You know when you get there. For miles and miles in every direction, the earth is dead and dusty. Heat pushes against your car and tumbleweeds drift between fields of solar panels and wind farms. But as soon as you cross the border, the arid ground turns to lawn. Flowering bushes and swaying palm trees line the wide paved streets. It’s beautiful and more than a little eerie. Part of you thinks this is an oasis, the other wonders if it’s a mirage.
Jenny moans from the backseat. She holds a CVS bag between her knees and hunches over it.
“How much longer?” she asks.
“Google says ten minutes. You need me to pull over?”
“Let’s just get there.”
Precisely ten minutes later, you pull into the half-circle drive of the Buona Casa Resort. Jenny unfolds herself from the car and vomits her Sprite and crackers on the pavement. Steam rises from the puddle as it sizzles on the sunbaked tar. The feeling of wrongness expands. The air is so hot and so dry that each flower blooming in the hotel’s lush garden looks like a middle finger held up to God.
A bellman helps you with the bags. As you enter the hotel holding Jenny by her arm, you see a gardener appear with a hose and spray the puke away.
There are mountains in the distance. The sun is setting bloodred behind them as you take your seat in the glass-walled dining room. At least this space is right for the desert: smooth clay floors recall the bleached white of sundried bones and displays of tall, sharp cacti punctuate the room. Jenny’s nose wrinkles as she reads the menu.
“I forget, can I eat microgreens? I know I can’t have the brie,” she mumbles, more to herself than to you.
“At this point, does it even matter?” She keeps looking at the menu, but her face takes on a frosty cast that means she’s not interested in having this conversation. You press on. “Jenny, we need to talk about this.”
“There’s nothing to talk about. I’ve made my decision.”
“God damn it, don’t I get a say?”
“I know what you have to say, and it’s not going to make a difference. Now, are you going to ruin this night, or can we try to have a good time? Order a beer. Go nuts.”
Jenny goes to bed after dinner, but you’re kind of drunk and can’t sleep yet. There’s a full moon tonight and you’re feeling jumpy. You put your shoes back on and slip out the patio door. The air is probably 30 degrees cooler than this afternoon. You almost turn around to grab a sweater but change your mind. The chilly air is refreshing in a way that even the pool wasn’t, not with the sun hovering like a molten dime above you. Before you yawns the golf course, moonlight glinting off the well-kept grass. You wander across the links until you find a dimmer place, where a small hill hides you from the bright lights of the resort. You lay down and stare into the night sky, waiting for more stars to pull out of the dark.
“Pardon me,” says a man’s voice from the rough. You sit up, startled. “May I join you?” You peer around the empty course, full of a hundred other places he could sit. But the stranger seems harmless enough, young as he is, and dressed nicely in slacks and a Lacoste knit tee. A Rolex glints on his right wrist.
“Pull up some grass.” You pat the ground at your side, but he walks swiftly to sit in front of you. The mountains spread behind him like dark wings. When you look in his eyes, that’s when the nerves hit you. His pupils are fully dilated, round and black, and he no longer seems so young.
“Hi, Sam. I’ve been waiting for you.”
“How do you know my name?” You couldn’t break eye contact if you wanted to.
“I’ve been waiting for you. I had a feeling you’d wind up here. Most people who suffer do, at one time or another. I like it here. So many terrible old men come to ease their choked arteries and whatnot. Their pain draws them to the desert. What drew you?”
“We just needed a break.”
“Oh, yes, you and the lovely Jenny. Such a firecracker, that one. Were you hoping to change her mind about the baby?”
“How the hell would you know about that?”
“Let’s just assume I know everything. For example, I know they used to call this land God’s Palm. I always found that silly. God has never had much of an interest in this side of the world. Do you want to know what else I know?”
NO, screams a voice in your head. You don’t want to hear anything this stranger has to say. But you hear yourself say “Yes.”
“Your son will be born in terrible pain and no desert will help him. He will live for nine days and eight nights and die as he came in, screaming. Such a waste of life, don’t you think? Not to mention Jenny’s lovely, tight –”
“Please stop,” you moan. He chuckles.
“You won’t change her mind. She’s set on bearing him. And though you’ll pray and pray that it’ll go away on its own, that something will go blessedly wrong, it won’t. She’ll make you suffer through the whole thing.” Tears start rolling down your face. “But what if you had another option?”
“I won’t hurt her.” He throws a hand over his heart in mock outrage. His nails are very long and very pale.
“What do you think this is? Of course, you wouldn’t. I’m here to offer you an alternative. I’m here to offer him back to you.” There is an uncomfortable feeling that the world around you has paused to listen. The wind has stopped blowing, but goosebumps pop up on your arms all the same. “I can make him better. Stronger. It wouldn’t be difficult at all.”
“That’s not for you to know. Tricks of the trade and all that.”
“Why?” He pauses and tilts his head to the moon. It flashes in his eyes.
“I want to put him to use. You can never have enough strapping young men in your service.” He turns his gaze back to you. “He will do great things. The world will tremble at his feet and change around him. But, most importantly to you, and to the darling Jenny, he will live. He will thrive.”
“What do I have to do?” You feel like Jenny in the car, full of a terrible thing and sick with it.
“You just have to let me do it. Let me help him.”
“Ok.” The stranger holds out his hand for you to shake. You know what his skin will feel like before you touch it: slippery and too hot, like a dead rattlesnake baking in the sun. His nails dig into the underside of your palm and you yelp as he draws blood. “It is done. Congratulations on the impending birth of our healthy son, Sam.” He stands and, with a wink, spins and shuffles toward the mountains. You watch him until he fades into darkness, and then you throw up on your shoes.
In the morning, you tell Jenny you had the worst dream. It isn’t until breakfast, when you squeeze a slice of lemon in your water, that you notice the cuts. Three of them, razor thin and stinging along the edge of your right palm.
Twenty weeks later, Lucas is born. There’s an earthquake as he crowns, a slow roller, and you can’t help but remember the stranger’s promise that the world will tremble at his feet. The obstetrician, who has been preparing you for the worst despite improved test results, celebrates him as a miracle.
“Sometimes we get things wrong. I’m so glad this was one of those cases. He’s going to do great things; I just know it.” You’re scared she’s right.
You watch Lucas sleep at night and wonder who he’ll be. As he grows up, you search for any sign that something’s wrong with him. Is he a bully? Does he like to hurt animals? Is he too interested in those first-person shooter games? You don’t think so, but you know from your own childhood that it’s all too easy to hide certain proclivities from overbearing parents. Jenny tells you there’s something wrong with you. You need to put in more of an effort with him. You need to be warmer, kinder, more trusting. Sometimes, you do an okay job pretending. Most of the time you feel like you’re raising a stranger, and he treats you like one, too.
The night before he leaves for Stanford you throw a lavish party, as if to make up for everything else. He watches you coldly when you toast him, a knowing smile on his face. Jenny gets too drunk and cries through her speech.
“Lukey, you’ll never know how scared we were when I was pregnant. We would have done anything for you, you know. Still would. To think that we’d end up here, that you’d be so – so smart, so handsome. I prayed for this the whole time. Thank God.”
God doesn’t care much for this side of the world, you think. Someone once told me that, and I don’t think it was Him.
Lucas majors in Economics and studies Arabic, Russian, and Chinese. Though the implications should scare you, you’re relieved. You were most worried that he’d do something while he was under your thumb, something that would ruin your comfortable, Laguna Beach lives. You never bought a gun because you were terrified that he’d do something with it, or worse, that you would. But now it seems clear that the plans for him have always been bigger and farther away. That’s okay. You can live with that.
When he graduates, Jenny wants to take him back to the Buona Casa Resort.
“I want to redo that trip, but happier,” she says. “It would feel like closing a circle.” The thought feels good as you let it settle. Maybe you can go back to the golf course to find that it looks nothing like your memory, and finally convince yourself you dreamed the whole thing.
Maybe you can renegotiate.
The cacti in the dining room are the same, just bigger and spikier. Jenny eats the microgreen salad. In bed, she snores as you toss and turn. It doesn’t come as a surprise when the door to the patio squeaks open. You watch from the window as Lucas strolls across the golf course. There’s no moon and he fades from sight quickly. For long minutes you pace back and forth in the living room, unsure of what to do, remembering the stranger’s black eyes and the blood on your palms. Finally, you can’t stand it. You yank open the patio door and sprint barefoot into the night.
You reach him just too late. From a hole away, you see him shake hands with a shadow and you watch the shadow recede into the mountains. The night is mild, but Lucas’ face is red when you reach him. He’s grinning madly.
“Who was that?” you ask, panting, hearing panic in your voice.
“Just an old man who needed directions.”
“What did he want?”
“Directions.” He smirks at you. “What, am I not allowed to talk to strangers?”
“Whatever he offered you, don’t take it. Don’t do it.” Lucas walks away from you, in the direction of the resort.
“Dad, you sound crazy. Let’s go to sleep, okay?”
“Show me your hands! Show me your palm!” You reach for his right hand. He jerks away and starts to walk back to the resort.
“Jesus, Dad, chill out! What’s wrong with you?”
“I know what you are,” you scream at his back. “I know the deal you just made.”
Every year the world gets crazier. Bombs go off. Militant groups gather and disband, following banners and prophets and promises that don’t come true. War machines belch their way across faraway sands and men water the earth with their blood. Jenny worries about Lucas, somewhere out in the Middle East on another one of his ‘consulting’ trips. You stop watching the news and tell her to do the same.
When her Rheumatoid Arthritis gets bad, the doctor recommends she move somewhere dry and hot.
“We always liked Palm Springs, didn’t we?” she asks one night, scrolling through Zillow on her phone. “You know, the Spanish used to call it the Palm of God’s Hand. Isn’t that beautiful?” You argue for Arizona, but she has her heart set, and you were never much good at arguing with her.
On one of his visits, Lucas comes into the den and turns up the volume of the basketball game you’re watching. He kneels by your armchair and mutters in your ear.
“Dad, are you prepared for a disaster?”
“What?” You can barely hear him over the commentators’ laughter.
“Do you have a bug-out plan? Canned goods? Iodine pills?” You turn to really look at him for the first time since he arrived. He’s thin and nervy. “Please don’t worry Mom, but think about stocking up.”
“Iodine pills?” you repeat.
“You should be preparing for a nuclear event,” he whispers. “And you should never tell anyone I said this.”
Some nights, while you’re waiting for the bomb to fall, you drive out to the golf course. You tell yourself you’re just there to stargaze, but you’re a liar. He doesn’t appear to you again.
Very well written. Keep up the good work!
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab
Original narrative & well developed characters
Zero grammar & spelling mistakes