I wrote this for the McSweeney's contest at http://www.mcsweeneys.net/2006/5/31contest.html.
He'd been her only friend in the desert, and by way of recompense, she'd shot
him in the head, right between the eyes. It was the kindest thing she could
think of at the time, and he'd fallen like four felled pines. She is a tall
woman, dressed in black and white, and alone, now. Her mission wavers,
ghostly and insubstantial with the heat haze already rising from the sand
dunes halfway to the horizon. She straightens her rumpled skirt, feels the
lump on the back of her head, checks her watch. 8:37 a.m.
At the academy she had taken great pride in her grades, her times, her
name at the top of lists of wall-clamberers, sharpshooters,
poison-droppers. Dark-grey federal sweatpants filled her laundry baskets;
unanswered phone messages from her mother, father, and cousin Buddy filled
her answering machine. She memorized names, faces, favorite desserts with
overly sweet toppings (for contrary to popular belief, your typical
third-world military coup runs on the urges of men who can be counted on
to choose the molten chocolate cakes over cheese plates, six times out of
seven), and with each green-marked A on a correctly marked-up "Dulces"
menu, she slept another night the sleep of the blessed and sanctified.
She kicks the face of the sand dune and watches the grains scatter, land, and
slide between her toes. Her sandals, Italian jobs designed by the last
Monsignor of an obscure-to-the-point-of-oblivion order, are already
half-buried. The sand below the surface still feels cool, but she knows this
will only be temporary; the sunrise this morning had been startlingly
beautiful, violet merging into lavender into grenadine-red and burnished
gold, but the poetry of those moments is receding quickly in the face of what
the sun has become afterwards: a clenched fist in the sky, raining down pure,
sheeting, white-hot blows on a landscape already pounded into submission
She'd spent days muddy and nights at her desk, damp towel forgotten on her
chair back as she hit her chess clock and field stripped her pistols
faster even than Kasparov's shortest games. Her instructors -- all
grandchildren of the Great Game -- carried a certainty about their motives
and actions which had seemed to her as anachronistic as the mechanical
watches they invariably wore: Breitling, Omega, Lacroix. She knew moral
clarity only as a bygone luxury. At graduation, she opened a small box
from her favorite teacher (a short man who liked to flip his eyepatch up
and horrify waiters at bars) and discovered the most beautiful watch she'd
ever seen: a navy blue face under tan slow-moving hands. Its movement
welcomed her to this intricate, invisible world; the globe became her
Noon arrives, the sun hanging dead above her. Her hair is tied back, and
she's grateful that her sunglasses survived with her, jostled in her
cavernous purse (no security man ever really examines purses as thoroughly as
they should, she's found) with her ostensible essentials and the few pieces
of gear she truly thought she'd need: knife, gun, dessert fork. Her eyes
shielded from a multi-vitamin of UV spectra, she looks to the shimmering
horizon. Nothing moves, really. What little is left of her own trail has
stopped, and the day's winds are teasing away even that, sculpting the lines
of her travel into dune features as if they'd always been there. She curses,
crouches under the scarf she's stretched out, and drinks the last of her
Spy movies made her laugh in otherwise silent theatres. Job interviews
involved no resume and cover letter; no circling classified ads for her.
Instead: her reputation skimmed out like a skipped stone, and the tall men
and women came to her door in ones and threes to talk about bravery, duty
to country, and money. Her parents had long ago stopped calling. She
moved among men who ate dogs and dogs who ate men, and felt no longer
surprised at either.
There's a slight breeze, indecisive but mostly out of the east, and faint
sprays of dusty sand lap against her where she lies. The ache in the back of
her head has broadened to a timpani's throb, and her water bottle, cavalierly
only half-filled at the hotel ballroom the night before, is empty and already
mostly buried. 4:49 p.m., under her scarf. Looking at the neck of the
bottle, she determines she'll be entirely buried long before her watch stops,
and laughs a dry, croaking laugh for exactly 7 seconds. The sun has slipped
low enough to veer under the scarf's edge; even beneath her sunglasses, her
eyes are bloodshot and slow as she idly feels the contents of her purse
again. Even those things which weren't for show have become as useless as
the lipgloss. She throws them as far as she can.
The sun falls off the horizon's table. She is lying on her back, sunglasses
off, eyes to the west but unfocused, thinking of the horse who'd brought her
here. The only blameless one in any of this, and the only one dead, so far,
not three feet away. Less than a week in her company, but the damn horse
bothers her more than anything else. The wind falls to zephyrs, then
nothing. She shivers as the temperature begins to drop and makes a feeble
sand-angel, holding onto the dune's fading warmth. There is the faintest
hiss one dune over, and she turns her head to see a low, rounded shape come
to a halt, a lone figure beneath it busy with lines and then half-running
across the sand towards her, the red glow of an LED clipped to his heavy
wristwatch. She sits up, sees his face.
"You have to come home, D. Your dad's dying."
Debra brushed the sand from her blouse, took a last, wistful look at the now
putrefying horse, and stepped into the hot-air balloon.