Paul Tremblay is an American writer of contemporary horror, dark fantasy, and science fiction. His short fiction has appeared in such publications as Weird Tales, Interzone, ChiZine, Clarkesworld, and Best American Fantasy 3, and his short story “There’s No Light Between Floors” was a 2008 Bram Stoker Award nominee. His published books include the short story collection In the Mean Time (ChiZine, 2010) and the novels The Little Sleep (Holt, 2009), The Harlequin and the Train (Necropolitan, 2009), and No Sleep Till Wonderland (Holt, 2010). An accomplished editor, Tremblay collaborated with Sean Wallace for 2009’s Phantom (Prime) and with John Langan for 2011’s Creatures: Thirty Years of Monsters (Prime). His most recent novel is Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye, a dystopian satire released earlier this year by ChiZine Publications. The following story, “Headstone in Your Pocket,” was originally published in the Spring 2009 issue of Weird Tales. It has been previously collected in In the Mean Time, as well as The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror 2010, edited by Paula Guran. We’re delighted to feature this story for our readers here are Weirdfictionreview.com - The Editors
The sun is high but it feels low, its heat close and heavy enough to push heads down and slump shoulders. Border Patrol Agent Joe Marquez runs his hand along the tractor-trailer and chips of white paint break off and crumble to dust under his fingertips like dried leaves from a dead houseplant. There are rustling noises inside the truck, trapped spirits, humanity in a tin can. He wonders if they’ll emerge in any better shape than the trailer’s paint job.
Two agents pin the driver against the truck’s chrome grille. He yells, claiming the hot chrome burns his skin. The agents don’t care, don’t say anything, and handcuff him. The smuggler is priority one. The cargo can wait.
Joe jogs the length of the trailer and yells ahead, “Let’s go, get those doors open, now!”
Local commuters and smugglers and immigrants know the Tubac checkpoint’s schedule. The checkpoint is thirty miles south of Tucson and thirty miles north of Nogales and the Mexico‑U.S. border. It was supposed to be closed at this mid-afternoon hour, but the Border Patrol office in Tucson, which prominently features a photo of John Wayne (circa The Alamo) on its wall, received an anonymous tip, a tip that turned out to be true.
One agent turns the rusted handle and throws open the trailer’s doors while another agent aims his automatic rifle. Heat, sweat, and a low, desperate collected conversation rush out of the trailer and into the surrounding desert. There is no air conditioning and the temperature inside is over one hundred and ten degrees. Flashlights penetrate the darkness and reveal a mass of bodies, scores of men picking up their heads but hiding their eyes, holding out empty hands.
They’ll be unarmed, they will not hurt anyone, and they’ll have nothing on them. All will be processed for deportation. Joe has been a Border Patrol Agent for two years and has witnessed the same sorry scene at least twice a month.
The Tubac checkpoint is a temporary one, with its portable lights and generators resting on the shoulder of I‑19, alongside its incendiary local politics. The suburbanites don’t want a fixed checkpoint because checkpoint towns become a de-facto second border, fearing smugglers and immigrants and other dangerous (non-white) criminals would use their sleepy little towns as way stations, drug factories, and shoot ’em ups. The Border Patrol’s Tucson sector comprises almost the entire Arizona-Mexico border and is the only sector without at least one fixed checkpoint.
Agents separate the fifty men into groups of ten. The men are a task to be divvied up. They are sweaty, exhausted, and frightened, but everyone makes it out of the trailer alive and conscious. Joe’s ten stands in a line and with their hands held out and open although he did not tell them to do so. Joe pats them down. The third in line has something in the front left pocket of his jeans. Joe says, “¿Cuál es su nombre?” being rigidly formal in the request, an attempt to give a measure of respect and dignity, but he knows it could very well be interpreted as one of la migra flaunting his position.
The man says, “Guillermo.” He’s tall, and skinny, a piece of string hanging from the leg of his cut-off jean shorts. Guillermo has thick beard stubble overwriting a map of acne scars and he is likely a full decade older than Joe is, but there’s no way to tell. He doesn’t have a passport.
Joe says, “Guillermo, dame lo que tienes un tu bolsillo. Por favor.”
“No es nada. No son drogas.” It is nothing. It is not drugs. His speech pattern is as formal as Joe’s. The two men are actors afraid of forgetting their lines. He reaches into his pocket and gives Joe what he wants. It’s a folded rectangle of tinfoil.
“Entonces, ¿qué es?”
“Es de m’hijo.”
Joe unwraps the tinfoil slowly. It sits open on his palm, a metal flower with petals dancing in the warm breeze. In the middle, there’s a small, clear plastic baggie, and inside the baggie is a white rock. Joe takes it out and realizes it is a tooth, a baby tooth, small as a pebble, so inconsequential and fragile that it might blow away in the scalding desert winds, or simply disintegrate.
The lights are dim. Local country songs alternate with Johnny Cash standards on the jukebox, one that still plays scratchy 45 records. Joe is purposefully early, sitting at their usual booth for two at Zula’s, a restaurant in the small and impoverished border town of Nogales, their hometown. He stirs his second screwdriver with a red swizzle stick, counterclockwise, as if he can turn back the clock. The tinfoil, folded up with its secret tooth inside, is on the chipped wooden table-top. Es de m’hijo. It’s from my son. Joe kept it by mistake. Before he could give the tooth back to Guillermo, he was called away to help with the smuggler’s arrest and processing, and then Joe forgot he’d pocketed the tooth. The other agents deported Guillermo and the rest of the immigrants before Joe could return the harmless keepsake. There’s no way he can get the tooth back to Guillermo. He can’t even create a fantasy scenario where he meets the ragged man unexpectedly to return the memento, the little white tooth. The scenario that’s easy to conjure is Guillermo’s return home as a failure being unbearably brief and then him attempting an even more dangerous and desperate root to the US, hiking through the desert around Nogales, where the past two years has seen an over a twenty percent increase in immigrant fatalities. Security improvements are forcing more immigrants to attempt border crossings in further remote areas, forcing them to take their chances in the desert. Joe imagines Guillermo struggling through the barren, unforgiving landscape, then falling, twisting an ankle, getting lost, dying of heat exposure, or as has been increasingly the case, he sees Guillermo falling prey to bandits, armed Mexican nationals, or a double-crossing smuggler he paid as a guide, his body never to be found. Last winter, bandits shot a group of immigrants in an area just west of Nogales, inside the expansive and desolate Tohono‑O’odham Reservation. Joe helped carry one of the rescued survivors to an ambulance, an older Nicaraguan woman who had her left ear blown off. After receiving baseline medical care she was sent back to Nicaragua.
Joe checks his watch. She’s late. He turns the swizzle stick again. Today was another worst day in a litany of worst days; still his job has an inexplicable hold on him, a job that says more about him than he cares to hear. He orders a third screwdriver, which means he likely won’t be driving back to his Tucson apartment tonight.
Jody Fernandez finally arrives, forty minutes late, limping to their booth. “Sorry, Joe. I had a hard time escaping from my parents’ house.” Her voice is rough but dampened, a crinkling paper bag as it’s shaped into a ball. She wears a black long-sleeved tee shirt to cover her skinny arms and jeans that are supposed to be tight, but hang off her gaunt frame like elephant skin. Her black hair is tied up in a ponytail and her skin is pale. She’s in her late twenties like Joe but looks like she could be his older sister, or an aunt. Still, she’s in better shape than she was a few short months ago, before the rehab stint.
Joe gets the sense that she’s not telling him the truth, but he’s okay with it. Despite everything and the relapse warning signs he’s supposed to watch for, they’re close enough that the little lies don’t equate to betrayal. Not yet, anyway. He says, “De nada. I’ve had a long day and I’m just sitting here. Unwinding.”
Jody smiles, but won’t show her teeth, which were ravaged by the year-plus of meth addiction. Meth is acidic, dries up the protective saliva, and while in the throes of the drug, the heavy users grind and clench their teeth to dust. She explained it to him once, saying meth mouth was like a neglected and abused engine being empty of oil but still redlining and chewing up its own gears. She says, “I see that. I guess you’ll be sleeping on the couch tonight, then?”
As children, they were neighbors and best friends. Their mothers taught biology and chemistry at the regional high school and their fathers commuted to Tucson together. Joe and Jody, their names and lives almost the same until college, where both went to the University of Arizona. Jody married a physics PHD student and upon graduation got a job teaching special-ed for elementary-aged children. Two years ago, after visiting her mother in Nogales, she and her husband were hit by a pest exterminator who fell asleep at the wheel and drifted over the center lines. Her husband died. Jody’s right leg shattered in three places and her skull fractured, requiring a plate. She suffered from debilitating headaches for months and wasn’t able to work, living but not living on disability insurance, so, like many of the hopeless locals of Nogales, she turned to meth.
Joe says, “Yeah, I think I might need to crash on your couch. Will that be okay?”
“Of course, but no puking allowed. I just cleaned the goddamn bathroom.”
“How are you feeling?”
A waiter appears with a beer that she must’ve ordered before she sat down. She takes a sip big enough for the both of them, then says, “Shitty, like I was last week. But I can deal with it.”
Joe fights a growing impatience. Her lateness, her short answers that aren’t really answers; he knows he can’t rush her back. He wants the Jody he knew before the addiction, before the accident. He might never get her back, and that’s something he needs to deal with, not her.
They both order light meals, garden salads and appetizer-sized quesadillas. Joe orders another screwdriver. He says, “How’s your mother?”
“Fine. Same old stuff. Bugging me to move back home until I get back on my feet. God, I hate that fucking phrase. Like me being able to simply walk around on my broken leg has anything to do with improving my shitty days.”
Joe says, “I hate it when people say cut a check.” As soon as he says it, he thinks the quip ill-timed and a terrible, miserable mistake. But she laughs, and he’s flooded with relief, then shame because he shouldn’t be so nervous around her.
Jody stops laughing, then leans forward, her head in the spotlight of the black pewter pot light fixture that hangs above their table like a bat. Her deep, brown eyes grow too big for her face. “All right, Joe, I wasn’t at my Mom’s house. I’m late because I found an old note from Steve, today.” She smirks; a child caught doing something wrong, but not caring at all. But that’s not right. She’s no child and hasn’t been one for a lifetime.
Joe says, “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. I’m not sure if I am. It was folded inside an old textbook, Educational Philosophy. My therapist keeps saying work is still a year or two away, but I’ve been looking through my old notes and textbooks, reading until the headaches take over.”
Joe nods. He knows that’s enough.
“I opened up to the chapter on cognitive disorders, and there it was, one of his wiseass notes. De-motivational aphorisms, he called them.” She smiles but covers her mouth with a hand. The hand tremors and it’s not enough to cover everything. “He slipped them into my notebooks and textbooks; that gloomy physics geek that he was, thinking his clever was so cute.”
“What’d the note say?”
“I’ll tell you if you show me what you’re hiding?”
“What? I’m not hiding anything?”
“You had something out on the table and you stuffed it into your pocket when I walked over. I want to see it.”
He says, “Okay. Deal. But you tell me first.” Joe doesn’t look forward to explaining why he has the tinfoil and what it means, but he’ll play along. It’s good to see her willing to play games with him, even if the game pieces aren’t exactly silly.
“It said, ‘Evil is a consequence of good. Cheers! Steve.’”
“That’s nice. Should be a Hallmark card.”
“I know. This was the only note I confronted him about. Was he implying that a gig serving special needs students was somehow a bad thing in his warped little world? He could be snotty about his field of study putting him in the supreme strata of society.” Jody is talking fast, manic with her words. “If he was honest with me, if he didn’t back down, he would’ve said something like my helping the helpless only delayed and prolonged their suffering and the suffering of their loved ones, making it all worse in the long run. He used to say shit like that at parties just to get a rise out of people. But he didn’t say any of that, didn’t let me put those words in his mouth. I played at being super pissed and he backed off real quick, apologizing up and down. It was the last of those notes he left in my books. Him backing down, that was my small victory, our relationship was always a competition, but now I wish he’d given me more of his pithy love-notes of doom. Isn’t that sad? I spent the afternoon and early evening staring at it and thinking it was all quite sad.”
“It is sad. But I’m glad you can talk about it.”
“Stop it. You sound like my fucking therapist when you say shit like that.”
“Does she say ‘cut a check’ too?’”
“No, but I’ll insist she do so from now on. Now pay up, Marquez. What are you hiding from me?”
“Oh oh. Using the last name, she means business.”
“All business all the time.”
“Okay, let’s take a look.” Joe takes out the tinfoil and lays it on the table. Jody furrows her brow and cocks her head to the side, and Joe panics, almost spilling his drink as he pleads with opens his hands over the tinfoil, a bumbling magician with nothing up his sleeves. He says, “Now, hold on a second. It’s not what you think it is.” He won’t say drugs. He quickly launches into the story of Guillermo, fumbles through their roadside conversation, how this belonged to his son, and then how everything got so crazy that he forgot to give it back. The story already sounds rehearsed. Joe talks while slowly unwrapping the package, careful not to make any new folds or marks in the tinfoil, preservation somehow being of the upmost importance.
Jody leans over the table. “Well, what is it?”
He lifts the plastic bag, dangles it from his finger, and holds it across the table. “It’s a tooth. His son’s baby tooth. See? I feel bad, it’s probably the first tooth he…”
Jody stands up, jumps out of her seat, and her head crashes into the pewter pot light fixture, sending its weak light arcing elsewhere into the restaurant.
“Whoa. You okay?”
She turns away from the flickering light and from him, and says, “I need to go to the bathroom.” The light shines directly in his eyes, then away, then back, and Joe is unable to watch her progress through the restaurant and bar.
The waiter appears with their food, and steadies the swaying light fixture. The quesadillas are smoking and hissing on the pan. Joe wraps the little tooth back into the foil. Jody didn’t just go to the bathroom; she fled from the table. He’s not sure what he did, but clearly it was wrong, and he’s not sure if Jody is coming back. He waits, elbows on the table, hands making a steeple, and now she has been gone long enough that he considers going to the bathroom or the parking lot to find her.
She does come back, walking as fast as her limp allows, and she sits down abruptly, the final word to some inner conversation. She stabs her fork around the salad, into the cherry tomatoes, and doesn’t place her napkin on her lap.
Joe says, “Hey, everything okay? I’m sorry if…”
“Jim Dandy,” she says, but doesn’t look at him.
Everything has become so difficult between them. He knows he’s not being fair, but these bi-weekly dinners are becoming as tedious and futile as his job. He isn’t helping anyone, isn’t improving lives, if anything he’s making everything worse; he is that note from Steve. He orders another screwdriver.
For now, Joe won’t ask Jody what’s wrong because he’s afraid of making it worse, and he’s also being selfish. He drank too much to drive home and he needs her couch tonight, not further complications.
They walk the two blocks to Jody’s one-bedroom apartment. It’s late, a weeknight, and no one else is out, the streets as desolate and windswept as the desert. They don’t talk. She doesn’t ask Joe why he still has that tooth, why hasn’t he just pitched it and moved on. Joe assumes she’s just accepted it, like he has.
Her apartment is maniacally clean, antiseptic, and it smells of cleanser and air-freshener. The hardwood floor in the living room gives way to yellowed and curling linoleum tile in the kitchen. Joe falls onto the couch in front of the TV and turns it on. Jody says that she has a headache, and disappears into her bedroom, closing and locking the door.
Joe kills the lights and tries watching a baseball game between two teams he doesn’t like, then shuts off the TV and reclines, sinking into the couch, and stares at the stucco ceiling. The buzz of alcohol fills the sensory void, droning in his ears and jostling his equilibrium. He closes his eyes, the room spins, he sinks deeper into the couch, and he can’t sleep. He’s always had trouble sleeping. As a kid, he’d lie awake for hours and obsess over his nightmares. Then he learned to trick himself to sleep. He created and choreographed his own waking-dream, some simple innocuous scene on which to focus and loop in his head until it relaxed him enough and he fell sleep.
Tonight, in Joe’s crafted dream, he gets off the couch and walks into the kitchen, first pausing above the room’s borderline, where the hardwood meets the cracked linoleum. He fills a glass with tap water and drinks half, dumps the rest in the sink, then walks back to the couch, lies down, then starts it all up again, past the borderline and back to the kitchen again for his same glass of water. On one of his return trips to the sink, Joe stops filling his glass. To his right and next to Jody’s bedroom is the study, and its door is open. There’s no light, everything is dark, but inside the study is somehow darker than the rest of the apartment. A child, a little boy, stands in the doorway, his hands in the pockets of his jeans, hangdog in his posture. It’s too dark to see any facial features, but he knows this boy. Then Joe is standing in the doorway although he doesn’t want to be there, just wants to be back at the sink, filling his glass of water and make it half-empty. The boy is still in the doorway too, and he wraps his arms around Joe’s legs. The embrace is brief and weak, a butterfly wing hug, and then the boy puts his hand inside Joe’s and it feels like a small, cool stone. The boy leads Joe back to the couch. There’s more light here, stray neon and streetlight amber filter through the windows. The boy has thick, black hair and eyes like Jody’s but not Jody’s. Joe lies on the couch. He doesn’t want to lie on the couch. He’s tired of doing so many things that he doesn’t want to do, that he can’t do. The boy smiles like Jody too, hiding his mouth behind quivering lips. It’s not a smile, it’s something else, recognition maybe, or acceptance, whatever it is, it’s filled with more despair than the tears to come. Then the boy does part his lips, those rusted hinges, and opens his mouth, and the teeth, an angler fish at the bottom of the deep, black ocean, his teeth, the stalactites and stalagmites of nightmare, angry shards of glass with thick tips curved in awkward and dangerous directions, teeth just spilling out of the boy’s mouth. He climbs on top of Joe, sits on his lap, and tears the size of gumdrops fall from the boy’s eyes as if he doesn’t know he’s a monster, and it’s not fair because he’s not supposed to be the monster, does not deserve to be the monster. But the teeth, the teeth.
Two weeks pass like most time does, without any acknowledgement. It’s the night before Joe is to return to active duty. He is again at their booth at Zula’s. He sits, a tumbleweed without a breeze, and he stares at his empty screwdriver and empty cup of coffee.
After he fled her apartment for his car and I‑19, Joe was stopped at the Tubac checkpoint, his non-permanent checkpoint. The agents shined flashlights in his face. He knew they initially only saw a Mexican behind the wheel, and Joe knew he looked just like the men in that decaying trailer, dark skin, squinting and hands held empty and up. The agents were going to pat him down and take the tinfoil away, but the flashlights turned off as they did recognize their coworker. Yeah, they knew him, and they knew he was drunk. They didn’t arrest him, but they didn’t allow him to drive home and there was an incident report filed with the Tucson office. His immediate two-week suspension was the result.
Joe’s drink and coffee cup remain empty no matter how hard he stares at them, as empty as his booth at Zula’s. He knows Jody isn’t coming. He didn’t really expect her to show.
For two weeks, he only left his apartment to go the liquor store. He ate meals only when he wasn’t drinking, and the meals consisted of slices of American cheese, cold hot dogs, dry cereal, pretzel sticks. He removed all of the curtains and shades from his windows, and at night, turned on all the lights. He drank himself into unconsciousness, and then didn’t wake until late afternoon. He lay on the couch or on the floor and wouldn’t sleep in his bedroom, convinced he’d find the little boy sitting at the foot of his bed, and the boy wouldn’t say anything and wouldn’t look at Joe, but he also wouldn’t leave, not this time. He kept the tinfoil. He called Jody when he was awake past midnight. She didn’t answer and didn’t return his calls.
Joe leaves the booth and the restaurant, and walks to her apartment. This night is hotter than all the previous nights, and Joe sweats through his white tee shirt. Her door isn’t locked and he lets himself in without knocking. Inside, the apartment is dark and a disaster of clothes and food and trash. It’s as though the spotless apartment he saw two weeks ago never existed, or maybe the duration between visits was longer than those arbitrary and government-assigned weeks, time enough for the apartment to fall into such an advanced state of decay, maybe a collection of years, lost years, had passed, or epochs only measurable by fossilized bodies, bones, and teeth.
“What are you doing here?” Jody’s voice is frayed, an exposed wire, quick with its electricity but weak enough that it’ll break or flame out at any moment.
Joe steps over the rubble of her apartment. The place smells of sweat and burnt chemicals. Joe walks inside the study. Jody sits on the floor, cross-legged, huddled next to a small fire, a mini-pyre set up on the hardwood floor stained black. Mounds of papers, books, and photographs surround her and the fire. She wears a white bra and black underwear along with black marks that are either bruises or smudged ash. She’s too thin. Her bones are a story written in Braille, but the story is too big and horrible to be contained by her skin. Joe puts a hand into his pocket, touches the tinfoil, and he knows how she spent their time apart, and he knows this is all his fault.
Jody’s eyes can’t focus, and they roll around the room. Her breaths are fast and irregular as are her twitchy movements. She says, “You still have it, don’t you, Joe. You still have it…” Her voice trails into whispers, and the words come too fast, fumbling over each other, letters placed inside of letters, making new sounds.
He says, “I do.”
“You didn’t forget to give the tooth back, you kept it on purpose, you made it all up, that story you told me is bullshit, all bullshit, you kept it on purpose. You didn’t forget, no way, no way you forgot.”
“I did forget, Jody.”
She laughs. Then says, “Look at this. Another note. Misery is manifold, Joe. It’s true. Steve wrote that on this letter over here, and stuck it in my English Lit book, it’s right over here. There. You wanna read it?” Jody picks up a slip of paper and drops it into the fire. Jody turns toward him, and her hair is frayed thread. She smiles, shows her meth mouth, her teeth, blackened and decayed, pieces missing, an incomplete jigsaw puzzle, jagged and eroded canyon boulders, each tooth or what was a tooth is a bombed and burnt-out building that cannot be repaired.
“You know what? A tooth fell out last night, Joe. It was cracked and loose, and I played with it, wiggled it around with my tongue and fingers, like we did when we were kids, I wiggled it, pulled on it, and it hurt a little but not much, nothing I couldn’t take, nothing I couldn’t deal with, and it just kinda popped out. Do you wanna see it, Joe? I saved it for you because you’re collecting teeth now, right?”
Joe needs to do something, say something, anything that will close her terrible mouth. “I don’t know why I kept the tooth. I don’t know why I do what I do, anymore.”
“You’re a junky, just like me.” She smiles again, flashes her intimate, private devastation. “Like me, Joe. See? Get that fuckin’ tooth out of your pocket, you fucking junky, the worst kind, the one who won’t ever admit there’s a problem even when the signs, the signs, the signs are there, big as fucking billboards, billboards in your pocket, fuck billboards, a headstone, headstone in your pocket, Joe, you have a headstone in your pocket, Joe. Joe, fucking, Joe, take it out, tell me what is says, what does it say? I know what it says but I want you to tell me, I want you to tell me tell me tell me tell me…”
Joe says, “I’m sorry, Jody. I didn’t mean to do this to you, to us. I’d forgotten about him. Really, I did.”
He isn’t strong enough to tell her that he forgot on purpose and that he worked at it and that he was good at it, better than she was, and it’s why she’s like she is now and it’s why he’s like he is now. He wants to run out of her apartment, to run away, as he’s always been running away even if he never left home, where there’s still room enough to hide, there’s an all-encompassing desert in which to hide.
At the southwest edge of Nogales, there was a stretch of desert near the border — and at the time, almost twenty years ago, a generally unsupervised border — where local teens would ride their dirt bikes and mountain bikes during the day and then later reconvene at night to light fires and bottle rockets and drink cheap six-packs. Joe and Jody were only eight and not allowed to go to there, but they went anyway. They told each set of parents they were riding to the playground for the afternoon and then would ride their bikes to the edge of the desert.
It was late afternoon, the sun low and lazy in the west, a half-shut eye, and they were knee deep in their summer routine; climbing on rocks, turning over smaller stones looking for scorpions and small lizards, filling small burrows with sand and dried grass. Two high school-aged kids on dirt bikes showed up in their desert, kicking up dirt and filling the air with their engines’ whine. Jody pulled Joe behind a rock, their roles shifting from desert explorers to spies, skulking around and hiding behind boulders and saguaro cactus.
The dirt bikes were chipped-paint and dented metal. The riders didn’t wear helmets. One kid was white, short and pudgy, wore a sleeveless black tee shirt with a bald eagle that was all talons and beak, and he had a mop of unkempt, dark hair, like a dead tarantula on his head. The other teen was a blonde beanpole with a crew cut, wearing a baggy white tee shirt with large, slashing letters and baggier shorts that hung down to his shins when he stood up on his pegs. The teens rode up a ridge that was one hundred yards or so away, a ridge that may or may not have been a part of Mexico, and then back down.
Joe and Jody didn’t say anything or do anything, afraid of the teens, but both secretly wished for the thrill of being caught, of having to jump on their bikes and then somehow outrunning the dirt bikes, cutting through yards and short cuts that only they knew. They moved carefully, exchanging cactus for boulder, and crept closer to the ridge.
While tearing through another run, the chubby kid grabbed his left shoulder like it’d been stung, then swerved, and jumped off his bike, which landed on its side and slid halfway down the ridge. Three Mexican boys popped up from behind a boulder at the ridge’s crest; two kids threw rocks and a third pointed and shouted something, then they all took off running down the other side of the ridge. The blond sped over and helped get his friend’s bike back on its wheels. Their conversation was animated and brief. The bikes’ engines were too loud for Jody and Joe to hear anything.
The teens went over the ridge. Jody pulled Joe from out of their hiding spot and said, “Come on!” She ran ahead, and he followed her up the ridge. They stopped at the top and could see everything below.
The three boys alternated fleeing with throwing their small stones at the circling dirt bikes. The teens swore and shouted epithets from the top of their mechanical steeds, and they both cradled a rock in the crook of one arm. The smallest and presumably the youngest trailed far behind the other two retreating boys. The teens focused on the straggler, tightening their circle, revving their engines and spraying dirt on the boy with their spinning, angry tires. The boy was trapped and crying, and scrambled onto a large, jagged boulder. He shouted to his friends, cupping his hands over his small mouth, but they hadn’t stopped running, were too far ahead to hear his pleas. The chubby kid, the one with the eagle tee shirt, threw his rock and hit the boy in the back of his thigh. There wasn’t much behind the throw, but the boy lost his balance, windmilled his arms, and fell off, behind the craggy rock, out of view of Jody and Joe.
The teens didn’t stop to investigate. They tightened their formation, parallel to each other, shared an awkward high-five, and rode triumphantly back up the ridge. Joe and Jody crouched, praying they wouldn’t be seen, or they’d be next, chased down the ridge, into Mexico, and then knocked off a boulder, but the teens didn’t see them and didn’t stop. They sped away, out of the sand, and onto the main drag and out of sight.
Silence, the voice of the desert, replaced the screaming boys and dirt bikes. Joe and Jody listened and watched for a sign from the boy who fell and there was none. They waited. The sun drooped lower in the west. The other two boys did not come back for their friend.
Jody and Joe climbed down the ridge. They crept behind the jagged boulder and found his body, lying adjacent to the flat rock upon which he landed. The boy looked like Joe and the boy looked like Jody, but only smaller, younger. The left side of his head was dented, caved-in, and was missing a flap of scalp. His left arm was held out stiffly and twitched, beating like one wing of a broken hummingbird. The lower half of his face had crumbled, ice cream melting over a cone. He was breathing, but irregularly. They crouched, hands over their mouths, but not over their eyes. His chest inflated sharply, then deflated slowly, a sagging balloon. The right side of his face was perfect, asleep. His left eye was swollen shut, or missing. It was hard to know for sure with the orbital socket broken, pushed in, along with the area around his temple. Everything leaked slowly. There were too many colors on his face. And his teeth, his teeth, they were baby teeth, as small as seeds, and they peppered the sand and dirt around his head, miniature headstones in the sand. Then there was one long sigh and the boy stopped breathing and his arm stopped moving.
His suspension is over but Joe does not report to the Tucson office in the morning. He manages to drive his Jeep into the Tohono‑O’odham Reservation and into its desert despite his near total exhaustion, his being purposefully drunk, and the pain that fills his head. He deposits a mix of aspirin, ibuprofen, and little blue pills he took from Jody’s apartment into his dry, copper mouth, and grinds them up as best he can. It hurts to chew, but he won’t use his water yet; he needs to conserve it.
He stops the Jeep in approximately the same area where he helped rescue the Nicaraguan woman, but he didn’t save her. He knows he hasn’t saved anyone and can’t save anyone. This trip into the desert isn’t about saving anyone. He’s going to find Guillermo and give the man back his son’s tooth. Joe crawls out of his Jeep and walks, slowly, due south, toward the border. He doesn’t have a compass, but he thinks he knows where the border is.
Joe allows himself to remember that day in the desert. He remembers the slow walk back to their bikes, their pile of metal and chains, and the ride home. They didn’t tell anyone about what had happened, didn’t tell anyone about the boy. They were afraid of the teens, afraid people would think it was their fault, afraid because they were only eight and didn’t know what to do. They didn’t tell anyone about their desert silence.
The sun is only beginning its climb in the east, but it’s midday hot. Joe’s pulse throbs in his temples and inside his cheeks. His backpack of meager supplies already feels too heavy.
There was never any word or news about the little boy. They did not go back over the ridge and to that boulder. They didn’t talk about it, didn’t make up stories about coyotes dragging the boy away, didn’t fool themselves into believing he was alive, didn’t discuss the possibilities or probabilities of the police finding him or the teens coming back for the body or the boy’s friends and family laying belated claim and bringing him back to Mexico. They didn’t turn the boy into a legend for the neighborhood kids, didn’t tell anyone that the boy might still be there. They agreed to forget, their secret, bury it inside themselves, beneath as much passed time as they could.
Despite the heat and his headache, which is a fire inside his brain, Joe walks for hours until the sun is directly above him and discerning direction becomes impossible. He finds a Desert Ironwood and sits under its thin canopy, desperate for shade. Half of his water supply is already gone. Joe takes off his small backpack, drinks, and again goes back to that day all those years ago in another part of the same desert. Joe remembers the urge to pick up the boy’s teeth, those headstones, and put them in his pocket, an urge as inexplicable now as it was then.
There are teeth in his pocket now; a small one lovingly wrapped in tinfoil, and another tooth, it’s adult and big and ugly with roots like talons, and that tooth is not wrapped in tinfoil or anything that would protect it. Neither tooth is his.
Joe fights waves of dizziness and nausea. His fistful of pills isn’t helping. His gums are still bleeding and his right bicuspid is loose. If he pushes on the tooth with enough force there’s a wet sucking sound inside his mouth. There are pliers in his backpack. Earlier this morning, the pain was too much. Unlike Jody, he couldn’t deal with the pain, to where it went, and he stopped pulling on the tooth. He’ll try the pliers again later, maybe when the sun goes down and when the pills kick in.
Joe falls in and out of sleep throughout the afternoon and the temperature begins to drop. Maybe a quarter of a mile beyond his tree is a ridge, and just beyond that ridge is Mexico, he’s sure of it, and despite everything, he’s sure he can make it over that ridge. And maybe he’ll be strong enough to make it through the desert, his desert, and give back the teeth.