Oscar stared with blank gaze at one of his maps etched in the desert floor. Here was the prison, and here was the salt flat, and here was the mountain, and here—was it?—the crevasse that Iza had showed him, the escape. He tapped the end of his stick in the dust at his feet, and then to the spot on the map where he wanted to be. He did it one thousand times, growing, each time it failed, more convinced that it would work. If he could just do the spell, he would summon himself to Iza’s spot.
He bit a leftover protein bar perfectly in half and held it in his mouth till it was gone. He drew another map in another corner of the yard. Come get me, he whispered each strike, to the jagged rhythm of his bitter heart.
This also did not work.
Oscar’s nerves festered; his mind numbed. He walked the long sun-bleached alley of his neighbors’ tents. He peeked inside and, finding them empty, infiltrated, rifling through the dark beneath their beds, taking what supplies he could find. No one came to stop him.
He walked out of the prison yard. He walked into the desert. He made it as far as the salt flat, and though he knew he must go further and to where he must go, sleep took him easier the harder he fought. For every few yards of gain he spent an eternity in the dirt, stranded mid-movement, flattened by effort, a shadow smeared across the ground.
The mirage of Iza’s buggy visited him often, a flash of hubcap that fast dissolved, haunting him as much as it thrilled. Oscar no longer wanted to take the driver’s seat. He just wanted Iza to grant him passage. He wanted them to find him worthy of the chance.
Yet this pitiful progress continued, and Iza did not come. By now he knew the rules: it was because there was more in him, because he was not yet worn down. They wouldn’t come till he was past hope.
As he walked his pack grew lighter, though he had not once reached into it, though he’d stuffed it to the limit of what it could carry. Lighter still, until at last it was empty. Until he passed into unconsciousness, again, again, and woke no further than he was before, and found himself without a pack at all, debating weakly whether he’d ever had it.
Weeks, months of inching through the desert, his limbs useless, his stomach a stretched-thin, too-tight balloon. Here, at last, approached the buggy on the horizon, shimmering in the heat. How bright, long, and angry the sun had grown, its echo stretching along the salt and lighting it ablaze, a blinding white road. The buggy rocked forward to meet him. The seat was empty. It had driven itself.
Oscar woke in his bed where Iza had put him.
In the low light of early evening, not far outside his tent, the voices of the prisoners carried to him. They were festive, socializing, laughing over cards.
Oscar felt grimy, matted with sweat. Dimly he became aware that he had been in a fever sleep much of the time he’d thought he was awake; that in some number of days, he wasn’t sure how many, he hadn’t left his bed. Several minutes he lay awake as, outside, the prisoners talked. They all spoke his language, but he could not keep track of what they said. Their talk was sometimes irritable, sometimes whining, sometimes sad. Whatever the words, they always came easy. Too free, for prisoners.
Oscar chewed the ends of his moustache. He stared up into the center of the tent where the canvas peaked until the world got back its texture, became real.
At last thoughts arranged themselves correctly in his mind. He was past the foolishness, the false determination.
Oscar left his tent. The other prisoners hailed him, sent up a hurrah. “Hey good buddy,” they said, and similar. “You’re up and about.” Oscar walked on past them and they did not mind. They were used to it from him.
Some one of their number, around less long, asked, “What’s his deal again?”
“He was some kind of city engineer,” said the dealer. “Water quality or some such.”
“I mean what’d he do,” pressed the newbie.
“We don’t talk about that here,” said his partner, teacherly, patient.
Oscar stood in front of the heap of broken-down bricks where Kurt had met his end. He scoured the desert floor until he found a pebble he liked. Straightening, he lobbed his wrist and cast the pebble into the pit between bricks. His face belligerent.
“Whoa,” said the patient card player. He pointed to the others what was happening.
“Hey guy,” said the dealer, rising, edging toward him. “You’ve got to watch out.”
Oscar pitched another rock into the pit. There was no hiss and nothing to warn him to stop. He hiked up his pants legs and let his shoes fall off.
“Cut it out,” the dealer yelled, slamming his fist full of cards down on the table. More prisoners now were gathering, drawn outside their tents by the panic in the dealer’s voice. They crept toward the pit of bricks; they pointed. One of them, seeing, dug his knuckles into his eyes to unsee, voice rising in a hollow wail.
Someone explained to the newbie what was going on. “He’s a moron,” said the newbie, plucking cards from his hand and rearranging them. “Them sidewinders’ll get you.”
Oscar mounted the brick with his bare leg. There was a snake there. He would be bitten. There was a snake there and he would be bitten. He stomped his foot down into the center of the pit.
If the other prisoners were still there, he couldn’t hear them. Something pierced his leg, but there was no sting.
The castoff brick was gone. The tents gone. The fences gone. And the cracked, crusted desert beneath his feet now turned loamy and cool; he collapsed onto it and as he fell it held him up.