It always amazed Maggie how the rain that fell in deserts, whenever it finally got around to raining, it came down with such a vengeance, as though nature was determined to get the entire business done right there and then for the rest of the year. As often as not, at least in the inner Mojave, that was literally the case: one or two rains per year, in a full-blown deluge. Yet, as hard as it would come down, the water would disappear in just as big a hurry. Not that it seeped into the ground, that ground was baked adobe in most places, and the rain ran right off it like it ran off the asphalt in Los Angeles. It made little rushing rivulets that became gushing streamlets that joined into rampant flashfloods that could crush trees, carry away tractor-trailers, and drown any human or animal with the poor luck to get into its path. Many desert roads, even the highways, plunged in and out of deep depressions to allow the occasional torrents to cross, paying homage and offering warning with road signs that said, DIP. DO NOT ENTERWHEN FILLED WITH WATER. And sometimes they did fill with water, all the way to the crest, often twelve to fifteen feet of rampaging flood. Sometimes, the water overflowed even that.

Maggie paused in slogging through the vast momentary puddles between the bushes of Mormon Tea to look back toward the south. The worst of the grey-black grazed the ground back there, and the sky flickered every few seconds with lightning. Ken and Davey were in that, somewhere. Somewhere very close to a wash. And washes sometimes overflowed. Dunes were sometimes struck by lightning. People died in desert storms as easily as in desert dryness. She tried not to think about that. There was nothing she could do about it. She was doing the only thing she could do. She was going for help.

Help? She hadn't been of much help to them. She'd been a burden, if anything. Even her taking them in, inviting them to the camp, had been for selfish motives, she admitted it now. Life since Wade's death had been one grim bout of anger and depression after another, and she'd wanted Ken and Davey's companionship as a combined distraction and target. They reminded her acutely of Wade: absorbed in their careers, convinced of their personal and professional worth, taking life by the horns and rolling with the punches. Certain, more than anything, that what they did with their time could make a measurable difference in the quality of life, theirs and other people's. She used to envy them that, while never quite understanding it.

Until the night Wade died -- until Dave Starsky came to the door of her and Wade's home, with his hands overlapped grimly in front of him and his eyes bloodshot and fixed on the rug -- none of Wade's police work ever seemed real. Wade never brought it home. It had always been, and stayed, on a fairy-tale level with spy show, westerns, and the rest of the play violence of television and films. When reality came crashing in, Maggie had had nothing to brace herself. She caved in, putting up a "Don't worry, I'm a survivor" front just long enough to find a legitimate excuse to run away.

But reality had followed.

Reality. Unreality. One seemed to flow into the other.

Broad-jumping a thin, silty stream, she landed on an embankment, but it crumbled under her. The little current caught her, dragging her a dozen feet before she could stop running with it. She hauled up out of the stream, back onto the flats, not thinking about how cold it was becoming, how far she had to go. One foot in front of the other, the low mountain to her left, she went back onto autopilot, half-dreaming as she walked.

What was real? What was fantasy? Where did dreaming end and living begin, or the uppermost mind break off from the depths?

Some part of herself had broken off when the helicopter came. Thinking back, the memory unwound like a technicolor filmstrip. Reality had been the copter firing. Ken running across the dunes. Davey sprawling in the wash. Bullets flying. Noise. Then Ken crumpling as though an invisible hand had suddenly flattened him.

That was when the unreal thing happened. Some part of her had shut off; or, maybe, some part of her she didn't know had awakened. What happened next, what she had done, was only hazy snippets of memory. Davey's gun, bigger than her own little Special. Wind and sand whipping and a mouth full of grinning teeth under mirrored sunglasses leering down at her. Raising her hands together at the face. The teeth exploding inwards. The copter tipping and spinning once. and hitting the plain not far across the wash, and then the shocks and flame. And knowing she had killed. The leering pilot and his companions dead and forever ruined, gone. Then, then even the strange part of her had shut down, and there was nothing until Davey's shout had brought her back, called to her from beside Ken.

I killed someone. I killed at least two people. Two people are dead because I shot at them.

Abruptly, Maggie found herself shrieking, her left foot stinging, and she hopped away a respectful few yards from the ground-cactus and sat down in a puddle. The low growing opuntia's spines were capable of penetrating leather, and Maggie yelped as she tried to yank the spines out of her boot toe without breaking them off. Most of them broke off. It was almost impossible to get the wet boot off. Eventually, she did, and broke off the points inside and picked those she could out of her toes.

Working the shoe on again, she sat up straight and took a look around. It had stopped raining where she was, but south of her, blue-black veils still trailed across the valley. She glanced at her watch, found that it had stopped at eleven-oh-six, just about the time she had killed that pilot.

No. Don't think about that. That was something you had to do, your subconscious knew it even if the rest of you denied it. If you'd given up then, that man might still be alive, but Ken and Davey and you would be dead. You did what you had to do, and there was no else who could have done it for you. Face that. Accept it. The days of ivory towers are all gone, and what's left now will have to be good enough. Will be good enough.

Something in that clicked. Sometimes there are things that must be done, and you are the only person who can do them.

Like now. Like getting up and going for help, because you're the only one who can. Because if you don't, if you give up and sit here and shut down systems, two of the last people who will put up with you, and accept you as the flawed but decent human being that you know you are, will lie out there and die. No one else knows where they are. Neither of them can help themselves. You are it.

Climbing back to her feet, she took deep breaths and started walking again. It was getting dark behind the clouds. Sundown. About eight or eight-thirty. If she'd maintained her expected pace. that would mean four or five miles to go. The dirt road into the Playground area should cut back near the ridge near here. It would be easier travelling along the road. There was the problem of possibly running into more of the assassins, but if she didn't get help soon, the desert would finish Davey and Ken as surely as a killer's bullet. No choice. The added risk to herself didn't seem to matter.

And with that, realization flooded in. She understood it. She understood how the risks and sacrifices and sometimes suffering fit into the lives people like Wade and Ken and Davey made for themselves. It wasn't a death wish, no sublimated suicidal tendency, it was necessity. There was a task that needed doing; it entailed risks, but the necessity overruled.

The ground sped under her aching feet, and the day waned. To the west, a maroon glow announced the breakup of the storm, and Venus hung like a pearl on a chain through a gap in the clouds. It was becoming treacherous to walk without light. Maggie had to slow down. She couldn't afford to cripple herself in more cactus, or break an ankle in a washed-out chuckhole. She turned a bit more toward the west, hoping to come to the road sooner. Once on it, she could relax most of the navigational worries. It couldn't be far -- the flats to the northwest looked very much like the soda lake, which would be filled now, and the road was on· this side of the lake.

Then she heard it. Still a distance away, the thundering of water was unmistakable. Of course, The Mojave River sink. Water flowed into it so seldom that for most purposes, it was nothing more than a notation on the topo map. But the last time it had run -- during the rainstorm in July -- it had cut her off from the outside world for two days.

She took her time getting to the edge of the flood. It was a cataract. The masses of soda foam picked up from the eastern deposits glowed in the dimness with near phosphorescence. The opposite shore was thirty feet away, probably more. The gully, she recalled, was at least ten feet deep. And the river was swift and full of massive debris from the foothills it drained.

Maggie sat down, ready and willing to cry, but she seemed to have cried herself out earlier in the day. Instead, she watched the foam bob past her, catching in little eddies, then sweeping on down-current with the main flow. There was nothing more she could do. Crossing in that current was out of the question. Raised in dry places, Maggie had a distrust of bodies of water larger than a bath tub, and could just barely dog-paddle. A swimming champion would be drowned in that.

Closing her eyes, she shivered for the first. The constant walking had held off the chill before, but now she was left with nothing. It was cold, and dark, and muddy. She buried her head in her arms, pulling her knees close to her body, and tried to blank her mind.

I'm sorry, Ken, Davey. I did the best I could. I swear to God I did.

The last strip of maroon faded in the west, and Venus set behind some clouds. Then, there was no light at all: no stars, no moon, and no hope.

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