“From what I can see this is not what I was thinking at all. This land is barren. Do you think people actually live here?”
“Yes, stop being so stupid. Of course, people live here. Look, there are houses over there.”
“I don’t see any houses.”
“That’s because they blend into the landscape.”
“Why do they want to do that?”
“It’s like they don’t want to be seen living here. I know I wouldn’t.”
“You’re rude. These people wouldn’t live here if they didn’t want to.”
“Well, what if they had lived here all their lives and thought this was all there was to the world and just figured they should make the best of it?”
“No. How do you figure that could happen when folks like us come into their town and tell them different?”
“Well, maybe we are the first outsiders they have ever seen.”
“I doubt that.”
Mason and Paula stared at each other for a moment and then Mason tilted his head back and laughed.
“You really are the most dim witted girl.”
Paula put her hands on her hips and huffed. She was tired of her brother’s arrogance. He had a way about him that was superior to the gods and she was the lowest being on his hierarchy. She stuck with him though because he had enough morals to care for her since their parents died. Death by a tornado — Paula shuttered. That was sure one awful way to go. She shook her head to keep from remembering the scene again. She had thought about it all too often and there just was not a good reason to replay it again. She pushed the thing out of her head by saying, “I bet they eat dogs down there.”
“You think every place you haven’t been eats dogs.”
Paula knew her brother was right, but still she pulled their Rottweiler close and rubbed his head. The dog whined, but Paula shushed him before he aggravated Mason. The dog was Mason’s now, but Paula was the one who cared for him and the dog knew that. He followed at her heels and stood guard by Paula every night. The three of them had traipsed down from the hill country to the desert land as they journeyed to the coast. They had traveled far and they had far to travel.
“Let’s camp here for the night. Tomorrow we’ll go down to their village.”
Paula looked up at the sun. It had several hours before it dipped below the horizon. They never stopped for camp this early in the day. She looked at Mason to discern his apprehension. He did not seem keen on this place and Paula was glad that the feeling was at least mutual. They settled in for the night. The desert was a hard place to lay camp. Paula never felt comfortable when the creepy crawlies were all about. During the day they could be avoided with a sharp eye, but at night there was no aid save the fire. Paula pulled her pallet close to the fire that Mason had built.
“Paula, if you sleep that close you’ll wake up fried to a crisp.”
She did not move her mat. She would rather the toasting to a sting of a scorpion. The Rottweiler laid down, his back to hers. They had slept that way since leaving the hills. The dog did not favor their travels and sometimes at night he looked to the north and whined a soft, slow whine that communicated his desire to return home. He did not remember that there was no home, he only remembered what it once was and it once was comfortable and safe. At home he had not to worry. The children’s father shouldered the guardianship and the dog’s job was to obey his master’s commands. Now there was no master, there was only the master’s boy and the girl. The master’s boy tried to assume his father’s role, but the dog sensed the fear in this new leader and he shrunk from his command. He knew that the boy could not protect them and that the responsibility of the children’s safety was now his, but he knew not how to carry out that responsibility. He knew he would lay his life down to protect them, but he knew not how to lead them. That job had always been his master’s. The dog looked around one last time and then rested his massive head on his paws. He would sleep alert as all dogs slept and that would have to be enough.
“Hey! Whatcha think you’re doing, Mason!” The kick in her stomach had been uncalled for.
“Be quiet and get up.” Mason pulled her to her feet.
Paula thought he should not have kicked her if he wanted her to be quiet. She rubbed her side. She would have a bruise.
“Come on, we got to move.” Mason grabbed her satchel and shoved her in the direction he wanted to flee.
Paula knew better than to falter. She ran in the direction he had chosen and listened for his foot steps behind her. He was close on her heels. It was the middle of the night, but the moon was nearly full and graced them with its light. She could make out the dirt ground under her feet enough to dodge the protruding rocks and brushes in her path. Her eyes adjusted quickly to the darkness and she glanced over her shoulder in an attempt to discover the reason for their plight. Mason ran behind her and the Rottweiler to her right. She continued to run, confident that they were together. She ran and they followed. When she slowed because she was weary, Mason yelled at her to move faster. When the Rottweiler barked, Mason yelled at him to be quiet. When Paula was sure she could barely run one more step, she tucked her head down and ran on.
“Stop!” Mason yelled.
Paula slowed down in almost disbelief. She had thought they would run forever. She stopped and turned to ask him if they were safe, but her lungs demanded all the air she could intake and they would not spare a breath for words. Paula bent over, her hands on her knees, and puffed. The Rottweiler sat down, his tongue hanging out the side of his mouth. He looked timidly away from the boy. He distrusted the boy.
Mason took a moment to get his own breath. “That was good practice.” He smiled as he had grown accustom to smiling in that proud, arrogant way. He looked pleased with himself.
“Practice?” Paula puffed.
“Yeah, just in case we ever do get chased. We’ll need to practice more if we want to actually outrun anything. You are really slow, even for a girl.”
Paula could not decide what she should be angrier about, but she was too out of breath still to be angry. She did not fail to notice that Mason was having a hard time catching his breath and that made her feel better about his last insult, but she was still angry at the spontaneous practice drill. She was angry and scared.
“What do you expect we are going to have to run from?”
Mason reached out to pet the dog. He was trying to act casual and superior again. The dog growled at him and Mason retracted his hand. Paula pet the dog and soothed him with her soft coos until his growl muffled into a soft whine. She was glad he felt the same betrayal at Mason’s inconsiderate exercise.
“I am not certain yet and I don’t want to frighten you.”
Paula glared at her brother. He was only a year older than she and she wished she were just as tall. Maybe then he would not act so foolishly stupid. “I’d say you’ve frightened us enough with your silly practice. It’s best you tell me what to be on the lookout for.”
The morning was dawning and the first light illuminated her brother’s face. She could tell it was still flushed and she was surprised to see real fear in his eyes. Paula thought for a moment that he had lied to her about this being practice. Could they have been actually outrunning something and he just told her it was practice so she would keep her wits about her? She looked down at the dog. The dog was calm. They could not have been running from anything. Still that did not explain the anxiety that remained on Mason’s face.
“Are we going back to camp?”
Mason shook his head.
“But I don’t have my stuff.”
“I got most of it.”
“Can’t we go back and get the rest of it?”
Paula thought about protesting, but Mason had gotten that stern look on his face that made her not want to push the issue. He did not want to turn around and there was nothing she could do to change his mind.
“Okay, so where do we go now?”
Mason looked into the rising sun. He liked to do that. Paula never understood why. “We got to get through that village before nightfall.”
Mason looked back at her. “Yeah.”
Paula nodded, but she thought he was underestimating the expanse they would have to cover to accomplish that task. She did not know anymore than he did how long it would take to get through the village or what they would encounter while they were there, but she thought it ambitious to assume they would do it.
They started immediately without breakfast. Paula hoped they would get supplies in the village. They would run out of food shortly if Mason did not let them replenish here. Paula knew not to complain because Mason would only put tighter restrictions on the food rations and they were already tight enough.
The village hardly existed. They passed a few houses, but the buildings were spread out and they saw no one. The dog glued himself to Paula’s right leg and sometimes she could hear a soft rumble in his throat. At first she thought it was his stomach — the dog was starving like the rest of them — but the second time she heard the noise she noticed the hair on his back bristle.
They walked on. Mason turned down a path, at least Paula thought it was a path, and headed towards a cluster of buildings. These buildings were not distinguished from the other ones they passed except that they were closer together. Paula hoped they would find clean water, if not food, to satiate their hunger.
A desert lizard crawled fifty feet in front of them. It was big, about two feet long plus his four foot tail. Paula was afraid the dog would tackle it when they crossed paths, but the Rottweiler did not show any interest.
The place incorporated no sound of life.
Paula quieted her own breathing to not disturb the place. It felt sacred and that is when she grabbed Mason’s arm. He turned to look at her, her own fear reflected in his face. “Mason, these aren’t homes. These are tombs.”
Mason stared at her and she could not determine his thoughts. Had he known? Had he kept this a secret so she would not protest their necessary travels through this graveyard? She looked at him with the question on her lips, but he did not answer her unspoken words.
“Paula, don’t be scared. Pa said they only come out at night. We just need to make it across the river. Come on now, it isn’t much further. Just remain calm and tread a light foot.”
“I don’t know what he meant. He was probably just making up a ghost tale the way he liked to do. He probably didn’t mean anything.”
“Then why did you mention it?”
Mason looked around them and then took her hand in his. “It slipped out. I – I don’t think anything is going to happen. I’ll just sleep better if we make it across the river. The land’s better across the river. We’ll find food there and friendly people.”
“You mean people who are alive?”
“Yes, and then we will make it to the coast and sail to our dear Aunt Lucille.”
“Auntie,” Paula smiled thinking of their relative. She had only seen her picture in a frame her mother kept in a drawer. Aunt Lucille, her mother’s sister, was the only relative they knew. She would take them in when she learned of their misfortune. Mother had said Auntie was kind and loved to give children treats and sweet things, that she lived in a palace in a far away land, and that one day they would meet her when the time was right. Paula did not think this is what her mother meant about the right timing, but it would have to do. It was their only hope.
Paula gripped Mason’s hand tightly as they walked past the tombs. He did not care that her nails bit into his skin. They walked like that, hand in hand with the dog pressed against Paula’s leg, until they reached the edge of the graveyard. Paula exhaled. Nothing had happened.
“Don’t stop now. We have to make it to the river.”
She looked at Mason and then at the sinking sun. She turned back to their destination and calculated, inaccurately as she was not accustomed to such mathematics, the time to distance between them and the river.
They reached the riverbank. The sun hung just above the horizon, it’s red glare bleeding across the desert floor. The river was neither wide nor deep. It was a desert river, small and threatening to dry up. The dog lapped the water and Paula thought to bend down for a drink, but Mason jerked her hand.
She looked at him, but he said nothing. He stared over her shoulder at the tombs and from his expression she did not want to see what he saw. The dog looked up at the children and then his ears caught a sound in the silence that a human cannot hear. He lowered and stuck out his head. A slow rumble in his throat increased to a vicious growl. The dog glanced up at his master and awaited his command. He was ready to charge or flee, only he must have a word to obey.
Mason whispered, “run!”
Thank you for reading. I hoped you enjoyed the tale. I did not intend for this to be Halloween themed, but it sure worked out that way. Please leave a comment with your opinions. -Abby