"...are still being calculated. Santiago is in chaos. The dead are expected to number upwards of five-hundred thousand..."
"Do we really have to listen to this death stuff right now?" Abby asked.
Her hand reached to turn the dial. Keith slapped it away.
"I'm listening to that. Driver controls the radio. Remember?"
"That hurt," she said, rubbing the top of her hand.
"Don't be dramatic. It was just a little swat."
"It wasn't little and it wasn't a swat. It was a slap."
"...too early to tell. Whole blocks of the city have been leveled..."
Abby held her hand in his face.
"See. It's red. Where you slapped it. S-L-A-P."
"I can't see the road."
He pushed her hand away and held up one finger in a give-me-one-moment gesture. She petulantly lowered her hand.
" ...Estella Hernandez reporting live from the aftermath of the devastating earthquake that occurred early this morning in Santiago, Chile. We will continue providing on-location coverage of this disaster. "
Through the static, the music returned -- Tampa Red. Keith reached over and gently pulled Abby's hand to his face, kissing it softly.
"Now, you know I would never want to so much as injure a single corpuscle of your being. Not an iota of a cell of a corpuscle."
He knew he was stretching with the word "corpuscle" and probably "iota" for that matter. But Keith figured if you used unfamiliar words enough, they would become understood through context. He liked teaching her things.
She giggled and let him continue kissing, little pecks on tan, though now slightly red, flesh. She pulled back her hand. Keith took his eyes off the road and looked at her. Through the windshield, the sun was setting over the desert in a majestic tide of orange and purple and peach. She lifted her sunglasses, perching them against a dense bun of blonde hair on the top of her head and squinted against the fading light.
"I forgive you... I guess."
"Boticelli couldn't do you justice."
"Boticelli. A painter. You know, the naked lady in the clamshell?"
"Not really," she sighed, brushing his hair back behind his ear. "You know, you're starting to gray around the temples a bit."
"They call that bit of white hair one's 'wisdom'."
"Then you're getting pretty damn wise."
He laughed and rolled down his window. The cooling desert air felt good. He felt good and began whistling along to Tampa Red.
"This is old fogey music."
Keith smiled and kept on whistling.
"My mom always said you could never trust a man who whistles," Abby said.
"And my grandmother always said gap-toothed women are wanton harlots with one thing on their minds."
Abby paused a moment, then reached over and squeezed his thigh.
"She's probably right," she whispered.
Keith shifted in his seat slightly, eyes jumping back and forth between the road and her hand and her eyes, trying to see if she was serious. She was.
It had no sign, but there appeared to be a rutted road to the right, so Keith jerked the wheel and pulled off the road, driving a few hundred yards in, through a decaying open gate. The road quickly went over a ridge and into a wide gully. Out of sight of the road, he slammed on the brakes in a cloud of dust.
He quickly unbuckled his seatbelt while Abby pulled her Eastern Colorado College t-shirt over her head.
Half-an-hour later he stumbled from the car. The sun was now utterly set beyond a butte to the west and the sky in the east was navy blue with stars poking out of it. He shivered against the air.
"We'd better get our tent set up quick, before all the light is gone."
He could make out Abby's form in the front seat as she awkwardly zipped up her shorts.
"Can you pull the trunk-release?" he yelled.
With a click, the trunk popped open and he pulled out a long blue nylon bag.
Abby's door opened and her long, tan legs swung out. She held a pair of old brown deck shoes.
"Are we just gonna camp here?" she asked, slipping on her shoes and standing.
"I suppose so. The other campsite is another twenty miles down the road and it would be completely dark by the time we got there. Look," he gestured toward the vista in front of them, red hills and cliffs rising, "It would be a shame to leave this, wouldn't it?
"But it could be someone's land. What if we wake up to some angry old rancher pointing a shotgun in our faces."
"We'll be very unobtrusive. No one will ever know we were here. Leave nothing but our footprints and all that."
By the time the last wisps of light were gone, they had their tent up and a small fire of mesquite wood going. Their love felt good and made of stuff as solid and old as the hills around them.
That night, they fell into a rich, deep sleep that seemed to have no bottom.
Keith woke first. As he yawned, his fists scraped the top of the tent where he felt a light coating of dew had collected. Abby groaned unconsciously as he wriggled free from the sleeping bag. With special care placed on not waking her, he pulled gently on the tent's zipper and emerged into a pastel world. Indirect light does strange things to those cliffs, wrestling beautiful, nearly extraterrestrial colors from them. Strangest of all was the silence. Pure and complete. He registered the sound of a lizard nearly ten yards away as it scuttled behind a rock.
The fire, issuing a small plume of smoke, was now a pile of cinders and ash and a few lost marshmallows. Beyond their tents, a small, nearly-dry stream bed dog-legged to the right. He slipped on his shoes and wandered over to it to take a leak.
Afterwards, he decided to explore a little farther. The creek wound around for another few hundred yards. Along the way, he examined some spiderwort and sedge growing along the gully's ledge. He paused for a few moments to examine a sun-bleached coyote skull half-buried in the sand. A colony of ants underneath erupted as he dislodged it. He flinched and dropped the skull and continued on.
After about a quarter of a mile, the gully terminated at the bottom of a red cliff, and he hoisted himself out and into the large, dark shadow of a hill.
As the first rays began to peek over the hills, he watched the horizon of the sunlight as it dipped lower and lower, illuminating the world around him. A world of jagged edges and irregularity. Then around the side of one of these cliffs, he saw something nature normally doesn't approve of: hard right angles, a rectangle, immediately standing out against the chaos of its environment.
He approached the rectangle, poking out of the ground, about six feet wide and a foot-and-a-half thick and about three feet tall. He placed his hand on it. It was cool and smooth. He licked his thumb and rubbed away some dust. Though it was hard to tell, it appeared to be granite.
"Damn," he muttered. "This thing must weigh tons."
He examined the sides of the rectangle. All perfectly smooth and gray. By now, the sun was well up in the sky and the earth was beginning to warm.
His fingers explored the base, which was unevenly buried. As he rubbed away the rock and earth, he jerked his head back almost involuntarily at what he saw. Writing. Text. An inscription of some sort. But only the tops of the letters were visible, impossible to decipher like that. He would need to dig to read it.
He looked around for some tool to help him. A heavy mesquite branch rested in the gully on the edge of the creek bed. He returned with that and began scraping away at the base of the rectangle.
It was really starting to warm up. Most desert creatures had found their way back into the shade of the earth. He sweated as he scraped away the dirt and rock, finally revealing the top line of text. It wasn't only letters, but numbers too, about eight inches high.
He stared at those characters for a while before actually comprehending them. Something in them, in their black-shadow contrast to the dull gray of the granite, made him slightly nauseated. Something in the horrible possibility of that name and those numbers put together at this moment in time.
Why just yesterday, all those people...
After what could have been half an hour, he broke free of the hypnotic possibilities of that inscription and checked his watch.
It was ten o'clock. Abby would be going crazy.
As he approached, he heard the engine crank. He began yelling and waving his hands. Just as Abby was about to pull away, Keith ran in front of the car. She turned off the engine and bolted out of the car and into Keith's arms.
"Where were you?" she sobbed. "I've been awake for two hours and I couldn't find you. I yelled and yelled for you."
He grabbed her by the shoulders and looked her in the eye.
"Darling, hold on. There's something very strange I need to show you."
"I don't get it," she said, crouching in front of the monument.
"Remember yesterday, when you were trying to change the dial while I was listening to the radio. They were talking about an earthquake in Santiago, Chile. They said they estimate the dead to number in the five hundred thousands. Look at that. 'Santiago 510,023.' Don't you think that's strange?"
"No," she said. "I don't. It's a word and some numbers. Who cares?"
She had been like this in his class, refusing to accept certain obvious truths, but before it had seemed cute; now, it was just infuriating.
"Plus, it's buried way out here," he said. "Literally in the middle-of-nowhere. What the hell is this thing doing out here? Who put it here? And how big is it? This thing could be fifteen feet tall for all we know. What else does it say?"
"Who. Gives. A. Shit? Let's get going. I want to get to the hotel so we can have some time to see the Grand Canyon today."
"I can't...just leave this."
"Look, there's a town, La Sima, about thirteen miles back. I want to go get a few supplies, a couple shovels, maybe some picks, some food, and come back here and dig a little more, okay dear? And then..."
"What the hell are you talking about? Stay here and dig this thing? It's Spring Break. I agreed to one night of camping, and the rest of the time with you in a suite at the El Tolvar hotel."
"One day, dear. That's all I'm asking."
She folded her arms.
"It'll be an adventure," he said.
Scowling, she turned around and headed back toward the car.
It was nearly noon before they were in the car and driving back down the highway toward La Sima.
"Don't be mad."
She didn't respond, so he turned on the radio.
"...reports are still coming in, and it may be weeks or even months before the full scope of the death toll will be known..."
The sun was directly above them now, parching the earth.
" The whole world is uniting to help the people of Santiago and Chile. Ships and planes with food and medical supplies are coming from as far away as Finland..."
La Sima was the name given to a nearly forgotten collection of a half dozen stores and maybe one hundred or so trailers huddling around the crossroads of two insignificant county highways.
At the Red-E Mart they picked up some sandwich meat, bread, water, and beer. Adjacent to the Red-E Mart was a kind of general store where Keith managed to convince the grizzled owner to sell him his own shovel and two flashlights for thirty bucks.
Back in the car, Abby shook some Nerds out into her palm.
"Darling, really...tomorrow, we'll be at the hotel, okay? One more day."
No response. Just the crunch of candy.
"Are you really that childish?"
"I'm not being childish," she snapped back. "It's just, you promised. I could have gone skiing with my friends in Breckenridge. Alison even offered to let me go with her and her aunt to Cozumel. Cozumel, Mexico, okay?" She was picking up steam. "They think I'm batshit in the first place for being with you. They think you're old and gross."
No punches were being pulled now.
"But I told them, no, you don't know him like I do and I want to spend a nice, relaxing week with him at the Grand Canyon. You will go out and take donkey rides down the sides of cliffs and I will get spa treatments because that's what you promised we would do."
"I know what I promised," he said finally. "We'll be there tomorrow."
He shut the conversation down by turning the radio back on.
" ...preliminary reports that another series of earthquakes have taken place near Africa's Afar Triangle, a series of fault lines converging along the Red Sea coast of Africa. Information is still extremely hard to come by at this time, but some early reports suggest that perhaps the entire country of Djibouti is quickly sinking into the Red Sea." The reporter paused, gaining her composure, sublimating the sadness in her voice. " If these reports are, in fact, true, the world has likely never seen devastation of this magnitude before. Nearly nine-hundred thousand people currently reside in the country..."
"Holy..." was all she managed.
They continued on in stunned silence.
Back at their campsite, Abby grabbed the bag filled with food and beer and Keith grabbed the shovel and flashlights and they headed down the riverbed toward the monument.
Back at the monument, two hours later, Keith had dug a two foot trench around the base of the monument uncovering a second line of text below the first that somehow in his heart he expected to find.
There, in the same simple, cold font: Djibouti 818,903.
Keith rubbed his fingers across each character, as if feeling them, touching them, would make them give up their secrets. Abby crossed her arms in frustration and walked around in circles, kicking stones and dust.
"I don't understand!" she yelled.
Keith got up calmly.
"It means we need to keep digging. It means that, maybe, somehow this monument knows things. It knows about catastrophes that have taken place or are about to."
"We need to tell people or something. How...how is this even possible? Who put this here? How does it know things? It...it must be a coincidence."
"We need to find out what else it says."
"We need to get the police or something. Tell somebody."
"You go do what you need to do. I'm going to keep digging."
"I can't go back by myself! Where would I go?"
"Then don't go. Stay here with me."
She sat down on the ground Indian-style and watched as Keith thrust the blade of the shovel into the brown earth.
It was dark now in their little corner of the desert. Keith dug another three feet down but no more text had appeared, only smooth, blank, silent granite. With a simian clumsiness, he climbed out of the hole and sat next to Abby.
"Maybe that's it. Maybe there is no more. You want a sandwich?"
"Just hand me a beer."
He snapped it open and drank, then set it down and turned on a flashlight. He crawled over to the edge of the hole and illuminated the face of the monument. He peered over every inch of the visible face of it, then sat back.
"If you're forced to dig a hole, that's bad. If you come out a good hole-digger, that's good," he said to himself.
"What are you talking about?"
"Something my mentor used to say. We've got to keep examining this thing. Keep digging. What if we can find the next line, maybe we'll be able to...I don't know...warn someone."
"Maybe there's nothing more. Come on, let's head back to the car, pack it up, and drive to the hotel. We'll call the cops from there. There's nothing more to do here. And if you want to come back some other time you can. This thing is definitely not going anywhere."
He gripped the handle of his flashlight tightly.
"I'm not leaving this!" he growled.
Abby flinched and bit the inside of her cheek. Then she stood, grabbed a flashlight and began walking back toward the gully.
"Where are you going?" he yelled as she rounded the corner of the cliff.
He grumbled and ran toward her. As he rounded the corner, he nearly tripped over her as she was kneeling down on the ground crying.
He knelt down beside her and wrapped his arms around her.
"It's dark and I just want to go home," she said between heaves, like a homesick kid at summer camp.
"Oh, don't say that, dear. I just need a little more time here."
"I don't want to be here. I don't want to be here with that thing. Let's just go back home."
She wiped away her tears and looked at him.
"How about this: we go back to the tent, eat dinner, have some fun, sleep well, and head out after breakfast. Does that sound okay? No more digging."
She looked at him like she wanted to believe him.
Though his sore arms and legs nearly refused to cooperate, he stood slowly then held out his hand and pulled her up. Hand in hand, as the sun set, they walked back the gully to the campsite.
That night, Keith couldn't sleep. He knew Abby would be furious if she knew, but he decided he would just spend an hour or so more digging at the monument. She wouldn't have to know. Around one o'clock, he sneaked out of the tent grabbed the flashlight and shovel and headed to the monument. The plump moon wandered silently among the pepper of stars.
God, how I miss stars , he thought as he groped his way along the gully.
Finally, he reached the monument. He hopped down in the hole with his flashlight and shovel and got to work, desperate to find the next line that he knew, he was certain, must be there.
As he dug, the shovelfuls of dirt and rock piled up on the ground above him. The depth of the hole and the persistent crunch of the earth were all that could be heard.
The face of the monument was still giving away no more secrets. Then he saw it. The top of the next characters. Six feet below the previous one, the next line was being revealed.
His water bottle stood on the lip of the hole he had dug. Standing on his tiptoes, he felt around for it, intending to pour it on the granite and wash away the dust. He wasn't aware, however, that the dirt he had been flinging had disturbed a rattlesnake's nest. As his hand blindly felt around, he felt a powerful sting between the thumb and forefinger of his left palm. His hand shot back, trembling, with searing red needles of pain coursing up and down his arm. Had he been able to see above the lip of the hole, he would have seen a large rattlesnake slithering in sine waves back beneath a nearby rock.
He reached down for his flashlight to get a better look at the flesh now already swollen around the fang marks, out of which a few clear drops of venom dripped.
Panic does strange things to the brain. For a few moments he merely stared, shocked, perhaps hoping that it was an insignificant injury and the swelling would go away if he wished hard enough. As the boiling pain continued however, he then imagined he could suck out the venom like he had seen on TV. He placed his lips against the puncture wounds and began to try to suck out the venom. Some fluid came out which he spit, but it didn't seem to do much good, besides the edges of his vision were beginning to blur a little.
Okay. Just get out of the hole. Get back to Abby .
His left hand, and now wrist, were unusable. He tried grabbing above the rim of the hole with his right hand. It was difficult for him to find an angle at which he could hoist himself up, add to that the simple fact that his arms were now nearly crippled with aching and soreness. But he tried anyway.
Reaching over with his right arm and placing his feet flat against the smooth granite of the monument, he attempted a kind of shimmying, which quickly proved impossible. The swelling in his hand was increasing. He was overcome by nausea and began dry heaving. His head pounded and his clothes were soaked through with sweat.
He leaned against the base of the monument to think for a moment.
"Abby! Abby! Help!" he yelled weakly into the dark.
He had removed his watch because it was constricting his wrist. The glow-in-the-dark numbers revealed it was only three o'clock. She wouldn't even be up for another four hours probably.
That girl sleeps like a grizzly bear , he thought. Then, his mind was filled with images of a grizzly bear biting into his arm and ripping it off, its teeth severing the forearm off at the elbow.
Maybe that's what I need to do. Maybe that's what I must do. No one will find me if I don't. Like that kid in that movie who had to cut his arm off.
The only thing available for performing such emergency surgery was the shovel. He grabbed it and examined the blade. It had small serrations along the tip. His forearm had already swollen as far as his elbow. He placed the shovel to the joint and wondered if he were even able to do it. Even lightly pressing the tip to his skin sent blinding shockwaves of pain. He wiped his forehead.
Is this something I can even do? Of course, I can. No. Impossible.
He was unable to tell how long he debated himself. Minutes? Hours? Time moved inconsistently now. His tongue was filling up his mouth. He dreamt about the water bottle he knew to be only a few feet above him, out of reach. Finally, he let the shovel slip from his hands. He didn't have the strength to do it anymore, even if he could summon the will.
He tried to stand up, but he couldn't. The flashlight battery had nearly gone out, but it didn't matter because the sky was beginning to lighten.
He lay down awkwardly on the bottom of the hole and faced the dark surface of the monument. Above, written in granite, were two announcements of untold catastrophe, below them for six feet extended a surface as featureless as the blackness of deep space. And there, inches away from Keith's face, just peeking above the soil were the new words. He pointed the dying flashlight toward the monument, and with the fingernails of his right hand, he began to claw at the dirt, scraping away at those letters.
He didn't dare look at his left arm, the skin of which now began to hemorrhage, split open, and peel away. The pain almost ceased having special meaning anymore. It was all that existed.
I would give anything for a drink of water. Wait. Is that Abby's voice?
And still, his fingers slowly clawed away at those letters.
Abby's hand. I didn't mean to hurt it. Honest. I hope she knows that.
Down in that hole, Keith imagined he could feel a rumbling, a groaning deep in the earth, like the times he would lay his head on Abby's belly and listen. But by now, it was impossible to say what was real and only in his mind.
Above Keith and the monument and the hole, that beautiful pastel desert world blossomed as, with his final moments of consciousness, Keith read what the next line said.
Of course , he thought, smiling, and then closed his eyes.
About the Author
Hadley Griffin is a teacher, writer and professional hero. He lives with his wife in Montgomery, Alabama.