NOP: Ezra Peaks
FILE: No. 16
DOF: 14/ 12 / 78
The skies in Cliff’s Peak Reservation were the most beautifully unappreciated memory I have of my old home. If I close my eyes now, I can still see the deep violet waves passing over the top of the Silverwood Mountains, blending into a light green as it touched the baby yellow of late evenings. Thin clouds like stretched cotton balls would turn rosy in preparation for the approaching night.
Do you know that feeling—the one where, if you catch a whiff of a familiar scent carried along a passing breeze, your mind sends you back in time, and suddenly you’re thinking of late night scavenges of cold Mac n’ cheese from the fridge when you were barely 12 years old? That has been happening to me more often lately. It’s probably what prompted me to write this. (I am still having doubts about whether or not this is a good idea. According to Dr.Z, writing what has haunted me for years will help with my own sanity. On paper, it’s a good idea. And it might possibly work and ease my fears. But here I am, doubting still.)
When I catch that familiar scent, I am brought back to those late summer evenings, watching the yellow sky bruise with that violet and sea-green wave, lighting the thin puffs of clouds to look like cotton-candy. I recall sitting beside Jordan on our wooden porch, holding warm cans of soda, our bellies full of Gran-Nani’s stew.
Although I am writing this for the intent of my eyes only, I feel it is necessary to explain my family dynamic. I lived with my grandparents and my brother Jordan. As I have stated before, we lived in one of the many Reservations that were built in accordance with the Priority No. 1–Housing Act of ‘36.
I remember attempting to pry information out of my Gran-Nani about my mother, but she would usually shut down and busy herself further with housework. And I couldn’t ask my grandfather anything—he was practically another part attached to our box Tv. The same channel played all throughout the day and night—Jordan would joke that he didn’t show a sign of life unless it was to use the restroom or eat. It was a cruel joke, but it bitterly summed up my relationship with my grandfather. (Jordan would also joke about the Tv remote itself and how it was hardly touched).
Cliff’s Peak was located in the middle of Arizona, and was neighboring towns with ‘Jack’ and ‘Squat’. Its attractions included: desert mountains, desert cacti, desert, and a side of (you guessed it!) more desert. To say we were centered in the epitome of nowhere was very accurate. This Reservation was set in a valley of cacti-speckled mountains. Picket Valley, my valley, was a bit odd, looking back on it, but I didn’t think much of it at the time. The valley was more of a giant pit than anything, and the roads spiraled thinly along the sides in a huge circle. Each clay house they put us in was a different color—ours was a baby pink—and the building itself had four rooms inside. Three bedrooms, one bathroom, one kitchen/living/dining room. The Gate Keepers were kind enough to give us a porch and a small front yard.
I remember I would walk the edge of the un-gated dirt roads to get to Jaime’s house, and would peer downwards. It seemed like a steep drop to me—I was 5ft and weighed nearly 100 pounds at the time—but if I had fallen, I would have only broken a bone.
Jordan was in a spitting match one time, over what I can’t remember, and was pushed over the side. I remember someone screaming—whether it was me or the other kid, I don’t know. I can still see him rolling down the gradually sloping dirt hill onto the road below, crashing through patches of prickly-pear cacti. Luckily he only twisted his ankle, although he looked like a porcupine.
Another odd thing about Cliff’s Peak was the laboratory set at the very bottom of the valley. It was the only thing gated off, besides the actual entryway into Picket Valley. For years I hadn’t thought much of the overseeing, bone-white fortress guarded by armed men. It was as commonplace as the mountains themselves. Every week, however, men in coats and goggles would drive out in their white carts and do inspections on each family. ‘Checking for illnesses’ was what they would say, but I know now that was far from the truth.
When I think back on those long, drawn-out evenings, drinking lukewarm, flat sodas from cans on my porch with Jordan, watching night overtake day, something my brother had said always comes to mind. It had been a particularly hot day, and we sat on the steps of our washed-white porch, shirts off, enjoying the breeze that came with the evening. Dinner was running late, and I could hear my grandfather’s television drifting through the open window. “Oh, Donny, you lucky bastard!” Laugh track. “You’ve done it again!” It was a woman’s voice. The clanking of pots and spoons mixed with it as my Gran-Nani prepared the evening stew. It smelled of beef and gravy.
Sweat dripped down my back and I took another sip, tapping my worn sneakers on the step to make a hollow echo. Jordan was beside me, his chin resting on his knuckles. Auburn and violet reflected in his thoughtful gaze. He was just beginning to become a teenager, and the light fuzz on his upper lip showed that. He had always had tanner skin than me, although we spent the same amount of time beneath the desert sun. His black eyebrows knit together and he looked at me with that trade-mark questioning gaze. “Ez, what do you see yourself doing? Like, in the future?”
I watched the cotton-candy clouds begin to purple. “I dunno. I think I still gotta get Jaime back for that bad curveball he thrown at me. Wanna help me plan my revenge?”
“That’s not what I meant.” He positioned himself so that his back was pressed against the stairwell. “I mean, when we’re older.”
I tore my gaze from the sky and met his. This question confused my younger self. An average response would be: going to college, getting a degree, a job, a nice woman, and settling with a family. That’s what is expected of children to say, right? Well, the thought of that future never even occurred to me. The Reservation was your future. For us, we were fourth generation in Cliff’s Peak, and we were still considered the “new family”. You must understand, education there was optional. If your parents wanted to teach you math, they could dig up some old textbooks—they only went up to middle school level—and teach you. But most didn’t, because they themselves were never taught. Why would you need to know how addition and subtraction worked, much less what a chemical was? It wasn’t necessary. The men in white coats would drop off boxes every week, giving each family their supplies—new clothes (if requested) and a set of packaged ingredients. All we needed to know was how to dress ourselves, turn on the television, and cook. Everyone ate the same meals and watched the same channels. And everyone was content, because what else was there in life? And everyone silently agreed.
Except for Jordan, that was. He was the oddball of our odd valley, and everyone knew it. He asked ‘why’ and ‘how’, when the answer was obvious: because it simply is. He figured out very quickly that he was different, and his questioning mind became an insecurity. It was difficult to hold his thoughts back, like trying to hold back the world’s largest shit. He would crack eventually, and was always given the same, irritated reply: “because it is.”
That night, when he asked me about a future, I simply did not understand him.
Jordan looked around, making sure no one was sitting on the porch of the blue house neighboring us, and leaned forward. I remember his dark eyes seeming dead serious, and almost anxious. “When we get older, would you want to leave Cliff’s Peak? With me?”
My brother has said a lot of crazy things to me, things that come to him and he can’t tell anyone else or they’d smack him over the head, like ‘why does the sun come up?’ ‘How do stars get their light?’ ‘Why can you mix those ingredients and get that?’ ‘How did they make these houses?’ ‘How do you think the Coats ride those cart-things?’ And so forth. All of which he had never received an answer. But this was by far the craziest smack in the face I had ever heard come out of his mouth.
“Jordan…?” Was all I could say in my shocked state.
“Well, I was just thinkin’,” he continued quickly, “you see what Gran-Da watches day and night? Those people are real, I think, I think they live somewhere nice, with homes as big as the lab down there. I think there’s another place, one that isn’t like Cliff’s Peak—or maybe one that’s just bigger and better—and I think we can get there. I think it exists. It has to. Otherwise, how could it get inside our tele? I think we can go there, one day, and I think….I think…” He trailed off when he realized most of what he was saying was going right over my head.
After my young mind picked out the only detail I could understand, which was the word “leave”—and I was still struggling with that—I slowly said, “Jordan, we can’t leave. I don’t think they’ll let us.”
Jordan frowned at that, and he opened his mouth twice, but shut it. It was silent for a while. I twisted the ring piece thing around the mouth of my soda can until it came off. I shoved it in my pocket to place in my collection later, and finished off the rest of the soda. The violet was overtaking the yellow now, and shadows began to curve around my brother’s facial features. Gran-Da’s show was still playing—I could hear the laugh track—and Nani was still cooking. I wouldn’t go inside until Jordan was ready. It was an unspoken rule.
“They have to.” Jordan said, finally. “They have to let us leave. They let our parents leave, right?”
I shrugged my shoulders. I knew the least about our parents, between the two of us. Not even their names. And I wasn’t curious about them. They weren’t here, so why should I care?
“They have to let us leave.” Jordan repeated, less convincingly this time, and softer too. “They have to.”
Looking back on it, I think that is where everything started to go wrong. It was the line of questioning, the curiosity and persistence of his nature that led to what happened. Sometimes, when I fall into a black hole of memories as I do now, I start to think...I start to think that maybe no matter what he did, he was always going to have the same ending. From birth, his fate was sealed. It’s these thoughts that keep me tossing and turning at night—it’s these that bite at me day in and day out. Was there nothing I could have changed? Nothing I could have done?
When I smell a distant beef stew on the wind, or the coming of rain, or hear the crackle of television, I am dragged back to Cliff’s Peak. For the sake of my own sanity, as Dr.Z says, I will write this letter or memoir or whatever this is supposed to be. But nothing will change. I don’t think anything ever will.
There was a point where Jordan was fixated on the sky, and, more accurately, what was in it. Stars, clouds, colors—whatever he caught a glimpse of. It scared me shitless when, after admiring the sun through squinted eyes one day, he claimed he was blind. His hysteria was contagious, and so were his tears. I had run around like a headless chicken until I crashed into one of the white-coat men who had just left the house for an inspection.
I remember their cold grip on my bony shoulders as they gave me a good shake, demanding, “what’s wrong with you, boy?” His sharp voice momentarily shocked me out of my panic. “My brother! He’s—he’s—he can’t see no more!”
Those crystal eyes, stuck in a face of equally pale and smooth skin, looked over the top of my head. With one talon still gripped deeply into my shoulder, he led me to where my brother was only softly sobbing now, curled in a ball in the brown dirt.
This memory, I think, is a good comparison between us and them. I look at this image of my sun-tanned brother, kicking up dust clouds around him, his tears sending trails down his dirt-covered cheeks and compare it to them. Their stiff coats, criticizing gazes, and gelled hair. Their mannerly gait. They were not us. And we were not them.
Although my brother was the one having a fit on the ground, my eyes were on the white-coat. The yellow sun broke through his thinning hair, and cast crooked shadows down the side of his too-sharp facial features. He watched—no, inspected—Jordan. It reminded me of the look Jordan had whenever he collected a jar of rolly-pollys to see what they would do. A thought came to me, one that was more common in my brother: maybe we were bugs to him.
Finally, the white-coat spoke: “I heard you’ve gone blind, boy. Tell me, what exactly did you do?”
Jordan’s head tilted up at the unfamiliar voice, his eyes squeezed tightly shut. “The sun burned me!”
“That’s what the sun does, unfortunately. Although, it is quite a common occurrence here in our small valley.”
“No, it got him in the eyes.” I said, feeling a trail of sweat drip between my shoulder blades. Why did I feel as if I were in trouble? The white-coat was here to help after all. Or, at least I thought so. An old, buried instinct made me weary.
“Ah.” The white-coat released his grip on me, scooped up the ends of his jacket to one side, and squatted down beside my brother. Hooked on his belt were a set of keys, binoculars, and something else. I didn’t know what it was then, but I know now it was a .45 Auto.
“Has no one told you that it’s impolite to stare at the sun?” He asked, slowly, in a way I believe he thought was the correct way to talk to a child.
“Not the proper thing to do. Like talking back to your mother, or not cleaning up after yourself. The sun doesn’t take very well to nosy children, and stings them as a warning to not be impolite. Do you understand this?”
“I’m sorry! I didn’t know!” Jordan’s voice cracked on the edge of hysteria again.
The white-coat made a grimacing face, as if he had taken a drink out of spoiled milk. “That’s alright. It was only a warning, just a sting, like I said. If you open your eyes now, you will be able to see again.”
At this I jerked my head.
“Really?” Jordan asked, his voice soft but hopeful.
“Really.” The white-coat repeated, and nodded briskly, almost in an automatic way. His movements, I realized, were so clean. Even the way he had squatted next to my brother was in one motion, without a stumble or having to catch himself.
With a few huffs to gather his confidence, my brother opened one eye. He probably felt a whole load of relief to see the nice white-coat and I after being blind for three minutes.
“Better now, right?” The man stood to his feet. “You gave your brother a scare.”
I moved past the white-coat—making sure not to accidentally touch him because it would be a shame if his pristine clothes got dirtied by a dumb little boy—and helped Jordan to his feet.
One of those white carts rode down from our neighbor’s house and stopped beside us. “Ellis! Are you done with in-spect?” The driver was a bulkier man, with a red bald spot and too-small spectacles sitting on his even redder nose.
“I am.” The white-coat smiled thinly. “Are you offering a ride?”
“Usually I am not a charity man, but today I’m feeling up for charity. Only because I’m going to knock you from your throne tonight.”
White-coat Ellis raised a light eyebrow. “After four years of being champ, you think tonight will be any different?”
“I do. There’s the smell of change on the wind, I know it. The tides are shifting! Shifting, I tell you!”
Ellis rolled his crystal eyes and glanced at my brother and I, both completely lost in the conversation. He gave us a small nod before joining his friend in the cart-thing. They drove off, following in the tracks of the carts before them.
After that, we went inside and washed off our faces and hands for lunch. It took me a full five minutes to forget Jordan’s ordeal, the nice white-coat, and the possibility of having to take care of a blind sibling. I was in my room with the door and window open, lying on the floor beside my fan. My grandfather’s tv droned on in the back of my mind. I was flipping through an old magazine I had found in Gran-Nani’s nightstand, occasionally marking faces on the people’s faces with a sharpie. One lady had a goatee, rings under her eyes, and an armful of doodles. I had to hold down one of the pages as I colored, though, because my fan kept trying to turn them. It was really only warm air coming from the old thing, but it felt refreshing. I sniffed hard and turned the page. My next victim was a man with rippling muscles and light eyes. A thought tickled the back of my mind—eyes like white-coat Ellis’—but it was kept firmly in my subconscious.
“Hey, Ez,” Jordan said from my open doorway, his dark eyes blank. “Are you busy? Okay, good.” He shut my door without waiting for a response.
“If Gran-Nani asks, I don’t know where her mag is.” I said without looking up. I was deciding on whether to give my 2D victim a wicked chest tattoo or a mustache when Jordan sat in front of me.
“I really thought my eyes were gone today, Ez. I was really scared.”
Jordan crossed his jean-legs, the bottom of his sneakers coated in years of dirt and mud. They hardly fit him anymore, and he complained about their tightness often. Their original color—white—was gone. “I was so glad that I can still see, that I didn’t wonder why they were burned in the first place. Sure, skin burns. It turns red and then it turns dark. But it only gets burned if you’re outside all day. I just looked up for a minute or so. How did they burn? Then, I gave them a good look-over in the bathroom and they weren’t red like what skin gets. Were they even burned? Do eyes even get burns? Why couldn’t I see then, and why did I have some green light stuck in them for a while?”
“Dunno. Ask Gran-Nani.” I said absentmindedly, putting the last touches on the chest tattoo.
“Nah, she don’t know shit.” Jordan grumbled and put his hands on his knees.
“Gran-Nani knows shit. Just not a lot of shit.” I capped my sharpie. “When’s lunch coming anyway? I’m hungry.”
Jordan shrugged, his dark eyes looking at what I had made. He spun the magazine around and went through the pages I had drawn on, chuckling amusedly at my work. I got to my knees and pointed out the goatee on the lady, which resulted in Jordan going into a snorting fit.
“You’re not too bad at this.” Jordan said, sniffling and wiping his eyes. “They’re good. Gran-Nani wouldn’t think so, not with what you did it on, but they’re good.”
“It’s just jokes.” I shrugged away his compliments, but secretly internalized them, putting them on the shelf next to my pretend awards.
“Hell, if that’s your jokes, I’d like to see your serious.” Jordan patted me and then used my shoulder to help him stand. His weight didn’t bother me too much. Although he was older and taller than me, we had similar weights.
After helping me to my feet, he jabbed a long finger in front of my nose. “Ezra! I challenge you to a battle! One that will be remembered for years ahead of us! An awesome test of strength and survival! Do you, Ezra, take up the challenge?”
“Hell yah!” I snatched my hand-made, wooden spear that leaned in the corner. I nearly knocked over my square fan trying to get it.
“Meet me outside, and our battle will start!” Jordan called as he raced across the hall to his room.
My “spear” was pale, and had all sorts of nooks and scratches where it had been hit. The bottom was caked with old mud from when we would hike the Silverwood Mountains with Jaime. I ran out of my room and nearly collided with Gran-Nani who was setting up the table.
“Ay!” A frown wrinkled her brown forehead, and she shook a bony finger at me. Her long, lamb white hair was pinned into a ponytail and her egg-shell apron had years worth of food stains on it. “I told you to keep those outside. Afuera.”
Before I could respond, I saw Jordan come out of his room with a taller hand-made spear. I let out a yell of excitement and raced out of the clay house, my Gran-Nani’s voice growing louder when Jordan passed her.
Later that evening we were both in a fair amount of trouble, and our wrists stung from her legendary “ruler slap” as we ate dinner. I dipped my crumbly, torn piece of bread into my bowl, taking on an air of solemnity. Jordan did the same, trying his hardest to look apologetic, but I was the better actor. We figured out long ago that if we didn’t look sorry, there would be a hell of a lot more pain than a wrist slap.
As I took a bite out of my now soggy bread, Jordan met my gaze and forced down a smile. I never understood why, but there was something so damn funny about being in trouble, and having to eat beside the person you’d made angry. Gran-Nani had set up our grandfather at the head of the table, where he seemed to move in slow motion. I remember thinking of all the things I’d give just to have a remote that controlled him.
As my Gran-Nani tossed aside her apron and huffed down at the other end of our small table, I quickly removed my eyes from Jordan and focused on being sad again.
“Jordan,” Gran-Nani said as she lifted her spoon. I had to bite the corners of my cheeks to keep from smiling as he looked up pitifully. Nani’s stare was a hard one to hold, harder than any white-coat’s. “I put in an order for a new pair of shoes when the inspections came. They should be here next week.”
He nodded and returned to sipping at spoonfuls of soup. I kept my eyes down, the thumbnail of my empty hand scratching the soft, old paint on the table’s edge. My hunched grandfather made a long slurping sound as he took his first bite. His beady eyes were narrowed in concentration and slightly cross eyed as he focused on what was in front of him. Thin strands of his white hair trembled. As he blew on his spoonful too harshly, it dribbled down into his bowl. Not noticing, his wrinkled lips wrapped over the empty silverware.
I caught Jordan’s eye and let out a loud, amused snort. I felt my Nani’s eyes pierce the side of my face like pins and quickly covered it up as a sneeze. Everything was funny when you were in trouble.
“Nani,” Jordan spoke, then. He waited until she was staring at him. “Why do eyes hurt when you look at the sun?”
“Why were you looking at it?” Nani wasn’t one to admit what she didn’t know or understand. She usually evaded such questions by asking her own. Both Jordan and I understood this, but he pressed on anyway.
“Skin burns, so I thought maybe eyes do too, but mine aren’t red, you see, and—”
“Just eat.” Nani grumbled, rubbing her temple with two fingers as she often did when she had her migraines. That shut Jordan up, at least for the rest of dinner.
Since it was my turn to wash dishes, Jordan helped dry them. I wouldn’t do the same for him, when it was his turn. Our grandfather was still eating, which annoyed me since he always finished once I had cleaned everything in the sink.
I was letting my mind wander, thinking of Jaime and if he wanted to hike the mountains tomorrow morning, when Jordan’s voice snapped me out of it.
“Nani, I talked to one of the white-coats today.” There was a tension in his otherwise casual voice, something only I could pick up.
There was an equally tense silence as a response. This time, everyone could feel it. “What did you say to him?”
I always thought this was a weird question. Even then, when I barely had any thoughts at all about the world around me. It was mostly her tone of voice, rather than her actual words, although they were bothersome as well. When I first heard it, I assumed she was tired and irritable with the day’s events and her migraine, but it was more than that. It was a touch of fear. Then, her words, ‘what did you say to him’. What could any child say to an adult that would be worrisome? Maybe it was because she knew Jordan had a loud mouth and was unaware of what came out of it, but it wasn’t like he knew anything anyway. I certainly didn’t.
“I dunno.” Jordan’s voice was slow and cautious. “But I was thinking about him a lot today.”
I heard Nani shuffle around the table uneasily, and then stop in place. “Don’t talk to them no more, understand?”
I couldn’t see him, but I knew Jordan was frowning. I cleaned off a spoon with desert warm water as I waited for him to respond. My nose wrinkled at a bobbing cube of potato in the sink.
“He was nice.” Jordan finally said.
Nani placed my grandfather’s empty bowl and spoon in the water filled sink, reaching around me. I could smell the herbs she used that day. She wore it like a perfume.
“Stay away from them in the future.” Gran-Nani’s voice was low and commanding. “Not all of them are nice.”
Later, Jordan and I were in my room again, both of us sitting on my bed in thin shirts and shorts—white-coats’ idea of pajamas. My faded green shirt hung loosely on me, although I’ve had it for years, and the same with my brother’s blue shirt.
Other than the droning of the tv, there was the hum of my fan in the corner as well. A light wind came in through the still-open window, stirring my no.2 pencils on my desk. My back was pressed against the wall, and I sat at the head of my bed. Jordan was flipping through some drawings I had doodled in an old notebook, his eyes squinting in the dying sunlight.
Nani poked her head in, “Jordan, remember to get in your own bed before the sun goes down.” When she received an absent-minded nod from him, she wished them goodnight.
I waved without looking up and listened to her disappearing footsteps. When her door shut down the hall, Jordan threw his thin legs over my bed and crossed my room. When the door was shut, he turned back to me. “Okay, did you see how Nani acted earlier?”
I looked up from the magazine, completely unaware of what he was talking about. “Huh?”
Jordan started to pace. “When I told her about the white-coat. She got real weird.”
It took me a decent amount of time to recall the conversation. “Oh.”
“I know she doesn’t want us talking to them, and that’s fine, she’s just protective is all. But he did seem nice, didn’t he?”
“Jordan, just say what you gotta say.” I grew tired of the ‘guess what’ game.
“I was just thinkin’,” (those fateful four words again) “I bet’cha the whole valley feels that way towards white-coats. Hell, I still do. They bother the shit out of me, with their fancy walks and talks and shit. But if that one guy isn’t so bad, then what’s there to be scared of?”
This, again, seemed mind-numbingly obvious to me. “Because we’re us and they’re them.”
Jordan’s eyebrows knit together. When he began pacing again, I continued my doodling. Chest-tattoo man with the sharp eyes now had a hat. I lifted the sharpie and stared at my work. You’re one cool bastard, I remember thinking.
Shadows were deepening in my room, and I didn’t realize it until I noticed how close my face was to the magazine. Once I disconnected myself from that alternate drawing reality, I felt all the aches and pains that came with real reality. My back muscles and spine were tight and sore from the position I was in for however long I was drawing. I capped my sharpie and tossed it onto my desk before hiding the magazine under my flat pillow.
When I laid down to stretch out my back, Jordan stopped in the middle of my room again. “Well, maybe that’s just it.” He said softly. It was hard to see his face now.
“What’s what it?”
“We’re us and they’re them. Maybe that’s the problem.” Jordan came and sat on my bed, looking at me intensely. “What if I talked to him again?”
“Jordan, why can’t you just drop shit?” I snapped irritably, feeling a twinge in my shoulder muscles. “Nani doesn’t want you talking to them, so don’t. Why are you suddenly interested in them, anyway?”
There was a small silence, and then finally a small answer. “I don’t know.” Jordan sounded defeated. He placed his hands on his knees and stared off for a moment. He opened his mouth, shut it twice. He gestured generally with his hands, like he was trying to grasp something in the air. “It’s like...it’s like there’s an answer to one—or maybe all—of my questions, right in front of me. And when we talked to that white-coat, I could feel the beginning of that answer.”
I remember him looking helpless in that moment, shoulders hunched, head lowered, hands between his knees. My first bright thought occurred to me then: his whole life he had been asking questions, and he found a potential way to get those answers. I didn’t understand how he would find them by talking to some weird white-coat, but if that’s what it would take…
“His name was Ellis.” I said.
Jordan raised his head.
“If you wanna get in trouble, I guess I won’t let you do it on your own. I can handle more of Gran-Nani’s famous ‘ruler slaps’.”
“You’re awesome, Ez. A bitch at ‘spear battles’, but awesome nonetheless.”
“Shut up and let me sleep, now.” There was a sharp pain in my arm as he punched me. I took a swing but only managed to hit thin air.
Laughing, he hurriedly opened my door and stepped into the hall.
“And you’re the bitch!” I called as he retreated into his room. Only laughter responded, and if Gran-Nani had heard me, I would’ve soon heard her response as well.
Luckily, she didn’t.
Jaime’s house was far down the road, so Jordan and I would often stick to the sides of the spiraling dirt path. Every time we made this trek, other residents of our valley would greet us, especially the younger ones. There was a sweet older lady that we called our “other Nani” who would always have a treat for us when we came by. So, while Jordan stopped to join a group of kids’ soccer game—there were no exact rules to it, you could pick it up with your hands, kick it, whatever you wanted—I climbed up the creaky porch steps of a turquoise clay home and knocked on the doorframe.
Since the door was already opened, so that they could keep an eye on the children playing outside, I could see our Other Nani rolling dough in the kitchen while talking to her daughter. They were very similar, especially when they were wearing aprons. Their dark hair was pulled into a high bun, but strands fell loose, and their gray eyes were as kind as ever.
“—they know?” Other Nani’s daughter asked softly. It was loud enough for me to catch.
“No, mija, they don’t. If anything…” Other Nani’s voice lowered to a whisper.
I waited for as long as my thin patience would allow, before I knocked again, harder. They jumped and turned their gazes to me, wide-eyed. The way they looked, as if they had been caught with a jar of bugs in the house, reminded me of the night before. Of the way Gran-Nani had spoken. It was the same spark of fear.
They relaxed as soon as they recognized me. Other Nani’s shoulders dropped to their usual position, and she placed on a warm smile. “Ezrito, I didn’t see you there.”
“Hi, Jordan I and were just going past—”
“Ven acá, I have just the thing for you two.”
Grinning, I made my way over to where Other Nani’s daughter stood behind the kitchen counter. My head poked right above the surface, so that I could rest my chin on the counter if I had wanted to. From here, I could smell toasted apples and sugar, the warmth of the oven washing over my face.
“Are you two going to Jaime’s?” Other Nani asked as she opened a paper bag with a crinkle.
“Yuh.” I said, nodding. I admired the flattened dough and bowl of apples mixed with sugar in front of me, and the rack behind her. She packed three empinadas into the paper bag, folded the top, and held it out to me. “Remember to keep it sealed until you’re going to eat it. It keeps its warmth that way.”
“I will.” I grinned and took it from her, then raced out the door to show Jordan.
It wasn’t until years later that I realized I should have thanked my Other Nani for her constant kindness towards us. She was a part of my life as much as my best friend Jaime was. But I’ve let a bit of that guilt go. She knew I was grateful for her and her treats, just like she knew that little boys were a thankless bunch.
When I had collected Jordan and we were walking down the path again, we chatted idly about whatever came to mind. Then he would do his questioning again, this time about the empinadas. I hardly listened to him. Well, to be fair, I never really listened to him. It was a useful skill I learned on my own for the sake of my sanity.
Because it was still morning, it was relatively cool. The sky was a baby pink and blue, with thin cotton clouds. A cool breeze brushed through us, carrying swirling dust with it. Thumbleweeds rolled down the sides of the roads onto those below it. A cactus wren was perched onto an arm on a cactus, tilting its soft head.
Jaime’s father, Sr. Jaime Jr., was sitting on the porch steps, his faded cap twisted backwards. Curly black locks poked out from his cap and tumbled behind his ears. His eyes were small and slightly close together, and he kept his tan face clean shaven. Between his jean legs—one had a hole in the knee—was a cardboard box. He was cutting it with a pair of large scissors, his eyebrows knit together in frustration.
“Hi, Sr. Junior.” Jordan called, waving.
Jaime’s father looked up at his name—the whole valley called him Junior, although we added the ‘Señor’—and smiled. He stood up and placed his scissors in his belt. “Hey, guys. You here for Jaime?”
“Yup.” Jordan grinned. “What’re you working on, Sr.?”
“I’m trying to make a house out of this box for little Ezzie.” Besides Jaime, he had a young daughter named Esmeralda. She was too young to come along on our hikes, and not many of the other kids wanted to play with her. The ones her age were mostly boys anyway. Unfortunately, Junior’s wife passed away shortly after having Esmeralda and he needed the help of the valley mothers to raise her.
“She’s been painting a lot.” Sr. Junior said, rubbing sweat off his forehead. “She wants to paint a house, now. Guess she got bored of her coloring books.” He was mostly talking to himself now, his eyes trailing to the open box.
“She’ll like whatever you give her.” Jordan’s voice broke him out of his thoughts. Junior gave him a grin, “she will.”
Jordan was good in those situations, I think. He was able to read people fairly well, and knew what to say somehow. But he was especially good with Junior. I let Jordan do the heavy-lifting when it came to talking with Jaime’s father.
Junior poked his head through the open doorway and shouted out Jaime’s name. There was a brief moment of quiet, and then the sound of running footsteps. A head full of curls popped out of the house, and Jaime flashed a wild grin. He was basically a smaller clone of his father, but with large eyes and his two front teeth missing.
I ran to meet Jaime and we met in front of the porch, going through our twelve step handshake. When we had the last few motions down, we laughed and gave each other a hearty slap on the back.
“Where’s Ezzie?” Jordan asked, a light smile on his face.
“Loli’s place.” Jaime and Junior spoke simultaneously and then flashed each other a grin.
Jaime leapt at the paper bag I had given to Jordan for safekeeping. “What’d you bring me? Huh? Huh?”
My brother easily held it out of his reach. “We can have the empinadas when we get to the peak.”
“Ooo, what kind?” Junior looked over curiously.
“Apple.” Jordan replied as he held back Jaime with his free hand. “We’ll be back before sundown, Sr.”
“I know.” Junior waved distantly and sat himself down on the porch steps once more. While we started on our way again, talking loudly over one another and occasionally shoving, Sr. Junior was left to puzzle over how he could make a box into a house.
The sun was finally starting to show some strength when we started up the trail. I would occasionally stop to kick over a rock covered in red moss or peak into a snakehole while the other two climbed up the gradually ascending path. It was a decent trail, but there were many juts of rocks you had to climb over and gravel that would give way if you stepped on it wrong. If you looked real hard, you might catch a rabbit or a snake in the dead undergrowth.
There are many defining traits of Picket Valley I could list off, but I think it’s better to describe them as I write this. These hiking days, for me, are some of the memories I can say are distinct to Cliff’s Peak. Of course anyone would say this trail is similar to many others throughout Arizona, but the Silverwood Mountains were my trail. Once you got high enough, you came across acres of dead trees, all gray and splintering. Gaping holes lined their thin trunks—because if there were ever a tree to naturally grow in Arizona, it would be thin—where small desert birds could nest in. It was a dead forest, filled with sharp branches, unfriendly animals, and sharp rocks—but it was awesome, at least to me.
“Jaime, look at this.” I called, squatting beside an anthill. Tiny black dots crawled over one another, and trailed onto nearby branches. When he didn’t hear me the first time, I yelled to him again, louder.
Jaime came over to me, stumbling over a stone jutting from the ground. Huffing, he squatted beside me with a short stick in his hands. It probably was covered in ants too, but he didn’t notice. “I hate these damn things. They’re all over my room and shit.” He growled, jabbing the end of his ash-gray stick into the hill. Those black dots exploded everywhere, and some even raced up his hand. With a high pitched squeal, he drew backwards and scrambled to his feet, shaking his hand wildly.
I fell backwards in a fit of laughter, landing on a jagged stone. Jaime had accidentally ran into Jordan. When my brother realized what Jaime was freaking out about, he grabbed onto his ant infested arm and began slapping it roughly.
I pulled myself to my feet, one hand rubbing my sore backside. I was still laughing by the time Jaime got all the black dots off him. His arm was a bright red now, from both bites and slaps. It took awhile for us to calm down after that, but we eventually did, and fell into a light conversation.
At one point I thought I saw a coyote in the underbrush a few yards away, and hushed my fellow hikers to reluctant silence.
“Where’d you see it?” Jaime whispered excitedly.
“Shut up for a moment.” I snapped back, my eyes skimming the dipping curve of the mountains, filled with gray trees and faded green rain bushes.
“I still can’t see it.”
“I said shut up.”
I was squinting, my eyes flicking to any movement below us. Jordan made a triumphant huffing sound, moved between us, and pointed. “There. See those two trees that look like they’re huggin? It’s there.”
Jaime made the same huffing noise. “Oh! I see it! I see it! Do you see it, Ez? It’s there.”
I squinted even harder, but couldn’t see anything but the sharp glare of the sun.
“It’s there, Ez.” Jaime repeated, pointing in the same direction Jordan had.
Frustrated with not being able to see the small canine and irritated with Jaime’s persistence, I feigned one of their huffs and said, “oh, I see it now. Yeah, there it is.”
“Coyotes sure are cool. One got into my house one time, did I tell you that?” (Jaime pronounced it as “K-eye-oat” instead of “K-eye-oat-tee” which only added onto my irritation).
“What did Junior do?” Jordan asked as we started walking again. He had collected an assortment of pale rocks, ranging from pink to blue. With his shirt, he made a make-shift kangaroo pouch and was carrying his collection there.
“Well, we first thought it was a squirrel in the kitchen or somethin’ but Da said, ‘that don’t sound like no damn squirrel’. So he went down the hallway with a broom. I heard a loud growl and then my Da was chasing that coyote around the kitchen and out the door.” Jaime retold the story, his round eyes gleaming with pride.
Feeling traces of annoyance, I said, “My Gran-Nani would’ve killed it if it was in my house and then served it for dinner.”
I saw Jordan stoop and pick something up out of the corner of my eye, but I was more focused on Jaime’s annoyed face.
We probably argued for a little more, but I can’t recall the intricacies of it. Jaime and I would argue a lot about stupid stuff back then, and they all kind of blend together when I think of him. A lot about him blends together, actually. I remember his curly hair, his eyes, and his two missing teeth, but when I try to picture exactly what his face looks like...it’s blank, really. These last few months, before I agreed to write, I was really bothered about this. Jaime was my closest friend, besides Jordan. I was with him almost as often, too. Maybe after all these years of trying to forget both of them, I nearly did. I’m guilty of forgetting, as much as I am of what happened then.
At the peak of the mountain, there was a collection of uneven, black boulders that were splashed with green and orange moss. In the center were three flat ones, the one in the middle higher than the other two. Jordan took his place in the center, like usual, and we followed him to our own. When we were all seated, Jordan passed out the still warm empinadas and, for the first time during our hike, we were silent.
I’ve tried empinadas since then, and I can tell you that I’ve never had anything better than my Other Nani’s. The apple slices were already sweet, but the golden sugar and dough melted onto your tongue. It was soft and soothing, just like her.
When Jaime finished his, he tried stealing the rest of mine and I’m sure we had a fight. A bit of that day is fuzzy in my mind, but I do remember what Jordan said after a little while.
“Jaime, what do you think about those white-coats?” The question itself was off topic, but he said it in a way that was casual. Although, it reminded me of our discussion the night before.
Jaime was squinting at the sky to see what time it was. He turned when he heard his name and blinked dumbly at my brother. “White-coats? I dunno. They give us food and stuff so that’s good. I don’t think my Da likes them very much, but...I dunno.”
“Yeah, but, like, they must have lives.” Jordan seemed to be struggling with this thought as much as we were. “I mean, like, they must be doing something in their lab, right? They don’t just come out once a week, see us, and then go back to doing nothing.” He looked to me for help, but I avoided his pleading gaze. I didn’t know what the hell to say, I barely knew what the hell to think in those days.
“Me and Ez talked to one for a minute.” Jordan turned back to Jaime. “He was talking to another one about—about a game, I think. They were saying something about kings and thrones. Like as in king of the hill. Games.”
“So they play games, so what?” Jaime rubbed off crumbs on his shorts, looking very uncomfortable under Jordan’s gaze. I couldn’t blame him. No one understood my brother.
“So they’re like us.” When Jordan saw us flinch at the suggestion and lean away from him, he quickly held his hands out. “I mean, not completely like us, obviously. I just mean, if they play games and we play games, how different are we?”
“Very different.” Jaime shivered, although the sun was nearly in the middle of the sky now. The silence that followed was a heavy one, and the only thing to interrupt it was the wind, birds, and my growling stomach. One empinada was a mere appetizer, and it had awoken my digestive system.
“Well, I don’t think so,” Jordan finally said, leaning back on his rocky seat.
On our way back, Jaime and I virtually forgot about Jordan’s troubling questions and were messing around as usual. My brother trailed behind us at a slower pace, occasionally slipping on gravel he should’ve known was there. We’d give him a glance here and there, but we mostly ignored him. Whenever he got silent like that, I knew he had put on his thinking cap and was in some far off world. I would tell myself that it was my duty to take care of his physical being while he was ‘away’, but being the troublesome child I was, I left him on his own even then.
I used to be envious of people who could dream. What I would have given to be able to soar through the sky in some unearthly world, forgetting the dreary reality mornings often bring. The valley children recounted their nighttime adventures to whoever had an ear to listen. I was fascinated with their tales, apocryphal or not. Some had claimed to have run with the coyotes, burrowed holes with the rattlesnakes, and even flown with hawks. Flying, it seems, is what I have always longed to do.
I was one of those kids who never quite had an imagination—and maybe that played a part in my dreamless nights—but Jordan did. I know he did, although he wouldn’t speak of them. I remember countless weary nights when he’d wake up in a frenzy, race into my room and hug me tight. He’d say some nonsense to me, too quick for me to catch, before saying goodnight and leaving. He was a troubled boy for his age, as I have been trying to describe throughout this narrative of my childhood. His questions were the tip of the iceberg, sort of speak. When we weren’t fighting or hiking, he’d go into these trances. Zone-outs. Whatever you’d like to call them. It normally happened at the table, when we were eating. Because he sat across from me, I could tell when it was going to happen. First he’d be eating like any healthy, growing boy, stuffing his face with as much as he dared, talking obnoxiously loud about the day’s plan. Gran-Nani would give him an irritated slap on the back of his head. Then, by the time he got near the end of his plate, his movements would slow. He’d quiet down gradually, until he was silent. Then he’d sort of just sit there, his eyes in a glaze, his fork held at its proper angle.
These last few months have been rough on me. I don’t even know why. Why now? After all these years of (mostly) successfully pushing Picket Valley and Cliff’s Peak behind me, it came crawling back, wielding knives of memories. And thank God—or whatever being is looking down on me—for my dreamless nights. I’m not sure how I’d survive without them. If mine were as clear and as vivid as I believe Jordan’s were…
A friend of mine referred me to Dr. Z, and I’m thankful for her. But if I’m being honest, I don’t know how much of this shrink stuff is working. I sat down to write a couple nights ago, and as I sat staring at what I had already had down, I just couldn’t do it. Somehow writing is making me feel worse. Remorse. Longing. Bitter-sweetness. Resentment. All of these emotions are slowed down while I’m writing, as I turn details delicately around in my mind, deciding what words could justify Jordan, Gran-Nani, and Jaime. They’re in me: their images, their laughter, their scents. Words don’t do shit. They were my family, and how can you describe those feelings? They’re a part of you, wherever you go, whoever you pretend to be. Their faces watch me from the corner of my eye, like they blame me. Or maybe I just blame myself. Hah, now I’m sounding like a shrink.
I called Dr. Z, told him how mindfucking this really was to me, and you know what he said? He told me it’s supposed to be like this. I’m supposed to feel these things, because if I don’t push through it, it’s all going to come bite me in the ass one day. And then I’d yearn for a more permanent dreamless sleep.
No, Dr. Z is a good therapist, and my friend is someone you only come by once in a lifetime. I think that’s more than a self-pitying, lost boy like me deserves.
In any case, I’ll try my best to continue.
Jordan’s glazed eyes. His silence. The other-worldly look on his immature face. I can’t imagine what a boy like him could’ve grown to be.
It was that time of the week again. White-coat day, the day Jordan had been looking forward to. We were sitting on the splintering porch steps, sipping at our warm coke cans, our eyes squinted into thin slits. We watched the carts roll along the spiraling roads, stopping at certain houses. Other than the crinkle of our cans, quiet burps, and a swish of our clothes as we adjusted our positions, we were quiet. I listened to the noises coming from my house’s open door: the television, Gran-Nani’s sweeping, light footsteps, the rocking of a chair. Sweat dripped down my forehead, and I roughly wiped it away with my arm.
One white-coats’ cart was at Other Nani’s home. They parked promptly in front of the turquoise house and stepped out, their heads bent over clipboards. One motioned briefly to the other before walking up the porch steps and knocking on Other Nani’s door. The second hefted a cardboard box off the back of the cart and lumbered up the steps.
“Jordan,” I said, absently, “what if Ellis isn’t coming today?”
Out of the corner of my eye, Jordan jerked his head at me. He made a sound like he was trying to speak, but forgot to open his mouth. Then he said, “I didn’t think of that. But...why wouldn’t he? Do they change white-coats every week?”
I shrugged my shoulders and watched as the distant men knocked on Other Nani’s door once again. “I never really looked whenever they came.”
“I didn’t either. I just kept my eyes on their nice shoes and coats.” Jordan frowned and turned his head in the direction I was staring in. “Maybe…” he trailed off.
The white-coat with the cardboard box had dropped what he was holding and was banging a plump fist on Other Nani’s fragile door. He began to yell something, but his partner shouldered him out of the way and continued to hit the door with harsh strikes.
Jordan stood to his feet, his fists shaking at his side. Before he could make a move, I grabbed onto his calf. That weary instinct had come back to me, the one I felt when I first met Ellis. Whatever was going on, it was about to get worse, and I wanted both me and my brother out of harm’s way when it happened.
A cold pit in my stomach grew colder still as one of the men raised a sleek-pant leg and brought a heavy foot down on the door. As it was knocked down, he stumbled forward to catch his balance. Then, they entered.
Sitting there, waiting for something to happen, was one of the worst feelings I have ever felt. It was knowing something awful was hiding right outside your vision, but you just couldn’t see the damn thing. It was the feeling of empty, cold, terror.
I had stepped away from writing this for a few weeks, although I haven’t stopped thinking about it. I’ve been awfully forgetful at work. I left the lights on after locking up, put the A’s in the B section, and even left a pile of returned books sitting idly behind the counter. This might seem usual, I suppose, from an outside eye’s perspective, but it’s not. At least not for me. The library is more of a home to me now than my apartment. I spend more time there than any other place, including the cafe. I’ve been so forgetful, and yet this narrative is the one thing I cannot forget. It’s in my mind, presenting itself in questions of, ‘what major points should I include’ and ‘how many details can I truly give of the people in Cliff’s Peak?’. The answer, I realized this morning, is that it doesn’t matter. This is for me, and there’s no possible way I can write out every moment I have spent with those people. But it doesn’t matter. This is for me.
And yet, I still feel an itch—a need—to write them as best as I can.
Jordan and I waited for a few minutes, but all terror-filled moments are drawn out into what feels like hours. We watched the slanted, clay house the white-coats had disappeared in—one my brother and I have passed every week since we could walk—and we waited. The neighbors, I think, felt the intensity in the air as well, because I noticed some silhouettes in the windows, watching as we did.
I felt an odd sickness come over me, like a dizzy spell but a nauseous one, when the white-coats came back out with a puzzled look on their faces. They exchanged brief words, hopped into their cart, and drove back the way they came.
“Come on,” Jordan’s voice broke me out of my trance. I realized I was still clutching onto his jeans and forced myself to let go. “Come on,” he said, his voice stronger this time. He climbed down the creaky porch steps before I could respond, and started jogging down the spiraling road to Other Nani’s house. I followed.
When we got closer, I saw the cardboard box 0ne of the white-coats had left. It was marked with some symbols I couldn’t recognize at the time, but they were probably numbers. There were still silhouettes in the closest houses around us, curious and frightened eyes watching our movements as they had watched the white-coats. Forcing myself to look away, I followed Jordan up the porch and into the house itself. I wouldn’t have gone in if it wasn’t for him.
Inside, the air was thick with silence. Emptiness. There was no one sitting at the wooden table, no one behind the kitchen counter, no one baking treats for us. There was a lingering smell of caramelized sugar, but it could have been my imagination.
I knew there wasn’t going to be anyone in there, but it was still a shock. My eyes followed the specks of spiraling dust, like ashes in a fire, and wondered if that was all that was left of Other Nani and her family. Maybe if I had been more thoughtful I would have remembered the brief conversation I had caught the week before, the one with hushed voices and tinges of fear in it. I would have brought it up to Jordan, asked him if perhaps they had been planning on leaving like this all along. But I wasn’t thoughtful, and I didn’t remember.
“Why...where…?” Jordan’s voice was small and quiet, like he was afraid of speaking any louder. I knew how he felt; the emptiness was suffocating.
I only shook my head and placed my hands in my pockets. They felt odd and awkward being in the open.
“They left.” Jordan said, equally as soft as before. “They left and we didn’t know it. They left in the night and nobody noticed.”
I shivered at his words. Left? Left where? Where could they go? There was nothing outside of the Peak, nothing. When we would stop at the top of the Silverwood Mountains and look out, there was nothing but desert. An image came to mind: Other Nani, her daughter, and her daughter’s children dragging their feet through the sand underneath the pulsing sun, walking...walking...where? There was nowhere to go. Where could they go?
Jordan seemed to be thinking something along the same lines as me, and suddenly took an anxious step back. His face had drained of some of its usual color, and he grabbed a fistful of my sleeve. We raced out of the clay house, almost tripped down the porch steps, and bolted back to our home. Something Jordan thought of scared him, and his fear infected me. When we got back to the safety of our front yard, we stopped and caught our breath, hands on knees. Jordan took a look back, before shivering and going inside.
The evening light was beginning to fade, and the sun cast its last few, weak rays onto Picket Valley. I sat by Jaime in the dirt beside Jordan, who was perched on his usual, black boulder. He was sipping his coke, watching the sky, his eyes glazed in the land of thought.
I was carving out the hard mountain dirt with a stick I had snapped off one of the gray trees while Jaime sorted through the rocks Jordan had collected. It had been a few days since Other Nani’s disappearance, and besides the brief sadness I felt when passing her house to get to Jaime’s, I had forgotten about it. Jordan hadn’t been talking much since then, but my observational skills were limited. I hadn’t noticed his change.
“What even is that?” Jaime snorted, tossing a rock onto my dirt drawing.
I brushed the stone away irritably and sat back. The last few months, I had been leaning closer to my drawings without realizing, a sign that my vision was worsening. This didn’t bother me much, other than the fact my back was more often sore than not.
“It’s a rabbit, dumbass.” I grumbled. It clearly was, in my eyes. A circle for the head, an oval for the body, two long, straight ears and a short tail.
“Oh...Where’s the head?”
“Where do you think it is? On its ass?”
“I still can’t see it.”
“Not my fault you got shit for eyes.” I snapped, adjusting my position so that he couldn’t see. The more I drew, as I often did, the more protective I felt over my creations. Jordan said they were good, and could be real good if I tried drawing seriously. And Jordan’s opinion was the only thing that mattered to me.
“It is a rabbit. Look, Jordan, can’t you see it?” When I looked back at him, he flinched out of his trance, his eyes slowly settling on me. He glanced briefly at what I had scrawled on the dirt and nodded absently, “yeah, Ez…”
The uncaring way he said it stung, so I stood and kicked dirt onto it until it was erased. Jaime let out a few, strangled sounding coughs as dust clouds got into his mouth and eyes from where he was sitting. “The—hell—?” He rasped, standing to his feet. Jaime’s large eyes were red and he stuck a finger in my face. “You’ve been acting like a jerk all evenin’! What’s wrong with you?”
“Get your finger out of my face!” I said as I slapped his hand away.
“I’ll put my finger wherever I damn well please!”
“Well then you can put it up your ass—!”
“You’re the jerk!”
Jaime shoved me backwards, hard. I stumbled over a rock and landed roughly on my ass. It hurt, but I couldn’t feel much of the pain through my embarrassment and anger. Standing up quickly, I put my momentum into my movements and shoved Jaime as hard as I could. We were thin boys, and Jaime was a small kid. He tripped over his feet after trying to catch himself a few times, falling right over one of the flat boulders.
My anger dissipated and was replaced with a cold sheen of panic when I saw his body topple over the boulder and roll into a crevice of jagged stones.
Jordan was on his feet before I could even feel my legs, and climbed over the boulder Jaime had fallen over. He bent down on his knees and I watched, trembling, as he pulled Jaime up. Together, they made their way out of the patch of thick black stone and sat on flat ground.
Jaime was alright, scraped up along his arms, but otherwise fine. Once Jordan was sure of this, he stood up, raw anger in his dark eyes, and made his way over to me. Before I could speak, he grabbed onto my shoulder—much like the way Ellis had—and dragged me far enough down the trail so Jaime couldn’t hear us.
When we stopped walking, Jordan released me.
“It wasn’t my fault—” was the first thing I could think of to say.
“I don’t care. I don’t.” Jordan’s voice was ice cold. “You need to think before you do something. If we were standing anywhere closer to the cliff, you could have shoved him right over. Whatever you two were arguing about was probably stupid anyway. So think next time.” He tapped his finger twice roughly onto my forehead, hard enough to make me wince. Then, he started back up the trail.
That was all he needed to say. I wonder if he knew how much I used to worship his words, and if he ever used it against me. If he did know the big-brother power he held above me, he only used it when he had to.
Later, when Jaime and I had left our fight behind us as we walked back down the trail, Jordan spoke. “Jaime, do you know what happened to Other Nani?”
Jaime knew who we were talking about. Other Nani was everyone’s “other” Nani. His face was hard to make out in the orange evening’s light. He was mostly shadow. “My Da says she’s gone now.”
“She left.” Jordan nodded. “But did she ever say why?”
“I don’t know why anyone would.” Jaime said slowly. “There’s nothing outside but, well, nothing. They’re going out there to die.”
Jordan’s mouth clicked shut. He was silent all the way back to Jaime’s house.
Then we were back at our house, Jordan doing the dishes, and me laying in my stiff bed looking over my previous drawings in my notebook. I heard the sound of the sink shutting off—or the lack thereof—mixed with the drone of the tv. I waited for a count of twenty heartbeats until Jordan stood in my doorway.
“Good, you’re not asleep yet.” He knew I wouldn’t be. Jordan shut the door behind him and leaned against it. “I’ve had a terrible thought, Ez.”
“What about?” I sniffed, my eyes skimming over a cactus I had drawn a few months ago.
“It’s about Other Nani.”
I shut my notebook and tossed it onto my floor. My old fan flipped it open again.
Jordan looked frail in the dying sunlight, almost sickly. “Jaime’s right, there’s nothing outside of the Valley but desert. Dirt, coyotes, cacti, and desert. But there must be something past all of it. Like in the tv. There’s gotta be someplace else. I think Other Nani knew that. I think she took her chance with her family and left, in any direction they chose. I think they...hoped they would...find that someplace. They hoped so hard that they packed up their things and they left. In the night. So that they could hope, and they could walk, without anyone stopping them.” His voice trembled towards the end and he slouched against my door.
“Ez, they took the chance of dying because they thought they could find another someplace. They could be dead, they could be dying, they could be walking for days and days and days with the sun burnin’ their skin, burnin’ their eyes, burnin’ their feet, and their stomachs hurtin’ and their tongues as dry as the desert itself, because they hope—and they hoped hard—that whichever star they picked to follow would lead them to someplace that might be better.” He slumped onto my floor and held his knees tight into himself, shaking. He was quiet, and it was a scary quiet. But I heard him softly say—more to himself than me—“And they could’ve picked the wrong star.”
I didn’t quite understand what he was saying, but the raw emotion in his voice shook me. I didn’t know anything he said, exactly, but it scared me more than anything had before that moment.
Jordan was plagued with the longest bout of nightmares that had ever happened to him. Nearly every night he had come, sobbing, into my room to make sure I was alright. I would irritably tell him I was, and he would finally leave, not comforted in the slightest. He was normally himself during the day time, except he had swollen eyes and would go into those trances more often. I started to get a little worried by the time the next week rolled in and white-coats had come for their inspection once more. Ellis came, but Jordan was so lost in his thoughts that he hadn’t noticed.
One night Jordan had woken me by shaking me roughly and repeatedly mumbling, “she’s dead, they’re dead, stars are dead, they all are.” I batted his arms away, shoved him weakly backwards, before turning my back on him. I heard his mumbling fade before he turned and walked out of my room, shutting the door behind him.
Death...is a hard thing for a kid to wrap their head around. It was common to see chewed up rabbits around the valley, or headless rattlesnakes. I guess death was processed as an eternal sleep, or the absence of movement. It was the opposite of alive, breathing and eating and thinking. It was like what made that thing itself was gone. A headless rattlesnake was no longer a danger, because it was no longer a rattlesnake. A torn open rabbit was no longer a rabbit, it was a coyote’s food. But a dead person? Now, what was that?
Jordan must’ve had these thoughts during those terrible nights. I’m not sure what he could have pictured, but it probably would’ve been Other Nani in a sleeping position, her chest no longer rising and falling. He wouldn’t have imagined the rot, the decay, or the bits and pieces missing that must’ve been taken by passing vultures. He wouldn’t, because he had never seen it before.
I imagine his nightmares grew in detail when he first saw a dead body.
I wasn’t with him when he found it, thank God, but he told me the story. Jordan had woken up early in the morning—for what reason he wouldn’t say—and decided to go on a hike. He wanted to take a different route in order to focus on the trail itself instead of whatever thoughts and questions plagued him. No, he hadn’t noticed the empty chair in our living room, he had said. No, he hadn’t been paying attention that morning. He had been walking down the trail for a good hour before he noticed something tangled in the rain bushes. He was scared, and didn’t want to get any nearer. When he pulled his nerves together and got closer, he noticed the feet. They were blistered and missing shoes. They were old. He got closer and saw the clothes. They were pajamas. Finally, he saw the potbelly and the face. It was all purple like, and he wasn’t moving. He looked asleep, but his chest wasn’t rising. He was the opposite of alive.
I don’t know what possessed my grandfather to get up from that chair after eighty years, and I don’t know why he chose to do it during the night. I don’t know what went through his head—I barely knew what went through mine—and I don’t know why Jordan had to be the one to find him. I don’t know, I don’t know why. Dumb luck, terrible coincidence, foresight...I don’t know.
But hell, I wish I did.
My friend—the good one—hasn’t come into work for the last few weeks. It isn’t like she had called in sick or anything, she simply hasn’t been here. In her absence I lost the urge to write, as I often do, but today felt different. Somehow, in my lowest thoughts and grayist feelings, I set up the typewriter again. Although she has been here for me through this process—and I usually don’t write without her urging—I’ve felt the persistent need to hear the clicking and clacking of my typing fingers these last weeks.
Even in her absence, life goes on.
I’m sitting here now—probably squinting because I can’t find my lenses—staring over the last page I typed out in the dim, yellow-orange light of my apartment. From what I can see, the last significant moment I retold myself about was my grandfather’s abrupt passing. And it is a significant moment—only, not for me.
There isn’t much I can say or remember about the direct days after Jordan’s discovery, because most of what happened I learned by ear. Jordan’s story was short, stumpy, and colorless, but it gave me an idea of how unclean death really is. The way he looked when he told me what happened was evidence enough of how brutal and savage the world was—a lesson I would learn in more detail years later.
The white-coats “took care” of my grandfather, though how I can’t say, and after that it was only me, Jordan, and Gran Nani in our small clay house.
When a trio of white-coats had left after taking information from my Gran Nani, she sauntered over to the television and shut it off with a stubborn push of a button. A silence fell on us, as heavy as the one I felt in Other-Nani’s house that one day. I watched the dust fall from the ceiling dreamily, dancing around particular stripes of orange sunlight.
And then the television was back on with the same button-push, and Gran-Nani was moving about the kitchen again.
It became a silent agreement to always have the television on—same channels, same volume—no matter what. The hole it left to have it shut off was enough to “suck out our souls”.
A few of our neighbors came bearing pies and spices, but the excitement barely lasted a week. Then, everything settled back into place like dust when it had been kicked up. I drew in the mornings and evenings, caused trouble with Jaime around the neighborhood, and listened to Jordan’s hypotheses in between. Things had changed, sure. People had left unexpectedly, one even in my own home, but things hadn’t really changed. I was still oblivious, and Jordan was still worried.
I don’t think his nightmares went away after a year. Hell, I don’t think they ever went away after that. But he stopped coming to my room, and that was fine by little-boy me.
A year or so later—I’m not too sure when—I woke up chilled to the bone. Cliff’s Peak didn’t snow, but during the winter season it got right damn cold. My window was open from the night before and was letting in a nasty wind. My vision blurry with sleep, I rolled out of bed and landed roughly on my shoulder, dragging my blanket down with me. I untangled myself from my sheet—mostly—and moved for my window. The blanket was still wrapped around my ankle and lassoed me down to the floor again, making me hit my chin on my desk.
Cradling my face, and full of hot anger at the unfairness of the situation, I shook the blanket off my feet and stood. Blinking tears out of my eyes, I rubbed my chin roughly and slammed my window shut.
My feet automatically carried me across the hall to Jordan’s room, intending to wake him up in a way just as angering as I had awoken. But when I opened his door with a slam, filling my lungs with sharp air, his bed was empty.
Letting out a long sigh, I dragged my feet back to my room and dressed warmly. By the time I had on my boots—they were beginning to get tight by now—the sun was coming up.
I quietly shut my door behind me and poked my head into the main room. Gran-Nani wasn’t up yet, but the television was on. For a few moments I stared at the back of my grandfather’s chair, frozen. It seemed to rock on its own, steadily back and forth. I blinked harshly and rubbed my eyes before looking again. It stopped moving.
Quickly moving past it, I pushed open our peeling front door and stepped out onto our porch. Chilly mornings are gorgeous, especially in the desert. The sky is a wonderful baby blue, pink, and yellow, and birds sing to one another across the mountain tops. My nose and cheeks were already reddening from the sting of cold I was not used to by the time I made my way down the porch steps.
Jordan was seated on a boulder on the side of the road. A gecko skittered out of the way when I walked over, stomping my boots to cause as much noise as I could. My brother barely took notice. I stopped beside him, “you should’ve seen how my morning went. Not fun.” Scooping down, I picked up a green glass shard and examined it in the morning light. “I think my chin’ll be purple soon. Slammed it pretty hard. Damn, it’s cold. When did you get out here anyway? I didn’t see you in your room earlier. I was gonna wake you.”
Jordan shook himself. “I wasn’t sleeping well. Decided to watch the sun come up. Wanna sit?” He scooted over and made room for me. I climbed up and seated myself beside him.
“The sun’s pretty neat.” I commented absently, my eyes trailing down into our valley. The sun-bleached bone laboratory was quiet this morning. Or perhaps it was like that all mornings. I had never noticed. Crossing my ankles, I swung my legs and turned my attention to the houses along the spiraling road. They were undisturbed as well.
“They live there. The white-coats.” Jordan didn’t have to point but he did anyway. “They eat, sleep, shit, and play there.”
I snorted softly and leaned on one hand, the boulder’s gray grooves digging into my palm. “What would they play?”
“Something with thrones and champions. Kings.” Jordan’s voice was fuzzing, like when it does when he zones out. “Ellis is the best at that game, that’s what they said.”
Ellis’ name was a distant memory, but it still rang a bell—if an ever shrinking one. I felt myself nod, but my mind was quickly fleeing the conversation. “That reminds me. Jaime is still able to beat me at our own game. Can you believe that? After all these years he’s still beating me.”
Jordan leaned his elbows on his knees, his face angled blankly towards the laboratory. The soft morning light painted gentle brushstrokes on his cheek. “We should get a closer look.”
I looked up from the beatle I was playing with. It took me a few seconds to realize what exactly he wanted to look at. “What? The lab?”
“I’m going to...yeah, I’m going to go see it.” Jordan decided, hopping off the boulder. Dirt puffed up around his yellowing-white sneakers as he headed down the path.
Once the shock wore off me, I scrambled after him. When I caught up to him, I breathlessly asked, “why? Why are we doing this?”
Jordan’s gaze was someplace far away, and there seemed to be a thousand explanations in his mind. He stuck to only one: “I can’t keep doing this, Ez. There’s so much information right in front of us, and every day I wonder if I could possibly tap into it. But I don’t want to wonder anymore. I want to know.”
I yanked on his arm until he was forced to turn and look down at me. “Let’s at least bring Jaime.” When Jordan finally agreed to my simple request, we continued on our way to Junior’s house without another argument.
[End of Part 1]
About the Creator
I’ve been a storyteller for as long as I can remember. Every chance I could get I was either writing, drawing, or telling anyone who’d listen my stories. Throughout high school I self published three books on Amazon. Enjoy my short stories!