Oscar’s city had never had a disaster. It had never undergone so much as a major flood, and had never had to rebuild. So, over centuries, it had expanded over top of what was already there, new housing built up and around the frames of the former, the buildings as much scaffold and addition as foundation and facade. In the daytime it had a hodgepodge beauty, too many too-close colors, like a blanket sewn from scraps.
In Oscar’s city, people made small talk about the buildings: new construction and old restoration. No one talked about the weather. It was always mild and usually overcast. Even when the lake didn’t shroud the sky in fog, the sun made itself known only once a day, streaming through only when setting and only where it could, peeking down single streets one at a time, glinting off the windows of the high-rises that anchored Oscar’s district, setting everything artificially aflame.
Right before night was when Oscar loved the city best. The streets were never empty. There was always some impromptu parade. The smell everywhere of meats frying. He wandered down the street looking in windows, scanning the ad boards lining the sidewalks, excited loopy chalk handwriting that promised piano men, steak dinners, amateur poetry, stripteases, all-you-can-eat. The lights growing bright everywhere in their different sizes and incarnations—smoky tavern lanterns, flickering convenience store fluorescents, the benign white globes of the streetlamps. Their halos bleeding into the evening, the blue of night washed over with a golden pearl pink. Out by the water was as dark as it got, standing at the end of the pier, watching the ghost sails on the horizon, water winking with the far-out beacons of commercial fishing ships. No stars in the city but these.
Oscar woke staring straight in the mouth of his new dark, the dark of the desert, its million stars winking but lighting nothing, the moon gone out in accordance with its schedule. The absolute he had come to know in the uncounted expanse of his imprisonment.
He flopped onto his front, scattering a tin of water and a handful of protein bars that had been strewn lazily across him like petals onto a grave. He pushed himself up from the ground. Not far away, a solitary lamp hung on the side of a building. Oscar lumbered toward it, every part of him exhausted, as if waking from a fevered sleep before the fever broke. If this was a station, if the driver’s mule and buggy were parked around the corner, he would take them while everyone slept; he would set off over that salt flat and find his city on the other end.
Oscar stopped. He remembered. This had happened once before.
This was the prison. The driver had dropped him back outside the prison.
Oscar whirled, squinting at the horizon for signs of the buggy, for wheel tracks in the dirt. The desert was dry, quiet, empty, and gave him nothing.
Oscar piled in both hands the scant food and water the driver had left him. He left the camp, half-asleep, dragging himself back out into the desert and toward the salt flat—the place from which the driver had always come, so must have gone.
He would make it. And he would make them take him somewhere new.
“Are you stupid,” said the driver when Oscar came to the next noon, waking squint-eyed, belly-down in the middle of the desert.
“I knew it,” he said, “I knew I’d find you.” And rolling over, found his neck, back raw and rare where the blues he’d been issued days back hadn’t covered him; the sun was cold but it was still a sun. He’d gotten himself a burn.
The driver stood leaning against the buggy, arms crossed. “You didn’t find me,” they said. “I came to pick you up. You are a job more persistent than most. Get in. I don’t feel like hauling your bones again.”
Oscar narrowed his eyes. “I’m not going back. Take me to the city.”
The driver paced over to him, boots leaving heavy prints in the sand. “There’s water for you in the back,” they hummed. “Food and a blanket. Salve for that burn, even, assuming you don’t just plan to dry up and turn to rock. Do what’s good for you.”
Oscar shook his head.
“Up you go, then,” they said, and slid the toe of their boot under his ribs, flipped him onto his side, grabbed him easily round his middle like he was a barrel of oats.
Oscar flailed, hissing as the sand bit into his burn. He kicked out against the ground. The driver’s arms were thick, but he slapped and shoved them; he fought his way free. He sat on his haunches out of reach, heavy-limbed from the exertion, from too much sun.
“You’re a weird one. Edgy,” they said. “That’s enough now. You’re tired.”
“I’ll go again,” he panted.
“Think you can best me? I’ll bite.” They settled into a low stance, the folds of the long black coat unfurling to match the wide spread of their legs.
“I’ll escape,” Oscar corrected. “And you’ll keep coming after me. I’ll keep it up till you help me get where I want to go.”
“Oh! I get to be involved in your foolishness,” they said.
“I’d rather do it without you, but I think I’ll fail less if you just help me.”
The driver would probably deny it, if he pressed, but he had found a weakness; they were amused by him a little, and he caught it, the sharp exhalation of a laugh.
“What a bad bargain,” they said.
“So, yes?” he asked. “You’ll drive me?”
They lowered their hat, walked away. Shaking out their wrists, shoulders, they adjusted the mule’s harness. But Oscar had seen the set of their jaw, and into the buggy he clambered, limbs all fluid, body numbly contacting with the rail, the plaster molding, the already-familiar backseat. Outside, the driver hoisted up onto the perch. They settled back into the seat with a long, even sigh like air escaping a tire.
Something in the way they hesitated scared him. Oscar swallowed though his mouth was parched. “Thank you, Iza.”
The driver looked back at him out of the side of their eye. “Who’s Iza.”
“Oh,” he said, and, making the fair trade, “My name’s Oscar.”
There was a stern bit of smile before Iza turned forward, shook the mule into an amble. “Welcome aboard, Oscar,” they said, and Oscar felt safe, shielded, warm.