Leaving California in 1969

Submitted for Contest #6 in response to: Write a story about a family road trip.... view prompt

The air in California is different than everywhere else. California air is sweet like hummingbirds and ocean salt and no matter where I am — even in the mountains — breathing tastes sweet on the tongue but just barely. 

We can’t live in California anymore because it is time to go to the desert. Charlie said it was time and that’s why it is. Charlie talks about the war that’s coming. Everyone is going to die in the war except us and that’s why we’re in the desert. The war won’t be in the desert. 

The desert air tastes like ash. The dirt is a part of the air and the dust never settles because it’s light like molecules and joins with the air. Everything joins with the air in the desert. It’s flat like the ocean and if you look far enough you can’t tell where the desert ends and the sky begins. 

When I was little I remember learning about lightning. I was scared of the lightning and my mother told me I shouldn’t be scared because lightning only strikes the tallest thing and I was small then. In the desert there is nothing taller than I am and I know I am not safe. Charlie says that in the desert there is no lightning. I believe him because there is nothing in the desert.

In the night we drink water boiled with the root of Belladonna Nightshade. I think Belladonna and Nightshade are the most beautiful words I’ve ever heard and I wish I could be named something so beautiful. 

The nightshade rises in my stomach and I’m lying in the desert sand next to the black burnt rocks and I become like them. I become a desert thing that’s been made burnt and hard. I become like the desert animals with their rough stone skin. I feel myself carried in the wind like so many grains of loose dust and I worry the others won’t know where to find me when I’m spread all over this place.

Charlie and Squeaky find me and their voices are like water and I was so thirsty. The wind is strong and I warn them that we should go inside before our dust joins with the air. We walk back to the house and I see Tex huddled into a corner rocking back and forth. He is upset and muttering and I put my hand on his shoulder and tell him that his dust is strong as long as he stays away from the wind. 

Charlie tells me to sit down and he plays us all music and tells us stories about the underground city. Charlie plays guitar so wonderfully. We’re going to the underground city where there’s water and mountains and we are going to live there until the war is over. Any day now we will pack and go Charlie says. 

Tex can’t stop looking at his hands and so I tell him to go outside and wash them in the sand. Enough sand and heat cleans everything even bone even blood. There was something I knew about Tex. I knew it but I didn’t remember what I knew. But what I didn’t know was already there and I could feel it’s shape and the shape made me feel what I didn’t know. 

My hands are clean and it’s because I already washed them in the dirt earlier. My hands hadn’t been clean before. They hadn’t been clean since we left California. In California my hands had been red with blood and the water was too thin to clean them. The desert is full of blood and I can see it in the sand. I left my blood in the sand and now my hands were clean.

There is something about a house. I was at a house. Tex was at the house and there was yelling. Everyone was yelling and I was there but I was not yelling. All that noise is awful to think about. There isn’t any noise in the desert and its so quiet except for all that yelling. I tell Charlie about the yelling and he said there isn’t any. 

It’s dark in the desert and I’m outside hoping the wind might scoop up my dust. I want to be small. I want to be the smallest thing and live everywhere in a million pieces. I want to soak into the ground and become red and clean like the sand.

I’m remembering. We’re in the car by the house. The house has a gate and Tex is climbing and cutting something. It’s dark and we’re in the bushes and Tex is going up to the house. The night is sour and I can feel it inside me. But I’m making myself small to be caught up in the wind.

When the sun rises in the desert the world catches fire. And you can see it and breathe it and feel it. Everything burns except for me. I stay at the edge of burning between what is dust and what isn’t. That wasn’t clear in the Belladonna but I know it now. The wind won’t take me. Not out here. Not in the desert. 

I remember now what I had forgotten about Tex. He is holding a gun and the air tastes like iron. She is screaming and crying and there’s a knife in my hand. I put the knife inside her and that’s when my hands became red like the sand. I put the knife inside her until she was quiet and then there was no sound except the sound of me breathing. Tex calls my name and we go back to the car and back to Charlie. Then we leave for the desert.

Everyone is still sleeping when I see the men coming. They looked like war and I knew they were here for us like the wind for the dust. One of them asks my name. I tell them that my name is Belladonna Nightshade. Isn’t that the prettiest thing you’ve ever heard? I ask them if they can give me a ride to California. I hope that they will.

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