They Said the Desert

Issue #199

They said those who died in the desert wandered forever in its loneliest parts. But the Crossers said a lot of fantastical shit as they passed the bottle around the campfire, and Jade wasn’t some doe-eyed girl anymore who swallowed their mad stories whole.

‘Course that was before she started crossing the desert herself. That was before she saw the ghost of her dead man in the middle of it, standing under the red oak tree.

Dominic’s ghost was easy to spot in the distance, even at a hundred strides away. He shimmered against the desert’s bleak, colorless sky, leaning against that broad and impossible tree trunk, smiling. And Jade’s first thought was Oh God, he knows.

She stopped walking—a dangerous thing to do in the desert—but even the hazy outline of Dominic was enough to halt her feet and catch the breath in her throat. Behind her, Billy pawed the ground nervously and nudged her shoulder as the dust began to swirl around their ankles.

Her second thought was Idiot, he’s just an illusion.

So, Jade gritted her teeth, pulled her boots out of the dust that was already swallowing their motionless feet, and with a firm grip on Billy’s reins, moved forward again.

If the desert wanted to stop her from reaching the other side, it was going to have to do better than that.

This wasn’t the type of desert where the sun hammered down on you, cooking you rosy until you were the right shade of dead. Here, the sun just didn’t give enough of a damn to bother. There was no rocks or coarse sand on the ground, no dunes or cacti either. Just the fine, sinking gray dust and the bland horizon that stretched out forever.

This place was a desert in the truest sense of the word, and here it was your imagination that got you killed.

She crossed the long gap between them, and the ghost waited for her. Grinning. His whole body was dark and murky, like a shadow in the shade, except for his teeth. Those were bone white.

“I don’t have time for this shit, Dominic,” Jade said, as she picked her way carefully around the tangled roots of the oak. A tree like this shouldn’t have been able to grow so large, much less thrive in such a desperate place. A tree like this shouldn’t have been here at all.

Sort of like her.

But here it was, and here she was, and she had deliveries to make and a whole town on the other side of this wasteland that was waiting for her to make them. Jade nudged Billy towards the small miserable pond nestled between the roots of the tree. She squatted on her haunches next to her horse. Pulled out her pocket watch. Paused it. All while the ghost just stared and grinned and grinned.

“Stupid illusion. Go away,” Jade hissed. She didn’t need to be haunted right now. She had enough to worry about, like dust wolves and pissing off the desert. She’d been walking for a day and a night straight, and she was only halfway across.

The ghost shook his head and stretched out a smoky hand towards her, the outline of his fingers reaching across the stale water. Wanting.

Jade stumbled back, half-tripping over roots, half-drawing the pistol from her belt. They said that those who died in the desert become like it. Mean and vengeful. In life, her man had been neither of those things. But who knew what sort of creature his ghost had become?

The ghost pulled back his hand slightly, the grin slipping from his face, his black-pit eyes rounding with surprise. He did not try reach out again. Instead, he pointed to Billy.

Jade replied by aiming her pistol.

There were power cells strapped high on Billy’s back and they were destined for a little town called Edge on the fringe of the desert. Edge needed them to survive, just like its sister town, Border, on the other side of this wasteland needed the returning grain. That alone made this trek across the desert worth the crazy risks.

But it wasn’t the cargo that Dominic was pointing at. His sights were set on one saddlebag in particular. The damning one. The one with the instructions and drawings on how to make those power cells. Something only the craftspeople of Border knew how to do. If delivered, it would destroy the Crossers’ livelihood and more. But if delivered, one day, no one would have to die trying to cross the desert.

‘Course, she shouldn’t be surprised that her ghost knew about those drawings, should she?

“This isn’t your choice,” said Jade. “You’re dead.” She and Dominic glared at each other over the stale pond, as if they were arguing over a simple thing like dirty dishes, like they used to when Dominic was a man of flesh and blood. A pang of grief and longing welled up unexpectedly in Jade’s chest, but she pushed it down, away. Focused on keeping her pistol steady instead.

As usual, it was Dominic who gave in first. He dropped his accusing finger and sighed, his whole silhouette sagging a bit.

Well, he doesn’t seem dangerous, she thought. But neither had the desert when she used to stand on its threshold, in Border, looking for her man on the horizon. Jade lowered her gun and gathered up Billy’s reins again.

“This isn’t your choice anymore,” she repeated, but in a whisper, as she started her pocket watch again and began walking away from the impossible oak tree.

‘Cause she was a Crosser now, not him. And she had made this trek across the desert a hundred times. With luck, she’d make it a hundred more and come through alive and sane. But what haunted her every mile, every footfall, was what to do with those power cell blueprints. She wasn’t sure if giving them to a few eager craftsmen in Edge was the right choice. She wasn’t sure if it was her choice to make at all, being that she was a Crosser by circumstance, not by blood.

Jade stole a glance backward and was startled to see Dominic trailing a few paces behind. He pointed to himself, then to Jade, then to the path ahead. Let me come with you, his eyes pleaded.

“No, I don’t want you here,” she said, making sure each word was a razor. Then, she fixed her eyes on the horizon and swore never to look back.

The ghost followed anyway.

They said the desert was once so narrow you could leap over it. Back then, anyone could travel from Edge to Border in one soaring step.

This was another favorite story the Crossers liked to tell over a fire and a bottle. And there was always a bottle of the best stuff waiting for them at the towns on either side of the desert. Perks of the job. She’d heard all of their tall tales when Dominic was alive, sitting at the campfire with his scrawny arms wrapped around her broad shoulders, back when he was a Crosser and she wasn’t. And she had clung to every word.

Since then, she’d discovered most of their stories were just mirages, dreams, and folktales. But slowly, she was learning which ones weren’t.

Her dead man kept pace behind them, dogging her like her worries, while she and Billy walked and walked. If she looked to her right or left and squinted, she could sometimes see vague outlines of other impossible landmarks: towering windmills, grand smokestacks, and things she didn’t have names for rising up out of the gray dust. She wondered if they were real or imagined, but if she thought about it too long, her head began to ache. If she stopped moving forward and paused to whisper a few soft words to Billy or to secure the precious cargo on his back, they began to sink into the ground.

“Why are you following me?” she asked Dominic over her shoulder, for the tenth or maybe the twentieth time.

Desert journeys were traveled alone because they were like walking a tightrope made of razor wire. You had to keep your feet nimble and your head empty. You needed to keep your dreams and fears to yourself. Carts, wagons, and traveling troupes always got mired in the dust because anything more than a person and a horse carried too much baggage for the desert to ignore.

The ghost walking behind her was damn burdensome.

What are you going to do? his eyes asked every time she looked back. Jade answered by scowling and kept on walking.

The desert hated change, so night fell slowly. The sky was a bruised, beaten color when Dominic ran a few paces ahead of her and stopped. Dust billowed around his dark feet, and in the dimness, he looked more solid than before. He pointed at the saddlebag with the instructions again and then drew a question mark in the air.

“Quit it,” Jade said, not breaking stride, too tired to argue with a dead man. “I’m the one who should be asking the questions, ‘cept there’s nothing for you to say.”

The ghost backed up and grinned, hands around his throat, miming soundless words with mock surprise as if he had just lost his voice. Every line of his body was bent in jest, and his eyes laughed at his own joke.

“Oh shut up.”

But she couldn’t stop the corner of her mouth from quirking upwards. Hell, the desert was getting to her if she was falling for his sense of humor again.

Jade picked up her pace.

It was completely dark when they reached the lost galleon. A monstrous boat that didn’t come with a history or explanation. It was as old as the Crossers’ stories and too large for the dust to swallow. That didn’t stop the dust from trying though, as it swirled and flung itself against the great hollow belly of the ship.

It was a good place to stop for a few hours, and Jade paused her trusty pocket watch. Time was an easy thing to loose sight of in the desert and the pocket watch kept her straight, counting the minutes she’d walked, reminding her that she was only a day away from Edge now. Billy munched on a few miserable patches of grass growing around the hull where the ground hadn’t sunk, as she unsaddled him and rubbed him down. Gave him some proper food.

Jade meant to eat a bit herself as she stepped through the large hole some Crosser had thoughtfully cut into the side of the ship, but her eyelids were so damn heavy. And tonight, like every night in the desert, would be nearly sleepless. The dust wolves were always hunting and dreams had a nasty habit of solidifying in this wasteland.

Inside, the old ship creaked mercilessly. The older Crossers mumbled about the things that lived in its bowels. Jade sat down only a stride or two away from the hole. She had more than enough of their stories for one day.

The ghost of Dominic sat down beside her.

What the hell am I doing here? she thought, rubbing a hand over her face. Dominic had the same question. He pointed at her and drew another question mark in the air.

“Someone had to pick up your slack after you didn’t come back.”

The ghost cringed, even though this was a lie and they both knew it. Dominic had made enough money for Jade to live comfortably for the rest of her life. Perks of the job. But she was tired, and it was an easy lie.

Jade brought up her knees and rested her chin against them. She wondered if it was still snowing in Edge. On her last trip there, the children had built a line of snowmen a hand’s breadth away from the brim of the desert. A welcoming committee for the Crossers. It was always too warm for snow in Border, and when she tried to describe the cold, wet flakes to her nieces, they looked at her like she was crazy. Which just made her laugh. She used to think Dominic was making this shit up too.

“What do you want?” she asked her ghost.

The ghost drew a question mark and pointed at her again. What are you doing here?

Jade sighed and rubbed her face again. It was a long damn list, but it would keep her awake. “There are shortages, you know.”

‘Course he knew, it was why he got paid so well. As had his mom before him. As had his grandpa. It was why the other Crossers kept her on even though she hadn’t been raised for this and she never had any good stories to tell around the fire. When she closed her eyes, Jade could almost see the bags of grain all lined up in a row, waiting for her in Edge to bring back across the desert. It was not nearly enough. It would never be enough.

“There was a job opening,” she said, glaring, and the ghost winced. “And I wanted to see for myself what was so damn important on the other side of this desert.” Dominic nodded, and she could almost hear him ask. Do you know the names of everyone in Edge yet? Do you miss them when you’re back home in Border?

Yes, god yes. She’d thought she could never forgive them—the people in the town across the desert, the reason why Dominic was dead and gone. But she was wrong. It was hard not to fall in love when Edge’s residents were always so thrilled to see her come striding out of the dust. When their freckled faces and smiles were just paler versions of her nieces and her aunts and her brothers. When Edge was just the colder and greener twin of Border. Yes, she loved them and missed them because she was a Crosser now and her heart no longer belonged to just one home.

And yet... she missed her man more. Even after all these years. With every heartbeat, with every dream.

“All of Border showed up when they unveiled your plaque at the shrine, you know,” she said. “You surprised us. The desert caught you too early.”

The memory was still vibrant. The shrine, filled to the brim with the name plaques of the Crossers who never made it home. Some so old and worn you could barely make out the letters. Some too new. The red mourning flags fluttering in the wind, and everyone dressed in their nicest. All their tears and kind words and endless compassion. Their glances at the empty places at her sides. The place where if not a partner, then children should be. The place where Dominic’s long family line of Crossers ended.

That was what had pushed her into the desert in the end. She couldn’t live around all that pity.

“You shouldn’t have kept crossing,” she whispered to the ghost of her love. But Dominic wasn’t looking at her anymore, his gaze was fixed on something outside the ship, beyond the hole. And for a moment, he looked so alive. “Fuck the desert. Fuck Edge. We had more than enough. We had...”

She could see it, and she knew she was dreaming: their small house, smelling of smoke and spices and sex. She saw the wicker chairs they used to sit on together and the sunlight that streamed through the windows and the dirty pile of dishes that was always there. She was dreaming all right, but she didn’t give a damn. She had missed this home most of all.

Dominic’s eyes went wide in surprise, and he tried to shake her but his hands were as light as feathers. He glanced out through the hole again. Then, there was real, honest fear in his face.

But Jade didn’t care. It had been ages since she had felt this stationary. She’d wanted to cross the desert as a girl, but now she wanted nothing more than to pick up her heavy work gloves she’d abandoned years ago and join her brothers in the warehouse, crafting power cells. The job she was supposed to have.

“I should kill you for leaving,” she whispered.

Dominic shook his head frantically, trying to move her again. Then he stopped. Slowly, he stood and wheeled around so he crouched in front of her. He placed a ghostly finger over her heart, and all of the anger and hurt and loneliness she’d held in since the day Dominic didn’t come walking back out of the desert welled up inside her. It was too much for one chest to hold.

She hated how much she still hurt, even after all these years.

Slowly, Jade let him guide her hand to the gun at her side and then the gun to the center of his chest, though the pressure of his fingers was like a cool breath. She clenched her teeth and drew in a short, sharp breath as she realized that her man wanted to die again.

Please, pleaded his eyes. I owe you this much, said his translucent hands. Just get it over with, mouthed his lips.

Hurry, said every angle of his body. Hurry.

The gun in Jade’s hands felt warm, real, and dangerous. A small part of her knew it was pointless to shoot a ghost. The rest of her was too angry to care.

The single resounding shot shattered the mirage. Jade opened her eyes to the desert. It was almost dawn. She was sitting in the lost galleon, and there was a dust wolf lying at her feet, a bullet in its chest. It was gasping, tongue lolling, dying. Behind it, two more of the massive beasts were rising out of the swirling dust. And they were very much alive.

The wolves gave a low growl, Billy reared in fright, and her first shot went wide. The wolves lunged, Dominic threw his shadowy arms around her, but the next two bullets found their mark. One between each pair of monstrous eyes.

Jade might have been a lousy Crosser, but she’d always been a good shot.

The wolves collapsed on the ground, with a thud and a thud, only a few feet away from the ship, the dust pillowing around them. Across the desert, the gunshots echoed and echoed and echoed.

“Holy shit,” Jade gasped.

It took a good five minutes for her hands to stop shaking and another ten to calm Billy down and check on the power cells. All the while, Dominic never drifted more than a hand’s breadth away.

“How do those damn dogs always manage to sneak up like that?” Jade asked him.

The ghost shrugged.

The desert was already swallowing the wolves’ corpses. Soon, it would be like they were never there and the next time she crossed this spot, she would wonder if she’d been attacked at all.

“You’re still a bastard,” she said and stared across the empty land. “This can’t go on.”

Jade looked back at her ghost. Dominic was almost solid now. Almost here. And maybe this was the stupidest decision she’d ever make. Maybe she was finally cracking. But she turned to him and said: “Walk with me.”

Her ghost obliged.

They said the desert was getting wider, and Jade agreed. According to her pocket watch, it took about seven minutes longer to cross than it did a year ago. Twelve minutes more than the year before that. It was like Border and Edge were two islands drifting apart, ‘cept instead of water between, there was dust, dust, and more dust.

Jade walked quickly, or as quickly as she could. She was on the last leg of her trek, but Billy hadn’t quite forgiven her yet for what’d happened at the galleon, and the desert hadn’t forgiven her for killing its wolves or for the gunshots, whose echoes were still coming back to haunt her. Now, her boots sank to up to her ankles with every step.

Don’t piss off the desert, they always said, it’s an angry and spiteful bastard.

Too late now, Jade thought.

The ghost next to her kept pace, stride after stride. Stubbornness is the only way you’ll make it across the desert, he’d told her once when they started falling hard for each other. Stubbornness, and a reason to make it to the other side alive.

And still, the desert had killed him. But Jade’s stubbornness had always outmatched his, so they pressed on.

When she was only a few hours away from Edge, Dominic ran ahead again and pointed at the saddlebag with the documents. He matched her strides, walking backwards, his black pit eyes never leaving her face.

“I thought you forgot about those,” she said.

The ghost shook his head.

“I think I’m going to deliver the blueprints,” she said. “And I’ll carry back the seeds for crops in exchange.” Her voice was a hoarse whisper and the decision filled her with relief and with terrible sadness.

The outline of the ghost bristled, like a dog raising its hackles.

“It’s going to take Edge a while to figure out how to make power cells that can last more than five minutes,” she added, quickly. “And it’s going to take Border a while to figure out how to make our ground grow crops.”

Hell, it’s going to take many, many more trips across before we’re done, Jade thought as she trudged forward, fighting the desert for each step.

Her ghost’s face was expressionless as he kept up his backwards pace; only his eyes betrayed his anger, his hurt. It was one thing to know everything must die eventually, it was another thing entirely to see the beginning of the end of your life’s work.

Dominic thrust a shadowy finger at her. Why you? His dark eyes were harsh, and the tip of his finger trembled.

Jade met his gaze and matched his fierceness. “Lots of reasons.”

She didn’t say because the desert was getting wider and the journey harder. Or because there were fewer Crossers sitting around the campfire with every generation. Or because if what they said was true, there were a lot of damn ghosts wandering the desert.

She didn’t say because at night, her dreams were with filled with the sounds and the colors of the shrine’s red mourning ribbons flapping in the wind and they were calling her and Jade wasn’t sure anymore if it was a nightmare or a comfort.

What she said was: “Because if someone doesn’t do something, the desert’s going to kill us all anyway.”

The truth fell like a stone from her lips and for a moment, they both stopped walking. Dominic lowered his finger, his whole body sagging with defeat. He’d always said he hoped he wouldn’t be alive to see the day when the Crossers had to stop, when they wouldn’t be needed anymore.

The desert was cruel.

“It wasn’t my idea, you know,” she said. “People in both towns asked for this.” Except she was the only one they’d asked because they knew she was the only Crosser who would consider it. When the others found out about the blueprints, she’d hoped they’d understand. But she wasn’t a fool. She knew understanding and forgiveness were not the same things.

With a sigh, Jade freed her legs from the dust, fixed her sights on the faint point on the horizon, and moved forward. Billy and her ghost followed.

It was only when Edge crept into view that she paused. Only then did the doubts she’d been fighting back grab hold.

“What right do I have?” she whispered to Dominic. Who was she to ruin the livelihoods of her friends and family? How could she abandon generations of hard-won histories and traditions?

With fumbling fingers, Jade unclipped the saddlebag with the damning papers from Billy’s back and hefted the heavy parcel in her hands. She hesitated. She could just leave it in the desert, let it disappear into the dust. Let another Crosser in another generation deal with the problem.

The ghost of her love reached out and cupped his murky hands around hers.

I’m sorry, said his eyes. I’m sorry, said his grasping fingers. I’m sorry, said every line of his body. I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

Jade pulled away, sharply. In life, her man knew better than to pity her.

“For what?” she shouted. “Which part of this are you sorry for?”

Dominic pointed, and Jade turned. Behind them, miles and miles of footprints that hadn’t been there before spread out in their wake. The path of every journey every Crosser ever made was traced out like scars in the dust, and there was not an unmarked inch of ground.

It’s an illusion, Jade thought. It has to be. But in this wasteland, illusions got you killed. So did love and hope. She’d dared to walk with Dominic, and he had dragged the weight of his history and his hopes and his pride behind him. She saw the dust trying to swallow the footprints, but they resisted. Some memories refused to be buried. Now, the desert was completely changed.

And the desert was pissed.

The ground began shifting under her feet and Jade stumbled.

“Run,” she yelled to Billy. “Shit, run!” But Billy wasn’t a stupid horse; he was already racing toward the town.

Jade ran too. But not fast enough.

The desert grabbed at her ankles, her wrists, her hands that were still holding the saddlebag, and it pulled her down. The dust swirled and swarmed and smothered her eyes. Coated her nostrils and throat. She could feel the desert’s anger, its desire to consume anything that wanted something and anyone who dreamed too much.

I can’t die here, Jade thought desperately. Not this close.

So, she pushed back. Against the dust and the desert and all the doubts that made her linger. She fought off the prying gusts and shielded her eyes. She crawled forward, winning inch by damn inch. Because she was a Crosser, and defying the desert was what she did. Through the dust clouds she could see the outline of Edge. It was so near.

That was when she felt the saddlebag slip from her fingers.

She groped, but the dust was vicious and blinding. The ground was relentless in trying to swallow her whole. Jade searched desperately, coughing on her curses.

She felt his ghostly hands first, guiding her, and the rough cloth of the bag a moment later. But she didn’t ask questions, just crushed her fingers around her prize, found an inch of solid ground, and with a shout, pulled herself out of the dust. Then, Jade ran.

The desert chased her. It nipped at her footfalls, trying to pull her back with every step.

It almost did. But with a final push, Jade leapt over the boundary, crossing the sharp line from desert into town, from dust into green, and crashed into a melting snowman. The first lungful of Edge’s crisp, clean air startled her, as always, and so did the smell of dirt and things that grow. She was mere inches from the desert, yet there was no dust here.

A few feet away an old woman sweeping her porch stopped mid-motion, startled. “Jade! You made it back!” she said, with a warm smile.

“Do you see him?” asked Jade, wiping the snow from her face, “Is he still there?”

“See who?” the woman asked.

“My ghost!”

The old woman—Myrtle, if Jade remembered right—gave the desert a long, appraising look. “Nope. Looks like the desert’s getting to you, darling.” Myrtle rapped her fingers against the side of her head and grinned.

Jade turned. The desert behind her was empty and flat and calm. Not a dust mote was out of place.

‘Course, the desert was a bastard. But if Jade narrowed her eyes to slits, she could just make out the shadow of a man on the horizon, walking away.

Her hand was still clutched around the saddlebag with the blueprints, and Jade finally knew what she had to do.

Tonight, after all the power cells were distributed and she delivered the blueprints into the right hands, she’d tell a story at the campfire. It’d be about how Crossers walked with the ghosts of their past, and how their ghosts kept them straight and true in the desert. The others might understand. Or they might not.

But it didn’t matter. The story wasn’t for them. It was for the little doe-eyed children who hung around the fire with them, listening, swallowing her stories whole. Then she’d tell them about Border and its vast workshops and the bright and quick thunderstorms that rolled up on hot summer days. She’d tell them about her nieces who were about their height.

And when they’d ask her which of her stories were real, she’d lean in close and say “All of them.”

For now, Jade would keep crossing the desert. ‘Cept along with the power cells and bags of grain, she’d carry blueprints and crop seeds, advice, and all the stories she could gather. ‘Cause change was coming to Edge and Border, and it was going to be hard and messy. Traditions were going to be abandoned, and one day there wouldn’t be a bottle of the best stuff waiting for them in each town. Eventually, both towns would be self-sufficient, and they’d forget why anyone would bother to walk across an infinite wasteland for them. They would forget who the desert had stolen away.

When the Crossers were angry or disheartened, they said the desert would swallow them all eventually, past and future, but Jade knew now that wasn’t true. Try as it might, the desert couldn’t bury stubborn ghosts, and one day she and her man, with generations of Crossers behind them, would haunt the dust between their towns, silently guarding and guiding the ones they loved home.


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A.T. Greenblatt is a mechanical engineer by day and a writer by night. She lives in Philadelphia where she's well acquainted with all four seasons and is known to frequently subject her friends to various cooking and home-brewing experiments. She is a graduate of Viable Paradise XVI and her work is forthcoming or has appeared in Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Mothership Zeta, as well as other fine magazines and anthologies. You can find her online at atgreenblatt.com and on Twitter at @AtGreenblatt.

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1 Comment on “They Said the Desert”

One Response to “They Said the Desert”

  1. Jazzlet says:

    Beautiful.

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