“You know? Maybe this is a sign from the universe. Nowadays we live life so fast we’d hardly even notice if it ‘poofed’ into thin air! Think about how much we’ve missed trying to rush to the end instead of trying to enjoy things as they come. Maybe we all need to just slow down, take the easy route, you know?”
“Rael you crashed the goddamn car.”
“You blew up the engine, destroyed the hood, there’s a cylindrical dent in the roof…”
“Because you were going so fast you somehow crashed into a cactus.”
“Exactly! We were going too fast, the universe made us slow down!”
“It’s a straight road! In the middle of the desert!”
Jonah put his head in his hands and screamed, a cry of anguish echoing for miles. If anyone had been remotely nearby, the two would’ve been saved fairly easily. But they weren’t so lucky, not even close. If there was some contest for ‘unluckiest people ever,’ the two of them would be walking on stage right now to get their trophies. Well, Jonah would. Hell, he’d be ecstatic to finally have retribution for years of pain, maybe trip over himself as he walked onstage to really sell the deal. Rael would probably forget to set his alarm and end up drooling on the couch. Typical Rael. But no, they weren’t so lucky for that either. Instead they were sitting on a roadside in the middle of Arizona. Surrounded only by dirt, dried up bushes and cacti for miles around, and a totalled Corvette, they were completely and utterly screwed. The road they traveled, Route 173, stretched across the open desert, connecting a small handful of towns miles away from Phoenix’s outer rings. The road was seldom traveled, so seldom repaired and thus traveled less. It was a wild road, a factor that contributed to the accident, while also making it unlikely help would ever come. The sun had already awoken, and without any shade or air conditioning, it would seem the universe had a slow, hot death planned for the duo. Jonah released a deep sigh, his only comfort that it wasn’t his car. If only Rael had been able to drive in a straight line. No, if he’d never asked Rael in the first place, they wouldn’t be here. Rael, however, was quite content. He had a chance he’d only dreamed of for years, spending another day with his best friend.
Rael glanced at his stalwart, sobbing companion. He wrapped an arm around Jonah, who was too sad to resist. Part of him felt bad for crashing the car. Rael’d always been a happy-go-lucky type kid, the go-with-the-flow always-get-in-trouble kind. Office jobs and business nonsense was his personal hell, he’d learned that from the week it took him to get fired last year before he returned to his perpetual state as high-school-dropout-amateur-guitar-player. He’d always thought them a waste of life. Jonah was a perfect example with his short but uncombed hair, unnaturally grey for a man in his twenties, baggy eyes and business shirt. But regardless of what he thought about them, this had been a day of great importance. Yeah, Rael felt very guilty, even if he didn’t know why it was so important, but he refused to show it. It was against his principles to submit to negative emotions. They were here now, and he was going to make the most of it. He patted Jonah on the shoulder. “It’ll be alright.”
Jonah wanted to punch Rael. Hard. ‘It’ll be alright?’ What a load of crap. Yet, he couldn’t. He knew Rael didn’t mean it, not really. For how many times Rael got sent to the principal's office during their eleven years at school together, it was never because he actually meant to do something bad. He was just being annoying. Usually it was the dress code, that waterfall of hair dyed a million colors, the tank top and shredded jeans. He looked like a walking chemical spill, still did in fact, but he was harmless. The worst thing Rael did was pull the fire alarm once in high school to get out of finals. It was quite a surprise for people learning he was best friends with the stereotypical All-As-Chinese-Nerd. Jonah chuckled, his mind drifting back to this distant memory. It’d been what, six years since they’d last talked? Back then Rael had dreamed of being some rockstar movie actor. Jonah had wanted to be an architect. He wiped away the last of his tears and stood up, taking in the arid landscape. He looked down at the weirdo beside him, lending a hand. “Need help?” Rael grabbed hold. “Sure thing.” In the end neither of them had lived up to those dreams. They were both still in the same spot, lost in the middle of nowhere.
“So, Mr. Sir PhD Esquire… what now?” Rael rested his hands on his hips, grinning as they stepped into the sands. Jonah frowned.
“No clue. We could try to get help. You think anyone lives here? Maybe a rancher or something?”
Rael pouted, an unusual occurrence for him. That never failed. For all the years he’d known Jonah that never failed. Sure, it stopped being actually funny years ago but it always got some reaction. Rael’s pout shifted, genuine worry creeping in. Maybe things had changed too much. Just as Jonah turned, Rael hid his expression. “You have your phone on you? Mine’s…” He gestured towards the accordioned front of the car. “Not available.”
Rael patted his pockets.
“Well we’re screwed.”
“C’mon, we gotta try! Besides, a hike’ll be good for you. Maybe we’ll find something cool!”
A moment of silence, uncomfortable silence. Rael leaned down to scoop up some sand. He had another idea.
“This sand… the consistency, the texture… it’s just like… the sand of the desert of Imagland!”
Imagland. That stupid name. It hit Jonah like a bullet.
“God, I can’t believe you remember that! That was fifteen years ago!”
“What? It was fun! Making stories, playing pretend, running ‘round the sandbox. I’m not exaggerating, it does feel like that sand, I remember what my favorite sand feels like! Plus you remember Imagland too!”
Jonah scoffed, a smile creeping onto his face.
“Rael, it’s sand of course it’s similar… It’d be nice to go back. Not having to worry about grades or work or rent.”
Jonah looked out across the wilderness. He could see. The scarlet-hued mesas transformed into a plastic fortress, the capital of Imagland. Cacti morphed into the monkeybars, a treacherous jungle full of monsters. A packrat’s den formed the maw of the tire-swing, a portal to another realm. And of course the sandbox, the desert of creation, manifesting in the oceans of sand flowing into the horizon. Here he was again, looking over his kingdom alongside his mischievous yet loyal right-hand-man, Lord MC Junior III. Such wonderfully simple days.
“You said Mr.. It’s Dr. Sir Smart PhD Esquire.”
Rael released a big toothy grin.
“You do remember!”
The two laughed together, chatting a while about their youth as they strolled through the sands of the past. When the laughter died, replaced with silence, it was different silence, a warm silence. Companions, walking side by side.
Their memories were disintegrated by the noon sun. Growing up in a small desert town with poor air conditioning, the two were used to heat, but there was only so much they could withstand. Their skin had begun to crack.
“Let’s head back.”
“Mhm. Looks like Imagland Castle will have to wait another day. A tragedy.”
“Or another fifteen years knowing us. Why haven’t they overthrown us?”
“Because we’re just that goddamn cool.”
The metal car was painful to even look at in the heat. It’d already been a hot mess, but this was too much. Jonah froze in disbelief. He couldn’t believe he thought up such a dumb joke. Just spending time around Rael was intoxicating. If he spent any longer he’d be too deranged to work. Then he’d lose his job, his whole life, then he’d be no better a position than Rael himself. Not that he was going to make it. Based on the sun he was supposed to arrive at the airport an hour ago. He might as well give into the lunacy, but principle forbade him. Maybe someone would find them, maybe he could catch a late flight, maybe the boss would understand. There was still hope for salvation.
Rael yelped as he opened the trunk, burning himself on the metal before being trampled by a wave of luggage. Jonah brushed off his thoughts and went to get his bags. From within his backpack, he pulled out a bottle of water. Glorious water. Though scaldingly hot, it was a miracle for the two chapped boys. Jonah took a gulp before wordlessly handing it to Rael. A moment of heavenly relief before they returned to scorching reality. There was no shade to hide in, so the two just sat there, gazing off into nothingness.
“I’m sorry, by the way.”
“About crashing the car. I know how much this meant for you. I got energetic and went too fast. It was a stupid mistake-”
“You got that, idiot.”
“I’ve missed you, that’s all. We never see each other anymore! Then there I was, on the couch eating pizza, and you text me for the first time in years, saying you need a ride to the airport! I was ecstatic! And that’s why I had so much energy. And I’m sorry for messing you up all those times in high school, and… Ugh. This isn’t an excuse. Just wanted to say my peace.”
Jonah analyzed Rael’s expression. For once he couldn’t get a read on his emotions. He’d gotten so good at it in school, he could predict when he was about to cause a scene just from the smirk. But now, he was unsure. Maybe it was just time, but Jonah'd never seen so somber of an expression on his face. He felt guilt wash over him. He hadn’t realized.
“I’m sorry too.”
“For ditching you. It’s just, I needed to focus on school then college then work. And after the fire alarm incident… I know you didn’t mean it. I meant to reconnect but I lost track of time. I only messaged you yesterday cause my car broke and I needed a ride. You were the first person I thought of, don’t know why.”
“Aww, Joney missed me?”
“No! It’s not like that. I mean, this was a big deal. My company had this business trip planned since we’re signing off a massive contract. Boss wanted me to be there, to help with the pitch. This was my last chance! Either this got me promoted or fired. I’d been having bad luck with work, I really needed this, and- I got too caught up in the future. I used you. I shouldn’t have done that. I should’ve been a better friend. I most sincerely apologize.”
Rael was dumbfounded for a second before the elastic smile stretched over his face again.
“Under one condition! We hang out again. After… this.”
Jonah simply sat there, content.
“Hey I’m gonna… get something from the trunk. Be back in a sec.”
Rael stood, walking delicately. As he began his journey, Jonah watched closely. Indescribable confusion overcame him. He couldn’t decide whether the sight was of sheer luck or misfortune. So many things had to happen to spot this. The back of Rael’s shirt rode up an inch, exposing his back pocket. The sunlight reflected just right, hitting something... glass? The fact he’d been watching was sheer coincidence. But now, everything had changed. Rael had his phone.
“Stay right there. Don’t move.”
Jonah slithered to his feet, sneaking behind Rael, who stood frozen, one hand in the trunk.
Rael was shaking. His body ached from fatigue, but more than that he was scared of Jonah. He knew that look. He’d seen it once before, on the worst day of his life. He felt Jonah’s shadow loom over as he stepped behind. He braced for impact.
“What’s in your pocket?”
Jonah reached down and fished it out. He clicked the power button. The screen flashed on. Rael turned, anxiety coursing through him.
“Jonah. I can explain.”
“Explain? Rael what is wrong with you!?”
Here it came, the anger. Resentment for the misfortune, the unspoken sacrifices, the missed opportunities. All this bad luck, because of him. Rael, for the first time in his life, truly felt fear. Jonah exploded.
“YOU HAD YOUR PHONE THIS WHOLE TIME?”
“No, YOU, ‘please!’ We could have died. I thought, this might be our LAST DAY ALIVE, and you held salvation in your hand and you refused to give it to me. WHY? Because you MISSED ME? How selfish are you? I give up EVERYTHING for you, and even when I don’t you still more! YOU’RE the reason I couldn’t become an architect, why I missed out on my dream school. Every time you got caught, I bailed you out. When you were short on a car payment, I lended you money. When you needed help studying, I lost sleep tutoring you! And HOW do you repay me? By pulling a fire alarm during FINALS!? You get YOURSELF expelled, and get ME suspended by association, because we ALL know Rael and Jonah are best friends! You’re a bad luck charm, Rael! And when I TRY to reconnect with you, when I try to forgive you, you try to KILL US? KILL YOURSELF, DON’T TAKE ME TOO!”
Those eyes. Jonah knew these eyes. He’d seen them that day, the last day they spoke. When the alarms died, they were all he saw. A look of guilt, of shame. Eyes welled as the vision blurred. Jonah froze. What did he just say?
He heard only tears. A blur of light shoved past, launching Jonah into the trunk. Just like that he was gone. Footsteps pattered into the distance as Jonah sat dazed. At least in the trunk there was shade.
Five minutes passed as Jonah sat there, staring into the sky, thinking. The weight in his chest he had let lash out now bore ever deeper. He looked at the phone in his hand, gripping it tight. He knew what he had to do.
Jonah ran through the jungle, monsters swiping at him from the trees. Through the treeline, he could barely make out the shape of stone towers. As much as he’d love to kill the beasts pursuing him, he didn’t have time. He was out of shape anyway. With a last leap, he burst through the foliage, landing in the sand. Before him stood ruins of scarlet plastic. What had become of this place? As he stepped forward, Jonah adjusted his crown. Amidst the rubble stood a solitary figure, his hair flowing to the floor. The last resident of Imagland. “Rael.”
“...Lord MC Junior III?”
Rael turned, tears running down his cheek.
“You already said that.”
“I’ve failed you as king.”
“King of what? We’re king of nothing now!”
“I know. I shouldn’t have let this happen…”
Rael looked away.
“It’s too late. I’m sorry. Just leave me to die.”
No. He needed more. Jonah squeezed his eyes tight and thought. He imagined.
Around them the ruins flew back together, forming a grand hall, littered with stone tables and miserable peasants. At the front sat the figure of a young Dr. Sir PhD Esquire. Underprepared, overwhelmed. Hidden in the shadows lay Lord MC Junior III. Rael turned to face Jonah.
“Why are you showing me this? I get it! I hurt you!”
In cue, a blazing alarm went off. The peasants fled, leaving Doctor alone at his desk, Lord stepping out of the darkness. From the windows, knights clad in hideous armor swooped in, surrounding the duo. Lord turned to Doctor. “I’m sorry. I meant to do this for you.” Doctor’s face had turned red with rage. Their eyes met, one of rage, one of shame. Lord winced, bracing for impact. But nothing came.
“I know,” Doctor said.
“You pulled the alarm to get me out of finals. I was underprepared and you wanted to help. It didn’t work, but even if you hadn’t pulled the alarm, I would’ve failed anyway.”
“But, I ruined your life,” Lord protested, “you said it yourself, I’m a bad luck charm! I’ve ruined everything!”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Bad luck happens to everyone. The only difference is how we deal with it. I blamed it all on you, and did that make my life better? No! I’m a financial risk calculator! Kicking you out just made my life dull. It made both of our lives miserable. It’s not your fault, it was never your fault. I’ve missed you too.”
Lord stood there, stunned. The knights faded back into the shadow, leaving just the two of them. A whirring noise erupted as the roof of the castle ripped open, a spiral vortex looming overhead. A portal to another dimension, rumor had it. Spotlights and a ladder fell from the vortex, falling beside the two men. Doctor held up a remote, a magic device from another time.
Jonah reached out his hand.
“You ready to go on another adventure, bud?”
Rael grabbed hold.
“Let’s do this.”
As they flew up into the sky, they gazed down at the ruins of their old home, the sands flowing beneath them. It was ruined, but that didn’t matter. They were together again, and whenever they finished warping through this wormhole, they would tackle the dimension on the other side together. No matter what bad luck they faced this time, they wouldn’t face it alone.