a short story by Jake M
The moon weakly glowed overhead, a small icy disk in the expansive void of space above. Pinpricks of stars glittered like holes poked in fabric, drawing out a series of unknown constellations. The rattling of a broken set of wheels discordantly echoed through the empty desert as I walked, my dearest friend Tuhavi in tow behind me. He lay upon a nest of wool blankets covering a rickety structure of wood and plastic lashed together, made mobile by the addition of a busted set of caster wheels. I came upon a small stretch of softer earth, and turned to tell Tuhavi. He moaned in pain. I nodded solemnly, understanding that he probably wanted to rest for the night. I laid out the two bedrolls from my backpack onto the dirt and started a fire from bundle of scrubby grass I'd gathered earlier. I spent the night just as I had every other before it, cooking dinner, tending to Tuhavi's wounds and helping him onto his bedroll, and swearing up and down to him that once he's better that we'd be back on track in no time. I sat next to him and pulled out the book of constellations from my backpack. The book was written in a language I couldn't understand, but the pictures printed in it matched the skies perfectly (give or take a few stars, I assumed the book was out of date), so I made up stories about what each one meant. I pointed to a constellation and told him that when all of us pass on from this life, another star appears in that pattern in the sky, and if you lived your life right, being kind and generous and brave, your star would shine the brightest. I talked and talked and talked until we both drifted off to sleep.
In the morning, I dumped sand on the fire, unceremoniously snubbing the ashes out into a pathetic wisp of smoke. As I packed up all of our things, I asked Tuhavi how he was doing. He replied with a noncommittal groan. He'd been better, I took it. As I loaded him into the carrier, I told him how when we'd find something to fix him up, oh that guy that hurt him sure would be sorry, and then I'd dramatically brandish the pistol I stole from him during the fight. He laughed, then clutched his sides in pain. I apologized and re-bandaged the wound before asking him for directions and setting off again. The guy really did a number on him, Tuhavi having gotten the bulk of puncture wounds from the staff of rusted and pointy metal he carried. The crazy bastard was trying to steal food from us in the middle of the night. I managed to scare him off, but not in time for Tuhavi to not be gravely injured. His legs and torso were terribly wounded, and he couldn’t walk more than five feet without collapsing, so I made the carrier for him so we could both find a place to fix him before we continued on. At that point, not much luck. Only sand and sage brush and mountains and the sun. The sun was the worst part.
Within a couple hours I was drenched in sweat, it trickled down my head in tiny rivulets, dripping off my hair and into my eyes, stinging them. My muscles burned with a heat comparable to the sun, the ropes meant to pull Tuhavi wrapped in a harness around me digging into my chest. He remained mostly silent behind me, offering the occasional shout of agony after a particularly rough patch of dirt or two. He'd been growing worse by the day, becoming weaker and weaker, wounds healing slowly, breathing becoming ever more shallow. His skin was often cold and sweaty, his face gaunt and pallid, and he'd occasionally awake in the middle of the night, crying out in terror. I feared the worst for my dearest friend. I tried to talk as I pulled him, squeezing out sentences in between wheezing gasps for air. He'd always loved my stories about the stars, and the one about the moon, but I had no good stories for the desert. The empty, hot, lifeless landscape inspired no narratives within my heart, only exhaustion. Instead, I talked with him about the reason we were out there in the first place.
Back when we were just boys in the tiny camp we lived in, neither of us had seen a body of water larger than a puddle. We heard about the ocean, a massive expanse of water, larger than any of us could even imagine, that rested to the southeast, and we both swore to each other that we'd go and see it someday. I recounted the day we made the promise, done by blood on our sweaty palms in the safety of the shade in between our tents, the day we found the map to the ocean (which only Tuhavi could read) in a dusty hunk of twisted metal, and the day we packed everything and bid farewell to the others who'd raised us from the ground up. Neither of us had any idea what it would look like, all that water, but I put my storytelling talents to use and described a place that was the antithesis of the land we'd always known. Cool breezes, a sun that only shone through the gaps in clouds, lush greenery that stretched into the horizon, and more water than he and I could ever drink.
Later in the day, I strained to pull him up an oddly steep hill, as the carrier began to fall apart. After a couple of failed attempts, one resulting in the need for an emergency reconstruction, I managed to lift him up. Atop the hill, I rested next to Tuhavi, comforting him as he began to cry. I told him it'd be alright, that he'd be okay, and we'd both see the ocean soon. I pulled out my pair of binoculars and scanned the stretch of land below us, and was surprised to have picked out a large complex of buildings guarded by nothing but a rusted chain link fence and the howling desolate winds. I excitedly told Tuhavi, who replied with a weak mumble of agreement. I could barely contain my excitement as I hauled my dearest friend across what was likely miles of hot, dry, boring terrain to the closest door of the complex, the chain link fence having rusted through enough for us to squeeze past. I dreamt of all the things the building could provide, shelter, food and water, and, I hoped, a way to fix my friend. The padlock on the door had long since rusted, and the only signage that indicated what this building could've possibly been had faded beyond readability, not that I’d have understood anyways. Despite my elation, I cautiously entered the building through the heavy metal door, right hand placed over the pistol tucked in my belt. After giving the interior a cursory inspection, I pulled Tuhavi in with me. Both of us took a moment to appreciate the refuge from the terrible heat we received, sighing in relief. The hallway we rested in was fairly wide, the floor covered in cracked and peeling green tiles, tattered canvases covered in unintelligible writings hanging on the walls around them. After our brief respite, I continued exploring with Tuhavi in tow behind. Through the halls and their cracked tiles, down a poorly lit stairwell with the paint peeling off the walls, into a smaller and more cramped concrete corridor, washed in dim yellow light. I did not understand any of the symbols plastered on the doors I passed, but one of them intrigued me.
A large set of metal doors plastered in a series of those symbols, with a three panel graphic depicting a person and an object emblazoned with the symbol caught my attention. The symbol was a circle with three rays coming off of it, which I did not recognize as anything that I knew. I attempted to read it, starting on the side of my dominant hand, right to left. It depicted the story of a man, stricken by pain and anguish, who touches the object and appears to return to his healthy state. I turned to Tuhavi and smiled widely, pointing at the graphic. He smiled back, weakly. The color was fully drained out of his face, I knew I had to act quickly. I pried the set of doors open with a fair amount of difficulty, having to jam a heavy steel bar in between the doors and lever it open. It revealed a storage hall with plenty of bright yellow boxes stacked atop each other, all of them adorned with the symbol pictured on the doors. I urgently wheeled him into the room and placed him next to the closest box with the symbol. Breaking it open revealed a collection of several metallic gray rods, subtly glowing in the dimness of the room. I tenderly placed his hand upon them. I was dismayed to see that nothing happened, so I continued to hold his hand on it. I told him not to worry. I told him it would be ok. I told him of the ocean and the water, the cool breezes, laying on the ground and watching the stars pass above us as the sound of the waves would lull us to sleep. Fifteen minutes passed, and Tuhavi had not recovered. I fearfully went to take his pulse on that hand, and discovered his heart had stopped, and I was too late. I knelt beside him and sobbed. My dearest friend was gone. He’d never see the ocean, never see the cloudy skies and the tacit waters, his last moments spent in a hot and dusty room underground. All because I was just too late. I cried and cried and cried until my wailing faded into quiet sobs that wracked my exhausted body, a dull ache that hummed in my bones after every breath. I gripped his hands in mine, as if I could somehow hold on to some kind of life that was left in him, just to apologize before he’d go. After an eternity of grief, I gently moved the blanket over Tuhavi’s body and steeled myself enough to pull him to the surface, where I buried him as the sun set over the distant mountains. I arranged a small cairn of rocks atop where he rested, reciting his favorite story to the best of my memory, and as the moonlight cast the shadow of the cairn across my boots I placed Tuhavi’s headdress upon my own head, allowing the antlers to hang by my ears, pointed downwards, just as he had worn it. I took my goggles, placed them on my eyes, and walked.
Day and night, sun and rain, over mountains and mesas and vast flat sandy expanses, I walked. 7 days of heat and ever increasing pain, my legs becoming weaker and weaker, skin becoming pale and cold, dark red spots slowly growing on my ankles and wrists. The sun beat down on me, my head spinning as sweat streamed from my forehead onto the sand, legs wobbling underneath me. I’d mumble to myself that I’d have to keep going, I’d have to no matter what. Sunrises and sunsets would blend together in my memory, a smear of orange day and dim evenings across my vision, the stars and the moon leading me onwards across the sky. I came over a hill, and felt a cool breeze drift across my face, a feeling so unfamiliar, but so pleasant and welcome. The ocean stood before me, vast and dark, moonlight sparkling upon the water, waves crashing upon the sand with a soft and distant hush. Tears streamed down my face, I’d made it. I hollered into the sky, pulling my legs into a feverish sprint towards the beach, bounding across rocks and dirt and sand and silt. I called to Tuhavi, shouting that I’d made it, we’d made it, as my feet splashed in the cool, shallow water. My legs buckled underneath me, my body having reached its limit in that final hurrah, content to finally rest. Falling backwards, I grinned widely, feeling the cool water lap around my face. I didn’t feel my organs twisting and wringing, I didn’t feel my head throbbing, I didn’t feel my skin burning. My thoughts swung between joy and pride, all of me and Tuhavi’s ambition satisfied in this moment in time, and my vision faded as I joined my dearest friend as another glittering pinprick in the fabric of the void above.
[back to other stories]