Like everything else around these parts, the gravel has shriveled up. Caved in. Crumbled to dust like hollow bones of the earth.
A mirage of water hovers along the horizon in a tsunami-like, metallic wave. The hot air blowing across them is like the inside of a furnace, the heat so intense it nears suffocating. Every step is a struggle. It’s as if Maia’s legs have been wrapped in lead, weighing each foot down to the ground the moment she lifts it.
A scorpion scurries across the road.
The endless desert highway they now roam has been swallowed in oscillating mounds of sand; the scorched earth cracked open like a gaping spider’s web. Any cement left exposed to the elements has been ruptured by the crooked arms of barren shrubs, desperately clawing from beneath the rubble.
Another gust of sand hurls across them.
Maia motions her hand to catch Lucas’s attention. He nods, and she tosses him her staff. He hands her a small rag. They’ve been switching the two items every few miles. The staff doubles nicely as a walking stick. And with just a flick of the wrist, the rag can swat away the relentless black flies, frantic for the moisture of their skin and eyes.
Maia’s face is also wrapped with a bandana, now matted and drenched across the bridge of her nose. Her auburn hair has been tied into a thick bun on top of her head, which not only keeps her cooler but also protects her scalp from the harsh rays of the sun.
A black shadow flickers across them as another circling vulture curls on a wing. The birds have been tracking them for miles, ready to swoop the moment one of them crumbles to the ground.
Maia reaches for her steel canister, secured with rope against the side of her pack. She brings the hot metal to her lips, delicately sipping the warm water and swirling it around the taut skin of her mouth. Her teeth crunch on a piece of sand before swallowing it down.
The vulture circles around again.
This California desert road has felt endless, but the wide-open expanse—albeit harsh—has been a blessing. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to constantly be on guard, and out here, they’ve got none to spare.
But the harsh terrain also filters out the crazies, so they don’t have to worry as much about malicious bandits taking something they hold dear. There are no half-breeds--bounders—hiding behind seemingly innocent, rotted-out vehicles abandoned on the side of the road.
Like that one car back in LA, with the juvenile cottonwood exploding from the hood.
With every skeleton of a vehicle they approach, they each take a side, splitting around it with a wide and cautious stance. So far, there has only been one body found out here and he was far from alive. The only threats on this road seem to be the scorpions and the rattlesnakes—and even they want nothing to do with the lethargic, shuffling humans.
A rusted sign on the side of the road lies crooked and covered in layers of sand. Lucas swats the dust from the faded green metal.
Seattle 994 Miles.
Nine hundred and ninety-four miles. Maia’s heart sinks. Having grown up with kilometers, she’s not as familiar with the unit of distance, but she knows the number isn’t good. They’ve been in America for over two months … and they’ve only traveled less than a hundred miles.
Of course, most of that time was spent hiding within the treacherous streets of Los Angeles, preparing for their four-thousand-mile journey up the new North American West Coast. Every day they would scavenge the crumbling, deserted homes and eerie, waterlogged streets in search of the right supplies. They planned for every possible danger, packed for every harsh and foreboding terrain. They knew they were using precious time staying in LA, but every minute was desperately needed.
Even still, after all that, she feels like nothing could have prepared her for any of this. Sitting around a fire in a deserted home talking about what to expect doesn’t shield one from the numbing pain of swollen feet, open blisters, and a merciless desert sun. Or the bee stings, the slithering things, and the icy-cold evenings.
But, one foot in front of the other—they’ve discussed this. They’ve made a pact. There is no room for negative thinking, which, especially when out in the elements, can prove equally as fatal.
Just keep moving.
Lucas turns from the sign and his face drops. Maia’s seen this face before, back when they were stuck on a collapsing raft of garbage in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and a storm was heading their way. Her heart plummets to her gut as Lucas slowly pulls the bandana from his gaping mouth, his eyes wide in horror as he scans the horizon behind her. He mouths something. She cannot hear him but she knows exactly what he’s saying. She reluctantly follows his gaze and her rag drops to the dust.
“Meu Deus,” she repeats as Lucas steps next to her.
They stand frozen before the swiftly approaching, mammoth wall of sand.
Lucas turns toward Maia and yells through the barrage of dust suddenly pelting the side of their sun-scorched cheeks, but she can no longer hear him.
Every possible danger.
Every imaginable terrain.
The billowing cloud mushrooms from the horizon, quickly choking out the last remnants of the sun. They should be running for their lives, but Maia is paralyzed by her thoughts.
What she wouldn’t give to be back in the hellish streets of LA.