The desert’s vastness defies imagination. The screaming blue white sky above, the sharp hills of crunching rock. The distances are illusions. The mountainous horizon taunts him with its seeming proximity, yet it defies him. He cannot reach the end. In dark robes, he bakes.
“Did you hear me?”
“What,” Cody says. He crosses out the last sentence. Sorcerers don’t overheat.
“I said get me my glasses. The nurse left ‘em in my drawer when she got me my dentures.”
Cody moves. In the wan light of a winter sunset, he shuffles away from the curtain, careful not to bump into it. The lady on the other side has something wrong that causes her to cry in pain in a way that Cody can’t forget. He clicks on the light and finds the glasses and watches his mother fumble to put them on. In the harsh fluorescent, her already pale face looks sickly. He sits back down, deliberately, on the notebook. He doesn’t want Mom to ask what he’s writing. He could say a grocery list. She might buy that.
“I think I’m gonna go, Mom,” he says. He rolls up the notebook, shoves it in his cargo pocket.
Darlene says nothing. She’s flipping through the channels.
He feels the urge to justify himself. “Chris says he’s gonna help me fix the headlight on the truck,” he says, jamming his hands down into the pockets of his jeans. “I’ll be able to visit you in the evening. Like when it’s dark.” He feels the track phone in his pocket, rolls it over and over.
“I should be outta this place soon,” Darlene says. “The food is terrible.”
“Just keep gettin stronger like Dr. Carson said,” Cody says. “Maybe day after tomorrow.” He gives her a hug and gets a faceful of that weird hospital smell.
“This iv bugs me an awful lot,” she says. “Ask them nurses to do something about it.” It’s her way of saying good-bye.
He walks by the lady in pain, careful not to look, and into the hallway. He ambles towards the nurses’ desk.
“Uhh.” He knows they’re not going to take the iv out. Darlene is what they call a hard stick, and he and the nurses know she likes to find something to complain about. She’s just passing the time. “My mom is in 23 and she says her iv hurts.” As soon as he says it, he feels their disdain. Their annoyance is palpable. But Charity, who was working here when he was born, winks at him. “I’ll look into it. You get home before it gets dark. And get that headlight fixed.”
“Yeah,” he says. “Night.” He turns down the familiar bright hallways toward the doors.
The air is still and cold. He kicks some snow from the wheel flaps before he gets into the truck.
The sun is setting earlier each day and he’s forgotten about that. He crosses his fingers that no tight ass cop is gonna see him and fine him money he doesn’t have for driving with a headlight out. He trolls. He goes 50 in the 55 zone.
The snow is luminous as the light disappears. Across an empty field to his left, through the tangle of leafless trees, there is an opening. It glows orange. A brush fire, burning down. The last of the sun, reflecting off a cloud near the horizon. A portal into another world.
He fights a sudden strong urge to go see for himself. His own Narnia, maybe. Possibilities open before him. He sees himself jumping out of the truck and bounding across the field, reaching the portal seconds before it closes, throwing himself through…
He keeps driving, thinking about how wet his feet would get.
Chris, with a pocket knife in his mouth and half his ass hanging out his pants asks him, “What’s wrong with Darlene?”
Cody shrugs. “Her heart’s acting up and she hadda infection in her bladder.” He could say her congestive heart failure was getting worse, but he didn’t want to confuse Jason, who would equate heart failure with heart attack.
“I had one of those UTI’s,” Chris says. “Burned like a son of a bitch.” He squats, considers the light socket in the light of Cody’s flashlight. His breath fogs like a dragon. “You’re a good kid, watching out for her. See now, this isn’t supposed to fit her, but if you wire her like this? See?”
Cody nods, trying to follow. His feet are freezing. He’s thinking about dinner. His stomach rumbles.
In the mobile home, he hangs up his sodden sweatshirt and microwaves a Hungry Man. He considers, and warms up a can of ravioli. He didn’t get lunch today. When Darlene gets home, he’ll go to the store and get some vegetables and stuff and they’ll cook for each other. When he’s alone, he doesn’t really have the heart for it.
Between the elaborate iron scrollwork of the doorframe, the portal glowed orange. He waited, body humming with tension and anticipation. He was ready, but the scars he bore reminded him, told him to wait just one more minute. His arms were folded beneath black robes, pretending placidity, but it was a facade. Everything in him yearned to leave this hell called the dessert.
Then the portal was gold, the yellow gold of sun falling through leafy trees, and he strode through. The dragons awaited him.
It’s exactly 2 am when the phone rings. He only knows this because he’s staring at the phone, trying to remember who set an alarm. What is it he is supposed to do?
He grabs his mental faculties (they’re trying to escape, he thinks) and answers the phone.
“Cody? It’s Dr. Carson.”
Dr. Carson sounds about as fuzzy as Cody feels. “We need to transfer your mother to a higher level of care.”
“Darlene? Ok. Where is she going?” He rubs his forehead, then sits up on the couch and turns on the light. “Wait, what?”
There follows a technical discussion beyond his 2 am comprehension. Dr. Carson is talking about her lungs and heart and did he say kidneys? There was never anything wrong with Darlene’s kidneys. Or was there? His mind is with swirling with the tattered remnants of his dream, and his stomach is starting to knot up. He regrets the ravioli.
“Uh, should I come in?” he says when there is silence on the line.
“Mmm, you should probably just go to Upstate. Know where that is?”
His memory traces a foggy line down a map, towards the city. “I can probably find it.”
“Ok then,” Dr. Carson says. He sounds oddly chipper. “I’m sorry about all this. I really hope everything goes well for both of you.”
“Yeah, thanks, good bye.” Cody clicks the little phone shut and sits on the edge of the couch. He tries to get in touch with reality and all its friends; gravity, light and the speed of shock. He tries and fails. He finds himself on his laptop, asking google, please, how do I get to Upstate, and scribbling the directions down in his notebook. His heart is pounding and his hands are sweaty. He remembers to put on pants, frayed jeans still wet around the cuffs and he finds a new sweatshirt, a dryer one than the night before. He kicks off the space heater. Something else, there was something else. He spins around in the trailer, clenching and unclenching his fists. Finally he grabs a granola bar and shoves it in his pocket. In the cupboard, he sees Darlene’s emergency money, and grabs a handful of crumpled ones. Armed with keys, his wallet and his notebook, he sets off into the brave unknown.
Samir stood straight, staring off into the dark rustling trees full of dying leaves. His breath clouded in the air and his piss steamed in the moonlight. He fastened his trousers, gaze still intent on the unknown depths of the Deepning Forest. What watched him from within? What had he avoided, escaping the grasping clutches of its devil trees? More importantly, what had he missed? Was there yet treasure untold therein?
No matter now. He had the relics to save his people. He turned on his heel, away from the trees, into the clear, towards his destiny.
He shivers uncontrollably as he drives south, headlights rolling over empty fields. After ten minutes, he’s finally warmer. His hands are still and white on the steering wheel.
Upstate is cradled in the armpit of two intersecting freeways and thank God there is no traffic at 3 am. His stomach does a flip when he sees the posted parking rates in the garage; $14 for a day? That’s all of Darlene’s emergency fund. After long consideration, he parks there anyway and wanders towards the bright lights until he finds the main entrance to the hospital. The desk guy gives him a sticker that ABSOLUTELY MUST WEAR AT ALL TIMES, makes a phone call and rattles off directions. Cody clenches his fists in his pockets, relaxes them. Samir is not afraid of the Deepning woods and Kliar fears no dragons. He finds himself in an elevator. He rises.
He finds the right ICU mostly by accident. He’s not sure how he got there. 3 am is an unholy time, full of deception and uncertainty and it should never ever be lit up in this ungodly way. He needs sunglasses. The nurse at the desk is younger than he is and wearing more makeup than anyone he’s ever seen. Her id tag is clipped at the V in her top and he is disgusted and entranced by the white line of cleavage he can see, even without looking.
“Darlene Prowski?” To Cody’s dismay and delight, she bends over a computer monitor, showing him everything she owns. “Yeah, she’s in 30. Let me see if they’re finished.” She comes out from behind the desk and gestures for Cody to follow. Finished? With what? His apprehension is inseparable from his thrill at walking a few paces behind this extraordinary young woman.
All the rooms have glass walls with curtains. None of them are closed. He sees horrible things; machines invading body orifices, humans caught in silent screams. Darlene won’t be that bad. She couldn’t be.
The hot nurse opens the curtain to room 30. Darlene is bad. She is very very bad.
“You must fight them! This must not come to pass!” The young warrior is so full of passion that his eyes brim with tears, but Samir places a staying hand on his shoulder.
“There is a time for swords and a time for words, my friend.” He rubs the pommel of his longsword, his old friend. This pains him. It pains him for than the others will ever know. “We will make peace with our enemy.”
“They have decimated our homes and burned our crops! They have torn down our wall and taken our children! And you would make peace!” The outcry is tumultuous. He waits for a moment, head bowed in silence, black hair long in need of barbering draping his weary face.
“The cost of war is great,” he says. “It is too great for us to bear. Our people will be extinguished. Therefore, let us take counsel from each other and sit and parley with our enemy.”
They’ve turned down the lights. After a hundred questions he couldn’t really answer, they’ve left him alone. He sits in the corner. Darlene breathes. There are machines at either side of the bed. One he knows is an IV pole, but this one’s bigger and beastlier than he’s ever seen. The other has a bright computer screen and a tube that snakes into Darlene’s mouth. He can’t think right now. He can’t anything. Darlene’s arms are tied down. Every once and awhile she tries to lift one and them seems to find it too great of an effort and drops it. He wants to touch her but he’s afraid the machines will beep and the sharp cool nurses will waltz in and stare at him while they fuss with Darlene. He shivers. His fingers play with the tracphone.
He must have slept, because he dreams. He dreams he’s outside of his body, sort of drifting, unanchored by his dorky glasses and pale awkward belly. He sees his sleeping form, slumped in the chair. Charity and Dr. Carson regard him from the doorway.
“You must be very careful with him,” Dr. Carson says. “There’s no telling what he’ll do. It’s as if someone has literally taken a rug from under him.”
Charity nods sagely, says nothing.
“He might go around the bend. Who knows, he might go off the deep end. He might go bananas.” Dr Carson smiles whistfully as if this prospect excites him somewhat.
Cody awakens with his head propped awkwardly against the wall. There is a blanket over his shoulders and two nurses are in the room. Gray daylight leaks through the blinds.
One of the nurses turns, and smiles at him. She’s not the hot one from last night, but that one sort of made him uncomfortable. “I’m Marlowe,” she says. “I’ll be your Mom’s nurse until seven tonight.”
He nods. He hasn’t thought as far as seven tonight. His tongue is gummy and stuck to the roof of his mouth.
Marlowe smiles at him gently. In her ill-fitting scrubs and with her hair cut too short, she is the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen. “I’m really sorry about all this,” she says. “I know it’s a lot to handle.”
He’s filled with sudden, overwhelming gratitude. It overflows and drips out of his eyes. His head weighs a ton and it falls in his lap. Oh shit. Oh poor Darlene. His shoulders shake. Marlowe touches him gently. He hears her feet leave the room and return. She drops a box of tissues in his lap. “Maybe you should call somebody,” she says. “She have any other family besides you?”
He calls Chris.
“Cheyanne wants to come up too,” Jason says. “But uh, are kids allowed? We got no sitter for them.”
Cody looks at the tubes and machines. He thinks about Gage and Chevy. They love Darlene.
“No,” he says. “No kids allowed.”
“Ok,” says Jason. “Cheyanne! We’ll hafta take turns.” Then he says, “I’ll be up in bit. You need anything?”
Cody knows that no matter what he says, Cheyanne will send up 3 sandwiches and a six pack of pepsi and one of the cousins will send money for parking and someone else will scrounge up gas money. He knows they’ve got nothing and yet when country people are hardest up is when they are the most generous.
Chris stands at the bedside for a long time. He holds Darlene’s hand and says nothing. When he looks at Cody, Cody sees himself from above, like in his dream, sees himself sitting fat and useless, and stupid too. He bites his lip.
“Christ,” Jason says. “I think she did it this time.” He sighs. “What’d the doctors say?”
“I uhh I don’t really know.”
“They talk to you yet?”
Cody shakes his head. If they did, he can’t remember.
Jason punches the call button and after a few minutes, Marlowe comes in.
“Yeah, we need a doctor,” Chris says. “She’s this kid’s mom and we have no idea what in hell is going on. Can you get on that?” Cody dies of embarrassment. He can see the irritation radiating from his new favorite nurse.
Marlowe’s mouth pinches together. She starts to speak and then stops herself. “I’ll work something out for you,” she says.
Sometimes to wait is the most difficult thing. Samir is tense but his body betrays no sign. He alternately leans against the cool stone wall or squats by the fire. The moon is a waxing gibbous, casting cold shadows on the world around him. He has canted the message. The sorcerer will come this night.
The doctor is a short paunchy Indian woman who ends all her sentences with “I think” and never looks Cody in the eye. She uses words like “idiopathic encephalopathy” and “permanent kidney damage”, which she tries to explain, but Chris cuts her off.
“Cody’s not stupid.”
Cody tries to soften it. “I understand what you mean,” he says.
“You have been helping your mother for a long time, I think,” says the doctor. “In this case, she can no longer make decisions for herself, I think. So it is going to be you. I would advise, I think, seeing if there is any improvement in the next three days, but if there is not, then you need to think about would your mother want to be on a ventilator for a long time and would she be ok with being in a nursing home.” She stares at the wall for a minute. “We will tell you if there is any improvement, but in the meantime, you have to start thinking about what your mother would want. Ok?”
Cody stuffs his hands into his pockets. “Ok,” he says. He hears the doctor’s clicky shoes go out. The ventilator wheezes, clicks and something adjusts. Chris is studying the whiteboard on the other side of the room intently.
“I gotta go,” he says. “Cheyanne’s gotta go to work.”
“Ask for a parking sticker,” Cody says. “Then you pay less.”
“You want me to come up later?”
Cody shakes his head. He is thinking about the trailer without the funk of Darlene’s cigarettes. He is thinking about silent evenings after work without her weird dating advice, the way she could make food out of nothing. He thinks about funerals and gravestones and the way that words flow into his notebook if he writes while she watches tv.
Samir waits patiently in the moonlight, still as a stone. The fire has burned to embers, and still he waits.
And then it happens. Reality shimmers. The dark wood before him suddenly seems a mirror, a facade. It ripples. It shatters. And for a moment he sees the truth, he sees what lies beneath. With his own eyes, he beholds black horrors not meant for human vision. He averts, he covers his face, but it is too late; he has already seen.
The dark woods come together again, and before him stands the one for whom he waited. Kliar, the sorcerer.
“Your boots have crossed mountains and deserts, your sword has slain many, and yet you cower at the sight of my homeland.” Kliar’s face is hidden, but Samir can hear the smile in his voice.
Samir holds his head in his hands until the nausea subsides, willing himself to unsee what he saw, and then he unfolds, stands slowly, looks directly at the hooded figure “Your homeland, sorcerer, is not for the eyes of man.”
“Am I not merely a man?” Kliar says.
“Let us not banter,” answers the warrior. “You know what I seek and I fear time is short.”
“Ah, your people.” Kliar speaks as in mockery, but Samir hears true compassion. Or perhaps that is only what he wants to hear.“You would have from me my healing elixir,” murmurs Kliar.
“The moonshadow potion,” Samir says. “To protect the remnants and preserve us.”
“Then there is aught you must do. This one is not easy, and when it is finished, so also is my debt to you.” Kliar looks up at the moon with sightless eyes. “Three days long will be this ritual, and then you will have your elixir.” He tells Samir what he must do.
Cody goes home. He goes to work. He returns. Marlowe isn’t there. Darlene lays beneath the bright lights. They’ve untied her hands. She doesn’t reach up.
There are a few things we can try, the doctor tells him. He signs consent forms, waits in the waiting room while blue sterile drapes and masked doctors surround his mother.
Marlowe comes in on the evening shift. One day at a time, she says, but Cody sees only pity in her eyes. She adds more IV bags and monitors. She is busy and Cody feels bad taking her time away so she can pity him.
He holds Darlene’s hand. It’s so cold, even though Marlowe says she has a fever. Get better, Mom, he thinks. Don’t leave me. Get better.
Beneath cold and glittering stars, Samir is defeated. The horizon glows, but it is not the sunset. The armies and walls have failed. The spells have come to naught. The might of war machines and warriors, of sorcerer and spellbooks have all been useless against his enemy. The city burns. He is alone, an orphan without a people. He drops to his knees, unable to to believe that all that is left is a smited ruin. Stones and embers. All is lost. He holds his head in his hands and at last, he weeps.