Back in the tail-end of the last century I was traveling through the American Southwest on my own when my car broke down in the middle of nowhere. Cellphones weren't nearly as common as they are now, and even if I had one I doubt there was any chance I'd ever pick up a signal. After waiting about two hours without seeing any sign of life on a road apparently only I had chosen to travel, I figured I'd hoof it towards a gas station I'd seen what seemed like ten, fifteen miles back.
As fate would have it, not ten minutes after I started walking, something started to move on the horizon. At first I thought it might have just been a hallucination. I hadn't been smart enough to be sure I had water when I first started driving through the desert and the temperature was easily breaking three digits. But the further I walked the more real the image became. And the more real it became, the more horrified I grew.
I'm not sure if it was the black cloud of exhaust that seemed to have a life of its own or the roaring engine that sounded like every factory built since the Industrial Revolution were shaking themselves apart under their own raw power, but I knew immediately this was not going to be the source of any sort of help. I stood feeling eternally motionless just staring at this monstrosity thundering towards me. Maybe it was a slight breeze or the sound of vultures that snapped me out of my terrified trance, but I finally started looking around me for a place to hide. There was nowhere to go. No place to run. Maybe if I pretend to be a rock they won't see me I thought. Heat stroke was settling in. I could just start to make out the outline of the beast when I began contorting my body and performing somersaults. I'm a tumbleweed. A non-descript tumbleweed. Nothing to see here. It was a pick-up truck, but one unlike any I'd ever seen. Its body was a mish-mash of rusted metal and poorly tanned leather, all pulled over what I imagined were innards that had long deserted their Detroit origins. Flames shot from the exhaust pipes, and even under an unrelenting burning sun, the headlights shined bright, boring right through me.
I am part of the desert. I am sand. Sand that just messed its pants, but sand nonetheless.
The truck never showed any signs of slowing. One moment it was speeding along with little regard for what stood in its way and the next it was simply stopped. The smell of melting rubber and old, recycled motor oil filled the air. The engine no longer growled, but black exhaust and flames still spewed forth from wherever they chose on this four-wheeled Frankenstein. An otherwise silent scene was interrupted only by the faint sound of my whimpering. I was on my knees. A tear ran down my cheek.
I am a crying cactus.
I could hear the sound of metal upon metal as the driver side door creaked open. An old boot fell to the ground, slowly followed by another. Below the chassis I watched as they made their way around the truck. There seemed to be a limp. One foot moving more slowly than the other. A new smell was present. Many years later I would learn it was the scent of blood.
I am just a mirage. I'm not really here.
The boots walked off the road and I could hear them crushing every piece of stone that hadn't yet turned to sand. One dragged after the other until they came to a stop just in front of me. I didn't dare look up.
"Well well well," a wheezing, graveled voice said. "A new toy."
I am nothing.
And then I blacked out.
When I came to, the heat and bad odors had been washed away by cool air and the smell of clean leather. I was in the backseat of what appeared to be an air-conditioned sedan. A single man sat in front, humming a tune as he drove.
"Ah, you're awake."
I tried to say something, but words wouldn't come out.
"Don't try to talk, buddy. There's a bottle of water back there. Drink some of that before you do anything else."
I looked around. Next to me was a folded up wheelchair. Leaning against it was a gallon jug. I unscrewed the cap and let water pour down my throat. I started to cough. The man laughed.
"Hey now, slow down. You're going to make yourself sick. It's a good thing I drove by when I did, yesiree. People always make the mistake of trying to drive this stretch of road without checking their cars first or making sure they have enough water. It may be 1998, but you still have to treat this land with the same respect pioneers did a hundred years ago. You were walking the wrong way, you know, if that was your car I passed. Isn't nothing in that direction that could've helped you. But I know of a gas station another half-hour or so this way that'll get you all fixed up and on your way again."
"Thank you," I said. "But, the truck? What happened with that truck?"
"Truck? Wasn't any truck so far as I could see. You were nearly unconscious when I found you, just laying there on the side of the road. It's damn hot out here, and you didn't have any water. Sure as hell weren't dressed right for hiking in the desert. Probably just hallucinating. That's it. No. No. There was no truck. Nobody but you and the desert."
I shook my head, trying to clear it. So I had just imagined it all. All the fear I had existed only in my mind.
"Name is Stearns," he said, "Elliot Stearns. I'm just out for a little drive, checking things out, giving my two-cents to whoever'll take it. Sometimes I write it down. Got myself a computer back home and think I might put it all in there someday if I can ever get the hang of it. Kinda like an electronic diary. Maybe some other folks might like to read it. Oh, who am I kidding? I'm probably the only one who cares."
"I'd read it."
"Sure you would, kid. Sure you would. Guy who sees things after spending just a little time in the desert. Just the audience I'd want." Stearns laughed.
I readjusted myself in my seat. The water was making a world of difference. Everything started to come into focus. Eyeing up the wheelchair, I noticed with a slight jolt that propped up next to it was a shotgun. The craftsmanship was beautiful. The metal was clean and glistening. Intricate detail was carved into the stock. Only, it was marred. For along the top were a series of what looked to be rough, hand-cut notches. One was obviously fresher than the rest.
"Nope...no truck at all."