Spell Blind – Snippet 21

“I hardly said anything.”

“Yeah, well, I guess I noticed that.”

“I think you must have been a pretty good cop.” She ran a hand through her hair once more. She seemed to do that a lot. “I suppose the short answer to your question is that I wanted to get away from my dad.”

I waited, knowing there was more.

“He drank,” she went on. “A lot. And most times when he was drunk, he’d end up beating my mother.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

Billie shrugged. “Mom eventually got up the nerve to kick him out. I think it broke her heart. She really loved him, and when he wasn’t drinking, he was a decent guy. But by the end, we only saw him when he was smashed. He’d go on a bender and show up at our door, and Mom would let him in. She’d try to take care of him, get him sobered up. But it always ended the same way, with Mom crying and sporting another bruise, and Dad leaving again. I got to the point where I didn’t want to be anywhere near either one of them.”

“Your dad still drinking?” I asked.

She shook her head. “He died about ten years ago. Liver gave out on him. If you ask me it was a mercy killing.”

I had no idea what to say, so I kept my mouth shut.

“Guess we’re both damaged goods, huh?” she said.

“Do you know anyone who isn’t?”

“That’s awfully cynical.”

“It’s realistic,” I said. “There isn’t a person alive who doesn’t have something lurking in their past or in their family that they’d rather ignore or erase. Life is about coping with all the crap that comes with being human. Some of us cope better than others. That’s all.”

She shook her head. “Maybe you’re right. But that seems like an awfully dark view of life.”

“I guess it is,” I said, feeling that I’d failed some test. We had turned off of the main road onto the rural two-lane that would take us into the monument. “Listen,” I said, “should I keep on driving, or turn around now?”

“God, what is it with you? Have you decided you don’t like me or something?”

“No!” I said, taken aback. “Not at all. I just–”

“Have I done anything to make you think that I don’t like you?”

I opened my mouth. Closed it again. “We were arguing,” I said weakly.

She did that half-smile, half-frown thing again. I was starting to like it. “We were not! We were talking, expressing opinions, disagreeing with one another. You mean to tell me you never disagreed with your partner when you were a cop?”

“No, we disagreed all the time. But that was different.”

“Why? Because he was a man?”

“Actually, she wasn’t.”

That brought her up short. “Oh. Right. Kona Shaw.”

I had to laugh. After a moment, she did, too.

“You enjoyed that, didn’t you?” she said.

“Very much.”

“I deserved it. But still, I can’t spend time with someone who’s not willing to disagree with me. I’ll get bored. And you don’t seem like the kind of person who’d bore me.”

“I’ll try not to,” I said. But I sounded uncertain.

“Arguing is normal,” Billie said. “Didn’t your parents fight?”

“Not that I remember. My mom died when I was twelve. After that it was just my dad and me, and he wasn’t around a lot.”

“Oh. My turn to be sorry.” She seemed at a loss as to what else to say. “Well,” she finally began again, “take my word for it. People argue. Everyone except my mom. She refused to fight at all. She accepted everything, and look where it got her.”

“So,” I said. “When I think you’re full of crap, you want me to say, ‘You’re full of crap’? Just like that?”

She liked that a lot. God, I loved the way she laughed. “Yes!” she said. “Exactly!”

I shrugged. “I can do that.”

We both fell silent and she looked out the side window. We were near the entrance to the monument now. There were saguaro cacti everywhere and in the distance we could see the ridges of the North Maricopa Mountain Wilderness.

“My God!” she said. “This is gorgeous.”

I was starting to fall in love.

A few minutes later we entered the monument. Billie hadn’t said another word, although she kept on mumbling something that I couldn’t quite hear. There were several new trail heads in the monument that had been developed in the years since the area’s designation as a national facility, and I stopped at the first of these.

Even after I had turned off the Z-ster, she continued to sit there, staring, shaking her head, and muttering to herself.

“What is it you keep saying?”

Her head whipped around in my direction, her eyes widening. “Was I saying that out loud?” she asked.

“You were saying something. I couldn’t make it out.”

She gestured vaguely at her window, shaking her head. “This is so beautiful. And I can’t believe I didn’t bring my camera.”

“So you are a photographer,” I said. “I saw the work in your place and I wondered if it was yours.”

“It’s mine. But I’m hardly a photographer. I have my dad’s old Nikon FE and I fool around with it some. I wish I had it now.”

I grinned. “We can come back.”

Billie nodded and smiled, and we got out of the car.

It was hot still, though the sun was low. It angled across the hills, casting long shadows and bathing the sandstone and saguaros in rich, golden light.

She was wearing her denim jacket and she took it off now. I chanced a quick peek at her shoes, realizing that I hadn’t even bothered to check if she was wearing something suitable for hiking. Turns out she was wearing flat soles, which, while not the best for a desert walk, were far better than, say, heels. I hadn’t thought that she was the stiletto type.

I still had my pack with me and I grabbed that now. The water I’d put in the bottles this morning would be warm, and would taste of plastic. I didn’t expect us to walk far enough to get thirsty, but a person should never go into the desert without carrying water, and I wasn’t a skilled enough weremyste to conjure a spring for us if we needed it.

We started up a small hill and, clearing it, descended into a shallow basin filled with saguaros and ocotillos, teddy-bear chollas and prickly pear. A lizard sunning itself on a rock scuttled out of sight, and a Canyon Wren sang from some unseen perch, its call cascading downward, liquid and melodic. Billie stopped, and shading her eyes with an open hand, turned a full circle, drinking it all in.

“It always looks so empty from the road,” she said.

“It does,” I agreed. “You can’t appreciate the desert from a car. You need to wade out into it. Feel the heat, smell the air, listen to the sounds. I think that’s another reason why I like it so much. You have to work at it a little bit. You have to earn it.”

We walked on, neither of us talking. The sky was shading to azure, and everything seemed to be glowing in the late afternoon light. A Red-tailed Hawk circled lazily overhead, twisting its tail in the wind.

“You know what all these are called?” Billie asked, pointing at the ocotillos and chollas.

“Most of them, yeah.”

“So, tell me.”

I started rattling off the names, pointing out each plant to her. A pair of sparrows popped up on top of a brittlebush and then vanished again just as quickly.

“Black-throated Sparrows,” I said.

“How do you know all this?”

“My dad taught me a lot when I was young, and I’ve spent a lot of time hiking. You pick stuff up.”

“I like that you know it.”

I smiled. “Then you’ll love this.”

I pulled out one of the water bottles, walked off the trail to a cluster of bright green shrubs, and poured some water over the leaves. Instantly, the air was redolent: a sweet, pungent scent that I couldn’t possibly describe.

“My God! What is that?”

“Desert Creosote.”

She frowned. “I thought creosote came from coal.”

“Some does. Some comes from trees. But this is different. Creosote is the name of the plant. I forget the Latin name. But if there’s a single scent that makes me think of the desert, this is it. After a rainstorm the entire basin would smell like this.”

We walked on, crossing through a second basin and then climbing another gentle incline to a rocky ledge that offered a clear westward view. The sun hung low above the horizon, and already the breeze was growing cooler.

Billie’s face was flushed from the climb, but she didn’t seem at all winded. I had the feeling that she worked out.