly, I rise, getting unsteady feet beneath me.
And take a few stumbling steps forward. I’m moving again. But I think I’m getting delusional.
Why is Karl next to me?
He’s pointing at something off to my right.
I pause, groggy, and blink to clear my hazy sight. There’s something in the distance.
It looks like a house.
Something rises inside me. I fall into an awkward loping run, leaving Karl behind.
The distance between me and the object decreases so slowly.
I get closer, and my brain vaguely affirms that it is, indeed, a house.
I’m barely sane enough to stagger up the porch steps and knock on the door.
I wait for what feels like eternity, bracing myself against a nearby wall.
The door peeks open. A bearded man in an old cowboy hat. His eyes open wide in shock.
I try to stand, but my energy is gone. The man catches me as I slump to the ground.
“What happened!?” he asks.
I start mumbling as the man drags me into the house and lays me on the floor.
“Help… accident… rolled…”
His mouth moves to form words as he checks me for injuries, but I can’t hear anything, so I keep mumbling.
“Friend… dead… girl… leg… broken… unconscious…”
He grabs a glass of water and pours some in my mouth.
I struggle to swallow.
Everything is fading.
I grab his arm.
“Follow… tracks… save… her…”
He gravely nods, wiping my forehead with a wet rag.
I know it won’t do any good.
I can feel my body shutting down for the last time. I’m dying.
I love you, Brooklyn.
It’s a perfect day.
We whoop in glee as the jeep bounds over the dunes. I put my head out the window, reveling in the hot wind on my face, feeling it whip my long hair.
Karl sits in the passenger seat, laughing. He’s probably the reason I got invited.
There are lots of reasons to love Karl. Kindness is just one.
Stanley is driving. Rather recklessly, but I don’t mind. His four-wheel drive carries us up a large dune, spraying sand behind us.
Ahead is an even larger one.
“Watch this,” Stanley says, and guns it.
I squeal with excitement from the back seat as we reach the top and Stanley throws the wheel to the right.
And my squeal chokes into a scream as I see that the wind has made this side of the dune a straight drop-off.
It happens so fast.
I catch a brief glimpse of an upside-down world with the empty blue sky as the floor.
And then I’m slammed into darkness.
I can smell blood.
I fade into consciousness, slowly becoming aware that my head throbs and my leg burns like it never has before.
I open my eyes. I’m in the shade — the shade of the overturned jeep, resting on its side. My mind finally registers.
I move to sit up in the sand but collapse with a cry at the sharp, piercing pain that spears my leg. It must be broken. I touch it softly. Something’s covering it.
The cloth is slick with blood.
I suddenly feel dizzy.
I’m weak from blood loss, but I fight the feeling down and carefully push myself up on my hands, looking for the others.
“Karl? Stanley?” I call.
No sound. No movement.
Then I see.
Two feet, barely visible around the corner of the jeep.
Feet wearing Karl’s sandals.
I freeze, and a pain blossoms inside me as I realize what those feet might mean. I don’t want to go, don’t want to see. But I have to know.
I drag myself along the ground towards Karl, moving so slowly.
I finally get where I can see clearly.
Karl, motionless. He’s not breathing. There’s a hat over his face.
I try to be strong, but it’s too hard. So I let the tears come. I crawl over, place my head on his still chest, and cry for the death of my perfect day.
And the death of my perfect brother.
Exhausted, I sob until sleep frees me from the pain.
I wake dazed, the merciless sun beating down on me.
I need water.
Stanley must have gone for help.
Pulling away from the corpse, I move across the sand towards the jeep.
A bent car door is open, displaying the remains of our water storage — three plastic bottles. Two are broken open, their water wasted.
The third, untouched, sits prominently upright.
Stanley didn’t take any.
I frown, thinking slowly.
Why would Stanley leave me all the water?
Reaching up, I grab the bottle in a shaky hand, taking a drink. I only let myself have half of it. I have to save the rest for later. I need to wait for Stanley to come back. Lying on the sand, I let my body relax. It feels so good to not move.
It’s only then that I see the line of red sand from the corpse.
No, not from the corpse.
From me. My leg…
It’s still bleeding. I can’t feel it. That’s not a good sign.
If it keeps bleeding, I’ll die.
I squint my eyes, trying to remember first aid for bleeding.
I can clearly see the knot Stanley tied his shirt into. I must have worked it loose.
Taking both sides, I grit my teeth and pull it tight.
I black out.
The world is blurry. Nothing focuses properly. I clutch the plastic water bottle in my right hand. I must have grabbed it somehow.
I’m thirsty, but I can’t drink.
I have to save it.
Bleeding… I need to check the bleeding.
My fingers don’t report any moisture, so the bleeding must have stopped. If I can trust my fingers. They don’t feel right.
Lying face-down in the sand, I finally realize.
I could die here.
He’ll find help. He’s coming back…
For me. Stanley… cares about me.
He… left the water for me.
I can’t let him find me like this, helpless. I grope in the blur, fingers locating the top of the jeep.
Feeling my way, I struggle to drag myself around to the other side where I can see the blur of a sun, low in the sky, and feel the rubber tires.
My arms slowly pull me up to sit on the tire, and I look into the sun, watching, waiting.
I try to sit upright, but I don’t have the energy, so I lean against the jeep.
That glowing, hazy orb moves so slowly. I keep wanting to doze off, but I force myself to stay awake. That’s getting harder, though.
What’s taking… so long?
The sun is almost gone.
Finally, a distant shape appears in the sunset glow, moving my direction.
I almost smile, but I’m too tired.
It gets close, and I see it’s a pickup truck. It skids to a stop, and someone jumps out.
But no, it’s not. I frown. It’s a man, running towards me. A man with a cowboy hat.
He drops onto the sand in front of me, quickly pulling things out of a bag. He takes Stanley’s shirt off my leg and looks.
“Oh, child,” he says.
His kind face looks like it might cry.
“Where’s… Stanley?” I ask.
My head is swimming.
“He’s… just fine, child. Just fine.”
The darkness approaches.
“He needs… water.” I can barely whisper.
The man is tying on a new bandage.
I lift the half bottle of water, still clutched in my hand, and clumsily drop it in his lap.
“I… saved it… for him.”
I can’t keep my eyes open. The darkness is closing.
I… love you too, Stanley.
I am a failure. I’m not good enough. My life is worthless. Nobody wants me. Nobody needs me.
I have no reason to stay alive.
And that is why I’ve decided to kill myself.
I drop my .50 cal pistol onto the kitchen table along with a single round. Pulling the chair back, I slowly seat myself.
The gun is easy to load. A flip, a spin, a push, a click, and the bullet is in.
Part of me wishes it took longer.
But no. This really is the end. I feel trapped, enclosed by more than the wooden walls of my cabin. There’s only one way to get out of it all.
I lift the gun to my head, cocking it with a loud click. I close my eyes.
This is what I want to do.
It really does need to end.
I steel myself for the motion.
And pull the trigger.
Which doesn’t move. I left the safety on.
I always have been one to be safe with guns.
Sighing, I position my finger to take the safety off. And slowly, I switch it so the red shows.
Red for danger. Red for blood.
I close my eyes, gritting my teeth.
How hard am I going to make this on myself?
I pick up the pistol, still cocked.
I close my eyes.
Unbidden, the thought springs to mind. Quiet, like the shadow of a memory. It doesn’t belong here, on the doorstep of death.
I lift the gun…
But I can’t.
Not until I pray.
Dusty leather! This conscience of mine!
And yet, part of me doesn’t mind the delay.
Putting the gun on the table, I kneel almost reluctantly by the chair and clasp my hands.
That’s as far as I get. Me, who was raised to pray every night. Suddenly, I’m more ashamed of myself than I was the moment I decided to commit suicide.
But what do you say to God when you plan to get up and kill yourself afterwards?
“Dear God,” I begin again.
“I… don’t know if you’re listening…”
“But if you are… and I shouldn’t do this…”
I pause. Dusty leather, I’m actually still questioning.
I can’t just postpone forever.
“If I shouldn’t do this, give me a reason to live. Amen.” There. It was out.
I wait for a full minute, like I used to do. Like I did before I was a failure.
God is silent. He doesn’t care about me either.
So, I get up. I sit in the chair. I pick up the gun.
I really am going to do this.
I check that the bullet is in, the safety is off, and it’s properly cocked.
I point it at my head.
And I pull the…
Bang, bang, bang. A knock at my door.
I live on a 100-mile stretch of open desert. Who could be knocking? An angel?
I almost scoff. But, I don’t rule out the possibility. I snap the pistol into my holster and put on my hat. I’m not shooting myself with someone at the door.
Cautiously, I put a hand on the knob and crack it open.
My eyes widen at the sight.
It’s not an angel.
It’s a boy. A boy who looks like he’s been through hell itself.
Panting, shirtless, covered with dirt, and bleeding from the lip and forehead, it looks like his legs might give out at any…
Jumping forward, I catch his tall, lanky frame as it falls.
“What happened?” I ask.
He starts rambling as I drag him inside, delirious, but I catch the gist.
Help… accident… rolled…
“Are you hurt? What do you need?” I demand as I lay him on the floor and start looking for injuries. I touch his forehead. It’s burning hot.
Serious heat stroke.
He doesn’t seem to hear me. That’s not good.
“Friend… dead… girl… leg… broken… unconscious…” he mumbles.
He needs water.
I snatch a glass from the table and pour some in his mouth.
He can barely swallow. I start to panic.
He won’t make it.
I turn to put the glass back, but he grabs my arm.
“Follow… tracks… save… her…” he gasps.
I nod in affirmation.
I start wiping his forehead with a rag.
His breathing chokes. He looks heavenward, blue eyes suddenly clear.
And dies with a smile on his face.
I sit, stunned by the speed of it all.
I wish… I wish I could have saved him.
But I had no chance. Not with how far the heat stroke had gone. I lean forward to slowly close his eyes.
But there were others in the accident. And I just promised to help.
I am needed.
I fling myself into motion. Water, a first aid kit, a pocket knife, an electric lantern, and bandages practically fly into a bag. I throw my boots on and quickly step out the door into the sunlight.
I can see his tracks dotting across the sand.
He ran himself to death to go for help.
And now, I will travel that same path to be the help.
Just not quite the same way. I jump into my 1976 Ford pickup, start it up, and, spinning tires, take off as fast as the sand allows.
The tracks are easy enough to follow, but I haven’t gone far at all before I reach an anomaly. I climb out to take a look.
A depression in the sand. It looks like he tripped or fell.
And after the marks, the tracks change direction.
He must have fallen, then seen my house.
I turn to look back at it.
And raise an eyebrow.
I can’t see the house. It’s hidden by the gradual sloping of the sand.
But I have no time to consider it further. Jumping back in, I continue on.
Going for the girl.
Driving, with the sun at my back.
Ten minutes, twenty, then thirty pass.
I pull out my canteen while I drive and take a deep drink — cool, refreshing.
The boy would have made it if he had water.
Such a simple thing, water. Yet so essential.
Now an hour passes as I hurtle over dunes and through valleys.
I can guess the general area the accident happened. The Haystacks, they’re called. An area of concentrated dunes perfect for adventurous drivers. I’m the only building within thirty miles of them.
But I’m becoming more and more impressed with the route this young man took. I’ve lived here for forty-three years and even I couldn’t have done as fine a job at avoiding the deep sand and tall dunes.
In fact, if he’d taken a more direct route towards my house, he would have hit the canyons to the north.
On I go, pedal floored.
At one point, the tracks go over some boulders and it takes me a few minutes to drive around them and find his tracks again.
Precious, precious minutes.
The sun is low in the sky, and the truck, revved to the max, casts a long shadow.
And then I think I see it, just a speck.
And as I get closer I see a pitiful sight.
A still body, an overturned jeep, and a girl, sitting against the car, watching me approach.
She looks more dead than alive.
No! I have to save her!
Skidding to a halt, I jump out of my truck and almost fly across the distance between us. Dropping to my knees, I pull out the first aid kit, bandages, and pocketknife. A bloody tourniquet hides a leg that is surely broken.
A lot of blood.
I quickly begin cutting off the bloody shirt.
The boy’s shirt.
She doesn’t even flinch.
Nerves are dead…
I pull the cloth off. I choke up.
“Oh, child,” I say.
There’s a large gash in her leg from which the broken bone protrudes at least an inch.
It’s a terrible sight.
The boy saw it too.
The girl meets my gaze. Beautiful, kind, eyes. Peaceful eyes.
“Where’s… Stanley?” she quietly asks.
The boy… Stanley. She thinks he’s coming back. Coming back for her.
“He’s… just fine, child. Just fine.”
I can’t tell her the truth.
I start tying on a new bandage.
She will make it. If I get her back to my house, we can be to a hospital in about…
“He needs… water,” she whispers.
That’s fine, child, that’s fine. But you’re…
She lifts a trembling hand and drops something in my lap.
A water bottle, half empty.
They had water?
“I… saved some… for him.” She mumbles.
Then her eyes close. Her breathing slowly trickles away to nothing.
I can’t let her die!
I check for a pulse, a movement, anything.
She’s still and quiet.
“No!” I say.
I look towards heaven.
“No! You can’t take her!” Desperation fills my voice, seeping through my heart like water through paper.
“She has friends, family, home, life ahead, purpose!”
“She’s too young, too good, too kind…”
Tears come rolling down my cheeks, the pain, the hate, the failure of years.
“Why would you let them die?” I sob.
“They gave everything for others. They had faith, they had love, they had potential.”
“They had value.”
Just like you.
I fall backwards in shock. Quiet, but clear, the voice comes straight to my mind. A girl’s voice.
Just like you.
And then the weight of my hypocrisy crashes down.
Despising myself, hating my own life, wanting to destroy it.
Even when I can so easily see the value and potential of others, begging God to let them live.
I look down at my boots.
Dusty leather. Do I really have value?
And then the hand of Providence springs to life in my consciousness, though it’s always been there in reality.
A hand guiding a brave boy through impossible desert sands to the only building within thirty miles.
To knock on the door of a man who would have, at that instant, killed himself.
A hand, giving that man a reason to live, a chance to see the truth…
I’m not worthless.
God does want me to live, to love, to sacrifice.
A feeling fills my soul, wiping away the hurt, the anger, the depression. More than peace, more than assurance.
I feel like I’m tasting of the very essence of joy.
And suddenly, I realize.
It was an angel who knocked on my door.