The Southland is a largely unmapped expanse of desert, pin-marked now and again by one- and two-horse towns, and very rarely the occasional market city, places where the spokes of trade routes converge. But Sand is miles from anywhere else, and I don’t know what lies to the south, if anything.
At first, when Sand became nothing but a speck behind me—never more has its name seemed more fitting—I took to counting my steps. I counted for hours before I realized I was looking at my feet instead of at the bullet catcher. I thought for sure when I looked up he’d be long gone and that I’d be lost in no man’s land, where there is nothing but cacti and lizards that flick out their tongues like they’re telling jokes about you. But he was still there, a skinny black figure on the pan of the desert, shimmering in a way that was both magical and terrifying.
I’ve been tracking the bullet catcher for three days and my water is gone. So is my food. I began by walking in the footsteps of the bullet catcher, matching his long strides, drinking when he drank, eating when he ate, sleeping when he slept. But, somehow, I never manage to gain any ground. Dmitri’s hat is my only shade. My skin is burned and cracked and dirty. I had planned on sneaking up on the bullet catcher the first night, after he’d fallen asleep near his campfire, but how could I when he seemed to sleep for only moments? And when, at the end of so many long, hot miles, my legs were so tired I collapsed as soon as he stopped? And when there was nothing to hide behind anyway? No rocks, no bushes, no hills.
The wind picks up, a hot gust from the devil’s backside. The sand stings my skin like a million horseflies. The wind fills my eyes and nose and mouth with sand. I’ve stopped sweating, and it’s not getting any cooler—a bad sign. Next will be the light-headedness, then the hallucinations. Up ahead, the bullet catcher goes in and out of focus. And then he’s gone. I stop and blink dumbly at the spot on the horizon where he’d just been. But he doesn’t reappear. I look behind me, at my footsteps receding north. If I turn around, I’ll never make it back to town. Then the wind blows away my footsteps, like I’d never been there at all. And I realize, terribly, that I have no choice but to soldier on after the bullet catcher.
By late evening, the bullet catcher has not reappeared, and his tracks are increasingly faint ahead of me. I’m going to die out here. I thought it would be more frightening, dying, but after so many days walking it’s a relief. It would be easy. I could just lie down, right here, and let the sand cover me like a blanket. But my legs, clumsy as they’ve become, keep stumbling forward on their own. I’m not frightened and I’m not sorry. Not even a little bit. Nikko and I share this fate, six years apart. We will both have died out here, under the big, wide-open sky. At this moment, I feel closer to him than I have in years.
The sun finally sets. For about the length of two breaths, everything is perfect. The wind is cool, the sand doesn’t sting, the piercing blue sky turns dark and colorless. Then the temperature drops. Drops through the floor. It locks my knees and brings new pain to my sunburns. The cold splits my lips, and I lick them to get that little bit of moisture. I’m thinking about Nikko, thinking that soon I’ll lie down and fall asleep and when I wake he will be there with me, and then I stumble over something soft but firm and fall face first into the dirt.
I roll over on my back, fairly certain I’m not dead. Everything hurts too much. My skin is fried, my mouth is full of sand, my legs and feet throb. The cold night air has one hand on my heart. Hell has to be less of an ordeal than this. But the view! The view in heaven can’t be any better. From heaven everything below must seem so small, so insignificant. How can that view be as beautiful as looking up at this dark, limitless dome? What is black at first reveals itself as velvet purple and blue, brilliant with the sharp light of a billion stars.
When we were kids, before we went to live with the Brothers and Sisters, Nikko and I would stretch a sheet over our heads and poke it full of pinholes. Above the sheet, we’d hang candles. It was like sleeping under the real desert sky, only better, because it was warm and Nikko was there, and there were no snakes. When a bit of the colored candle wax dripped onto the sheet, it would expand slowly in a small violet or pink or blue circle.
Nikko would point and say, “Look, those are stars exploding.”
Tonight, as I gaze up, all but unable to move from the pain and cold, the sky looks much like those warm, safe nights of my childhood with my brother. It’s a million miles away in every sense, but it doesn’t matter. The feeling of my lips,...