Flipside by Byron Wayne Scott - HTML preview
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By Byron W. ScottLife is a gift
What do you do with it?
Do you increase your inventory?
Add to your stress and worry?
Along your road?
But it’s so hard to climb the mountain
With such a heavy load
It will weigh you down
And wear you out
And turn you from your goal
--from the Songs from Long Road
By C. L. Walker— 1 FlipsideMighty peculiar. He had raised his head from his paperwork and discovered an unusually large number of people milling about the bookstore. Each and every individual was dirty, ragged and unkempt. It looked like a convention for the homeless. He had no idea there were so many destitute people in such a small town. Equally puzzling was the fact that everyone had managed to slip past him without being noticed. His desk faced the entranceway. Had he been that absorbed in his work? He watched for several minutes as they very quietly and unobtrusively perused the stacks and racks of books, and finding no reason to hassle anyone, he soon returned to his deskwork. A moment later a slight commotion caused him to lift his head once again. He was shocked. The number of people had increased tenfold and had become a menagerie of all social classes. Women in expensive fur coats mingled with the poor. Booths, stalls, and tables had been set up in the aisles, causing the bookstore to resemble a flea-market. A sickness developed in his stomach. He had been the one left in charge, and things had gone to hell-in-a-hand-basket in no time at all. How had it been possible? A young couple began to set up a booth next to his desk. The man worked vigorously while the woman tried to contain two restless children. It was the last straw. In one swift motion he pushed himself away from his desk and stood up. “Y’all are gonna have to leave,” he sternly announced, although he knew full well that the situation had already grown out of control. “I’ve got work to do, and I can’t do it with all of this going on!” He waved his arms in frustration. The young man working beside him calmly lifted his head. “Arrangements have already been made,” he said in a slow drawl. “Nobody said anything to me!” “That’s the way it goes. Management.” Credit fumed. Surely the manager would have mentioned something of this magnitude, wouldn’t she? Damn! As much as he hated walking out on the job, one thing was certain—he couldn’t work in the middle of a flaming circus! He nimbly avoided the burgeoning crowd as he stomped through the room and then stepped outside onto the sidewalk. He wasn’t surprised when he discovered that there wasn’t a soul in sight. “Everybody in town is already in the damn bookstore,” he sarcastically asserted to himself as he gazed up and down the lifeless street. He watched with interest as a gust of wind picked up some curb-side litter. It was lifted high into the air in slow, lazy swirls. Suddenly taking note of the background, Credit realized with a sudden jolt that he wasn’t where he had thought he was at. This was not his quiet home town in the East Texas Pineywoods, but a run-down, northern industrial city! He searched for an explanation and like a revelation the answer immediately came to him. It originated from a source that was deep inside himself, and the conclusion was undeniable. This was all a dream. It was the only feasible explanation. Not only did it explain the number of homeless people, but also how they had gathered so quickly. Not to mention the fact that he had never worked at a bookstore before in his life. A sudden urging overcame him and he decided to take advantage of the situation. Spontaneously, he took a few running steps and then leapt high into the air with reckless abandon. Miraculously, instead of dropping back to earth, he defied gravity and continued to rise into the air with increasing velocity. It was as if he was being pulled through the sky like a kite, with strings attached to his pelvic bones and shoulders. He arms and legs dangled behind him as he raced along. His stomach was relentless in its pleas for him to stop. The next moment he was hovering motionless in mid air, observing the city below. The hilly topography reminded him of Syracuse, New York, although he had never before seen it from the air. He wondered if his dream had actually transported himself to that locale. For some reason it did not feel right. His conviction was not absolute like it had been when he had realized that he was dreaming. He suddenly itched to be on the ground once more. He spotted a clearing in the trees below and then pulled himself toward it, landing light as a feather. As he familiarized himself with his new surroundings, he noted that while the field where he had landed was treeless, it was far from being an empty lot. Amongst overgrown weeds were barrels of waste products and stacks of rusty, steel I-beams. A group of men were standing beneath the trees on one edge of the clearing. One of the men noticed Credit watching them and pointed him out to his friends. While they were too far away to be heard, Credit watched with keen interest as they conversed with exaggerated animation before scattering along the tree-line. Their movements did not appear friendly. The gang surrounded him at a distance and then began to advance towards him, silently communicating with hand signals. Some of the men sported knives. Steel blades glistened in the sunlight. With his escape route cut off, Credit decided to make his way for the central slag heap. Under different circumstances, he would have been quite alarmed at such a situation, perhaps even terrified. But he knew he had an ace up his sleeve, and it made him feel confident to the point of becoming smug. He decided to have some fun by taunting his pursuers. “Hey, amigos!” he gleefully shouted. “Are you sure there are enough of you? Perhaps you should bring your sisters to help you, no!?” He cackled loudly as he leapt atop the tallest stack of steel girders. Even then, he was barely out of reach from the ground below. His remarks brought scowls from the young men and caused them to quicken their pace. They gathered below him in a circle, seething with resentment but confident they would soon get their just revenge. The leader of the gang stepped forward with a smirk upon his face. “You have nothing to fear from us, gringo,” he whined. “We even forgive you your insults. All we want is your money. Our fair share. So you come down and we split it up, OK? We even let you keep some. OK?” The gang members shuffled their feet as they gloated. “I don’t believe you are macho enough to take my money,” Credit shouted back. “Even your sisters are no help.” He smiled wickedly as he motioned towards several of the men. “Perhaps you should send your madres to rob me!” The jest made most of the men madder than hell. They lost patience. When he saw a revolver being drawn, Credit quickly leapt into the air, hooting with laughter at their dumbfounded looks of despair when he continued to rise into the sky. He followed a parabolic path of flight until he landed in a residential back yard. His new setting felt exceedingly familiar, although it eluded his actual recall. As he scanned the area for a clue to jar his memory, he spotted Mark and David talking to each other near the back fence. Apparently, they had been tossing horseshoes. The incongruity of the situation did not elude him. While they were two of his best friends, they were from different times and places. They did not know each other. And yet each of them loved to challenge his goal in life—his quest for total freedom. Their contention was that it was both an undesirable and an unattainable goal. His contention was that he would never be able to view the world as it really is unless he freed himself from the strong cultural distortion and bias that was taught to everyone as they grew up. But because total freedom was such an abstract concept; since there were no maps that delineated the way and certainly no lists quantifying the possible rewards, Credit was never able to adequately define his position and rationale. Sometimes not even to himself. But now an opportunity had presented itself. He would give Mark and David a demonstration of what could be accomplished if one did not get caught up in the pursuit of land, money, and material items; what was possible for every man if the constraints of society were loosened. He would perform a grand leap into the sky and then return! They would be impressed. “Hey, guys!” he shouted. “Get a load of this!” When they turned to look he leapt confidently into the air. To his sudden consternation, he rose only fifteen feet before losing his balance. With no physical control over the situation, he watched wide-eyed as his feet swung out in front of him. He turned a backwards somersault and then landed awkwardly, though softly, on his hands and knees. As he struggled to regain his feet, he could hear the snickering coming from his friend’s direction. Silently cursing them, he reassured himself of his ability and then once again attempted to walk the sky. And once again he turned a backwards somersault before returning to earth, this time landing lightly on his back. This time his mounting embarrassment was too much to overcome, and he continued to lie on the ground. Shit, he mused, now these guys are going to think I’m flakier than ever. “What’s he doing?” he heard David ask. “I don’t know. But whatever he’s up to, he’s not hurting himself,” Mark replied. “I noticed that, too. He’s on to something, but I don’t know what.” “He looked like a fish flopping around out of water.” “Hey, Credit, try it one more time!” “Yeah. Once more! You can do it.” “You gotta knock on wood.” “Yeah. Knock on wood!” He heard the knock on wood as he pushed himself up from the ground. He heard it plain as day. There it was again. He decided it would be best to open his eyes and answer the door. 2 Bonnie The loud rapping brought him quickly to his senses. He rubbed his eyes as he sat up. Another loud knocking brought him to his feet. As he peeked through the front door curtains a grin spread across his face. “Let me in, damn you! It’s cold out here.” He opened the door and Bonnie drifted in with the cool, spring breeze. “What’d you do? Fall asleep?” A guilty grin was his only reply. “I wish that’s all I had to do was sleep all day.” “I just had the most amazing dream I’ve ever had.” “All about me, I suppose?” A noncommittal chuckle was his initial answer. “I’ll tell you about it later,” he said. He was well aware that the dream had stamped itself into his memory and could now be recalled at will, as if an actual event in his life had occurred. Two aspects of that dream stood out. The first was very intriguing; the fact that he realized within his dream that he was indeed dreaming. It was an extraordinary and unlooked for development. The second aspect was more troubling; the fact that he felt endangered by a Hispanic gang. He considered himself to be free of prejudice. He certainly harbored no ill will towards any ethnic group, and he wondered about the significance. What would cause a scene like that to creep up in his dreams? “When did you get back in town?” he asked, changing the subject. “This afternoon. If you’d get a telephone, I could have called.” Bonnie glanced around the room. The house was very clean, but essentially empty. Credit owned only the barest of necessities; a few pieces of furniture, a refrigerator, a mattress on the floor in the bedroom. The man had no interest in consumer items. Yet he was the most creative person she had ever met. And in his own way, the most caring. The good looks were extra. “Hey! You’re alone again!” “Mark and De moved into their new house a couple days ago.” “So who’s gonna cook, clean and take care of your other needs, now?” He didn’t even attempt an answer. “I don’t know what you see in Deanna,” she blurted. Understanding, he reflected. Her eyes peer into my soul with recognition. “She ain’t beautiful...” She has sex appeal oozing from every pore of her body. “...has a bitchy personality...” She’s not happy with her marriage, with the direction of her life. “...and she’s fat!” “She’s not fat!” he snapped out loud. Immediately, he caught himself, shrugged his shoulders. “Overweight, a little. If she gets serious about a diet, ol’ Mark will have a fox and a half on his hands.” “She’s married.” Yes, married. And to his best friend, no less. He smiled weakly, well aware of the cliché he had become caught up in. Bonnie was perceptive. It made him wonder exactly what it was he was doing. Why Deanna? Why the strong physical yearnings for a woman he had known for years as a friend? Eighteen years ago, after his divorce, he found himself faced with a dilemma. He could continue living within the cultural surroundings of his day, with all the political processes and societal practices with which he disagreed, or he could seek absolute and total freedom. He opted for freedom, knowing full well that it would be a long, slow process. Simply dropping out and running away from responsibilities, both financial and emotional, was not a road that would lead to his goal. It would have to be a sober and thoughtful process. He was now very close to realizing his goal. His son would soon be graduating college. His financial responsibilities would end. He had taken care of his other debts. He had only to cut his few remaining ties to the government and say good-bye to his editor and friends before he could declare his total freedom. Bonnie was a part time model. She had beautiful red hair and freckles, and a body to boot; luscious breasts and a thin waist. And a wonderful way of making love. When he first met her, she had been no more than a pleasant diversion. But the more he came to know her, the more he realized that her beauty ran much, much deeper than her skin. Bonnie had class and style. She could have any man she wanted. He never dreamed that their relationship would reach the point that it had. He wondered if that was the reason for his sudden infatuation with Deanna. Was he unconsciously searching for an easy, if not messy, way to say good-bye to Bonnie? “You’re jealous of her,” he teased as he hid his feelings and moved closer to Bonnie. “Well, you make me mad! Falling for a married woman.” He grabbed her around the waist and put his mouth to her ear. “And you didn’t come over here to be mad, now did you! You came over here to bounce around on the bed. Admit it!” “I did not!” she said as she playfully struggled against his advances. He held her firmly and nibbled her with kisses until she finally relented. It did not take long. She could sense that he needed her. They needed each other. It had been a long time. Afterwards she lay silently on her side, unusually reflective. Credit had never been that rough with her before, that selfish. Was it because of his feelings for Deanna? Would he feel less threatened if he was involved with a married woman? Saddened and resentful, she pretended to sleep. Credit sat awake, restless and agitated. He was sorry for the way he had just treated Bonnie; ashamed that his thoughts kept drifting towards Deanna. Impulsively, he gave Bonnie a firm shake. “Wake up,” he whispered. “Let’s get dressed. We’re heading for the Hill Country.” 3 Hill Country She was sleeping soundly against the passenger door when he parked the truck at the top of the bluff. “We’re here,” he said as he gave her a gentle nudge. Credit stepped outside and stretched. He glanced up and noticed the cloud cover rolling in. There wasn’t a single star in the western half of the sky. He pulled the flashlight from the knapsack, grabbed the tent and sleeping bags, and then tapped loudly on Bonnie’s window. “C’mon, sleepy head, let’s go. We’re here.” She stumbled out the door, moaning and stomping her feet. “I don’t know how I let you talk me into this,” she grumbled. “What time is it?” “About three-thirty. Hell, you ain’t got anything better to do.” “I just come back from San Antonio!” “Yeah, but this ain’t San Antone—it’s paradise. C’mon, you’ll love it here when you can see it in the morning.” He led her to a rough, steep trail that led down to the river. The darkness was ravenous. It swallowed the glow from the flashlight before the light could point out the dangers; the gnarled juniper roots and thorny branches that reached out to grab and trip them. Unstable rocks broke loose, and scattered down the winding slope. “It’s dark out here, Credit. I’m can’t see.” “We’re almost there.” The wind was gusting hard when they reached a grassy flat and picked out a place to set the tent. Although the night hid the river from view, they could hear its musical gurgle. “It’s gonna rain,” Bonnie said. “Nah, it’ll blow over.” Despite the increasing wind, they managed to set up the tent. Bonnie climbed inside to unroll the sleeping bags while Credit covered the tent with an extra tarp and tied it down securely. The rising humidity was definitely noticeable by the time he crawled inside and zipped the door. “Goodnight,” Bonnie murmured. Her voice was barely audible above the noise of the flapping tarp. She rolled over and dozed off. Worn out from the long drive, it was only a moment before Credit, too, was sound asleep. He did not hear the large, scattered raindrops begin to fall. 4 Flipside He was at the end of a long, narrow lake that he could not identify. The blinding glare from the sun on the water interfered with his total view, but when he squinted his eyes he could see that tall, craggy cliffs bordered one of the shorelines. The rocky fissures were crowded with scrawny oak trees and scrubby, desert vegetation. The opposite shore was a more gradual slope of yellow, withered grass. In stark contrast was the picnic area where he now stood. It was park-like, with a thick, green lawn and deep, cool shade from tall pines and cottonwoods. There was a cove at that end of the lake. From what he could recall, he had been canoeing and having a good time. He thought he remembered seeing his mother and father there, and assumed that he was at a family reunion. As he looked around now, though, he began to pick out people he used to work with. The mounting peculiarities suddenly added up and he concluded that he was dreaming. He sensed that he could keep the sequences coming as long as he didn’t buck the natural flow of events. Mike was approaching him. “I always wanted to ride in that thar k-new you get!” Good grief! A six foot four, three hundred pound Cajun in a twelve-foot canoe. Credit grinned. “Sure. Why not.” Despite the blazing sun, large, scattered raindrops had begun to fall, and he figured that he was bound to get wet sooner or later. He settled into the front of the canoe while Mike squeezed into the rear. They wobbled all the way across the cove and half way back before rolling into the water. As unbalanced as Mike was, it was amazing that they made it as far as they did. Hilarious all the way. It was raining fairly hard by that time. Credit found himself back on shore. Funny. He should have been soaked, but he wasn’t wet at all. But he didn’t have time to ponder the oddities. Someone was speaking. “Take your clothes off. We’ll dry them by the fire.” “No thanks,” he replied. “I’ve got dry clothes in the car. I need to go now, anyway.” But he didn’t have a car. And he wasn’t wet. He rode his bicycle through the streets of town. Although he had no idea where he was, he didn’t feel lost. When he reached the end of one particularly intriguing residential block of homes, the rain had nearly stopped. This is the place, he thought as he stared at the large, white Victorian house on the corner. The ancient structure had a very pleasing, elegant look about it. But for some reason, he decided that the time was not yet right. He leaned his bicycle against the lamppost, crossed the street, and then entered the neighborhood store. It was dimly lit and overly crowded with shelves and foodstuff. All of the aisles were extremely narrow. When he spotted the cigarette rack he was overwhelmed. There must have been over a hundred different brands, and he glanced at the register for help. The clerk had finished waiting on his lone customer and was staring back at him. “Do you have any Marlboro Lights?” he sheepishly asked. “Right here at the counter.” Credit wondered if he had any money. “That’ll be seventy-five cents, please.” Good grief! A bargain. Amazingly enough, he found several dollar bills inside his pants pocket. He tipped the clerk a quarter and walked out. He re-crossed the street and then climbed the steps to the big, white house. He paused for a moment on the porch. The front door was wide open. Several people were inside, conversing lightly and laughing. He stepped into the room and all heads turned his way. Silence. A self-conscious feeling engulfed him. He stuttered, “Is ah, is...?” Damn! He had a vague feeling that he had been looking for someone, but now he couldn’t remember who it might have been. He began to panic. He realized that he didn’t know anybody in the room. A young woman moved from behind the couch and started walking towards him. “Oh! You’ve finally come to see me again! I’m so proud of you!” “Had to,” he automatically replied. Again? Proud? Why proud? His eyes had not yet adjusted to the darkness of the room and he was unable to distinguish the features of her face. Still, he could tell that she was no more than five foot tall, slightly built, with long, black hair like Deanna’s. Although her voice sounded vaguely familiar, he could not place it with a face. He thought he knew her, yet he didn’t. In fact, he really didn’t know why he was there to begin with. “You know you’re dreaming, don’t you?” she asked. “Yes,” he absently replied. He had almost forgotten. “Good. You’re finally becoming aware of your situation. Come!” she said as she grabbed him by the arm. “I want to show you something before you have to go. We really don’t have much time.” She was exuberant. Every fiber of her being sparkled with joy, and she transferred that good feeling to him. All of a sudden he felt very much at ease and was more than willing to follow her. She was a comfort to be with. She led him outside the house, down the street, and around a corner. They turned another corner and then entered an expansive but deserted outdoor plaza. They descended some steps and then entered a building through the basement door. Credit found himself in a brightly-lit room. He supposed that it was a university bookstore. There were young people everywhere. And even though the room was spacious, all of the aisles were so very narrow! “Follow me,” the woman chirped. He stared at her backside. A moment ago she had appeared so trim. Now she suddenly looked huge and fat and he knew that she’d never be able to fit down the aisle. It was an impossibility even for him! He turned and left the store. Once outside he stopped and stood upon a drainage grate underneath a street lamp. Nighttime had descended and it had begun to sprinkle once again. He started to grow anxious as he waited, hoping that the woman would come back outside. She had wanted to show him something, and like a dumb ass he had walked out on her. Now he might never see her again. He felt too embarrassed to go back inside. The grate beneath him began to make a dull, roaring sound. He looked down and noticed the water pouring in around his feet. Something else was wrong! He could feel it. He was standing there with his hands in his pockets in a drenching rain, and yet he wasn’t wet! A realization struck him and he awoke with a start. 5 Deanna Deanna awoke with a start. An ominous feeling slipped from her grasp as she fitfully sat up in bed. She wondered what had jolted her into waking. It had not been Mark’s snoring. He was breathing evenly, sleeping silently beside her. Neither had it been her dream, although she couldn’t recall that now at all. Still, like a wispy apparition, a definite sense of impending disaster hung in the air and continued to haunt her. Noting the time, she slipped out of bed and then shuffled into the sitting room. She opened the sliding doors and stepped outside. A cool, steady breeze bathed her with the essence of pine needles and dogwood. Starlight glittered through the quivering pines in the backyard. She knew their glow would not last long. Dawn would soon be upon them. As she sat down, the reason for her sudden waking swept through her without warning. She unconsciously shuddered and then abruptly stood up and began pacing the patio. Something had happened to Credit. Something terrible! There was no doubt about it. Credit was alone and in need of help, and she should be there to help him. 5 Flash Flood He awoke to loud, rumbling thunder. Violent sheets of rain pelted the tent in continuing waves. And although he was disturbed by the undulating rhythm of a raging, turbulent river, the sound that riveted his attention even more was the otherworldly roar that was growing louder as it approached. “What’s wrong?” Bonnie mumbled, still half asleep. “Get up. We need to get the hell out of here! Get your shoes on!” Bonnie needed no convincing. Water had begun to filter in through the tent. It was waist deep by the time they reached the base of the hillside. The roar from the approaching wall of water had become overwhelming. It was deafening. Credit knew it to be the sound of death. Their progress up the slope was agonizingly slow. Each precious, passing moment only amplified the futility of their efforts. And then it was upon them. Credit took the brunt of the force and his feet were swept out from under him. He vainly flailed at the branches of a tree, and then was gone. Bonnie clung tightly to the shrubbery as the water inched its way upward, but the main wall had passed beneath her. With the initial thrust over, she collapsed in grief at the edge of the raging river. * The river deposited Credit in a semi-conscious state on a smooth, almost flat, slab of sandstone. It played with him for a while, tugging at his arms and legs, and then let him be. A melody took root in his mind. At first faint and intermittent, he thought it had been the river playing with his mind, and so he paid little attention to it. But the sound persisted and it wasn’t long before he had the lyrics for a song. Been climbing and crawling from dusk ‘til dawn Got swept down the river In a raging storm My body’s aching wish I’d never been born Verse after verse, it burned itself into his brain. And then the song stopped. He became aware of his situation and opened his eyes. Although the river had receded considerably, it was still very dangerous. He saw his right arm dangling over the side of the rock, blood red from scratches and contusions. He felt like he had bumped and scraped every rock along the way. His shoulder ached, his skin tingled and crawled. He imagined chunks of flesh ripped from his legs. His body ached in so many places that he began to worry about the places that did not hurt, the places that were numb to his feel. And he worried about Bonnie. Painstakingly, he attempted to pull his legs underneath himself in order to rise to his knees. His leg buckled, causing him to lurch sideways. Not the thing to do, he thought bitterly as the current of the Pedernales took firm hold of him, and once again he was swept away. * Completely drained, Bonnie lay back on the side of the steep slope. Her heart had withered when Credit was swept away. The water had risen to her waist, leveled off, and then began to inch its way downward. After in indeterminate amount of time, she finished climbing the hill and then lay down in the bed of the truck. There was nowhere else she could go. Credit had the keys. She suddenly realized that the rain had stopped, and it was daylight. The sun was rising in the east, although it was still blocked on the horizon by the remainder of the clouds. The storm had been swift and savage. She began to wonder if she had underestimated Credit. He was an avid canoeist, at home in whitewater. There could be a chance that he didn’t drown. She sat up and looked around suspiciously. Knowing him, he was liable to show up at any moment and frighten her shitless. She decided to search for him. It was the least she could do. She knew she would hate herself if she didn’t. She could see from the bluff that the river made a giant loop and then came back near the truck. She descended the downriver side and made it to the bank at the exact moment that the sun broke through the clouds. She studied the opposite side of the river where the still strong current pummeled the immovable wall. And then she glanced upstream. There, clinging to a tree along the bank, too weak to pull himself out of the water, was Credit. She cried softly when she cradled his head in her lap. 7 Flipside Only a moment ago his head was nestled in Bonnie’s lap. Now he was standing at an overlook, high on the side of a long, narrow lake. Across the water a craggy, mountain ridge bordered the shoreline. Below him there was a public boat ramp. Next to it was a picnic area. He knew he had been there before. He knew that he was dreaming, and he was grateful for the painless interlude. Below the dam, hidden by lush growth, was the town where the dark haired woman lived. The green canopy of tall shade trees above the town was a truly wonderful sight in the otherwise drab, desert environment. The possibility of seeing the woman again greatly appealed to him. The last time they had been together he had felt very comfortable with her. She exuded confidence, wisdom, and understanding. Thinking that she might even be able to explain the meaning of his dreams, he quickly decided that he needed to find her. But when he attempted to make his way down the slope, he discovered that he couldn’t move a muscle. Total paralysis had set in without him even being aware of it. He began to feel very uneasy about his lack of mobility. In order to quell the unsettled feelings that began festering inside him, he once again fixed his gaze upon the town. The only structure that stood out above the treetops was the church steeple. The large, Victorian house was not in sight and he was unable to remember its exact location in the village. The last time he had gone there it was as if he had been beckoned, and so he hadn’t paid attention to the route he had taken. More than that, he hadn’t paid attention to the woman’s overall appearance. Although he must have had many opportunities, never once did he take a good look at her face. He had seen her mostly from behind, and now he couldn’t picture her at all. It dawned on him that he wouldn’t be able to recognize her even if he did see her again! Not that it mattered anymore. His condition hadn’t changed. He still wasn’t able to move a muscle. He began to realize exactly how self-centered and shallow he must have seemed to the woman. He had been rude, thoughtless and inconsiderate with her. He hadn’t even asked for her name. To top it all off, he had walked out on her, and he glumly decided that he had given her absolutely no reason to ever want to see him again. He continued to dwell on his failures. As his self-esteem plummeted, his despondency continued to escalate until the town, the desert, and the lake all disintegrated into a chaotic mélange of color and confusion. 8 Deanna “So, what do you want to do tonight?” Deanna placed her coffee cup on the end table as she settled into the chair. A popular evening game show was playing unwatched on the television screen. Mark was absorbed in the newspaper. He gave no indication that he heard her utterance, but his mind had begun to race. Could it be a trick question? “I really hadn’t thought about it,” he slowly replied, wondering why this particular evening should be any different from any other. “Well, I just thought we might do something different for a change. Don’t you get bored sitting around every night?” No, that’s what I work all day for, he thought. “You should have rented a movie or something,” he casually offered. Deanna made a disdainful sound with her mouth. “I thought when we moved here we would get out and do things again,” she grumbled. “Visit archaeological sites with Credit, anything! But since his accident, all he wants to do is mope around the house. Even Bonnie got fed up and left, although I don’t see what he sees in her anyway. And you never want to do anything at all.” Seeing that Mark had no answer, she sulked back into her chair. “I’m bored!” she snapped. She stood up and began pacing the room. “Well, get a job or something,” Mark suggested. The conversation was getting old. “You’ve got degrees up the ass, do something with them!” “Well, that isn’t going to do me any good for tonight, now is it,” she haughtily replied. “Look!” Mark exploded, “I don’t even want to be in East Texas to begin with. I moved back here for you. This is what you wanted. Right here! I work every day so you can have this damn house, the dishes, the rugs, the furniture, the paintings. Look at them! The VCR, the TV, the patio, the yard, the woods. You wanted trees, well you got trees. We’ve only been in the house for two months and you’re already sick and damn tired of the damn place. I don’t know what else I can do for you. I really don’t.” He dropped back into his chair. Damn, dingy woman, he bitterly thought. He looked over at her. Tears were in her eyes. Already her face was puffed from crying. His anger quickly subsided. She was still as beautiful as ever. A little heavier perhaps, but that didn’t bother him in the least. He wondered if he was losing her. Nothing he did seemed to satisfy her anymore. And yet, after twelve years of marriage it was hard for him to imagine life without her. Deanna wiped her tears. Mark was right, of course. She needed something to occupy her time. But work wasn’t the answer. She needed something that would grab her by her soul and inject meaning and excitement into her life once again. Whether it included Mark or not, changes were going to be made. 9 Backwater He pushed the canoe away from shore and then carefully picked his way though the thick tangle of tree limbs and vines before entering the main channel of Boggy Slough. He was in the upper reaches of Lake Sam Rayburn, the flooded timber and backwater channels of the Angelina River. Although he knew deeper water would provide better fishing at that time of year, he liked the solitude of that part of the lake. The wildlife abounded there. There were countless beaver and nutria, and an increasing number of otter every year. Birds flitted noisily in the bushes lining the channel, while cranes and egrets lifted themselves lazily from the water. The sky was sunny and the wind non-existent, a perfect day to be on the lake again. And a good day for introspection. He had issues that needed to be resolved. He turned a narrow bend in the channel. A blue heron flew up in front of him, its huge wings creating uproar. Surprisingly, it came to a sudden, abrupt stop in mid flight and then dropped back into the water like a rock. It began to frantically thrash and flap. Credit was startled. He momentarily lost his balance and almost fell out of the canoe. When he once again regained his composure, he went to investigate the still fluttering bird. He discovered that it had inadvertently hooked itself on a trotline. The lake level had fallen so low that hundreds of fishhooks dangled from trees and were hanging in mid air. He cut the cord to free the heron and it flapped up onto a stump. With its mangled wing, he knew it would never be able to fly again. It would be only a matter of time before it became a meal for an alligator. He hadn’t anticipated catching any fish until he reached his favorite fishing hole, but the very first time he cast a silver crank bait into the slow moving current he landed a two pound bass. Within the next half mile he caught over a dozen fish. Catch and release. He was elated. He soon left the confines of the channel and entered Frog Lake, his intended destination. A small, natural lake before impoundment of the river, its wide-open surface now provided excellent casting with very few snags. It was always good for a half dozen fish or more. But over fifty casts lured nothing, and what had started out as exceedingly good entertainment soon turned into a chore. He could not help but note the parallels to his personal life. While he had been concerned with Deanna, the prize fish, Bonnie, was getting away. Finally figuring that it was only common sense to go where the fish were biting, Credit began to work his way back through the trees to the main channel. He could sense that something in his surroundings had changed, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. He stopped his paddling. It took a minute before it registered that there wasn’t any sound at all. Neither birds nor insects. It had become deathly still all around him. And then he noticed the faint whisper of a strong wind in the distance, and when he reached the edge of the open channel, he could see the violent thrashing of the tall pine trees back on shore. It was an eerie sensation. The air around him was absolutely calm. The wind suddenly fled his field of vision, accompanied by a loud change in tone as it dramatically increased in intensity. He could picture the wind racing across the stunted trees of the lake like an enormous tidal wave, intent on obliterating him from the face of the lake. For the first time he felt fear for his safety. He wrapped his arms around the nearest tree trunk, securing himself as tightly as he could. He glanced back at Frog Lake as he waited. The air seemed fuzzier there, much darker. Within seconds a twister appeared over the water and a fountain of spray shot a very impressive sixty feet into the air. He braced himself as the wind hit like a wall. His main fear was that his canoe would be blown out from under him, leaving him stranded. More alligator bait. But the gale died almost instantly. As fast as it came, it went. Just petered out, neat as shit. Although his blood continued to pump, Credit felt a deep sense of relief. More so when he realized that only moments earlier he had been sitting in the middle of Frog Lake—exactly where the twister had set down. His timing had been impeccable. He caught several more fish on the way back to camp, saving three for supper. The fillets turned out to be excellent. Afterwards, he sat near the fire and reflected upon his good fortune. Both the blue heron and the twister had been graphic examples of how Fate could unexpectedly intervene to end one’s life. Twice now, Fate had let him walk away relatively unscathed. Timing was everything. Was he wrong to interpret such phenomena as being input from the Earth? As being omens or messages, or lessons to be learned? Or was it all chance occurrences and wishful thinking? Did the answer reside within Western pragmatism or more in shamanism? Or both? He had hoped to be able to expand his awareness through his intensely realistic dreams, but even they had deserted him. He hadn’t dreamed in a month. Perhaps his friends had been right all along. Perhaps it was time to give up his impossible quest for freedom. At twenty-six years of age freedom had been an easy choice to make. Now it seemed to be a very lonely choice. He decided that it was time to change his ways and end his self-imposed isolation from society. He was not getting any younger. He would forget about Deanna, dispel his sullen moods, and patch things up with Bonnie. She was the best thing going in his life. She was more than worth the compromise. 10 Flipside They were at a stoplight; the three of them together again in his 1960 Ford Falcon convertible. They had grown up in the same neighborhood, were best friends for how many years? Eight? Ten? It had been more than twenty years since he had last seen Tom and Dino, and they didn’t look a day older than the day they graduated high school. He had been giving them a tour of the city; the historic downtown square, the University, the million dollar homes with their beautifully landscaped lawns. But it was the towering pines that impressed his friends the most. They couldn’t get over the fact that Texas had pine trees. “If you guys really want to see some trees, we could take a drive out to the lake. It’s nothing but forest all the way out there.” “Sure!” “What’s the name of the lake?” “Rayburn,” he answered, and then added, “It’s manmade. It ain’t nothing like Ontario.” He studied Tom and Dino more closely. Well, hell! Their hair wasn’t any thicker than his. And they were putting on a little weight, too. Shit. They looked just as old as he did. It dawned on him that he was dreaming. “I need to make a phone call first,” he said. When the signal light changed he turned onto a side street that he no longer recognized. It made him wonder. Before he had realized that he was in a dream, he had assumed that he was in his hometown, and was therefore confident that he knew every street like the back of his hand. Now he was lost! He continued across the next intersection and then pulled over to the curb. There was a video arcade on the corner. The front of the building was open to the elements. Video games and pinball machines lined the walls and ran three rows deep across the room. “I’ll be right back,” he said to his friends. He was thinking about the black haired woman. He would call her and apologize for his past behavior. He had figured there would be a telephone in the room, but after searching the entire arcade, he discovered that his assumption was wrong. He circled back to the front of the store and stepped outside to the sidewalk to ponder his next move. He developed an odd sensation. His perspective had somehow split. At the very same time he had become both a participant and an observer of the scene. He was thirty feet in the air, floating there, watching himself standing in front of the arcade. He saw a woman walk out of the store next door. She was carrying two sacks of groceries. She dropped one of the sacks as she passed in front of him, the contents spilling and scattering on the sidewalk. He received the distinct impression that the scene had been contrived, that he had just witnessed a staged rehearsal by the old lady. He saw himself stooping to help her retrieve her items. At the same time, he was also standing in front of the arcade. An old lady approached him carrying an armful of groceries. She was dressed in layers of rags, and her tattered shoes were unlaced. A bag lady, he thought. How delicious! The perfect stereotype. As he was about to glance at her face, she dropped one of the sacks. On purpose? His suspicions faded when he stooped to help her. His perspectives merged once again, and he became only the actor in the scene. Despite her possible ruse, the woman gave him a good, comfortable feeling and he decided to help her carry her bags. Moving smoothly and rapidly and always a step ahead of him, she led him down the sidewalk. After they had traveled for some distance, and he had grown weary of marveling at her vitality, he became aware of a sensation in his leg. Before he could concentrate on the feeling, he noticed that the trees lining the street were maples. How odd! The setting had become a strange mixture of upstate New York and East Texas. Even the houses looked like those in Buffalo. “Don’t forget your friends.” The voice echoed through his mind. While his attention had been distracted, the bag lady had taken her sacks from him and vanished. He never did see her face. But her warning distressed him. He had left his friends alone in front of the arcade. He had forgotten all about them, and now he couldn’t move a muscle! He began to feel anxious. Up until that moment he had moved without thinking. Now that he wanted to move to a specific destination, he didn’t know how to do it. As his anxiety continued to increase, he began to worry that his dream would dissolve. And then it dawned on him that it was just a dream, and it was the feeling that mattered. He remembered the sensation he had felt in his leg when walking with the bag lady. Intuitively, he knew that if he concentrated on that muscle in his thigh, it would enable him to move at will. By simply diverting his attention, he moved rapidly down the street, gratified by his sense of accomplishment. When he spotted his car from a distance, he saw a stranger sitting on the hood talking to Tom and Dino. They noticed his approach and hollered out. The stranger looked around with a grin and yelled out, “It’s about time you got back!” All right! It was his son, Jason! He was overjoyed to see him. Luck was definitely running his way. They hugged each other tightly. Jason was more solid than he remembered. He was becoming a man. Damn, he loved that boy. “Hop in the car. I want to show you something,” he said to his son. “What’s that?” “A surprise. This won’t take long at all. We’ll be right back, guys.” True to his word, they arrived at their destination in no time. “This is it,” he said as he pulled to the side of the road and parked the car. “What is it?” Jason asked. “It’s an old historical site. Let’s go check out that building.” A tiny, little shack sat beneath some ancient shade trees on the top edge of an escarpment. “It looks like an outhouse,” Jason commented. The building really wasn’t much larger. “I believe it’s a church or a meeting hall,” Credit replied as they strolled up to the door. “Where did all the people go?” The building was approximately six feet deep and not much wider than the door. But when they stepped inside they found themselves in a long, spacious hallway. A sitting room flanked one side while a small museum occupied the other. In front of them was the main gathering room. “This place is huge!” Jason shouted. “Shows you what a little faith will do, doesn’t it?” They by-passed the side rooms and stepped into the main chamber. Credit noted the simple construction; the bare wall beams and rough planking, ordinary glass windows and austere wooden pews, half of them missing. The altar was more ornately decorated. Gold icons of varying sizes flanked the podium, which was etched with intricate gold plating. Heavy velvet curtains hung from the back wall. “There’s a fortune in here,” Credit mumbled in disbelief. “It’s a miracle this stuff hasn’t been stolen.” “There’s nobody here to even watch the place,” Jason added. They browsed a while longer before stepping outside. “There aren’t any windows out here!” Jason exclaimed. “I noticed that before,” Credit replied as he observed the succession of gently rolling hills below the escarpment. His son began to measure the building. “One! Two!” he huffed, taking giant steps around the structure. “Eight. Nine. Ten! Well, almost,” he shouted as he lost his balance and flopped to the ground near his starting point. “This is a neat place,” Jason said as he continued to lie on his back. “You should remember it.” Credit shook his head and smiled. What an odd statement to make, he mused. Why should he forget the place? After all, he was the one who had introduced his son to the spot. “Why do you say that?” he finally asked, curiosity getting the better of him. “This place has power. That building will hold as many people as it needs to hold.” “How do you know that?” “That plaque over there says so,” Jason replied, referring to a marker near the edge of the hill. “Did you read it?” “No. But I’ll bet that’s what it says!” he chuckled as he arched his back off the ground. “There’s more here than meets the eye, that’s for sure,” he added. “Credit?” The surprisingly familiar voice came from behind him. As he turned his head, he opened his eyes. 11 Bonnie “Credit?” He rolled over. “Credit, wake up! It’s time for breakfast.” He sat up and rubbed his eyes. “Bonnie? What are you doing here?” he moaned in disbelief. “I brought breakfast. C’mon. I’ve got a fire going. Why don’t you get dressed?” “I’ll be right out.” The woman was amazing. She was going to give him another chance. He couldn’t believe his eyes when he crawled out of the tent. Bonnie had an entire breakfast set out; bacon, eggs, biscuits, gravy, hash browns, and juice. Coffee was warming on the fire. “I can’t believe this!” he exclaimed. “How’d you ever find me down here?” “It wasn’t easy. I finally got a hold of your brother. He said there wasn’t much tellin’ where you’d be, but he suggested I try down here and walla, here I am.” “I had another special dream last night,” he said. “Jason was in it.” “Is he coming down this summer?” “As far as I know he’s not coming until next Spring.” “How come you never dream of me?” “I promise I won’t dream of nothing but you from now on. You ready to catch some fish?” “I’ll catch ‘em, but I ain’t eating them.” “So that’s why you brought all this food,” Credit chuckled. “And here I thought you’d done all this for me.” “I ain’t doing nothing for you.” For the first time he realized that Bonnie sparkled for him like no one else ever had. She had always shone for him. He felt like an idiot for having never seen it before. 12 New Orleans It was late in the evening when they finished their dinner at the Creole Cottage. The meal had been exceptional, the atmosphere electric. Bonnie was obviously enjoying herself. She looked utterly radiant, absolutely stunning in a revealing ebony dress, the perfect compliment to her pale skin and glowing red hair. But what had Credit excited was what she wore underneath. Earlier in the evening, just before they had stepped out of the elevator at the Hilton, she had lifted her hem, briefly revealing stockings, garter and exquisitely compelling lace panties. After that exhibition, she knew darn well he’d be looking through her dress all evening long. The little wench could be quite a character. She knew when to be the perfect lady, and when to be the perfect lover. He looked at her. The woman could have any man she wanted. She could be rich beyond measure, and yet she chose to be with him. It just didn’t make sense. He chuckled to himself. “Do you think you’ll still love me when I get old?” he innocently asked. “What are you talking about? You’re already ancient, my dear.” Credit smiled as he reached for his drink. “You know, since we’ve pretty much been staying together the past few weeks, if you’d like to fix the place up some, you know, curtains, rugs, furniture...” “Air-conditioning, micro-wave, jacuzzi...shoot, you don’t even have a clock in the house!” “Well, you know,” he squirmed. “When you’ve been around the clock as many times as I have, you pretty much get a feel for time. Besides...” “Because you don’t want to get all cluttered up with material crap, you live like a damn monk or something.” “I’m trying to change,” he offered weakly. “Are you getting a cell phone, too?” He squirmed. “That’s what I thought.” She knew that while Credit might succeed in making cosmetic changes, nothing superficial would take root. His first marriage had failed because he could not join the mainstream and live the typical middle class lifestyle. He was simply uncomfortable with being comfortable. It was like he felt caged. Besides, it was his love for life and quest for knowledge, qualities that knew no bounds, which drew her to him in the first place. “I’d just rather spend the time with you than with some Japanese plastic crap,” he expounded. “And I want you just the way you are.” He finished his drink. “Are you ready to turn the heads down on Bourbon Street?” “Let’s go! But you’ll turn more heads than I will.” He knew she was feeding his ego, but her compliments were welcome. He had to admit that he felt good about his appearance. It wasn’t often that he dressed in a tuxedo, and he imagined himself to be quite handsome. The perfect escort for such a gorgeous woman. They strolled arm in arm to the corner of Bourbon Street, where a small crowd had gathered to listen to an old man play his saxophone. His stage was a crate in the middle of the street. A sign leaning against the crate read, “I’m a jukebox. I play what you pay.” His music stopped suddenly and then the man assumed a silent, rigid pose. He stood still as a statue. A tourist soon dropped a dollar into his coffee can and, after a short pause, the old man commenced to play another tune. Credit studied the old-timer as he played. The man was black as coal, ancient and aristocratic. His white hair stood out prominently around his ears and temples. Dark sunglasses covered his eyes, giving the impression that he was blind. He had probably been a very good sax player in his younger days, but now too many notes turned sour. Still, the man was entertaining and making the tourists smile. He was New Orleans, and he belonged there. That was his corner, perhaps his home. When the dollar ran its course, the man stopped his song and once again resumed his rigid pose. Credit placed a five dollar bill into the can and then stepped back. He continued to scrutinize the old man. He could actually picture him going through the motions of an old time jukebox. He could see the records spinning in their rack, the selector lever finally choosing a disk and placing it onto the turntable. He saw the stylus arm move over and set down upon the vinyl. He could even imagine the rasp before the song. The old man gathered his tune. It rose from deep inside him, filled his instrument to the brim and then spilled forth his soul; melodious, intense, inspired. From the first note he played like a man transformed, the crispness and clarity a striking improvement from his previous songs. He didn’t miss a beat. Not a nuance. Credit froze, spellbound. Ice ran through his veins. He turned pale and gasped for air. The old man was playing HIS song: the one that had come to him during the flash flood. There was absolutely no way anyone else could know that song. He had shared it with only Bonnie. It took her a moment to realize, but when she did she clutched his arm, squeezing tightly. “Credit! He’s playing your song,” she whispered. “This is weird.” He wondered how he should react to the situation. Was he frightened? Astonished? Damn! The world was a strange place. He glanced around the area. Everything seemed alien. It was as if time had stopped. Although there was movement in the background, the immediate crowd was quietly entranced. The only sound came from the saxophonist. Three verses he played, moving and animated, and then he stopped. Credit’s bubble burst. Once again he was flooded with street noises; talking, music, shouting. He noted the muffled applause from the crowd. The old man continued to play true to his role. Once again he stood still as a statue. Bonnie whispered, “That was eerie.” Credit attempted to gather his wits. “Only three verses, old man?” he asked as he placed another bill into the can. “Won’t you play it for us one more time?” Again Credit could hear the gears clicking, selections being made, but when the old man started in there was a twinge of disappointment. It was a different song. The sax man had reverted to his old ways, playing from memory, missing notes and making up lines, jazzing it up. People began clapping in time. Although initially let down, the new song definitely altered Credit’s mood. He felt a weight lifted. Bonnie also felt lightened. She began to sing along and dance. Together, they joined hands and marched joyfully down the street. Tourists were out in droves, filtering in and out of the side shops and restaurants and bars. As Credit attempted to see through the throng, he unexpectedly spied Deanna. He was shocked. She wasn’t but thirty feet down the street! He caught her eye, smiled, and nodded his head. Without acknowledging his presence, Deanna turned and walked away, disappearing into the crowd. Credit was stupefied. Why had she been so rude? Had that really been her? He took hold of Bonnie’s arm and began pulling her down the street. Wondering about the abrupt change of pace, Bonnie hollered out, “Slow down, will ya?” Suddenly she screamed and then forcefully yanked on Credit’s arm. Immediately he stopped and turned around. A local drunk had Bonnie by her other arm. She looked terrified. Credit quickly measured the man’s appearance; five foot eight, lean and unshaved, with ragged, tattered clothes. He was no doubt weak from too much drink and too little food. “Let go of her arm, mister,” he cautioned. His tone reflected his seriousness. The bum returned his stare. His eyes were intelligent and void of malice. Credit sensed no danger. The man looked at Bonnie and with a Scottish accent muttered, “Me Bonnie lass, what say ye? If ye lose Credit, does Credit lose?” Shit, fumed Credit. He had no time for such cryptic nonsense. “Let go of her now,” he ordered tersely. At that moment a shot rang out at the end of the block. Credit sensed the panic in the air before he turned to look. When he did, he saw the surge of the crowd. Two more shots rang out. There were more screams and shouts and the human wave expanded their way. Without hesitation, he pointed Bonnie in the direction of St. Louis Street. The bum had vanished. More explosions resounded when they reached Jackson Square. But not from gunshot. Fireworks were beginning to explode over the Mississippi River. Although the square was filling rapidly with people, they were able to find an empty park bench where they could watch the sky and try to collect themselves. “Life with you sure ain’t dull, Credit Lews.” He put his arm around her and she melted against him. “I want you to know I’m proud of you,” she murmured. “The way you stood up against that giant! God, he must have been seven feet tall!” “What are you talking about?” Credit was puzzled. “That man back there who grabbed me! What do you think?” He shrugged his shoulders, mystified. He wondered, what was she trying to pull? “I ain’t never seen nobody like him,” she continued. “His hair was as orange as mine. And that eye patch and those boots he was wearing! Credit, his coat buttons were pure gold! I’m sure of it!” That did it. Credit was flabbergasted. He thought she had been pulling his leg until she mentioned the gold buttons. That was too good of a touch. He decided that she must be serious about her description of the scrawny bum. So much had happened in such a short time, events that were unexplainable and mysterious. If he didn’t know better, he would say that it had all been a dream. When the fireworks ended they strolled romantically through Jackson Square and then decided to attempt Bourbon Street one more time. A group of jazz bands were the source of the music on the corner of Orleans. One would have never known there had been a shooting there earlier. The crowd was deep and thick. Deciding that it wasn’t worth fighting, they slipped into Old Toone’s, miraculously found a table, and ordered drinks. “What are you thinking about?” Bonnie asked after the cocktails arrived. “You’ve been awfully quiet lately.” “It’s been a pretty strange evening, don’t you think?” “This is the French Quarter. It’s supposed to be strange here! You know, mystery and intrigue. You’re a writer, Credit. You should be eating this up. That’s what we’re here for, isn’t it?” “Not really. But we sure stumbled into it, didn’t we? That saxophone player sent chills up my spine. What did you make of that episode?” He was trying hard not to think of the odd occurrences as being omens. After all, hadn’t he promised to put all of that behind him? “I have to admit that was weird. But I was more concerned with that giant who grabbed me.” “He may have kept us from being in the line of gunfire,” Credit suggested. “I’ve wondered about that! Why did you begin dragging me down the street in the first place?” “I thought I saw somebody.” “Deanna?” Credit winced. Bonnie’s intuition was uncanny. His silence only tended to confirm her suspicions. What was it with that woman? She believed Credit when he said they had never had sex. What was it about her that compelled him so? Would Deanna always be a part of him? “Don’t worry about Deanna,” Credit said in atonement. “That woman would be poison for me. I think that’s quite obvious. You, on the other hand,” he continued nervously, “are the best thing that’s ever happened to me. It would be a tragedy to think I let you get away because I never had the nerve to ask...” He knelt on the floor and took her hand. “Bonnie Hampton, I love you more than anything else in the world. I’d be crazy to let you slip away without ever asking,” he stared deeply into her eyes, “would you honor me by becoming my wife?” “If you’d get up off the floor and lighten up a little, I might consider it,” she dryly replied. And then she was in his arms, kissing him deeply. “I’d love to be your wife, Credit,” she said when their lips parted. “You know that’s what I’ve hoped for all along.” They kissed again. “It won’t be a typical marriage, will it?” she asked with a sparkle in her eye. “Not if tonight’s any indication,” he replied with a smile. “What do say we find the hotel?” They left a generous tip and then made their way down Bourbon. The crowd, the shops, the sounds were all muted. It was as if they no longer existed. As they neared Canal Street, Credit remembered the tradition. “I almost forgot,” he said as he pulled a small box from his pocket. “I hope it fits. And I hope you like it.” He slid the engagement ring onto her finger. Impulsively, she pulled him into a deserted side alley. Pinning his body against the wall, she held her body tightly against his while she kissed him passionately. Damn, she’s soft, he crooned, immediately aroused. She was light as a feather. “Mrs. Bonnie Lews,” she kept saying between breaths. “Mrs. Credit Lews. Mrs. Lews.” He was elated that she was so happy. Suddenly, Bonnie turned around. Keeping her back snug against him, she grabbed his hands and clasped them over her stomach. “Yes,” she said dreamily, as if in answer to an unspoken question. “I’m Bonnie Hampton. How did you know my name?” A woman was standing in front of them. Credit was astounded. Only a moment ago there was nobody there! It was as if the woman hadn’t even existed until Bonnie acknowledged her by speaking. “My name is Lena,” she said to Bonnie. “Originally, I planned to present you with a love potion. But I see that you have already worked your magic on him. I congratulate you both.” Her voice was sweet and lyrical, with a slight hint of a Jamaican accent. Credit gazed stupidly at her. At first glance he had recognized her as being an old woman, probably because of the red scarf tied around her head. But the longer he studied her, the more he realized that she was probably much closer to twenty years of age. She had a pretty face and absolutely huge breasts for such a thin waist. He couldn’t keep from staring at her cleavage. Lena gave him a stern expression. She closed her eyes halfway and moved her lips silently as if in prayer. Or in the casting of a spell. Credit felt uneasy until she reopened her eyes and voiced her words. “You and I walk different roads, Mr. Lews, but we are very much alike. We travel the same direction.” She looked again at Bonnie. “Please, let me give you a different gift, one that may prove very useful in the future.” She led them into a small shop called the House of Voodoo, a cramped six by eight foot room loaded with spices and herbs and assorted root powders. Between the shelves was a door leading into a back room. Saying she would be gone for only a moment, Lena urged them to remain in the shop. When she returned, she dropped a small, glass vial into Bonnie’s hand and then whispered into her ear. As she pulled away, Credit overheard her final instructions. “...remember, it will work its magic only once,” she said. “Use it wisely.” She then ushered them politely out the door and closed up the shop. Credit was curious. He had to consciously refrain from asking Bonnie about the vial. After all, it had been her gift. If she had wanted him to know about it, she would tell him of her own accord. And she offered no explanations. By the time they stepped into the elevator at the Hilton, they were both very much aroused again. Alone at last, Bonnie reached teasingly underneath the hem of her dress and removed her panties. Credit was amazed. It didn’t take but an instant and she had her arms draped around his neck, a most stimulating fragrance in hand. The elevator stopped and an elderly, sophisticated couple stepped in. Bonnie ignored them. She arched onto her toes and snuggled into Credit’s neck. Her dress pulled up, revealing in vivid detail her black garters and a luscious, bare posterior. “This is disgusting,” the old lady sneered. The old man stared with admiration, a glint in his eye. He gave Credit a knowing wink. “Some people have no shame,” the lady commented. Bonnie turned around, still leaning wantonly against Credit. Her eyes were glazed over. “This man can go all night long,” she smirked at the old woman. “And now he’s all mine.” Why, the smug, little wench! Credit mused. He was beside himself. The woman was flabbergasted. She huffed and puffed and turned beet red. In all probability, she was spared a stroke by the opening of the elevator door. Credit ushered Bonnie into the hallway. By the time the door closed, they were rolling on the floor in tears. 13 Flipside He was making his way along the top of the gorge next to the expressway when he began to fret. He knew he had wasted entirely too much time, and was now way behind schedule. He wondered why he had gone into the gorge in the first place. He had accomplished nothing of significance down there. He looked at the river, which was much lower than he had ever seen it, and gazed up at the Peace Bridge that spanned the gorge. And he had studied his map. Yes. He had felt compelled to study the map! Why? He already knew all the main roads inside Canada. He had them committed to memory. In order to reach the Arctic, all he had to do was cross the river and head north to the end of the highway. But now he was late, and he had such a long way to go. Very carefully, he crossed the busy, divided parkway and then cut through the parking lot of the bus station. He crossed Walnut Street, slid down the sidewalk to Waterman, and then turned onto the walkway of a large, red brick house. He climbed the front porch to check the mailbox. Nothing. He back-tracked down the steps, traipsed around to the side entrance, and entered the kitchen. He set his map down on the table and then turned to go to the bathroom. As he crossed the empty dining room it occurred to him that the apartment was much larger than it should have been. There was more room inside the house than seemed possible. What could he say? He thought. These old houses were just neat as shit. Apprehension suddenly overcame him. Something was amiss. He could feel the presence of another person inside the apartment. He checked the bathroom and then tip-toed to the bedroom door. The room appeared much longer and narrower than he remembered, barely five feet wide and nearly thirty feet long. Finding no intruder, he decided that paranoia was getting the better of him, and he returned to the kitchen. He sat down at the table and stared out the window. In the yard outside were two pear trees laden with fruit. Next to them, a hedgerow ran the property line. The neighbor’s house was close by on the other side. Everything seemed so familiar, and yet at the same time, so peculiar, so alien. Perhaps this wasn’t even his apartment! he thought. Had he unintentionally walked into someone else’s home? Of course not! He suddenly understood that he was dreaming. That was the reason nothing seemed to add up. For one thing, he reasoned, the Niagara River did not run through Lockport. And never was it so shallow that one could walk across it without getting his knees wet. Neither did the Peace Bridge span a gorge. He recalled staring at the map when he was in the ravine. No. The roads on the map resembled those in Canada, but it was not Canada. How had he been so mistaken? He had been so certain of himself at the time. When he emerged from his reverie, he realized that someone was sitting next to him at the table. He sensed that it was the woman he had met before in his dreams, and he refrained from looking directly at her. He felt an absolute conviction that his dream would dissipate the very moment he saw her face, and this was a moment he did not want to lose. He heard her speak. “You’re not an easy man to catch up to, Mr. Lews. I thought I was going to have to go all the way to the Arctic and freeze my buns off to talk to you.” Her voice was pure gaiety “I think you’ve finally realized that this is not the Earth,” she continued. “But neither is it an imaginary dream world. This is Tunu.” She spread her arms wide, as if to encompass everything with her statement. “It is a world much like your waking world. It has breadth and depth and substance. It is just as solid as the Earth.” She rapped her knuckles on the table for emphasis. It was just as solid as could be. “Although Tunu is not linear in nature, like the Earth, it has natural laws that must be followed. You have had many experiences here; you have mapped much of Tunu. You just don’t remember.” She picked up the folded map on the table and placed it in his hand. “I want to help you remember what you already know,” she said. She repeated her statement and then paused to let her words sink in. Credit was of the opinion that he had visited the river gorge and surrounding area many times before, but he could not recall the specifics. The only dreams that he could clearly recall were those in which he knew he had been dreaming. In any regard, other matters seemed more important to him at the moment. “I want to apologize for walking out on you the last time we met,” he said, trying hard to visualize her face. “Don’t mention it. You had other matters to attend to. If I could see into the future I would have warned you.” “Are you Deanna’s spirit?” he suddenly asked. The other time they had met, he had gotten only a casual glimpse of her. Now he had the impression that she could be Deanna. This was a dream, after all. She could be Deanna’s spirit. The woman let out an uproarious laugh that was extremely light and came from her heart. “No,” she answered once she had composed herself. “I’m not Deanna. Fate put her in your path, for reasons that I can only guess at.” “Will I ever find true love?” “Do you doubt it? Are you afraid that you made the wrong decision tonight? Afraid that you’ve given up freedom for something that is less than true love?” Credit remained silent. “You have all the love you’ll ever need, Credit. You always have. You beckon it like a magnet.” She giggled before adding, “But since you don’t believe me, I guess I’ll have to show you. C’mon.” He concentrated on the muscle in his thigh as he followed her into the dining room. They passed through a door he had never before noticed and then moved down a narrow hallway. The woman stopped in front of a closed door. She instructed Credit to go inside, sit on the bed, and close his eyes until she returned. Only then would he see his true love. The first thing he noticed when he entered the room was that it was completely out of character from the rest of the house, but he obediently sat down on the bed and closed his eyes. He was glad that he had run into the woman once again, happy that she had forgiven him. He felt that if he could regularly meet with her, there would be much that she could teach him. A strong urge overcame him. Even though the woman had not yet returned, he opened his eyes anyway. Bonnie was laying next to him on the bed. She was cuddled up on her side, pretending to be asleep, as if she had been there all along. Credit wondered how she had climbed into bed without him noticing. Thinking he was very lucky, he smiled. Both of the women in his life were clever as hell. There was much that he could learn from each of them. He leaned down over Bonnie and gently nudged her. “Hey clown,” he whispered. “Wake up!” She grunted, but continued to feign sleep. He rolled her onto her back, making sure that he kept a close eye on her face. He never knew for certain what she was up to. The little wench was always surprising him. “Hey, pretty, little clown, wake up!” He bounced her gently by the shoulders until she opened her eyes. They were glazed over. She mumbled some barely audible words. Credit couldn’t make them out. He shook her again, and again she mumbled. Who is it? Is that what she said? he wondered. “It’s Credit. Wake up!” he urged. Credit, wake up. Credit, wake up! He wondered if he was hearing an echo. Or was that his own voice? Was he repeating himself? “Credit, wake up!” 14 New Orleans He opened his eyes. He was leaning over Bonnie, trying to wake her up. She stared back at him, wide-eyed. “What are you doing?” she moaned. “Will you cut it out?” Awareness overtook him. Hell, he was probably scaring the daylights out of her. He bent lower and kissed her lips. “Give me a break. I’ve had enough for tonight.” She closed her eyes and rolled over. Credit laid back and did the same. 15 Flipside From the moment he opened his eyes he knew that he was late. He jumped out of bed, grabbed the brush from the top of the dresser drawers and gazed into the mirror. He scraped his hair and straightened his tie. He must have lain down again after getting dressed. A stupid thing to do, he reflected. Now he was late and Bonnie would be pissed. He hurried out of the room and down the hallway to the elevator. In no time at all he was on the ground floor. He crossed the lobby, went outside to the street and stood on the curb. Shit. He had meant to go to the parking garage. His memory just wasn’t what it used to be. Either that or he had celebrated too much the night before. He shrugged it off and decided that it would do him good to walk. He needed the exercise and it would surprise Bonnie. Before he knew it, he had passed underneath the Mississippi Bridge. The shrill screeching of sea gulls caught his attention, and when he searched the cloudless sky he noticed the absence of any buildings in the immediate area. Future prime real estate, he concluded. He could see the river in the near distance. The opposite shore formed the horizon. He continued on his way, zigzagging down several side streets before he entered a residential district. Five- and six-story buildings in a bleak, run-down condition towered above him. Inner city decay, he reflected. He noticed a man and a woman sitting on the steps of a tenement building. The man was holding a brown, paper bag high in the air, draining the contents into his mouth. He emptied the bottle and then tossed it into the street. Credit heard the shatter of glass from inside the sack. He suddenly felt very out of place. There he was, dressed in a tuxedo, wandering the slums of New Orleans. A deep sense of paranoia crept in and he hurried down the street. When he reached the corner, he leaned against a lamppost to catch his breath. He glanced up at the traffic signal and saw a maze of electric lines and cables etched against the towering buildings. Without noting the color of the traffic light, he stepped briskly into the street. A blaring horn and screeching tires shook him from his trance. He instantly sprang back and once again hugged the lamppost. The scenery dissolved into a swirling, purple fog. The wires above him were making a tremendous buzzing noise. He looked up. As the fog cleared he saw that it wasn’t a lamppost that he was clinging to. It was a telephone pole. At the top was a cylindrical canister with only one cable running through it. It hummed loudly against a deep blue sky with billowing, white clouds. He let go of the pole and scanned the horizon. Lime-green hills surrounded him, rolling dunes covered with knee-deep, wind blown grass. He was no longer in New Orleans. There wasn’t a building in sight. He walked the dirt road until he topped the next rise. He saw a town nestled in the valley below and then remembered where he was. He had visited this area once before. He was dreaming. He followed the dirt road into the center of town, which was completely devoid of people. The town had also been vacant the last time he was there, and it began to puzzle him. It was obvious that people lived there. The brown, sandstone buildings were old, but they were very clean and well maintained. Rustic houses had curtains hanging in the windows. He turned the corner at the main intersection and headed back out of town without ever seeing a soul. A short distance down the road he spied the trail that he had been looking for. He followed it up and down the dunes. It seemed to be taking longer than he remembered it would, and he began to worry that he might have taken the wrong path. When he topped the next crest his agitation ceased. Below him was his destination; a lovely, underground stream that broke through briefly to the surface. He hopped down to the rocky streambed. The water level was much lower than it had been before, but it flowed crystal clear and cold. It gurgled from an opening in the bedrock, made a short dash through a narrow tunnel and then broke through to sunlight once again in a series of picturesque waterfalls. He crossed the narrow stream and hopped up into a side tunnel that led to the viewing area. There was a room immediately off to his right. Quality workmanship had gone into its making. In the center was a large stone altar, carved from solid rock. Intricate glyphs covered the sides. Stone benches between supporting stone columns lined the walls. While the rest of the room was in shadow, the altar was glowing with a dull gray. He continued to the viewing platform. He knew that under conditions of shallow water, the falls were truly exquisite. Thick growths of ferns and moss adorned the steep, vertical walls as well as the large, weathered, creek boulders. Sunlight danced everywhere. As he admired the pristine setting he recalled his last visit to the area. He had negotiated the streambed all the way through the tunnel that time, hopping from boulder to boulder. The current had been much swifter then, and he remembered the fear he had of being swept over the rugged falls and sucked under the ledge. But he made it without incident. However, as he was taking photographs of the falls from the viewing platform, it began to rain very hard. The stream level began to rise noticeably, and he decided it would be best to leave the area. That was when he discovered the underground room with the stone altar. Intrigued about its function, he set his camera down while he paused to examine the fine detail of the stonework. He suddenly remembered. That had been the first time he had met the woman! She and two of her companions had stepped into the room to warn him that weather conditions were becoming extremely dangerous, and they urged him to leave with haste. He accompanied them to the hill on the other side of town. And then the woman asked if she could borrow his camera to take a picture. As fate would have it, he had left his camera on top of the altar in the underground room. Cursing his forgetfulness, but wishing to impress his new friend, he decided to go back and fetch it. But on his return trip through town he got caught in the flash flood. He became extremely agitated and lost his thread of continuity. His dream disintegrated. As his memory played out, Credit sensed that the woman was standing next to him. Even though he felt that his dream would dissipate, he looked directly at her. Her appearance was surprising. As if she had just stepped off the page of a comic book, she sported a Robin Hood outfit in various shades of green, along with brown boots, belt and a quiver. She wore a green cap with a brown band and her hair was pulled back in a ponytail. However, her crowning stroke of genius was the Lone Ranger’s mask with large, pink stars at the ends. It was the perfect touch. It enabled him to look directly at her without seeing her face. His dream would not disintegrate. “Where’s your camera?” she asked with a snicker. “You know damn well where it is,” he sourly replied. “It was your fault I got caught in that flash flood!” “Don’t blame me! You’re the one with the affinity for water!” she cackled. She looked so cute that Credit felt the urge to touch her. Sensing his desire, the woman turned several quick cartwheels to evade him, and then turned and grinned widely. She studied him for a moment and then clambered thirty feet up the steep dune behind them. “Come on up!” she shouted. He examined the steep angle of the dune as he pawed at the soil. Loosened sand trickled down onto his feet. How the hell did she do that? he wondered. Without any traction, there was no way possible that he could climb that slope. “Try it!” she hollered again. What the hell, he concluded. He figured that the railing would impede his fall when he tumbled back down, and it would give the woman another stiff laugh. He studied the slope once more. She hadn’t even left a track in the sand! How did she do it? He looked for her again but she had moved out of sight. He felt an itch in his leg and when he bent to scratch it he remembered the muscle in his thigh. A smile crossed his lips as he realized what a dummy he had been. No snap at all, he thought. He had forgotten that it was all a dream. He concentrated on the muscle and then scrambled effortlessly up the slope. In an instant he was mesmerized by the new scenery. Spread out before him was the sea. Huge waves lapped at the beach four hundred yards below. To his left, the white sands of the shore ran the gray expanse of the ocean to the distant horizon. To his right, a rocky, eroded peninsula jutted into the sea. The intricately weathered shapes there appealed to him and he felt the urge for further exploration. “A new element entered yours dreams tonight, Mr. Lews,” the woman announced in a serious tone. “That element will have a profound effect upon your life. Tonight you combined realities. All of your previous dreams had taken place on Tunu. But tonight when you dreamed you were in New Orleans, you exhibited the rare ability to dream of the Earth, and when you do that, when you are on Earth in your dream state, then it’s the laws of Tunu that apply. “That is why it is essential that you remember your other experiences on Tunu. You know how to move and to split your awareness, but there are other things that you already know that you need to remember. You have unique and fantastic resources at your disposal here, and you never know when you might find yourself in need of climbing a mountain of sand.” She took his hand and smiled at him. “You took an important step tonight by remembering our previous visit here at the waterfalls, but it was only a small step. Let’s hope that the flow of events does not overcome your accomplishments.” Although he heard her words, his attention continued to be drawn to the rocky peninsula. The intriguing, eroded shapes beckoned him, and her monologue faded slowly into a blur. He dropped down the seaward side of the dune to the beach. The intensity of the brilliant, white sand became blinding. It made him reel. He covered his face with his hands. Why was it so damn bright out all of a sudden? He wondered, totally perplexed by the change in light. He dropped to his knees and buried his head in the sand. It didn’t help. The luminosity seemed to be within his mind. It made him wonder whether it came through his eyes at all. He continued to thrash around in the sand until the sound of the ocean captivated him. Boldly, he sat up and opened his eyes. 16 New Orleans Credit opened his eyes. He discovered that Bonnie was already up and in the shower. He felt alive and energetic. He bounced out of bed singing to himself. He had two fine women in his life: One to nourish his body and one to nourish his soul. He grinned impishly as he looked into the mirror and combed his hair. If the existence of Tunu wasn’t such a preposterous proposition, he ratonalized, he might be able to take his dreams, and the woman he met there, more seriously. Both were uncommonly real and lucid, and exceedingly cohesive. But he also saw people in his dreams who he actually knew. People like Jason, Mark and David. As such, he felt no other option but to conclude that the dreams were nothing more than sparkling entertainment. “Did you have a good dream, sleepy head?” Bonnie asked as she stepped out of the bathroom. She wore nothing but a towel wrapped around her head. “Yes, entertaining,” he answered, suddenly very distracted. “It must have been, the way you were bouncing me around last night.” Credit laughed. “I was looking for my true love, and I found her,” he mysteriously replied. “I’ll tell you about it on the way home. I need to jump in the shower now so we can check out of here.” * He was lost. As Bonnie flipped through the glove compartment for a city map, Credit searched vainly for the entrance ramp to the Mississippi Bridge. When he approached a signal light in a dilapidated section of town he began to slow the car, but the light turned green and he resumed his speed. Without warning, a man in a tuxedo stepped into the street in front of them. Credit slammed on his brakes and came to a screeching halt, but the man jumped away so incredibly fast that Credit almost didn’t even see it. When he turned to look, the man had entirely vanished. Credit was overwhelmed by the feeling of déjà vu and the haunting sense of duality that surged through him. At the very least, he now had a very good reason to reassess the warnings that the woman had given him. He knew he could no longer take his dreams so lightly. 17 Jason It was dark by the time Credit pulled the car into his driveway. A car with New York State license plates was already parked there. A light burned in the living room. Bonnie gave Credit a smug, “I told you so” look. “There’s more to your dreams than you’re willing to admit, hun.” Jason had been asleep on the couch. He jumped up when they walked in. “Hey! It’s about time you got back,” he said. “I was beginning to think you had moved out or something. Hi Bonnie, how are you?” he asked as he gave her a hug. “Your father had a dream that you were coming down,” she said. Credit waved her off. “It was nothing. How long have you been here?” he asked as he hugged his son. “I didn’t think you were coming down this summer.” “Had to take some time before the semester starts. I’m going out to the Big Bend. Want to go?” “Bonnie and I have already made reservations. We’re going up to the Ouachita Mountains tomorrow and then over to Hot Springs. You’re welcome to come along.” “Nah. Got my heart set on the Bend. Black Dike and the Chisos Mountains.” “If you’re going to stay that long, we’ll meet you out there next week.” Bonnie tugged at Credit’s arm and communicated with facial expressions. “I forgot all about that,” he joshed. “Bonnie’s going to be your future stepmother,” he announced to Jason. “We’re getting married this fall.” “Hey, all right! You finally found someone willing to put up with you. Just don’t give the old man a heart attack, OK?” He gave Bonnie a hug. “Don’t worry. He’ll probably get me first,” she grinned. Credit sat down in the swivel chair. “Oh yeah, I almost forgot,” said Jason. “Mark came by earlier. He was pretty upset. He said that Deanna had run off on him.” He took a deep breath before continuing. “And I hate to say it, because he didn’t say so himself, but I think he suspects that you and Deanna ran off together.” Credit chuckled as he shook his head. Perhaps that had been her in New Orleans after all, he concluded. Bonnie wasn’t nearly as amused. 18 Flipside “I sure wish we had more time to spend together,” Credit lamented as he turned the key in the slot. “But Rob should be back with the supplies any time now. Like I said, we’ve got people waiting for us out in the desert.” He pushed the door open and stepped inside. “This is it,” he said. “My little studio apartment.” It was a one-room loft, ten-by-twenty feet of space that occupied the entire top floor of the building. Windows ran the length of the longer walls. They showed a busy street scene out one side and a harbor panorama through the other. The windows were open at both the top and bottom and a sweet sea breeze wafted through the room. “I’ve been here about two years now. The place has a real good feeling to it. Great view. Decent rent. And it’s ancient. Good, solid oak.” He tapped against the window frame. It didn’t take David long to scope out the apartment. The kitchen was at the far wall. There was a table, chair and typewriter, and a couch that opened into a bed. A few books littered the floor. Otherwise, the place was clean. “I’ve always wondered how you could afford to travel so much,” David stated. “You really don’t own anything of any consequence, do you?” “No. This is everything. The pick-up is downstairs.” Credit noted his friend’s look of disappointment and felt that he should further explain. “I move around too much. I don’t want to have to tote a bunch of crap around with me,” he said. He knew that it was an extremely weak explanation. David deserved a viable, cohesive answer, but he just didn’t have time to explain. There were people waiting on him. “What I own is inside me,” he quietly offered. “I share my experiences with my friends.” They returned to the sidewalk to wait for Rob. Several businesses occupied the ground floor. There was a barbershop, a tavern, a drugstore and more. Credit circled the building and noticed there were more doors than there could possibly be rooms for. As he puzzled over the fact, he received the distinct impression that he was overlooking an important element, that he was completely missing a vital clue that would enhance his understanding. He stepped back into the street to get a different perspective on the building. “It’s about time you got here. Let’s go! They’re waiting on us.” Credit opened the door and climbed inside. In no time they were swooping low over the landscape in the old barnstorming plane, two seats, open cockpit, the wind whipping by. Credit felt the pull from his stomach and wondered if it was possible to fall out of the plane. Not that he was worried. He had complete confidence in Rob as a pilot. The man’s abilities were masterful. It was still early in the day as they observed the brown, desolate landscape below them. The mountains and ravines were highlighted with dark, mid-morning shadow. And then they were over Medusal Canyon. It was huge and magnificent, with a lush, green color that contrasted sharply with the stark bareness of the surrounding wasteland. It was a fabulous oasis in the middle of nowhere, totally wild, surrounded by sheer cliffs and small, but rugged mountains. Rob made a tight, swooping turn and then landed on the bumpy, rolling plain. Their group of friends rushed to meet them. Among them were his brother Paul and friend Richard, and three couples, including Mark and Deanna. It was more people than they had counted upon showing up, and the reason that he and Rob had returned to town in the Jeep in order to get more supplies. They had hoped to save time by flying back. “We’re all set now!” Rob informed the group. “Got fruit and vegetables, ribs and steaks. Plenty of water and other goodies to drink...” He pulled out a bottle of Cuervo and held it aloft. Everyone seemed restlessly silent. Deanna finally broke the pause. “When ya’ll were gone,” she stated, “We decided to forget about all this and go home. So we’re leaving.” Credit was stunned, incredulous. “We’re all the way out here in the boonies and we’ve got everything we need now. What’s the sense in going back?” Deanna’s expression was firm. She was going to be stubborn. “Why have we got to walk fifteen fucking miles to get there?” she demanded. “Because this is where the road ends. Medusal Canyon is just on the other side of that range.” “Why can’t we fly there?” “There ain’t no place to land, for Christ’s sakes.” “Well, it’s hotter than hell out here. This has been a piss poor adventure from the start. No organization. You two didn’t have to sit around out here in bum-fuck nowhere waiting for ya’ll to return. I still say we leave.” Credit looked everybody in the eye. One of them mumbled, “It would probably be best to do this another time.” They all nodded their agreement. Credit felt disgusted. He threw his cap on the ground and then stomped on it. Triumphantly, Deanna picked up her pack and started to walk past him on the way to her truck. Credit lifted his arm and pushed her solidly on her chest with the flat of his hand. She stumbled backwards a couple of steps but retained her balance. More than anything else, his action had taken her by surprise. “You always do this to me!” he bitterly yelled. He was furious. Anger spewed from him. “As soon as I turn my back, you’re off scheming with everyone else. But you never tell ME what you goddamn think! Do you? You never try this shit when I’M here!” He glared at her. Her lips trembled as her eyes darted to and fro. She was very careful to avoid making eye contact with him. Damn! It all happened so fast! Whatever possessed him to act like that, he wondered. He suddenly felt very sorry that he had shoved Deanna and spoken those harsh words. He had made a total ass out of himself in front of all his friends. Everyone stood silent as he glanced over at Mark, who merely gave Credit a supportive smile and a shrug of his shoulders. Curious, Credit thought. Mark made no attempt whatsoever to aid Deanna. Disgraced, Credit turned and walked away from the group. He wove his way through the sparse desert shrubbery until he topped a low ridge, where he began to follow a small boy across the green lawn of a sprawling, ranch-style house. Deanna followed closely behind. “I don’t know why we’re following this little kid,” she whined. “Because fate put him in our way,” he answered. “I’m sure he has something of value to show us.” “I think we’re wasting our time.” “Well, I don’t. The kid looks pretty sharp. Maybe we can learn something from him.” The boy was approximately seven years old. He stood just over four feet tall, and had medium length brown hair and brown eyes. He darted into the house. Deanna held Credit back. “This is stupid,” she said. “I’m going to wait here.” “Knock yourself out.” She snaked her way through a maze of metal and rubber and sat down amidst a cluster of bicycles. Credit suddenly took note of the immediate backyard, which reminded him more of a playground or sporting goods store. There were dozens of bicycles, scooters, skateboards, three-wheelers, barbecue pits and no telling what else. The clutter of it overwhelmed him. Shrugging it off, he entered the house and then silently stood inside the doorway. A voice called to him from down a flight of steps. “Come on down!” The cellar was one room. It ran the length and width of the house, although it appeared much longer. And it was literally stuffed with ping-pong tables, pool tables, and weight sets. There were video games, pinball machines, stereo equipment, TV’s, and DVD’s. At least a half dozen of everything. There were games galore. God, the amount of money that must have been spent on all of this shit, Credit proclaimed to himself. The boy was sitting in front of a computer terminal. Mathematical formulae glowed on three of a dozen screens, reinforcing Credit’s opinion that the boy was smart for his age. Credit edged closer and teasingly tugged at the boy’s ear lobe. The boy questioningly stared back at him. Feeling that his friendly gesture had been taken in the wrong vein, Credit felt that he should explain himself. “Just making sure that I’m not dreaming,” he idiotically stuttered. “Have you got something to show me?” he quickly added, hoping to change the subject. The boys’ fingers darted deftly across the keyboard and the computer screens shut down. “Sure,” he replied. “Let’s go.” They climbed the stairs and entered the living room. “Mom, dad, this is Credit.” The boy’s parents smiled pleasantly. They seemed genuinely pleased to meet him. The father was sitting in an armchair while his wife was standing beside him, her arm draped over his shoulder. Surrounding them were fifteen children of various ages, apparently posing for a photograph. Typically middle class, they all wore their Pepsodent smiles. “Going to town,” the boy announced. “Gotta go.” They took a moped to town. The boy drove while Credit sat in the sidecar and enjoyed the scenery. When they arrived at the town square, the boy stopped. The grass in the park-like square was well watered and manicured. Shade trees and hedgerows interspersed the acreage. Flanking three sides of the square were infinitely old, two story houses with immaculately landscaped lawns. Although of similar design, the houses managed to maintain their individuality. “This is it,” the boy said. Credit turned his attention to the fourth side of the square, where a fantastically huge, Gothic style cathedral loomed over them. It was stupendous. It hurt his neck to look up. The spires towered into the heavens. As Credit marveled at the magnificent architecture he began to wonder. Was this what the boy had to show him? A church? He gazed around the square some more and noted a definite European flavor to the place, making him wonder what town he was in. Damn. It came to him. All this time he had been dreaming and had completely failed to recognize it! He knew that it was totally meaningless if he couldn’t determine his state of awareness, and he became peeved with himself for having wasted a valuable opportunity. Now he was becoming tired, and he knew that he wouldn’t be able to hold his continuity for much longer. Credit looked at the boy again. His perception changed dramatically, like a wave coming over him. The boy was smart all right, but the endless stream of sophisticated gadgets had mesmerized him into seeing only one perspective. It had trapped the boy in materialism, blinding him to the fact that there were other levels of awareness to pursue. His spirituality had been reduced to purchasing the Lord’s favors with tokens. Credit thought it a shame, for otherwise the boy was very sharp. “They don’t build them like this anymore,” the boy proudly said. “Costs too much.” No, I don’t imagine they do, Credit sarcastically asserted. There surely wasn’t any reason to. “You want to go inside?” “Why not.” Since he would be getting married soon, he thought it might do him good to see the inside of a church again. They strolled across the grounds of the cathedral and then entered a door in the back wing. A narrow hallway took them to the main congregational hall, which was impressively immense and ornately decorated. Several people were on their knees in front of the altar, silently praying. Otherwise, the chamber was empty. One of those in prayer suddenly stood, spread his arms toward the heavens, and began to chant, his voice echoing throughout the church. Credit listened attentively but couldn’t understand a word. It sounded like incomprehensible, alien nonsense. “What is he saying?” he asked the boy. “I don’t know,” the boy reverently whispered. “He speaks in tongues!” A blithering idiot was more like it, Credit derisively countered to himself. Even if it was an ancient language, the man certainly wasn’t communicating or revealing any mystical knowledge. Disappointed, Credit turned and strode from the cathedral. Upon stepping outside, the brightness of the day caught him by surprise. While trying to adjust to the light, he noticed a purple fog materialize out of thin air. The subtle shade of the mist appealed to him. He stepped into it and was gone. 19 The Ouachita Mountains “This is the finest camping spot in the area,” Credit proclaimed when he turned off the truck. “I can’t believe there’s nobody here. The site was located below a cliff where the Cossatot River curved around the mountain. Shallow rapids emptied into a long, deep pool of clear water. Old hickory trees shaded the campsite while cherry laurel, dogwood and assorted hardwoods lined the riverbank. Pine and cedar trees crowded the mountain slope. “There’s no picnic table,” Bonnie commented. “Uh-oh. Where are we going to put the microwave?” “There are tables at the other campsites,” she complained. “Yeah, but it’s nicer here,” he said as he began pulling the gear from the pick-up. “We can build a fire under the cliff over there, and there’s a level spot to place the tent. Shoot, we’re only going to be here for a day or two. If you want to, we can go up to the other site to eat.” “I’m only teasing, dear. Jeez, if I wanted comfort, I sure wouldn’t be with you!” “I feel sorry for Mark,” Bonnie said as she readied the grill for cooking. “He seemed so depressed. He really hoped that you and Deanna had run off together. At least then he’d know where she was and could begin to deal with it. As it is now, the poor guy is completely lost.” “He’s probably down in New Orleans right now, pacing up and down Bourbon Street,” Credit chuckled. “I probably never should have mentioned that I thought I saw her there.” “Well, until your dream last night, I would have said she was there, too. Now, I’m not so certain. She’s probably somewhere out in the desert.” “It was just a stupid dream that didn’t mean anything,” Credit solemnly said. “Mark and Paul and Richard were also in it...” “Everyone but me!” “...and they aren’t out in the desert. What makes me mad is that I didn’t even know it was a dream until it was too late.” “Maybe that’s your way of dealing with the problem. By ignoring it.” “What else can I do?” Credit said with an edge to his voice. He was uncomfortable with the fact that he had been unable to come to terms with his dreams. “This is all new territory, you know? It’s not like I have a map or a book to define what steps to take. Besides, sometimes it’s best to back off from a subject until you can get a grip on the situation and begin to feel comfortable with it.” “All I know is that you dreamed of Jason and he showed up. I’m also worried about him,” she said, trying to change the subject. “I hope he’ll be all right by himself. He might be growing up, but he’s still a young boy.” “He’ll be all right. He’s been out to the Big Bend every year now for the past ten. He’ll probably find that it’s hotter than hell on the river and head up into the Chisos Mountains to stay cool. He ain’t never too eager to work up a sweat. You know that. What did he say in his sleep last night? ‘I can’t help it. I know I’m a lazy bum.’ Said it plain as day!” The smile had returned to Credit’s face. They both chuckled at the memory. As Bonnie flipped the steaks, a pick-up truck pulled into the campsite. It was Credit’s brother Paul and their friend Richard. “Well, I’ll be damned!” Credit exclaimed. “I drive two hundred miles just to run into you guys. What are you doing here?” “Shoot. We’ve been driving these dirt roads for three hours looking for you,” Paul said. “I heard you were getting married. Wanted to drink a beer with you two to celebrate!” “Sounds good to me.” “Bonnie?” “Sure.” “Congratulations.” “I see we’re just in time for dinner,” Richard said as he glanced around the campsite. “Where’s the picnic table?” Bonnie saw her chance to gloat. “It’s up at the next campsite! Shit-head here don’t believe in those modern inventions, you know?” Richard quickly sized up the situation. “If you’ll feed us, Paul and I will drag the picnic table down here. It can’t be more than fifty yards.” “Shit, yeah,” Paul agreed. “Let’s go!” They staggered off, only to return empty handed. No picnic table. “Just put it anywhere,” Credit improvised with a smile. “It won’t get in the way.” “No shit,” Paul laughed. “They must have filled the metal frame with cement or something. That table ain’t going nowhere.” “You’d need a crane to move the damned thing,” Richard confirmed. It began to get dark as they finished eating. Crickets and tree frogs chirped loudly, adding to the gurgling symphony of the Cossatot River. “What are y’all planning on doing tomorrow?” Paul asked as he handed out another round of beers. “I’m gonna sit right here in the water,” Richard butted in. “Who asked you?” “We’re going to take a little hike,” Credit shrugged. “There’s a little side canyon I want to explore. Get some setting for a story. It’ll take maybe half a day or so.” He added some wood to the fire and sat back. “We’re going to Hot Springs the day after tomorrow to luxuriate. Give Bonnie a break from her wifely duties.” “Well,” Paul said with a grin, “I think I’ll just sit here and enjoy the nice, cool water.” “Me too!” Bonnie emphasized. Credit feigned anguish. “What! Are you going to poop out on me?” “That’s right! I’m going to work on my tan. With these two hunks here, I won’t be alone now.” “All right!” Richard chimed in. “You might be marrying Credit, but you’ve still got some sense left. I know it’ll improve our scenery a hundred percent. Might even provide some entertainment,” he added, keeping the jest going. Credit ignored them. He was beginning to get drunk. Bonnie was in the same fix and decided to crawl off to bed. As she zipped herself in and laid down, the wind picked up and a corner of the tarp tore loose, creating an irritating, flapping noise. She moaned, “Credit, fix the tent!” He walked over and tied down the tarp. When he looked back at the campfire, he saw that Paul had all but passed out and Richard was more or less in a stupor. He decided to lie down next to Bonnie. No sooner had he zipped the tent than the tarp tore loose once again. He had no desire to go back outside, but the aggravating noise soon compelled him to do so. He relieved himself while he was up. He noticed that Paul was in his tent and Richard had crawled into the bed of the truck. The campfire had turned into a smoldering coal bed. Credit crawled back into the tent and fell asleep 20 Flipside He stood outside the tent, fully intending to urinate. Nothing was happening, and he decided to give it more time. Overall, he felt physically strange, light and light headed, and he passed it off to having imbibed more than his share. The night was very still except for the sound of a faint, but howling, wind further down the valley. It was coming his way, approaching slowly for something that sounded so forceful. When it finally arrived, it hit with short, strong gusts that increased to a steady, hard blow before passing quickly. The chirping of crickets and the barking of tree frogs once again became the dominate sounds. He gazed around the campsite. His vision had adjusted remarkably to the night and he could see everything clearly. Paul was rolled up inside his tent. Richard was sleeping soundly in the back of the pick-up. He was either very drunk or the intermittent wind was keeping the mosquitoes at bay. He thought about his own tent and realized that he hadn’t zipped it shut. The mosquitoes would eat Bonnie alive! He put his penis back inside his pants and then knelt to zip the tent. To his surprise, it was already tightly closed. He looked inside to check on her. He was aghast. There he was lying beside Bonnie! Sound asleep! The observation overwhelmed his sense of reason. He fell backwards, shocked by the duality that confronted him. Up until that moment he had assumed that his thoughts were originating from within his “dreaming” body. But he was obviously sleeping next to Bonnie. As he struggled with the anomalies, he found himself beginning to panic. Don’t think! Deal with it later! Who said that? he wondered. Deal with it later! The command seemed to come from an outside source within him. But it was sound advice. He knew that if he became overly agitated he would soon lose the continuity of his dream. Still, he couldn’t help but wonder. Seeing himself sleeping was a shocking way to realize that he was in fact dreaming. But everything seemed so real! He rubbed his hands together. They sure felt solid to him! The wind gusted once again and then moved on. Upon its’ tail came the hoot of an owl, brilliantly melodious. The magical sound resonated within him. When he heard it again, he knew that the owl’s call was meant for him alone. He moved to the next campsite and sat down on top of the picnic table. He waited to hear from the owl once again. The wind had changed to a light, steady breeze, and he listened to the rustling branches as he watched their shadowy motion against the star lit sky. Time passed. An armadillo came close, rooting and snorting. He forgot about the owl and jumped down from the picnic table. The picnic table! Thinking of Paul and Richard, he grabbed hold of the end of the table and pulled. It moved easily. “Why those lazy shitheads,” he said out loud. “Too heavy to move. What a poor, fucking excuse!” He turned his back to the table, reached back with both hands, and proceeded to drag the table behind him. He soon noticed a loud, rumbling sound, and the first thought that came to mind was “avalanche”. He stopped to listen more intently, but the thunder had passed. He heard nothing but tree frogs and crickets, the wind and the river. He was perplexed. Surely he hadn’t imagined that sound. He started forward with the table once again. And once again the mountains rumbled. Shit! It struck him. The sound he heard was the dragging of the table! Outrageous! He was probably waking every camper along the river. Feeling very self-conscious, he glanced over at the campsite. Richard was sitting up in the back of the truck, looking around. Daylight was beginning to creep into the darkness and a foggy haze covered the ground. Not wanting to be seen by Richard, Credit decided to climb the bluff and enter the campsite from the opposite direction. But after entering the woods, he began moving through the trees much faster than intended, much too fast for safety. There was nothing he could do to prevent it. He had lost control over his muscles. He bounced off a tree. Damn, that hurt! He grabbed at his left arm but then bounced off another tree. Incapable of stopping his momentum, he lost his balance and fell. 21 Morning “Credit!” Did you hear that!?” Bonnie shook him forcefully. “Wake up!” She gave him a sharp punch. He opened his eyes to momentary confusion. Where was he? What was happening? His head and his left arm ached something awful. Had he really smacked into a tree and passed out? Bonnie punched him again and he knew exactly where he was at. And why his armed ached. “Something is out there, Credit! I’m scared.” He got to his knees and looked through the screen door. Although daylight was breaking, everything appeared foggy. He heard footsteps approach and then saw Richard saunter past the tent. “It’s just Richard out there,” he said, trying to suppress a yawn. “I heard something besides Richard, damn it. It was loud! It woke me up.” Credit laid back down and covered his eyes with his arm. Bonnie glared out the tent through the thinning mist. She heard Paul turn over in his tent, and then Richard walked back towards the pick-up. Nobody seemed to be alarmed. Reluctantly, she lay back down. Fuck him, she thought bitterly. I know damn well I heard something. “Anybody awake in there?” Richard’s face poked into view. “Ya’ll need to come out here and look at this,” he announced. Bonnie scurried out the tent in anticipation. Credit emerged hesitantly, almost fearfully. He saw the picnic table in the middle of the road, exactly where he had left it in his dream. His jaw dropped to his chest. 22 Memories His thoughts were in a state of turmoil as he made his way along the gravel bank of the Cossatot River. Together, the four of them had been barely able to budge the table. Although he had diffused the wonderment of the situation by suggesting that they use the truck to pull the table the rest of the way, Bonnie remained overly suspicious. And there was simply no way that he could logically explain the events that had transpired that night. How could it be possible to acquire strange, magical powers through one’s dreams? Despite all that had happened, he simply could not accept the premise. There had to be another explanation. At the mouth of Short Creek he turned away from the main river and entered the narrow side canyon. When he rounded the gooseneck, he strained to see the top of the cliff through the trees. From studying the map, he had speculated upon the possibility of finding a cliff shelter at that location, and from what he could now see, conditions were extremely favorable. He took a sip of water before beginning his upward struggle. What he discovered at the top mildly surprised him. Instead of a mere overhang, there was a naturally formed room. It was an almost perfect cube with rounded corners and a door. The only manmade alteration that he could readily discern was that the floor had been chipped away for the purpose of leveling the room. Also, painted on one of the walls was the stick figure of a hunch-backed flute player alongside a migration symbol, a pictograph more common to the southwestern States and northern Mexico. He set his pack on the floor and stepped back outside to the ledge. When he explored around the corner he discovered and indenture in the rock wall that was almost certainly manmade. It was the perfect size to sit in and was situated in an ideal position for viewing the splendid scenery, if not for scouting the valley floor, which consisted of little more than tree tops. He leaned against the wall and stared out over the tight, green valley and thought about the woman whom he had met in his dreams. She had tried to warn him of his present predicament, but he hadn’t taken her seriously. Why should he have? How could he possibly give credibility to her when she was only a fantasy, a dream? She was himself! Wasn’t that the reason he couldn’t see her face? It was all such a paradox. He boosted himself up into the viewing position in the wall and sat back cross legged. Explosively, a wealth of memories surged through him. Dreams that had been totally locked away in his subconscious were suddenly and vividly released, and he realized that the woman had been right all along. Tunu was a whole, separate world! He could selectively recall the underground stream with the waterfalls, Medusal Canyon, the Aqua ruins, the Historical site, and the town below the lake where the woman lived. He had visited those places and others many times before. He remembered studying various maps of Tunu on many occasions, and one such occasion jumped out at him with persistence and clarity. He had been hitch-hiking on the southernmost highway that crossed the country when his ride had taken him as far as it could. He was let out at a junction, and there he stood on the side of the road and studied his map. The north road led to the Aqua ruins, his original destination. But in the opposite direction was the one and only road that led further south. For four hundred miles the road angled off to the southwest until it ended in the middle of nowhere. One way in; same way out. And at the end of the road was the only name printed on that section of the map—Qattarah. At that moment a car slowed at the cross section and braked to a halt. Inside was an elderly couple. The woman was in the driver’s seat. “Are you going to Qattarah?” he asked when she rolled down her window. “Yes,” she answered. “To Qattarah, where all things are known.” At that, she and her husband began to giggle. Although he thought they were acting a bit strangely, he had to agree with her statement. Every school kid knew the myth. Qattarah, where all things were known. “Hop in.” Thinking that he may never have another chance, he gratefully climbed into the back seat. The car rounded the corner and headed south. No one spoke, and he was content to watch through the window while they traversed several distinct ecological zones. Flat pasture turned hilly, overgrown with mesquite trees, which then faded to creosote covered wasteland, which in turn was overtaken by cactus. Finally, there was sand. At three hundred and fifty miles there was nothing but endless dunes of drifted, white sand. In places, the road was completely concealed. The very moment that they began to question whether they should continue with their journey, the scenery began to change again in the reverse order. In no time, they found themselves in moist, forested foothills. When the elderly woman was forced to slow the car at a ninety degree bend in the road, Credit asked to be let out. The scenery was truly impressive. A clear mountain stream lay before him. It was fifty feet wide and gurgled lightly as it flowed over an extremely colorful bed of gravel. It originated from a canyon to his right. Giant conifers growing at river level provided proper perspective to the immensity of the canyon walls, which had to be thousands of feet high. They were shaded brilliantly in hues of purple, brown, and auburn. He could see the road as a narrow ribbon that clung precariously to the side of the cliff, twisting its way into the gorge. Immediately downstream, the river made a picture perfect exit through a pair of tall, stone pillars. Beyond them, yellow poplar lined the river banks. Although a dirt road led into the woods on his left, he decided to follow the main road to the end. When he came upon a fork in the road, he had trouble deciding which route to follow, and his indecision began to irk him. There he was in Qattarah, where all things were known, and he didn’t have the slightest idea what to do with the opportunity. Simply for the sake of making a decision, he chose the fork that led into the canyon, and within half a mile he came to a parking lot at the end of the road. A reception center hung from the cliff side, the Qattarah Cavern Excursion. When he entered the building he learned that the tour consisted of two parts; a boat ride up the river to the cave entrance, and a walk back through the cavern to where the elevator would lift one back to the reception center. He bought a ticket and took the cable car down into the ravine. Once again he met up with the old couple. He learned that the Excursion was the main tourist attraction, the others being hiking and camping. Qattarah was nothing more than an isolated, mountain oasis within the confines of a vast, oppressive desert. There was nothing magical about it. With the myth shattered, he was unable to contain his disappointment, and his dream soon ended. But that was not the end of Qattarah. He soon had a second, related dream that proved to be even more intriguing. In that one he had stepped out of the purple mist to find himself in the stream near the twin pillars. The poplar trees beyond were swaying in the breeze, beckoning him, while the cool, refreshing water spoke to him in riddles. He felt that if he listened closely enough he would understand, but he also knew that he didn’t have time. The river was not his intended destination. His mind was made up to take the other fork in the road and hike up into the high country. After filling his canteens in the stream he walked to the trailhead at the end of the road. From that vantage point he could see the river snaking through the canyon past the River Excursion headquarters, winding steeply into the mountains, where it broke into several branches. A definite greenway highlighted the path against the stark, rocky ridges. It was a setting that appealed to him greatly. He could imagine magnificent, cascading waterfalls and exquisite, luxuriant plant growth. But he decided to remain true to his original purpose. He began his trek towards the highest peaks. He would come back and explore the waterfalls another day. After what seemed like hours of uphill trudging he decided to take a rest. He chose a spot to sit near a massive wall of pink magma which afforded him a panoramic view of the south desert floor. As he admired the beauty of the scenery, he heard a hiker making his way down the mountain. When he came into view, his appearance suggested that he was a local citizen rather than a tourist. Credit nodded at the man as he passed, but was then overcome with the strangest impulse. “Is this Qattarah?” he yelled out. The man stopped abruptly and stared back at him in silence, apparently judging him. “No, this is not Qattarah,” he finally answered. He pointed down onto the desert floor. “Qattarah is at the end of that road.” Credit squinted into the distance. He could barely make out a vague line of double tracks that zigzagged across the desert badlands and disappeared over the horizon. So, he mused. Only the pavement ends here. The myth still lives! Calling this mountain range Qattarah merely draws in the tourists. The real Qattarah was not on the map. When he turned to ask about the distance, the man was gone. There was no telling how long the journey would take, he thought. Qattarah could be just over the horizon or hundreds of miles away, and he had already begun to tire. And as he watched the heat rise from the desert floor, his dream ended. By the time Credit had finished reviewing his vivid memories of Tunu, he realized that it had grown dark outside. He had been absorbed for hours and had remembered much, especially the fact that, no matter what he might have thought at the time, none of his dreams had ever taken place on Earth. Except for the last one and the one he had had in New Orleans. But he still had no explanation for his main, overriding concern. Had he really moved the picnic table in his dream? Was it possible that dreams could really affect reality? He felt that only the woman in his dreams could satisfactorily resolve his dilemma. Meanwhile, he gradually realized that he had created another pressing problem. It had grown too dark to safely return to camp. He had failed to bring along a flashlight. Bonnie was already suspicious about the picnic table incident. Now she would be totally peeved. Angry, disappointed, and worried. But at least she wasn’t by herself. Paul and Richard would let nothing happen to her. Feeling his way along the ledge, Credit entered the cave and, using his knapsack for a pillow, laid down and closed his eyes. 23 Flipside He was high up on a mountainside, staring down at the desert floor, trying hard to remember what it was he had been searching for. His mind had gone mysteriously blank. It wasn’t until he noticed the familiar pink magma walls that he realized he was in the mountain area called Qattarah. He was dreaming. He felt fresh and energetic when he realized that the chance to discover the real Qattarah had presented itself to him. It was much too good an opportunity to pass up. Perhaps he would even find the woman there. He descended the rugged mountain slopes and filled his canteens in the stream. The leaves of the poplar trees beyond the pillars had turned a rich yellow. They were exceptionally inviting. Especially in lieu of what laid ahead—a long trek through the scorching desert heat. He headed down the dirt road that disappeared beneath tall, shady trees, and was soon following double tracks through desert scrub of prickly pear, silver-leaf and lechugilla. The sun was overbearingly hot and the hills were steeper than they appeared from the mountainside. Mile after mile as he topped each crest he was met with an endless sea of successive ridges, an oppressive sameness that soon came to weigh upon him. Although he continued to hope for an oasis along the way, he found only endless repetition in a bleak, barren landscape. At last he topped the final crest and looked down upon a vast, sandy desert. The road edged down the face of the cliff and then ran a straight line through boundless dunes that stretched to the horizon. It was not an encouraging sight, but he knew that it was the only way. Forlornly, Credit continued his journey. The heat from the sand was more intense and the glare from the sun more blinding as the ridge behind him slowly receded from view, leaving him without a landmark in the featureless sea of white sand. He trudged forward through timelessness. Even the sun failed to move through the sky. Positioned for the hottest part of the day, it was determined to beat him down and drain his strength until he could go no further. And then the road dead-ended abruptly at the foot of a huge dune. In front of him was a cement bunker partially buried in the sand. A long, horizontal slit framed with wood molding provided a spy hole. Credit peered to his left and right and saw identical bunkers flanking him. He felt the heat bearing down and decided to seek shade. He entered the bunker to his left, and except for a table and chair, found it empty. But it was much cooler there and he sat down and put his feet up on the table. Although he had reached the end of the road, he was not at all certain that he had reached Qattarah. He had come all this way because of the promise of a stranger, and he was beginning to think his search had been in vain. Did Qattarah truly exist or was it nothing more than a myth? When he decided that he should have tried to find the woman instead, he noticed a small door low in the corner of the back wall. Curious, he went over and opened it. A dark tunnel, barely large enough for a man to crawl through, led out of the bunker. Credit figured that since he had come this far, there was no sense in stopping now. No one ever said the road to Qattarah would be easy. Pushing aside thoughts of spiders and scorpions waiting in the dark, he crawled head first into the tunnel and spent an eternity in darkness. He could discern only the sensation of moving forward. The sunlight blinded him temporarily when he finally emerged from the darkness. The day was still oppressively hot. He was still in the desert. Steep walls of sand and gravel, void of any vegetation, sloped up on either side of him. A well worn path ran the bottom of the wash leading away from the door. The turning, twisting trail eventually led to a huge bluff that had loomed in the distance for some time. As he made his way along the base of the cliff, the gravel slope on his left began to recede and clumps of chino grass began to appear along its base. And then the Cliffside on his right abruptly ended and he found himself before a shockingly green patch of river cane, thick and abundant. He was at the corner of a vast mesa that ran all the way to the western horizon. As he scanned the tremendous escarpment, he noticed that forty feet up the wall were two men with rifles. They had been watching him. They smiled and waved. He waved back and they motioned him to continue on his way. Feeling uncomfortable, he glanced back down the path he had just traveled and saw another man standing there behind him. He was leaning against the wall, lighting a cigarette. Like the other two men, he had the appearance of a South American guerrilla. Bullets were strapped across his chest and a gun was slung over his back. The man’s eyes glistened as he smiled, and then he, too, motioned for him to continue his journey. Credit decided it would be best to get at it. The path cut a tunnel through the lush river cane. It led to a swampy area where the water was ankle deep and clear. It had a current and tasted sweet. Spring flow, no doubt. He decided that he would fill his canteens there on the way out. He soon came to a small clearing in the undergrowth. Huisache and willow trees provided poor shade for a blistered, wood frame hut that was set up on blocks. The well worn path led straight to the screen door. A neon sign on the wall flashed “Beer”. Sounded good! Credit entered the hut and stood inside the doorway. Three men sat conversing at a table. They were animated and serious, but their discussion came to an abrupt halt when he entered. Heads turned his way. “Buenas dias,” he greeted. “Buenas dias,” they replied in unison. He felt very self-conscious. His initial impression had been “conspiracy”, for like the armed guards that he had seen outside; these men looked like they had only just now returned from a raid with Pancho Villa. The demeanor of these particular men, however, suggested that they were the leaders. He figured that they had been discussing strategies for sabotage or a preemptive strike when he had walked in on them, interrupting something that was none of his business. The men noticed his discomfort, and one of them arose immediately and began to approach him. The man had not had a shave for several days and his face glistened from the heat, but otherwise he had a friendly way about him. “Please, sit down. Rest. Welcome to Qattarah.” “Thank-you.” Credit wondered if he had truly reached Qattarah. This was not what he had expected at all. “You must excuse me, por favor,” the man intoned. “Yes, of course.” The man rejoined his friends. They leaned their heads together and resumed their conversation in a whisper. Feeling it prudent to be polite, Credit ignored their whispers and instead studied the room. It contained ten or more round tables with four chairs each, arranged in dining room fashion. Rows of opened, screened windows lined two of the walls, while the wall behind him was wood planking that was painted beige. There was a door at the far end. Presumably, the kitchen and storage were behind that wall. Two ceiling fans kept the hot air from stagnation. “Would you care for a beer?” asked the man who had greeted him. “Yes, please. That would be nice.” The man hollered into the back room and then returned to his conversation. This time Credit could not help but overhear. Their arguing had grown quite loud. He heard the words “drug running”, “poison”, and “greed”. Their differing opinions reinforced his impression that they were rebels fighting for a political cause. A woman appeared from the back room carrying a glass and a bottle of beer. She was wearing a peasant blouse with a knee length skirt. She had long, black hair and a lovely complexion. A very pretty girl. The men stopped their argument to stare at her as she walked. They whistled and made lewd, but good natured remarks. The waitress ignored them as she served him, and then answered the men in explicit terms before leaving the room. Credit looked at the men and smiled. “Me llamo es Credit,” he said, introducing himself. “Raphael,” answered the one with the drooping mustache. “Ramon.” The one who had welcomed him. “Rueben.” They nodded at him. “So, this is Qattarah,” Credit said, fishing for information. “Si, si.” “Where everything is known?” Credit added. Everyone nodded some more. “I traveled a long road,” Credit said after a moment of silence. “I’m a bit tired. If I’m interrupting something here, I could sit outside. I really didn’t mean to barge in on you.” Ramon stood up swiftly. “No, no. We have been expecting you. Please, you are our guest! We humbly apologize for ignoring you and beg your forgiveness.” He lowered his head and shuffled his feet. “Unfortunately, we have received some particularly bad news today. It has caused us much distress.” “Yes, I caught part of your conversation,” Credit readily admitted. He suddenly felt that it was time to put his cards on the table. “I don’t mean to belittle your own problems, Ramon, but I came here looking for a woman.” Shit! Credit suddenly realized that he didn’t know her name! Could he describe her without even knowing what she looked like? He felt he had to try. “She lives in this world. Has long, very dark hair…” Foolish! How utterly foolish he sounded! “She is a very clever woman. Very pretty, I think. You feel good when she is in your presence…” He felt a flicker of hope. “Perhaps she has been here before?” He looked at each of them with pleading eyes. “Si,” Ramon answered kindly. “We know whom you mean. She has been here before.” “A very fine woman,” Raphael added. “Magnifico!” Rueben exclaimed. “A finer woman I have never met. She is a special one, that one.” “Splendid character.” “The best!” “Impeccable.” Credit wondered. Were they putting him on? No. He knew without a doubt that they were talking about the same woman. “Do you know where she is now?” He was at the edge of his chair. Raphael threw up his hands. “Quien sabe?” “She could be anywhere.” “She is like the wind.” “And we do not interfere with freedom.” “She is a bird in flight.” “A sparrow!” “Yes, a sparrow in flight.” As they continued their superlatives, Credit sat back in his chair and pondered the situation. He felt certain that they knew her location, but would not or could not tell him. They acted as if they would be betraying a confidence if they revealed her whereabouts. As he listened to their simple statements it occurred to him that they were not speaking English, and he was unable to speak conversational Spanish. At best, he could only pick out a phrase or two, and yet he clearly understood every word spoken. The memory of a blithering idiot in a cathedral passed through him like a revelation, and he thought he understood the true meaning of speaking in tongues. The perceiver understands the precise meaning at a profound level without the encumbrances and confusion of language. Speaking in tongues cuts through the clutter, it doesn’t add to it. It is communication and understanding, not deception and ambiguity. He listened again to the men. Although they had returned to their previous topic, they were more relaxed and spoke openly. “Besides the woman and boy, I feel sorry for the local people. They have lived there all their lives, generation after generation. They ask only for life to be a little easier, a little kinder. They live in the middle of nowhere and it is sad when these problems reach even to them.” Ramon sat back and sighed. “Fate put them in that place at that time. They must deal with it, as must the gringo woman and boy.” Raphael explained. “Yes, but even without the kidnappings, the locals did not ask for outsiders to come in spreading threats and easy money, instilling fear and mistrust.” “Insidious,” Ramon agreed. “But there is money to be made by selling poison to the gringos.” “The gringos demand it. They are addicted to everything.” “And now the locals have both the smugglers and the American authorities to fear. It is a strange game being played.” “Strange? Shit. Estupido! The gringo gluttons consume everything. They touch nothing lightly. It was her own fault that the gringo woman was snatched. She deserves whatever they do to her.” “How can you say that, Raphael? She was innocent.” “She was where she shouldn’t have been. She doesn’t belong there. The gringos belong in the United States.” “She’s a member of the human race!” “She’s married! She should have been at home with her husband.” “She seeks her road to freedom. It could go either way with her. You know that. She wasn’t there to spy on drug smuggling.” “I can accept that,” Rueben said. “No! She brought it on herself. Like most selfish gringos, she acted upon her desires without considering the consequences.” “You are too hard on her and her countrymen. The bottom line is that nobody deserves to be tortured, especially the boy. There was no reason to do what they did to him. He was merely fishing at Black Dike.” Ramon gave Credit a long, hard stare as he spoke. “He didn’t know what he was stumbling into.” “I agree with that,” Rueben said. “But they took him all the same, and it will go bad for him.” “Yes. Purely circumstantial that he knew the woman, but it will go against him.” “It may all work out for the best.” “The best? After what they did to the boy? How can you be so callous?’ All three men stared at Credit. “Life is to learn,” Ramon offered. “They should never have kidnapped the woman and boy. They should never have smuggled drugs. And the gringos should not be such pigs. They should not be consuming the Earth. But life goes on. You deal with it. I see good days in the boy’s future. Perhaps both captives will be rescued without too much pain and torture.” They continued to stare at Credit, evidently expecting a reaction from him. “Our friend takes the hard road, Ramon. You may be wrong in your vision for the boy.” Credit stared down at his empty glass. He suddenly knew what the men were referring to. He felt that he had to leave right away. Jason and Deanna were in deep trouble, and he was a long way from the Big Bend. “You gentlemen have been very helpful,” he said as her pushed himself away from the table. “I am very glad to have made your acquaintance. But as you suggest, I really must be going now.” The men seemed very pleased. They shook hands all around and then Ramon escorted Credit to the door. “Antonio!” he hollered. A man stepped into view from just outside the screen door. His rifle was slung over his back and he was lighting a cigarette. “Antonio will make sure you get back safely,” Ramon said. “I hope you know that you are our friend. Un buen amigo. You must come back again soon. It would please us to see you often.” And with that Credit was out the door and down the path, bending over the spring water to fill his canteens. Antonio thought it was funny and couldn’t keep from snickering. “Do you really think you’ll need that?” he asked giddily. Credit had no answer for him. When they reached the base of the mesa Antonio hesitated, as if he was unsure of which direction to take. A purple mist had enshrouded the panoramic view down the length of the escarpment. Credit pointed to the path that lay straight ahead. “I came from that direction,” he said. It was really the only way to go. Antonio looked at him with puzzlement. “You really do take the long road, don’t you?” “It’s the only way I know,” he answered truthfully. Antonio followed silently as they made their way along the snaking chasm to the tunnel door. “Good luck!” Antonio smiled. “I look forward to your return. And hey! Don’t drink too much water!” He walked away cackling his fool head off. Credit was bewildered, but let it pass. Before he could enter the tunnel, he was assailed by the sound of singing birds. He couldn’t believe his ears. There must have been thousands of them! As he lifted his head to scan the sky, he opened his eyes. 24 Jason Jason finished baiting the trotline and then returned lethargically to the campsite. He plopped down onto the ground in front of his tent and stared up at the salt cedars. He would have no trouble getting to sleep that night. It had turned out to be a very long day. Because a recent flash flood had eroded every drainage that crossed the road, it had taken strenuous repair work just to reach Black Dike. Even then he had to park his car a half mile from the campsite because of high water in the Rio Grande. It had been an awful lot of trouble to go through just to catch a catfish. He probably should have turned around at the very first bad spot in the road and gone up into the mountains. At least it would be cooler there. He stood up and gathered some twigs with which to start a fire. As he groped through his knapsack for his beef stew, he remembered that he had left his can opener on the seat of his car, which meant another mile round trip. The sun was already beginning to set. He fetched his bottle of sotol, started the fire, and then took a good swig. His eyes watered as he reflected back on his day. He had crossed the river into Mexico during the morning and was making his way towards the hot springs when he was joined by a ten year old boy, chattering in Spanish, who insisted on tagging along. The boy could speak very good English, however, and Jason asked about Roberto. “Roberto? Si. En Boquillas.” All right! He was hoping that he, Roberto and Eusebio could all get together and get drunk that night. Party down! He needed the chance to blow off steam before school started back up. When he arrived at the hot springs to bathe, a group of children surrounded him with the hope of selling him some rocks. They showed him pyrite, quartz crystal, and amethyst. He perused their collection politely before offering a dollar for two of the specimens. After he finished bathing, a group of teen-agers approached him. They wanted to know if he was interested in buying some pot or cocaine. That had never before happened to him in Boquillas, and he was a bit shaken by it. He declined their offer and then hurried on towards the village, his little guide following obediently. The teen-agers had called him gringo, and he reflected upon that. He had heard more “gringos” that morning than in all his previous visits to Boquillas. And it had been mouthed with a certain amount of disdain. When he arrived at the restaurant in Boquillas, the hostess served him politely and then sat down next to the door. Jason was the only customer on the patio. He had expected to see Roberto there, but he was nowhere in sight. He ate his burritos and sipped on his Coke. “Muy bueno,” he said, complimenting the food. “Gracias,” the woman replied. “Esta Roberto aqui?” he asked. His Spanish was very limited, and he hoped that he had voiced the appropriate words. “Roberto?” “Si. Roberto. El trabaja aqui.” “Roberto?” she asked again. He felt that he never should have asked. He didn’t know Roberto’s last name, and he began to feel paranoid. “Roberto esta en Musquiz,” she finally said. He nodded his head. Roberto went often to Musquiz for supplies. “Y Eusebio?” “Si. En Musquiz.” She nodded her head and then raised two fingers. “For two days,” she added in English. Jason felt discouraged. “Not many tourists,” he uttered, more or less just to be polite. “No. Too hot. Mucho caliente.” “Yes.” After browsing through the souvenir shop, he paid his bill. He then ambled over to the store and entered the dark interior. He guide dutifully followed him. Several men sat in the narrow aisle of the old, adobe building, passing the time of day with the old man behind the counter. “Buenas dias,” Jason greeted. The old man nodded his head. “What can I do for you?” he asked kindly. “Sotol, por favor.” The old man stared silently at Jason as he considered his request. He then lowered his head and shook it in denial. Jason realized that he hadn’t been recognized. “Me padre es un buen amigo de Pablo y Juan. Senor Credit Lews.” The old man blushed in recognition. “Ah,” he smiled. “Jason?” “Si!” “Cuantos anos tiene usted?” “Veinte,” Jason replied, standing erect. The old man grinned broadly. He mad an almost imperceptible motion with his head and another man got up and left the store, but then quickly returned with a bottle of stool. Jason paid for the bottle, thanked them all graciously, and then left the store. His young guide seemed overly eager to get him back to the boat crossing. The flat bottom was on the American side when they arrived at the river. He heard more shouts. “The gringo wants to cross. The gringo wants to cross!” As he threw more sticks onto the fire, Jason decided that it had been a disappointing morning. His friends had not been in Boquillas and he had been made to feel exceedingly foreign. Having to repair the road in the hot afternoon had been no better. A rotten day. He took another swig of stool. At least the brew was from a good batch. It had a good bite to it. He would be able to get drunk and forget all about the day. But he also knew that he needed something more substantial in his stomach. He tossed some more wood into the fire, stuck his flashlight into his pocket, and headed off down the road. When he stepped from beneath the salt cedars, he gazed up at the sky. Venus was in the west while the Scorpion slithered through the south, but it was not yet dark enough for the lower stars to shine brightly. He walked the road in the growing darkness. A gradual rise soon brought him to the bluff overlooking the river. Being the halfway point to his car, he paused there to rest. He scanned the sky once again, relishing the much broader view. A nearby movement startled him. He jumped. “Hey,” he shouted nervously. “Who’s there?” Footsteps shuffled in the opposite direction and he began to panic. As he fumbled frantically for his flashlight, he was grabbed brutally from behind. 25 Deanna The moment she turned off of the paved Castolon road and onto the rough, gravel surface of the river road, she knew that her pace would be slowed to a crawl. She turned off the air conditioner and rolled down the windows. Stifling heat and the unique aroma of the Chihuahuan Desert wafted through the car. Ocotillo, prickly pear and yucca flanked the road amid the rugged, eroded hills. When she topped the hill with the gate, she knew that she had truly entered the backcountry of the Big Bend. Damn that Teresa! She railed to herself. Why did she have to live in the middle of nowhere? It certainly didn’t make things easy. Judging by the time it took to reach Smuggler’s Gap, Deanna anticipated darkness before she could reach Sierra Chino, if, in fact, she could make it that far in her car. She had already discovered that higher clearance was definitely recommended. But she was prepared to hike if necessary. There was nothing else she could do. She simply had to see Teresa. Her problem was one of the spirit, not the body, and the Curandera was one of the few people whom she trusted who could help. She had never intended to leave Mark when she did. It simply happened. She had been out sight-seeing to relieve her boredom when she found herself too far west to get back home that night. Instead of calling and trying to explain the situation, she had simply kept on driving. She let out a nervous laugh. Except for Pablo, who happened to be in Terlingua when she stopped for gas, nobody knew that she was there. After having nagged Mark silly to move back to East Texas, he’d never in a million years think to look for her out west. At least not until her credit card trail caught up to her. Man, would he be mad! With mounting trepidation, she inched the car down the slope to Smokey Creek, the largest drainage in the area. A flash flood had come through a day or two earlier, tearing up the creek beds and although all of the crossings had been passable, the slow pace was swallowing her precious time. The sun was seeking the horizon when she finally approached the river. She discovered that the Rio Grande had overflowed its banks, and for three-hundred yards the road ran under water. An automobile with New York State license plates was parked to the side of the road. Figuring that the road was impassable, she decided to park her car. She took out her knapsack and locked the doors. Skirting the flood plain along the steep, rocky slope, she dropped down to rejoin the road where it emerged from the muddy water. She followed it as it crossed a dry wash and then climbed the bluff overlooking the river. She paused there to take in the view. Black, magma dikes crossed the Rio Grande just downstream, and smoke rising from a campfire pinpointed the Black Dike campsite. Sierra Chino was the next river access, five or six miles further down the road. Lengthening shadows had all but faded, and the thought of having to walk in the dark began to weigh on her. The chance that people at Black Dike would have company for the night was beginning to look very promising. Before departing the bluff, an upriver movement caught her attention. She flipped up her binoculars and found several men on the Mexican side of the river. They were loading garbage bags into a flat-bottom boat. Two more boats were tied up on the American side not far from where her car was parked. The scene gave every appearance of drug-running and she wondered what she should do. Would her car be safe? Should she go back? And what could she do about it if they did decide to steal her car? The twilight was beginning to diminish. Once more Deanna peered through her binoculars as she fretted. The last boat had been loaded and was on its way to join the others. She also noted two men making their way down the Mexican side of the river. Several times they glanced her way, making her feel uneasy. She decided that it would be best to get off the bluff and out of sight. As she turned to go she heard a sound in the near distance, an unnatural sound, as if someone had kicked a rock. A sense of urgency engulfed her. As quickly and quietly as possible, she clambered thirty feet up the nearby slope. It was much steeper than she would have wished; the rocks that covered it much looser. Several of them dislodged, but none of them rolled far or made much noise, for which she was grateful. She crouched behind a large sotol plant and tried to calm her breathing as she listened intently. The muffled sounds of footsteps were growing clearer and she decided that at least two people were approaching her; maybe three. She held her breath as they came to a halt directly beneath her. Although she could hear them whispering, darkness had crept in and she could see only shadows. She prayed that she would not be noticed. The shadows below her finally separated and she patiently let out her breath. The night became still and utterly quiet. She noticed more footsteps. Another person was approaching from the opposite direction. She waited breathlessly as a shadow came to rest beneath her once again. The uncomfortably long pause was soon shattered violently by sudden movement and a shout. “Hey! Who’s there!?” She heard a scuffle filled with more shouts and the thud of punches. Groans became intermixed with a low, defiant sobbing, but all of the noise suddenly faded into the background for Deanna. She had become fixated by the sound of the shout. She knew that voice! But from where? As she frantically searched her memory, the sound of a gunshot brought her to a sudden stop, and she involuntarily jumped. The night turned deathly still as a rock dislodged from beneath her foot and bounced conspicuously down the hillside. Horrified, Deanna froze. She could imagine all eyes looking her way, and when she heard the sound of footsteps scrambling up the hill, she wished she could wake up from a bad dream. 26 The Ouachita Mountains From the moment he awoke to a chorus of chirping birds, he figured that he was in trouble. When at last he topped the short bank to the campsite, his suspicions were confirmed. Although Paul and Richard were not yet awake, Bonnie was sitting at the picnic table with her head between her hands. Her icy stare passed straight through him as he approached. “Pissed off, huh?” he remarked, trying hard to suppress a grin. He couldn’t help himself. He felt giddy because of his guilt. Ignoring him, Bonnie turned away coldly. It was evident to Credit that she was in no mood for his shit. He knew it would not be easy to smooth things over and convince her to leave for the Big Bend as soon as possible. But that was exactly what he had to do. “Look, Bun,” he explained hastily. “You know that I’ve been having some pretty crazy dreams lately. The past couple of nights it’s gotten to the point where I’m having a hard time identifying what’s real. Maybe I am going crazy. I dreamt that I put the picnic table in the road the other night, and that’s where we found it in the morning. And then last night I dreamt that Jason was in bad trouble out in the Big Bend. I know that you’re pretty disgusted with me right now, but I’d like for us to leave for West Texas as soon as possible. Like right now, you know?” Bonnie got up from the table and began to gather up the camping gear. “I don’t like the way you walked out on me last night,” she said as she rolled up her sleeping bag. “So until we straighten this out, don’t expect a very pleasant attitude.” Credit was perplexed. While he had hoped to appeal to Bonnie’s intense interest in his dreams, as well as her own queasy feeling about Jason, persuading her had been entirely too easy. He felt that she was up to something. And as soon as she finished punishing him, he intended to find out what. 27 Flipside They were on a straight and narrow road that was flanked on each side by a mosaic of square and rectangular shaped bodies of water, some of them of substantial acreage. Old shade trees lined the narrow, earthen banks that separated the water, creating the perception of lakes within the forest. “How deep are all these lakes?” Mark inquired. “Couldn’t tell you,” Credit answered. “Do you think there’s any fish in them?” “Could be. I’ve never tried fishing here.” He scrutinized the passing lakes more thoroughly. “Do they look natural to you?” “I’ve been wondering about that. Quarries, maybe?” “They could be old fish hatcheries. Just chock full of big old bass right now.” “Have you got your fishing pole with you?” Mark was getting excited. “I don’t know. Check in the back. Do you see it?” “In the back seat? Hell, no!” Credit smacked himself in the forehead. “That’s right!” he exclaimed. “We’re in Bonnie’s car! Hell, I don’t even know here I’m at. It’s a good thing you’ve got your seat belt buckled.” He looked at Mark and grinned. It felt good to be with him again. The underlying tension was entirely gone, and Credit assumed that they had either resolved their problems or the passage of time had made them inconsequential. He couldn’t quite recollect at the moment and was reluctant to mention it. He didn’t want to break the mood. The lakes area ended abruptly. The road soon dropped out of the woods and into a broad, delta valley. An old wooden bridge spanned the mouth of the main tributary. “They don’t make them like this anymore,” Credit said as they crossed the solid planks. “There’s not a nail in this bridge. It’ll hold together forever.” “I’ll bet. Hey, we’re still going to the Aqua Ruins, aren’t we?” “Yeah,” Credit answered. But a seed of doubt had been planted by the question. Since the ruins were in Tunu, he reasoned, that meant that he was dreaming. And yet, Mark was sitting next to him. If he couldn’t accept Mark as being real right now, how could he accept Tunu as being real? “Did Bonnie ever tell you what she learned about them?” “No,” Credit answered. He wondered. Did Bonnie know something about the Aqua Ruins? She knew more than she was letting onto lately, that much was certain. “I need to stop at the house, first,” he informed Mark. He needed to find out exactly what it was that Bonnie knew. He pulled up at the curb and stepped out of the car. “I’ll be right back,” he said. “This won’t take long.” He followed the gentle slope of the pavement through the amusement park. Game booths filled with stuffed animals lined the midway. Music was playing and carnival lights were flashing, but the crowd was sparse due to the afternoon showers, which they had just missed. The fresh scent of rain still lingered in the air, subtly mixed with that of cotton candy, candy apples, and sausage and peppers. Credit turned next to the tilt-a-whirl and then walked briskly alongside the roller coaster. He could see his destination through the infrastructure; a yellow, two story wooden house. Although consistent in its appearance on the outside, the inside was always being remodeled, and he wondered what changes were awaiting him. He climbed the porch and tried the front door. Finding it locked, he hopped around to the side of the house. The side door opened up and he stepped into a small, square hallway. On either side was a closed door. A window in front of him showed that the main body of the house was to his right. He opened the door to the left and climbed a flight of steps. Another door opened into an efficiency apartment. It was small and cluttered, but very neat, and he decided that it must be a woman’s apartment. It certainly wasn’t his. The kitchen area was spotlessly clean. To his right was a bed beneath a large picture window. The view overlooked green pasture land. The fields were severed into sections by tree-lined ditches. A herd of cattle grazed lazily in two of the partitions. Credit noted with interest that every cow was facing in the same direction. As he began to ponder the oddity, he suddenly remembered that he wasn’t in his own apartment, and paranoia began to creep in. He returned downstairs to the hallway and opened the door to the main part of the house. It turned out to be an ordinary broom closet. Shit! He ranted to himself. How was he going to get in to see Bonnie? He reviewed the closet once again. It was two feet deep, made of solid wood planks. Two brooms and a mop hung from the back wall. He glanced up at the ceiling and then down at…well, shit! He saw that there wasn’t any floor. Wooden rungs were nailed to the wall beams, making a ladder into the cellar. He climbed down. The basement was dank and musty. A dimly lit bulb hung from the center of the room, casing eerie shadows and accenting the thick cobwebs among the canned goods and stacked boxes where he stood. He moved down under the light. A model train was set up on a table. It had a very elaborate setting of mountains, tunnels, trees and buildings. There were automobiles and little people, all of it exceptionally realistic. An old shower stall stood in the corner of the room. It was a simple metal frame with a shower head and a stiff, cloth curtain. A groove in the cement floor would have channeled the water to a drain underneath the train table. Credit stepped through double doors into the other half of the cellar. It was much brighter there due to the windows that lined the top of the outer wall. The room was filled with old, dusty furniture; antique oak tables, bed frames, desks, dresser drawers and more. It was stacked everywhere. He could barely see the back of the room. Suddenly, he realized that he was staring at the room from the opposite end, and he couldn’t remember having walked the distance. How had he managed to negotiate around all that furniture? He wondered. He could discern no clear path through the room. He turned around and studied the back wall. Instead of stone, like the rest of the cellar walls, it was made of horizontal wood planks. The top plank was missing. He climbed up and slithered through the opening. He emerged into a hallway that had a very pleasant aura. At once he felt at home. The room was painted beige with blue trim and was very clean and well lit. A vase with flowers and a bag of groceries sat on the table. Credit picked up the sack and entered the apartment. “I’m home, Bun!” he called out as he set down the sack of food. He glanced through the library to the sitting room. The apartment was set on three levels, each room two steps lower than the previous one. “Mark and I are going over to the Ruins. Is there something you wanted to tell me about them?” “I’m not going to tell you until you give me a kiss.” Credit smiled as he stepped down into the sitting room. Bonnie had pulled the big chair over to the window and was sitting there watching the busy street scene below. Only the tip of her head was visible as he tip-toed up behind her. He stretched his arms around the chair, reached up under her sweater, and cupped her breasts in his hands. Damn nice, he moaned to himself as he massaged her warm titties. And yet something was different, he thought. They were much bigger than they should have been. Could it be that Bonnie was pregnant? “Pretty nice stuff you here, lady.” “Well, I’m glad you like them, Mr. Lews.” She stood up, rounded the chair, and embraced him. Credit gasped. That wasn’t Bonnie at all, but a woman he had never seen before. A total stranger! “You’re not Bonnie,” he managed to whimper. “Must be your lucky day,” she replied huskily. She rubbed her hips against him as her lips arose to meet his. “What do you need her for, anyway? I’m here now and she ain’t got nothing I ain’t got.” Lady, you don’t even come close, Credit reflected spitefully as he moved his head to the side. Bonnie sure as shit didn’t have to wear all that damn make-up. He broke free from her grasp and stepped backwards. Bonnie had the answers, he thought, while this woman had nothing but surface appeal. And then not much of that. He backed up against the ledge that divided the room, tripped and fell backwards. His head began to spin and his world darkened quickly. He found himself crawling through a converted Chevrolet Suburban. Through the rear doors and out the front, over and over again. Each time he emerged from the drivers’ door he congratulated himself for having broken the cycle, only to find himself entering the back doors once again. And even though the interior was more varied and complex than he could have dreamed possible, he felt as if he had scrutinized every last detail over and over again. Monotonous boredom. And it perturbed him that he couldn’t break the cycle. He knew that he was wasting his time. 28 Boquillas Bonnie sat back and gazed up at the Sierra del Carmen. The color and texture of the mountain changed hues gradually with the passing of the day, providing Boquillas with spectacular scenery. At sunset the unique escarpment was absolutely marvelous. She looked back at the adobe houses that were clustered about the mesa and concluded that it had to be the location of the village that gave her such a pleasant feeling. The town itself was near poverty stricken. There was little work for the men, and the women stayed mostly out of sight. Her overall impression of life there was one of hardship, boredom and depression. Pablo popped the top from a Corona and handed it to Credit. They both stretched back in their chairs and sipped on the warm beer. The veranda was a new addition, open on three sides, with ocotillo stalks comprising the roof. The design provided both shade and passage for the wind, although at the moment there wasn’t even a trace of a breeze. It was pure hot even in the shade. “When me padre mention Jason, I look for you,” Pablo said. “It’s been a long time since you come here.” “Yes, almost a year,” Credit answered. “You’re looking good. Are you doing alright?” He lied. Pablo didn’t look good at all. His face was drawn and he appeared extremely tired, as if he had aged several years in the span of one. “Ahhh.” Pablo signaled with his hand—not so good. “Summer is a hard time,” he explained. “Not many tourists.” “It’s too damn hot,” Bonnie said. “Si. Mucho caliente. Everyone goes to the mountains.” “Yes. It’s too hot on the river, now. We were even considering going to the Sierra Fronteriza,” Credit said as he motioned off to the south. “Can you arrange that?” Pablo perked up noticeably. “Si, si. I can arrange everything. I do not know those mountains myself. I always stay here. Pero El Viejo, maybe he can be your guide. He knows. Juan o Eusebio can drive you. When you want to go?” Credit shook he head. “I don’t know. We have to find Jason first. When did he come to Boquillas?” “Si. Jason come to Boquillas.” “Cuando? When?” “Oh, tres dias ago, I think. I was in Terlingua at the time, and did not see him. Are you two not together?” Pablo asked politely. “No. He drove out here before we did. Tell me, do you remember Deanna, and American woman? When you and I first met, she and her husband were with me.” “Si. I remember.” Pablo nodded his head agreeably, but he seemed suddenly wary. “Has she been here in the past few days?” Credit asked. “En Boquillas?” Pablo dropped his head and shuffled his feet. “No,” he replied slowly. “She has not been in Boquillas. Credit glanced at Bonnie to see if she also sensed a sudden reluctance in Pablo’s manner. “Hey, man!” Credit suddenly exclaimed. “I forgot to tell you! Bonnie and I are getting married this fall.” Pablo brightened considerably. He stood and gave them both a hug. “You wait here,” he grinned before rushing into the house. Within moments he returned with a bottle of Tequila, and they all took a drink. The sparkle had returned to Pablo’s eyes. He seemed much younger again, as did Credit. Bonnie marveled at her fiancé. He blended in with all people, from the richest to the poorest. No one was beneath him, no one above him. He could escort her to the finest places in New Orleans and be totally at ease, or take her to the poorest of Mexican villages and still be in perfect harmony. Crazy? No, Credit wasn’t crazy. Beginning to lose his sense of reality? That was a different matter. If it hadn’t been for her encounter with Lena in New Orleans, she would be having serious doubts. They settled back into their chairs. “We must inform Juan of the wedding,” Pablo said. “Was he down at the river crossing?” “No, Manuel was the only one I knew. Do you want to walk down with us? We need to get back and start looking for Jason. Maybe Juan is there now.” As they approached the Rio Grande, Credit pointed out a group of teen-agers. “When we came across earlier, they wanted to sell us some cocaine. What’s happening, Pablo? That’s never happened here before.” Pablo became sullen and once again looked old and burdened. “What can I say?” he asked, throwing his arms into the air. “I don’t like it. No bueno. But the tourists expect it. If not drugs, then Indio artifacts, Spanish relics, animal furs. It’s always something you want. We have no money for these things.” When they reached the river bank, the little children gathered around them and shouted across the river. “The gringos are here! Bring the boat! The gringos want to cross!” Pablo tried to shush them. “These two no are gringos,” he admonished. “The Intifada,” Credit whispered to Bonnie. She understood the allusion well, and wondered what it was that so soured the opinions of these Mexican children. Was it because of rude tourists, or the mere fact that the people north of the border had so much, while those south of the arbitrary line had so little? As the flat bottom ferry arrived, Pablo pulled Credit to the side. “That woman you mention, Deanna. I saw her in Terlingua. She mentioned going to Sierra Chino to see the Curandera. That is all I know.” He said it quickly, as if confessing a sin. Credit grasped his hand firmly. “Gracias, Pablo. Buen amigo.” “She asked me not to tell,” he explained uncomfortably. “I understand. I won’t let on.” Pablo smiled appreciably. “Gracias, gracias. You come back soon. The three of you. You have a drink with Juan and me, and I arrange for your trip to the mountains. You will come back?” “Yes. We’ll see you in a few days. Tell Juan we are sorry we missed him. You need money up front for the trip?” “No. Not now. After.” The boatmen were anxious to leave. “Thanks, Pablo.” 29 Black Dike Credit simmered with disillusionment as he stood beneath the salt cedars. The men from Qattarah had said that Jason was at Black Dike, but there was no sign that he or anyone else had recently camped there. His car had not been at any of the campgrounds, which meant that he had to be somewhere in the back country. But where? There were hundreds of miles of back roads to cover. The river road had not been in great condition, but they had made pretty good time on it. He smiled as he thought back on how he had horrified Bonnie by plowing straight through the muddy water that covered the last stretch of road. He knew from experience that it only looked deep. “We’ll pitch the tent over here,” he said as he walked toward a clearing in the trees. “Do you think it’s safe?” Bonnie asked. “Hell, no. But this is where I want to spend the night. We’ll set the tent up here, but we’ll sleep over there.” He pointed to a spot against the base of the cliff. A thick growth of vegetation hid the position from normal view. “Hopefully, if anybody comes snooping around we’ll hear them before they can see us. I’ll put up the mosquito netting so we don’t get eaten alive.” As he walked toward the pick-up to get the gear, ne noticed an owl perched on a branch of a salt cedar ten feet above the truck. Credit watched the bird observe him warily, and when he met its gaze head on, it became evident that the owl possessed keen intelligence. “Bonnie, look at this,” he excitedly whispered. “I know.” She had watched the scene unfold. As Credit continued to inch toward the truck, the owl continued to watch him without appearing to be alarmed. It then gave Bonnie a momentary glance before spreading its wings and gliding away. Credit and Bonnie scrambled from beneath the trees to observe the owl’s flight. They saw it land on a high ridge toward the northeast. It appeared very small silhouetted against the deep blue sky. “Keep your eyes on him,” Credit said as he rushed to grab the binoculars. He returned quickly and focused on the owl. “Just as I suspected,” he murmured. “That damn owl is staring right back at me. Let’s go!” “Go where?” “Follow the owl.” “Why, for Christ’s sakes!?” “You got something better to do? This is the omen we’ve been waiting for. There was an owl in my dream the other night, and now this one. I’ve got the feeling that if we pass up this opportunity, we’ll miss a vital clue about Jason’s location.” Bonnie held her questions as they trotted down the road. When they reached the base of the hillside, they stopped to catch their breath. “I’m beginning to wonder about you, Credit. Don’t you think this is pretty silly chasing an owl across the desert? I mean, he’s just going to fly off again. He’s not going to tell us anything. Hon, are you sure you’re all right?” “Yeah, I’m all right, Bun.” He knew that her concern was sincere. “But I’ll tell ya, I’m getting too old to run like this.” He was standing with his hands on his knees, breathing hard. “The Earth will always point out the path to take, but it’s up to us to pay attention and interpret the signs. Just climb to the top with me. It isn’t much farther, now.” It was a hard climb to the top. The hill was much steeper than it appeared and was crowded with strategically placed clumps of lechugilla and prickly pear. Of course, the owl was gone when they reached the top. Credit selected a rock on the point of the spur to sit upon and rest. The Sierra Ponce escarpment in Mexico dominated the view to the west. Beneath it, the Rio Grande snaked like a green ribbon against the parched badlands. Credit put the binoculars to his eyes in order to scan the immediate river valley. He soon spotted a twister whipping the river cane. “Dust devil,” he whispered as he watched it move across the river into Mexico. It appeared to possess volition of its own as it hopped up the desert steppes and then held its place above a brilliant green spot in the otherwise gray landscape. It took Credit a moment to realize that he was looking at the tops of cottonwood trees hidden behind a ridge. The presence of the trees indicated standing water at that location. “Let me see,” Bonnie squirmed. He took note that the spring was across the river from the Sierra Chino campsite, and then handed over the binoculars to Bonnie. “Dust devil still there?” “Yes,” she said, absorbed by the sight. “The deep green splotch near it is the tops of cottonwood trees. There’s a spring there and probably houses nearby. Maybe that’s where Jason’s at,” he suggested. “Pure speculation. More like the Curandera’s place. Hey! It’s gone! It just fizzled out. Disappeared.” He took the binoculars and studied the area. Nothing but badlands. If there was a house nearby, it was hidden from view. He scanned up and down the river once again. “Let’s go,” he said as he stood up. “I’m hungry.” “So, what are you planning to do?” Bonnie asked as they sat around the campfire after supper. “Shouldn’t we notify the Park Rangers or DEA or someone?” “We don’t know for sure that anything has happened. You’ve been really kind to me by going along with all this, but the Rangers or DEA would laugh themselves silly. We don’t have any evidence that anything has happened to either Jason or Deanna. Only a stupid dream, and I’m not sure I can rely on that.” “You moved the picnic table.” “Did I?” “Well, at least you confirmed that drug running is going on, and that Deanna’s out here somewhere. And as much as I hate to admit it, Jason is probably right where that little twister thing pointed out. I trust the way you read the Earth, Credit. And I trust your dreams, even if you don’t.” Credit smiled. “I sure am glad you’re with me. I appreciate your confidence more than you think. I only hope that Jason’s all right, wherever he is.” A donkey brayed in the distance while javelina moved and snorted through the underbrush of the flood plain. The fire was almost out. “You never did answer me,” Bonnie said with a yawn. “What’s your master plan, Mister Lews?” “I don’t know, Mrs. Lews. I guess we’ll go to Sierra Chino tomorrow and try to find the Curandera. It’s funny that no one could tell us exactly where she lived.” “I know! Everybody knew, but nobody knew for sure. Strange.” “You ready for bed? You look awfully tired.” “I think so. It’s been a long day. Are you coming?” “No. I’m gonna sit up and watch for a while. Make sure that nothings stirring.” Bonnie was only slightly disappointed. She had hoped to snuggle, but was really too tired to argue. Besides, she felt safer knowing that Credit was keeping guard. Credit helped her into the mosquito netting and then climbed the cliff above them. Finding a comfortable place to sit, he leaned back and gazed up at the Milky Way, grateful for the time alone. It was becoming harder to keep up an optimistic front for Bonnie. His last dream had been an exercise in futility, and even though he liked to hoot about following the signs of the Earth, he had to admit that he didn’t have the slightest clue about what he was doing. He could only rely on luck. 30 Flipside He took note of the rustling of the leaves as he crawled along on his hands and knees. Curious, he sat up on his haunches and looked around. In every direction there was nothing but river cane, thick and green, as far as the eye could see— which wasn’t very far. A sudden, claustrophobic surge made him wonder what he was doing there in the middle of the cane break. While he felt certain that he had been searching for something, he had no recollection of what that something could have been. Baffled by his loss of memory, he shrewdly theorized that he could be dreaming. If so, he knew that he would be able to divide his awareness and observe himself in his dream. He would be able to rise above the cane to determine his location. Perhaps then he could remember his purpose in being there. He gazed straight up. Even though the cane was unusually tall and leafy, he seemed very close to the top of it, which puzzled him. Even if he had been standing, the cane should have been far over his head. As he wondered how he had obtained such a perspective, he suddenly realized that he was gazing across the top of the cane patch. He was floating in the air! As he continued to rise higher, he noted the dike across the river and remembered that he was at Black Dike. He was dreaming of his waking world! As he continued to rise, he glanced upriver. Even though it was night time, he could see clearly the rich, green cane breaks that dotted the bends of the Rio Grande. A chrome or metallic reflection from the moon’s light emanated from one of the breaks on the American side of the river. He immediately understood the implications. Jason’s car had been temporarily hidden until the river receded and could once again be crossed. Credit felt a ticklish, pulling sensation in his mid-section, and when he looked downward, he was surprised by the distance he had risen. Black Dike looked very small, and other prominent features in the landscape grabbed his attention. He could pick out a spring in Mexico with a small hut nearby, while up the drainage and across the steppes was a cluster of adobe buildings sitting below the steep rise of the Sierra Ponce. He was also struck by another oddity. While he was looking earthward he noticed that his arms and legs were dangling below him. He was in the air bodily, and yet at the same time he was also still sitting in the cane break! The sensation in his stomach crept to the bottom of his ribcage. Feeling that it was time to return to the ground, he instinctively concentrated on the cluster of buildings below the Sierra Ponce. Three of the main houses formed a triangle, and the ground between them appeared to glow. A bright splotch near one of the buildings especially attracted his interest. His perception magnified as he zoomed in on it. He found himself viewing the scene as if he was floating ten feet above the ground in the middle of the three houses, although his field of vision had narrowed to take in only the house in front of him and the bright aura that was his initial attraction. He saw that the aura was actually a man sleeping in a chair, snoring loudly. A rifle lay across his lap. Credit felt a clear foreboding as to what the man was guarding. Credit was suddenly surprised by the creaking sound of a door being opened. He remembered that the house to his left had had a light glowing within it, but when he attempted to look he was unable to turn his head. His tunnel vision was stuck on the house in front of him. He immediately understood that if he wanted to see who was stepping out of the door, he would have to turn his entire body. However, before he could attempt the maneuver, he was struck by another odd sensation. He was actually experiencing two totally different perceptions! At the same time that the door was opening, he was also back in the cane break, and something there was approaching him in a menacing fashion, thrashing and beating down stalks. Instinctively, he knew that the choice was his to make. Feeling more threatened in the cane, he decided that his undivided attention was most needed there. He found himself stumbling head first through the reeds, one step ahead of the approaching terror, until he was rudely blocked by a sheer rock wall. Cornered and frightened, he scrambled straight upward until he reached a narrow ledge. Breathing hard, he looked down and noticed cattle grazing along the river and in the cane break. He also noted that the ledge gave way on either side of him, which meant that there was no way to go but up. He passed through a pervasive purple mist on his way to the next ledge, which was long and wide and covered with hardwood and cedar trees. That fact struck him as being odd. When he gazed back at the ground, he saw that the cane break was gone. A shallow, clear stream gurgled below him while a lesser canyon wall rimmed the opposite shore. Concluding that he was no longer in the Big Bend, he decided to climb to the top of the ridge with the hope of discerning his new location. When he turned to face the Cliffside he noticed well worn foot holes in the rock. The entire wall was a well traveled path, and he commenced his climb to the next level. After four more tiresome levels, he finally pulled himself over the top edge. “Damn!” he railed as he looked around. He had expected to find a natural wilderness. What greeted him was a paved parking lot. He felt disgusted. But what disgruntled him even more was his reaction. It was entirely out of proportion to what it should have been. There was another factor that was adding fuel to his intense anger. It was a feeling that he couldn’t shake, that he had somehow crossed over to Tunu when he should have been trying to locate Jason. He turned irritably from the ledge. “Get in, dummy!” It was his helper. Without looking at her face, he opened the door of the 1968 Ford station wagon and sat down. She drove off. “You blew it,” she told him casually. “You realize that, don’t you?” “I have a feeling that I should be somewhere else,” he admitted as he stared out the passenger door window. He felt incredibly stupid and embarrassed. “You should be back where you came from. The choice was yours to make and you blew it.” Her words triggered his full memory. He had had the choice of merging his full awareness at the adobe houses or at the cane break, and he chose the cane break. In all probability, Jason and Deanna were in one of those houses below the Sierra Ponce. Damn! The woman began speaking as if she could read his thoughts. “If you would have chosen to see the person coming out of the house, your full attention would have focused there, and your perception of being in danger in the reeds would have vanished. No longer would you have been there.” Kindly, she added, “There’s a boy and a woman who need you at that house, Credit. That is where you belong.” “How do you know all this?” he asked. “I read your memories from your aura.” “Can you take me back there?” “No. You have squandered too much energy. You would be too weak and confused now to help them. I am doing what I can to help you.” “Is any of this real?” he asked out of frustration. She let out a robust laugh. “How can you doubt it? It’s what you experience, isn’t it?” When he made no reply, she giggled softly. “I know the confusion you face, but now is not the time to think about it. The moment will arrive when it will all become clear.” “But how can I put my trust in this kind of information? People from my waking world constantly appear on Tunu. Are they real or are they phantoms? Are you real?” he asked pointedly. The woman breathed a sigh as she shook her head. “You’re going to persist in this, aren’t you?” “I need to know.” She stared at him. In all this time he had yet to glance her way. “You have not yet reached the point where my explanations will make sense, but I guess I’ll have to try. “Of course I’m real. And anyone in Tunu will tell you that this world is real. And Bonnie or anyone in your waking world will tell you that the Earth is real. You can agree with that alright. Your trouble is that you seek corroboration between the worlds, and that is hard to find. “As for people from your waking world appearing in Tunu, anyone you have ever known or paid attention to is retained by you in your aura. Or perhaps I should say, in your memory. The people you randomly see here are either beckoned by you or by fate. They are phantoms, as you say, because they are your reflection, but you must treat them as if they are real. The knowledge they impart can be beneficial. You must pay attention to everything. Whatever you experience is real for you.” “I’ve always felt different from other people. Now I feel like a freak. Am I walking the right road?” “You amaze me. You refute all authority, and yet you persist in looking for a map to show you the way. Tell me, would you recognize such a map if you saw it? And would you accept it if you recognized it?” Credit remained silent. “The fact is, you are not an aberration,” she said in consolation. “There is ample precedent for the things that you do, only it has been centuries since it was common practice. People of the present generation see nothing but the physical world, and from that they seek profit. They see no profit in developing awareness. “You, on the other hand, seek knowledge, and so you are rewarded with knowledge. If you remain on your present course, the mysteries you unravel will be limitless. “We are nearing our destination now. We have wasted enough time talking. There is someone I want you to meet.” She turned the car from the main highway onto a rough, unpaved lane. Credit rolled down the window and hung his head outside. It was an unusually warm autumn day and the sunlight played in the red and yellow leaves of the thick roadside vegetation. The presence of a large body of water was evident from the smell in the air. When the road split they took the fork to the left. A row of cottages lined the right side of the lane across from an empty field. He surmised their destination when he saw a statue of an owl in a front yard. Sure enough, the woman pulled into the driveway there and turned off the engine. He automatically stepped out of the car and approached the front door. An old woman stepped out onto the porch. Expecting to be introduced, he turned to see if his helper was following. But she was gone, car and all, and he suddenly felt very self-conscious. He looked in the front yard for the statue of the owl, intending to use it as an opening to his conversation, and found that it, too, was gone. Sheepishly, he looked at the lady and smiled. She seemed a kindly old woman, with sparkling eyes that brimmed with life. He felt very comfortable with her and his nervousness evaporated. “It is an honor to finally meet you, senor Lews. My name is Teresa.” Credit nodded a silent greeting. Her youthful voice belied her appearance. “You don’t mind if I sit, do you? An old woman’s bones grow tired quickly in a world such as this,” she explained as she sat down on the steps. “I’ve heard much about you from your friend here. You are a clever man, senor Lews, but there is still much that you do not understand. Perhaps there are ways an old woman can help. At the very least, you must bring you fiancée to meet me tomorrow. My boat will be there for your crossing.” Somewhat baffled, Credit hesitated. He wasn’t exactly sure what the old woman was talking about, and certainly didn’t want to make any promises. Even if it were possible to get Bonnie to Tunu, he knew that tomorrow would not be a good time to take her visiting. Teresa studied his expressions. “This is not where I live,” she explained. “Your friend fetched me here. This is not even my world. “I am known as the Curandera, and live near the Sierra Chino in Mexico. I am well aware of the plight of your son and our mutual friend, Deanna. They are both in grave danger. I hope we can help them.” “Do we have time?” Teresa dropped her gaze. “I can assure you of only one thing; as of this moment they are still alive.” “But it’s so far from here!” he exclaimed in agitation. “Do you know how to get there? Can you take me?” It was the Curandera’s turn to act bewildered. She seemed stunned by his questions. “Of course I can take you there,” she responded. “Just wake up.” Wake up? Why of course! It was his turn to be stunned. It was just too damned easy to get caught up in the flow of events on Tunu. He had forgotten that he was, in reality, asleep at Black Dike, only a few miles from the Sierra Chino. “Wake up, Credit!” Just wake up. 31 Sierra Chino She became alert the instant she awoke. “Credit, wake up!” she whispered nervously. “Somebody’s in camp.” He opened his eyes. “Something’s moving around out there,” she said. Credit listened carefully to the sounds. He determined that whatever was out there, there was certainly more than one. And then it dawned on him. He crawled out of the mosquito netting and chased off the cows. Bonnie followed behind, stomping her feet and yelling, “Get, get!” “So, what’s on the agenda for today, boss?” she asked after the campsite was clear. “It’s liable to be a long day,” he yawned. “The first thing is to get some food. Eggs sound good?” “Sure. But then what?” “Then we take down camp.” Hoping to build suspense, he paused and smiled at her mysteriously. “You ready for this?” She shrugged her shoulders. “Jason and Deanna are near here. Over in Mexico. Their cars are hidden in a cane break a mile or two up the river. We could go there and confirm it if you want, but we might run into somebody, and I’d rather not give ourselves away if we don’t have to. “Instead, we’ll drive on down to Sierra Chino like we planned. There’s a house on the other side of the river near the spring. As you surmised, it’s the home of the Curandera, Teresa. She’s expecting us.” Bonnie was surprised. Yesterday, Credit had been so sullen and despondent. Today he was brimming with confidence. “What did you dream last night?” “Quite a bit actually. I didn’t see Jason or Deanna, but I’m most certain that I know where they are. I was actually there, and may have been able to do something, but I blew it. I still have a hard time accepting that I can affect reality with my dreams. “Let’s fry up those eggs and get out of here. It’s already getting damn hot out.” He recounted his dream as they packed up the tent and ate. By the time they reached the Sierra Chino campsite, Bonnie’s stomach was awash in butterflies. There were several openings in the cane break lining the Rio Grande. Credit chose to go to the one furthest upriver, and there they discovered a flat-bottom boat tied to the bank. “Get in,” he ordered as he untied the rope. Bonnie hesitated. “Are you sure we should be doing this? This boat must belong to somebody.” “This boat is here for us,” he assured her. “I told you, we’re expected.” After crossing the river they located the trail that led from the floodplain into the dry desert. It was a little over two miles to the spring, which was a welcome sight upon arrival. Four very tall cottonwoods grew near the water, and their shade was well appreciated. The spring itself was one of the better sources in the area. It poured vigorously out of the cliff rock and pooled in several places along the drainage. Shoreline and aquatic vegetation was thick, and the water flowed clear. Best of all, it was cool and had a very good taste. “Where’s the Curandera’s house?” Credit pointed down the wash. “A trail goes around the base of the bluff to the right. Her house is maybe two spurs over. It’s not far, really.” “And where is Jason?” “I’m not positive,” he admitted. “But if I follow this arroyo for two or three miles, it should lead me real close to the place.” “You mean if ‘we’ follow the arroyo.” “No, I mean me. You’re staying with Teresa. She’s expecting you.” Bonnie protested and pouted. “I won’t be gone long,” he promised, trying his best to soothe her. “I’m just going to scout things out. If I can do something, I will. If I can’t, I’ll come back here and we’ll notify the authorities or something. OK?” An owl swooped low overhead. Credit took that as his cue to leave. He gave Bonnie a quick peck on the cheek. “If I ain’t back by noon tomorrow, notify the Park Rangers. But don’t follow me. Please? I don’t want to have to worry about you, too. I won’t be gone long.” Before she could make any further protest, Credit swiftly climbed the cliff next to the spring and was gone. She stomped her foot angrily. “Damn that son-of-a-bitch!” she wailed. 32 Prisoners The squeamish sensation penetrated his dream as he neared consciousness, and for the third morning in a row he awoke with a start. He tossed aside the blanket and hopped up from the floor, rubbing his body feverishly. He absolutely hated to have insects crawling on him as he slept. He had a phobia about it. It was just his luck to be trapped in cockroach heaven. Yesterday, they had even found a scorpion. Once free from his torment, he shuffled over to Deanna and lightly brushed the roaches from her face and arm. She rolled over groggily and opened her eyes. “Sorry,” he whispered. “I can’t stand to see roaches crawling on anyone.” Deanna stood promptly; stamping her feet and flapping her blouse and slacks. Finally confident that she was alone in her clothes, she leaned against the wall and watched Jason as he moved about the room and stretched. There wasn’t a single piece of furniture in the make-shift prison. They had been given only a blanket to sleep upon. “You’re looking much better this morning. Your bruises are beginning to fade,” she observed. “I feel a bit better physically. I’m not as sore as I was.” “I’m really glad they didn’t shoot you. I was afraid they had.” “You and me both,” he said, trying to remain upbeat. He reflected upon their condition as he continued to exercise. All things considered, they had been treated quite humanely. Although they both could do with a bath, they had been adequately fed, with no further physical abuse. Yet their fate remained uncertain. Their captors seemed to be waiting upon the ringleader, a man called El Mano. In the meantime, the man in charge was a hothead called Enrique. He had a hardened, hateful look; was ill-tempered and unpredictable. He obviously hated Americans more than anything else in life, which was frightening. If it had not been for Romo, the calming influence of the group, there would be no telling what might have already happened. Deanna slumped down in the corner. Her eyes were watery. “I really am sorry about all of this. It’s all my fault,” she blubbered. Jason stared out the window. The morning sun had topped the mesquite trees and was shining brightly into the room. The air was already beginning to heat up. By noon it would be unbearable. “It’s not your fault,” he replied as he stared down at her sadly. They had been through this conversation before. She was deliberately whipping herself with guilt. “This is just the way things turned out,” he consoled. “There was nothing you could have done to prevent it. Dad would call it fate. He really believes in that shit. Who knows, maybe he’s right. Anyway, you shouldn’t feel bad. What happened, happened.” He crossed the room and sat down beside her. “Dad’ll be here soon. He’ll get us out of this mess.” He wasn’t expecting his father to arrive in the Big Bend for several more days, yet it was all that he had left to pin his hopes on. “I hope you’re right,” Deanna said. She was aware that her tone betrayed her defeat. She knew that she should remain strong for Jason. He was still such a young boy. How could she tell him that it didn’t matter whether Credit came or not? There was no way for him to know where they were, and it would be too late by the time he arrived anyway. “I imagine he’ll think this is pretty ironic when he gets here.” Jason continued. “You know, he thought he had seen you in New Orleans a week or so ago. You didn’t go there, did you?” “No. What was he doing in New Orleans?” “I think he went there to propose to Bonnie. They’re planning to get married this fall.” “Oh.” More distressing news, she thought. “Mark thought that you and dad had run off together.” “It was never like that between us,” Deanna replied. “We became really close when we stayed with him for those few months while our house was being built. Credit and I were in sync for a spell, and I guess Mark became jealous.” A creaking door interrupted her account. They watched passively as the guard stepped into the room. “Buenas dias!” he shouted with a toothless grin. The man eyed the room purposefully until he spotted a huge black cockroach on the wall. With surprising speed, he snatched the insect with his hand and popped it into his mouth, chewing his crunchy snack with relish, knowing full well that it turned the stomachs of his captives. He loved to watch their expressions. Americans were so soft and antiseptic. Jason and Deanna had seen it before. It had become a morning routine. The man was mad as a hatter, with an IQ the size of the bug he had just eaten. Yet, he had not intimidated them in any manner. They did not feel threatened or menaced by him as they did from the others. Still, they had little doubt that he would shoot them if they tried to escape. Because of his mental handicap the smugglers took good care of him, and he was fiercely loyal in return. He took his job seriously. Night and day he sat guard outside their unlocked door. “Buenas dias,” they uttered in unison. The man wiped his mouth with the back of his hand as he grinned broadly. “Bueno! Frankie muy hungry.” He glared at them for a moment longer and then withdrew from the room, laughing impishly as he closed the door behind him. Around ten o’clock in the morning a short but heavyset Mexican woman brought beans and tortillas, their sole diet for the past three days. She and Frankie stooped in the corner and glared silently at them as they ate, although the woman would avoid eye contact whenever they looked her way. She had a sad look, tired and defeated. When they finished their meal, the woman gathered the pots and plates and left with Frankie. As the afternoon wore on, they figured that the episode would be repeated, as it had been the past two days. But today was different. It was Enrique who brought them their dinner after siesta. He set down the pot of food and then hovered over them ominously, purposefully making them nervous. He was obviously enjoying it. His attention was especially locked on Deanna. “El Mano returns tonight,” he informed them when they finished their burritos. “Tomorrow we leave for the interior.” Jason and Deanna listened attentively. “Roma suggested that we release both of you, since there will be nothing you can do when we are gone. We do not plan on using this crossing point again.” He stepped menacingly in front of Deanna, placed his hand under her chin, and lifted her gaze to meet his. “But you are such a pretty gringo woman; I believe I will take you with me.” A look of terror crossed her face and she jerked her head away. Enrique slapped her hard. Enraged, Jason jumped at the man. With an almost effortless motion, Enrique flung him violently against the wall, and Jason slumped to the floor in pain. “A very brave act, a very stupid act!” Enrique shouted venomously. “Try that again, little one, and you will have a very short life.” He returned his attention to Deanna by crudely fondling her breasts while she cringed in the corner. “El Mano will give you to ME, gringo bitch. And if you don’t please me, I will give you to my men. A cow! If you don’t want that to happen, pretty woman, I suggest you treat me with enthusiasm, yes?” Deanna wept silently. “All gringo women are whores. It will be a treat for you to finally have a real man. Un macho!” He was about to rip open her blouse when voices from the outside interrupted him. He turned to listen. One of his men shouted and Enrique stiffened. “One sound from either of you,” he warned sharply, “and you’re both dead! Comprende?” When he moved towards the door, Jason and Deanna glanced at each other with a flicker of hope. Had that really been Credit’s voice they just heard? 33 Bonnie Alone and deserted, Bonnie dropped to the ground, exasperated. Tears began to fill her eyes as the realities set in. How could he leave me all alone in the middle of nowhere? She demanded silently. Just dumped me off! How the hell could he do that to me? Expects me to walk right up to a total stranger and introduce myself! “Hi,” she uttered sarcastically. “I’m here! Can I come in and make myself at home? Damn him!” She pounded the ground with her fist. The abundance of flies and insects that were buzzing the spring began to irritate her. As she flailed away at the air with her arms, she became aware of a new presence. She looked down the wash and discovered an old woman rounding the bend, approaching hurriedly. She was out of breath by the time she arrived. “I was afraid of this,” she muttered after casting quick glances around the spring. “But I figured as much. He’s gone off by himself, hasn’t he? He didn’t want to have to worry about you, so he left you here to worry about him.” Bonnie nodded her head affirmatively. How did she know? She wondered. “I wish it didn’t have to be this way,” the old woman whispered, as if to herself. And then she looked at Bonnie with a pleasant grin. “Men are such morons, such stubborn creatures. At least he had sense enough to bring you here. My name is Teresa,” she said as she held out her hand. “I am very pleased to make your acquaintance.” “Bonnie.” “Well, he has left you with nothing to do now but wait. You are more than welcome to spend as much time with me as it takes. It will be a pleasant change to have someone to talk with. You will accept my invitation, won’t you?” Although her anger at Credit had cooled considerably, Bonnie still wasn’t quite sure what to make of Teresa. The old woman seemed very well informed and genuinely concerned, and more than a little mysterious. Still, Bonnie knew she had very few options left open to her. “Thank-you. I’d like that very much,” she replied. A thick grove of mesquite trees flanked the trail to the house, and Bonnie couldn’t help but notice the owl that twice swooped down near them. “Credit and I saw an owl yesterday,” she commented. “The same owl,” Teresa replied. “I call him Lucheza. He is my friend. Sometimes he talks to me. Sometimes he warns me of danger.” The Curandera’s house was situated against the hillside, half dug-out, half adobe. A veranda ran the length of the front wall. “Come into the kitchen,” Teresa said as she led Bonnie into the house. It was very neat and clean and surprisingly well lit. “I will teach you how to make a proper tortilla. You can surprise Credit. A way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, you know.” She glanced at Bonnie and then frowned. “You smile and think that I joke, but it is still a valid premise, even in these times.” “Have you known Credit for very long, Teresa?” The Curandera stopped kneading her dough as she formulated a reply. “We have never really met,” she said, “but I have known of him for many years now. He has made many friends in this area. The people speak highly of him. I also know Deanna fairly well, and she has also mentioned him.” She studied Bonnie more closely. “The first time I met Credit was this morning,” she confessed. “A friend of his snatched me from my own ambiguous dream and took me into his. It was very difficult for me to maintain my focus there. That is not my direction. I am a healer, and his dream drained my strength. Otherwise, I would have been on time to greet you both at the spring when you arrived.” “What was his dream like? Was it scary?” “I was taken to a world much like this world, although we were not in the desert. It was very green. I think we were at a cottage on the edge of a lake, although I did not see the water. The humidity was very high, almost unbearable. “His friend, an Indian woman, informed me of the abduction of Deanna and Jason. Although I was aware of the incident, I did not know the names of those involved. At first, his friend thought that Credit might succeed without our help, but then he faltered and she went to fetch him. When we finally met, he appeared tired and confused by the whole episode. His friend says he has been struck by the wanderlust.” “He IS the wanderlust!” Teresa smiled. “Perhaps so. Dreams are influenced by what one does in everyday life. Credit is not an evil or a violent man. If that were true, he never would have uncovered the secrets that he has. His dreams are not terrifying. Surely he has told you about them.” “Yes, of course.” “But you have never been in them?” “No. Is his friend pretty? He tells me that he has never seen her face.” “Yes, she is.” Teresa smiled. A chuckle was in her eyes. “You make a very good tortilla,” the old lady added, changing the subject. “You have a knack for it. Would you like to sit on the veranda and sip some tea?” “That would be nice.” “I spoke harshly of Credit earlier,” Teresa apologized as they settled into their chairs. “Men are stubborn creatures for sure, but he is a very smart man. He sees what every person has the opportunity to see, and yet very few make the effort or take the time to do so. He must be very close to the Earth, very much in touch with the world and able to sense the rhythms. He has done much to solve the mysteries of awareness.” She paused and wrinkled her brow with mock worry. “His friend in Tunu says that he is only at the beginning, like a baby learning to walk. That is what she worries about.” “Well, I’m worried that he’s going to get himself killed,” Bonnie admitted. “He can’t make a decision to save his life, and then he goes and does something like this.” Teresa sipped her tea thoughtfully. “His son is a prisoner, and that gives him strong motivation,” she said. “Perhaps it will be enough to pull him through.” “I hope so. I know the important thing is to get Jason and Deanna away from the smugglers. That’s what matters most, whether it’s tonight or tomorrow, as long as it takes, just so they all come back safely. I just can’t help but worry.” The Curandera took her hand comfortingly and stared deeply into her eyes. As she took in Bonnie’s hopes and fears, the fog in her visions lifted, and Teresa saw clearly. “I don’t mean to pry, dear, but I sense indecision and conflict smoldering beneath your petty concerns; your jealousy over Deanna and the fact that you have never appeared in Credits dreams. Would you like to talk about what’s really bothering you?” Bonnie was surprised by the bluntness of Teresa’s assessment, and by the fact that she was not able to hide her secret from the old woman. It was a struggle that had been uppermost in her mind for the past two days. She knew that she was acting as indecisively as Credit. “I’m sorry,” she replied coolly. “But conditions have been set, and I’m not allowed to talk about it.” Teresa nodded her head in acceptance. “Let’s get something to eat,” she offered. “It’s hell waiting on a man. Perhaps that’s one reason I never got married.” Dinner was a simple meal of rabbit stew and tortillas. After washing the dishes, they walked to the spring for water. It was late in the evening and the day was beginning to cool. Upon returning to the house, Bonnie sat out on the veranda. Teresa joined her as the first stars lit the night sky. “Credit won’t be back tonight,” Bonnie murmured. She could feel it in her bones. “If he’s not back by noon tomorrow, I’ll have to cross the river and notify the Park Rangers. Do you think you could go with me?” “It’s not necessary to go anywhere,” Teresa assured. “I have a CB radio. Mexico is not the end of the end of the Earth, dear. Even I have use for technology, outdated as it may be.” “You’re pretty wonderful,” Bonnie replied with a smile, her first in quite some time. “I hope we get a chance to spend some time together when this is all over with.” “It may be that you could help speed things up,” Teresa challenged. She watched perceptively as Bonnie once again grew agitated and withdrawn. At that moment the owl fluttered noisily in the air, turning their attention. As the woman stared at the silhouette of the flapping, spread-winged bird, they noticed a shooting star. They watched breathlessly as it fell halfway down the sky and then exploded into a ball of light, like a star going nova. It momentarily shattered the darkness. “Wow,” Bonnie whispered, at ease with herself at last. The struggle within her had dissipated witin a moment. She had received her omen, and was now certain that the time was right. “Would it be all right if I laid down now?” Bonnie asked. “I’m really rather tired.” “Of course, dear. Let me show you your room.” Teresa lit a candle and then led Bonnie to a small room that was spotlessly clean. The furniture was limited to a set of dresser drawers and a simple wooden bed with a down filled cushion for a mattress. The Spartan nature of the room reminded her of Credit. Teresa began to speak as she turned down the bedspread and fluffed the pillow. “I was taken into Credit’s dream so that he could corroborate the reality of his dream world. I believe that you are also capable of doing that. You can be the catalyst that gets him over the hump, the difference between success and failure. But your purpose must be pure, your intentions absolutely clear.” Bonnie stiffened. She had not thought that far ahead. “How can I help him?” she asked. “In all probability, you will find him in his dream world, Tunu. Your task is to remind him of Jason and Deanna. In order for you both to get back here in your dream, you must climb the hill. Remember that. You must climb the hill to get here. Credit will take care of the rest. You must allow him to guide you after that. He knows the pitfalls to avoid.” Bonnie hugged Teresa in gratitude. “I don’t know what I’d do without you,” she said. “Sweet dreams, dear. Credit found a good woman when he found you. Maybe one day Deanna will learn what comes naturally to you.” Teresa closed the door when she left and Bonnie sat down on the edge of the bed. She reached into her purse and took out a vial of powder, the engagement present she had received from Lena in New Orleans. As she had done numerous times before, she tapped on the side of the glass jar with her finger and then examined the contents closely. She opened it and smelled the fragrance. Forgive me Credit, she prayed. I never meant to intrude into your private dreams, but it is the only way I know to help. She emptied the contents into a cup of water and without further hesitation, drank it down. As she lay back on the bed, one sentence ran over and over again in her thoughts: “Jason’s in trouble; we must climb the hill.” 34 Captured He hustled along the shallow, dry wash above the spring. Because there was nothing but sparse desert shrubbery to shield him from view, he felt nervous and vulnerable. More than that, the blistering desert heat was quickly draining his strength, and he realized that he would have to slow his pace. When he reached the canyon entrance he located a shady spot and sat down to rest. He watched carefully to make sure that Bonnie wasn’t following. He hated leaving her the way he had, but he knew it was the best thing for both of them. She would be safe with the Curandera, and he would have one less head to worry about. Undoubtedly, she had ranted and raved, but he couldn’t risk exposing her to danger, especially since he didn’t have the slightest idea about what he was planning to do. He sipped on his water and wondered if she had yet met up with the Curandera. He had the strangest feeling that the owl was the old woman’s eyes; that she would be close behind. Hell, the owl may even be the Curandera herself! He had certainly encountered stranger things lately. In any event, he was relieved that he had avoided the old woman. He had been afraid that when she and Bonnie got together they would have attempted to talk him out of his present escapade. They would have sensed his lack of focus and urged him to attempt a rescue in his dreams. But he knew that he had to act while awake. Although his last dream had been helpful, there was no telling what his next dream would bring. No certainty whatsoever. And there was no time to wait. The situation demanded immediate action. Feeling somewhat refreshed, and pleasantly surprised that Bonnie wasn’t following, he turned up the rocky canyon floor. He knew there would be three branching chasms to his right. The first was inconsequential. The second led to the road that passed through the cluster of houses, and the third led directly to one of the houses. There were still several miles to go, maybe more, since the canyon bottom was twisted severely. Erosion had done its job well. He passed the first two canyons and turned up the third. Halfway up the narrowing drainage, he came into view of the house, and he stopped to listen. He could hear several voices. While they were nothing more than incoherent mumblings, it managed to snap him back to reality. He needed to gather his wits about him. Up until then he had envisioned himself sneaking in under cover of some inspired diversion and simply freeing Jason and Deanna, neat as shit. The problem was, he wasn’t James Bond. He could think of no diversion. He retraced his steps and took the second branching chasm nearly to the road, where he found a comfortable perch in the shade from which to sit and observe. The compound was several hundred feet away, but open terrain between them left him with a clear view of the three whitewashed adobes. Behind them a thick growth of mesquite and willow clustered about a windmill. Goats wandered about the yard. As expected, a guard sat outside the middle building. Credit watched the man drink periodically from a bottle and swat at flies. Once, he moved his chair to a better place in the shade. Other than that there was very little activity. Judging by the position of the sun, he figured it to be four o’clock, maybe later, and he realized that he had damn near wasted the entire afternoon with nothing to show for it. As he continued to chide his own paralysis, he noticed two men emerge from the house on the left. One of them carried a basket and a pot of food. He entered the middle hut while the other man and the guard stood outside and talked. In all probability, Credit thought, Jason and Deanna were being held captive in that hut, and there he was sitting on his ass in the shade, dawdling and thinking up excuses for his inaction. When the two men turned their backs, he hopped out of the ravine and scooted over to the road. He wasn’t Indiana Jones, but he sure as shit could walk into town like Dr. Who. He had to trust his luck. His approach went unnoticed until he neared the compound. “Buenas tardes!” he shouted amicably. The two men greeted him with low rumblings. Not exactly a friendly gesture, Credit noted as he continued his approach. “Habla usted las Ingles?” he inquired. The guard was toothless, with a distorted face that made him appear to be autistic, although Credit knew that looks could be deceiving. The other man appeared hard and humorless, but intelligent. This man called out the name “Enrique” before introducing himself. “Me llamo es Romo,” he said as he offered his hand. The man who had entered the hut with the food stepped outside. “Frankie!” he barked as he made a motion with his head. Obediently, the autistic looking man picked up the rifle leaning against the wall and prepared to enter the hut. Enrique whispered orders into his ear, slapped him on the back good naturedly, and then strode towards Credit with a wide smile on his face. “My name is Enrique. How may I help you?” he asked, extending his hand. “Did you run out of water on your hike?” Credit smiled as he shook Enriques hand. “El gusto es mio. Me llamo es Credit.” “And what can we do for you, Credit?” “I am afraid that I have lost two of my friends, and was hoping that one of you may have seen them. One is a young boy, viente, blonde hair, tall, lanky. The other is a woman, trienta or so, Americano, very pretty.” Enrique’s eyes blazed for an instant. Romo shuffled his feet. Credit felt absolutely certain that Jason and Deanna were behind the door in front of him. He felt just as certain that he had stepped out of his league. These men were serious. “We have seen no one,” Enrique said with finality, as if that statement would put an end to the entire conversation. But after a short pause, his mood lightened perceptibly, and he added in a polite tone, “They are probably on your side of the river, in the Park, hiking. Why would they come here? There is nothing in Mexico.” “I found their cars on the other side of the river,” Credit admitted. “They were hidden in the cane, camouflaged. There was not sign of their camp anywhere.” “And what makes you think they have come here?” “I thought that there might have been trouble, or a misunderstanding. I feared that they may have offended the local people in some manner.” “And you accuse us?” “I accuse no one,” Credit evaded. The conversation was not proceeding as he had hoped. “I simply crossed the river and followed the road. If none of you have seen them, I’ll go on my way. There are more houses down the road, are there not?” The question enraged Enrique. “I told you,” he said, pausing to let his temper simmer. “They are not here. They are not in Mexico! There is no place here for gringos.” Two more men approached. The four Mexicans gathered off to the side and argued in subdued whispers. Credit kicked himself for having never learned fluent Spanish. They were speaking so fast that he couldn’t pick out a word, but he still didn’t like the tone. Counting the guard inside the house, the odds were at least five to one, and he concluded that it would be best to simply leave. It was insane of him to have relied on pure luck to rescue Jason and De. “Enrique!” he shouted. “Gracias! I will go look for Jason and Deanna elsewhere. Adios!” He began to walk away at a brisk pace. “Stop!” Enrique demanded sharply. Credit turned around and was surrounded by the Mexicans. “Before you go, I just want to tell you what a pushy, condescending gringo bastard you are!” Enrique spat. “What do you say to that?” Before he could utter a reply, Credit saw that Enrique was about to strike. He moved quickly to dodge the blow, but a sharp force smashed the back of his head. He dropped to his knees in biting pain, and then fell forward into the dirt, barely aware of the situation. He heard voices speaking excitedly in Spanish. He was lifted by his armpits and dragged across the ground. It seemed to last forever. At last they dropped him on his face. Someone kicked him in his gut while his hands were being tied behind his back. For a long while he lay motionless in the sun, struggling to remain awake. His forehead throbbed and the back of his head stung bitterly. It took all of his effort just to remain lucid. It was nearly dusk when he finally regained enough strength to sit up. His hands were bound tightly behind his back, and he was attached to the fence by a five foot length of cord. His situation did not look promising. He heard a vehicle rumbling down the road from the interior. It kicked up a cloud of dust as it passed, and then stopped at the compound. Within minutes he heard people approaching. A man dressed in a finely tailored suit stopped at the far end of the corral, flanked by Enrique and Romo. They stared silently at him for a brief moment and then turned and walked away. Due to his physical condition, trying to keep his eyes open any longer had become a losing proposition. With the fading of twilight, Credit finally surrendered to sleep. 35 Flipside A grin spread across his face as he came to a stop in the driveway. He stepped out of the car and shut the door. “It’s about time you go back!” Credit said. “How’d it go, man?” Rob stood in the front yard watering the grass. “All right,” he answered. “Pretty good. In fact, pretty damn good.” “But the lawn doesn’t look so good, does it? I guess I should have come over to water it while you were gone. You just get back?” “Last night. I figured I’d need a bush hog to cut the damn thing. Instead,” he shrugged his shoulders, “I get burn city.” The entire lawn was a crisp, uniform, golden brown. “I came across the river on the way…” “Any water?” Rob inquired. “Shit, no. The fish are growing legs. Guess what I happened to notice, though. Right across the road from where we last camped are the best campsites on the whole river. You can drive right down to them.” “Yeah. You didn’t know that?” Rob replied with a smirk. “No, and neither did you. Don’t tell me that crap! Otherwise, we wouldn’t have toted all the gear for a god-damned mile through the woods!” Rob grinned as he shrugged it off. “Oh, well. Hey! Come here and look at this.” He threw down the water hose and led Credit to the front corner of the yard. Barely three feet from the shoulder of the road stood an eight foot tall marijuana plant. Its branches drooped from the weight of the flowering sensimilla buds. “Look at the damn thing!” Rob exclaimed proudly. “This is amazing,” Credit muttered, stupefied. “I can’t believe this is growing here. The damn grass in the yard is burnt to a crisp, and this is just as green and healthy as can be.” Rob pointed down at the ground. “It’s growing in those ruts. Runoff from the road must have given it enough water.” “Shit. There ain’t been any runoff. We haven’t had a drop of rain for over two months now!” Credit was stumped. It didn’t make a lick of sense, and yet there it was. “What I really can’t believe is that no one stopped and grabbed it. I mean, it must have been growing here for several months now, right out in the open.” “Really,” Credit agreed as he scanned the featureless plain. “It’s the only damn thing out here to notice. Hell, I passed it by myself and never saw it. Did you plant it here?” he asked giddily. “Shoot no. I’m not that smart. I plant mine thirty miles out in the wilderness, down chasms, up cliffs, and behind hedges. And then somebody else finds them. They’re gone by harvest time. “Nope,” he lamented. “I imagine somebody just threw a seed out the window and got lucky.” “Well, you need to move it before someone does see it.” Credit was serious. He was beginning to feel nervous standing out in the open next to a marijuana plant, especially along a major highway. “I’m gonna get a shovel, dig it up, and fill in these ruts,” Rob said as he set out for the garage. Credit gazed down the road apprehensively. Within moments he saw his worst fears coming true. A car was approaching in the distance. Damn the irony, he thought bitterly. It was a miracle the plant had grown there to begin with. Absolutely incredible that it hadn’t been stolen. And the moment they discover it, they get busted for the damn thing. With him standing there drawing attention to the spot, it was sure to be noticed. His first impulse had been to run for the garage, but he then thought better of it. Don’t run, he reasoned, just act cool, be natural. He dropped to his knees and began tossing clods of dirt into the ruts. The hard clumps broke easily, exploding into finely textured soil. The car sped past as Rob returned with the shovel. “Man, I sure am glad they didn’t spot this,” Credit exclaimed as he got to his feet. He was noticeably relieved. But the fear returned quickly when they saw the car slow down and pull to the side of the road. It was a light blue Ford sedan with markings on the door. The occupant appeared to be looking back at them, but it was hard to tell from the distance. While watching the car intently, Rob pulled the plant out of the ground and handed it to Credit. “I think I know who that is,” he said, “and I don’t want him to see this. Why don’t you get it out of sight?” At that moment the car pulled away. It turned down a side road and disappeared out of sight. At ease again, Credit moseyed towards the garage, dragging the plant behind him. As he reached the edge of the house, voices coming from the back yard renewed his paranoia. Damn, he thought to himself, must be a conspiracy. The one time you really want some privacy and people come crawling out of the woodwork. He arched his neck and saw a woman with two children wearing bathing suits emerge from a narrow strip of woods in the neighbor’s back yard. They were laughing and playing as they walked and took no notice of him. “Put the plant in here.” Rob was standing at the back of his car with the trunk wide open. “I thought you were going to hang it in the woods to dry,” Credit stated. “Got a better place to take it,” Rob replied with an enigmatic smile. “I want to see where those people came from,” Credit said as he handed over the weed. He turned and walked away. He passed through the narrow but thick stand of grapevine covered trees and found an abandoned field that was in the process of returning to a natural state. It was overgrown with small trees, blackberry briars, and milkweed. Pollen was pungent in the air. He followed the trail to a creek than ran straight as an arrow. It was three feet deep and four feet across, much like an irrigation ditch. A shallow ribbon of water trickled along the bottom. Wild quince trees, thick and stunted, lined both sides of the drainage. Credit reached out and touched one of the yellow, leathery fruits. It was gnarled and wormy looking. Not very appealing. As he stepped across the ditch, he glanced upstream and saw that the creek had been dammed. Three or four wooden railroad ties had been stacked together on top of each other. The water seeped slowly over and through the rotting beams. The trail took him to a parking lot. A station wagon full of children was about to leave, but he was more interested in the impoundment of the creek, which was ten feet wide and thirty feet long above the dam. It couldn’t have been more than three feet deep. A sandy beach led into the water. The whole scene struck him as being very odd. Surely people didn’t swim in that ratty hole, did they? He knew for a fact that there were much nicer places to swim in the area, although he couldn’t remember exactly where they were located. A speedboat suddenly shot out from the upstream creek opening and made a quick turn through the pond. A bikini clad girl, posed on the brow of the boat, smiled and waved at him. Ne nodded in acknowledgement, bewildered as the boat sped back up the creek. There was definitely something peculiar going on. He just couldn’t put his finger on it. He heard the revving sound of another engine and looked in time to see the station wagon pull away. To his surprise, Bonnie was standing there. She was dressed in a potato sack that had puffed up like a balloon around her, allowing only her head, hands, and feet to protrude. He erupted into gleeful laughter as he pinched her cheek. “Cutest ‘tater I ever saw,” he teased. She was clearly embarrassed. “I can’t help it,” she pouted. “This is YOUR dream! Not only do I feel ridiculous, but I feel like I’m going to float away.” My dream? Credit deliberated. My dream? Of course! Suddenly everything made sense. “Do you want to go swimming?” “In there?” Bonnie objected. “Good grief, no.” “I agree. Apparently, a bunch of kids were swimming here. The just drove off as you arrived.” Kids? The word jabbed her, and she shuddered and wondered why. Credit noticed a buzzing noise and pointed upstream. “Watch there.” Once again, the speedboat shot out from between the quince trees and made an abrupt u-turn in the pond, flinging droplets of water at them. Bonnie was both fascinated and puzzled as she attempted to dodge the oncoming water. “Where are we?” she asked, wondering why she hadn’t gotten wet. “Well, originally I thought I was at Rob’s house, but now I know we’re somewhere in Tunu. I’ve been to this place before, but it’s been a long time. Not since I was a kid.” That word again! It jolted Bonnie and she suddenly remembered. She saw how easy it was to get caught up in the flow of the moment and lose track of one’s sense of purpose. “Jason’s in trouble, Credit. Remember? The Big Bend? Now’s our chance to help.” Credit was dumbstruck. Jason? In trouble? Was that happening now? Of course! Bonnie knew. She had the answers! But they were so far away from the Big Bend! He groaned inwardly as he started to grow despondent. “We must climb the hill to get there,” Bonnie stated slowly and methodically, as if reading from a script. Of course! How simple! Just climb the hill, he thought jubilantly. Hell, any door would do! He hugged Bonnie tightly. “What would I do without you?” He led her back across the creek and through the woods to the back yard, where two apple trees heavily laden with fruit converged near an old garage. The ground was littered with fallen apples. “Look at all these damn apples!” Credit exclaimed. He stopped to examine the huge fruit. Although many were wormy, between the two trees there were plenty of perfectly delicious looking apples. “Come on,” urged Bonnie. “We’re needed.” Across the street was a steep, grass covered hill. Moments after beginning the ascent, Bonnie began to lag behind as if the strain was too much for her. By the time they reached the halfway point, Credit was pulling her along. A purple fog had appeared in front of them. “I can’t go no further,” she complained. She knew that Credit was counting on her. She didn’t want to disappoint him, but she felt completely drained, exhausted. “Come on. Try,” he urged. “I can’t! Go without me.” “No! Come on!” He pulled harder, but she wouldn’t budge. “You’re gonna yank my arm out!” she hollered. Credit relaxed. Bonnie was not used to being there, and he realized that he would have to be more patient. He would have to guide her. “This is a dream, Bun, and looks are deceiving. You’re trying to walk, but you really have no legs with which to walk. Remember, in Tunu you’re nothing but a feeling.” He knelt down beside her, brushed aside the potato sack, and touched her right thigh. “Put you hand down here.” He took her fingers and outlined an area on her leg. “Do you feel that muscle?” “Yes.” “If you concentrate on that muscle it will enable you to move at will. I can’t explain how or why, but it generates the proper feeling. I need you, Bonnie. Will you climb to the top with me?” She smiled. Although the suggestion sounded rather silly, she could indeed feel the muscle. The next thing she knew, they had passed through the ubiquitous mist and were standing at the top of the hill. The scenery had changed radically. It was night time and a quarter moon sat above the horizon. The Sierra Ponce loomed ominously over them. Credit stared at her. No longer was Bonnie wearing a potato sack, but was instead dressed stylishly in camouflage fatigues and a beret, a sexy guerilla warrior straight off a Hollywood set. “Are you ready to walk the sky?” he asked casually. “No.” “Too bad. This is where I blew it the last time.” They found a comfortable place to sit, and then Credit took her hand and extended his perspective upward. Bonnie looked down and saw herself sitting on the ground next to Credit. At the same time, he was beside her in the air. Although he was talking and motioning at the terrain below them, the ticklish, pulling sensation in her stomach made it difficult for her to concentrate. Even though she could not make sense of his words, she watched as he pointed along a ravine to a place where there was an assemblage of houses. He continued to talk, and his words came suddenly into focus. “…the bright area between the houses. That’s where we want to be. Imagine looking at the middle house from the ground in front of it. Do you see the door?” “Yes.” “What does the doorknob look like?” “There is no doorknob! A simple latch.” Her perception had magnified, making it seem as if she was right there on the spot. “Do you see the guard?” “Yes. He’s sleeping.” “Turn to your left. Are there lights on inside the building?” Credit turned to his right at the same moment that Bonnie turned to the left. They suddenly found themselves standing back to back in the yard. “There’s no light on,” Bonnie said as she turned back. “But the guard is awake!” The guard was sitting on the edge of his chair, staring in their direction with a puzzled expression. “Can he see us?” she queried. “He sees something, that’s for sure.” The guard stood up hesitantly. He fidgeted with his rifle as he took a few uncertain steps towards them. He was definitely perplexed by the situation that confronted him. “Don’t look directly at him,” Credit suggested. “Wave your arms and hop around, but be ready to run.” Simultaneously, they both went spastic, jumping around and flapping their arms. The guard let out a scream, dropped his rifle and ran off, terrified. Bonnie and Credit broke into laughter. They danced in circles and hugged each other. “That was hilarious!” she shrieked. “Did you see the look on his face?” Confusion, hopelessness, terror. Absolutely priceless, Credit thought. “Come on,” he urged. “Let’s see why they needed a guard here in the first place.” Slowly, he pushed open the front door. Jason and Deanna were huddled together on the floor in the corner. Credit cringed when he saw that Jason’s face was bruised and puffy, but he was relieved that they were both alive and well. “Dad?” “Credit? Bonnie?” “Dad, is that you?” “Mark?” Credit stepped into the room and advanced towards them. “Come on. Let’s get out of here!” he said. Jason and Deanna pulled back in fear. Credit stopped when he noticed his voice bounce off the walls and echo back through the room as an abhorrent growl. Experiencing a moment of understanding, he glanced at Bonnie. “There’s no telling how they perceive us right now, but we need to lure them outside, get them into the ravine and headed towards the Curandera’s.” Bonnie stepped outside. “Uh, Credit. I think you’d better come look at this.” Almost a dozen people had gathered outside the hut. Enrique, Romo, and Frankie amongst them. They were bickering between themselves, waving their guns and questioning each other’s perceptions, while at the same time keeping their eyes riveted to the front of the hut. They were all very careful to keep their distance. “Scare them off,” Credit suggested. “Just be careful, and keep them away from the corral,” he added intuitively. Bonnie tip-toed toward the men as if she was sneaking up on them, her hands flexed in front of her like cat claws, a lioness on the prowl. Instantly, the men became agitated and animated. Stepping nimbly in front of the bravest one, Bonnie met him eye to eye and shouted, “Boo!” The men scattered like rabbits. Standing in the doorway, Credit looked back at Jason and Deanna. Meeting their gaze eye to eye, he motioned for them to follow. “That is dad! Come on! Now’s our chance!” When Credit stepped into the yard, Bonnie came bounding into view like a kangaroo, with six foot high leaps. From the smile upon her face, it was apparent that she was enjoying herself thoroughly. “Senor!” she shouted. She was ecstatic. “Hey, senor! I t’ink I chase them all the way to Ciudad Chihuahua, senor.” She was a precious senorita, all right. He took her hand and as they skipped towards the ravine, he noticed that the purple mist had returned and was shadowing them closely. Jason and Deanna stepped outside the hut and glanced around nervously, and then Deanna grabbed Jason and pointed in Credit’s direction. Credit was well aware that the fog near them had grown thick and rich, but Bonnie was busy waving and hooting at Jason and De, enjoying herself too much to notice. “I need you to wake up at the Curandera’s now,” he said quickly. Without giving her time to respond, he pushed her firmly into the purple mist. Both Bonnie and the mist disappeared in the wink of an eye. Credit put his attention at the bottom of the ravine, where the vegetation was much thicker. He glanced up and saw the owl perched on a limb above his shoulder. It gave him a melodious greeting. He smiled when he saw Jason and Deanna step into view at the top of the bluff. They pointed at him and then began their descent. He moved further down the gully. When Jay and De reached the bottom, the owl hooted and flew towards Credit. They followed the owl, moving slowly and clumsily along the bottom of the ravine. Credit remembered that it was night time, and though he could see perfectly well in the dark, they were no doubt having trouble. He arose to the top of the chasm and then came down behind them. He wanted to make sure that they were well on their way. They followed the owl for some time and then stopped to rest. When Credit stopped behind them, he thought that he heard voices, although he couldn’t be certain. An annoying roar had built up in his ears. He picked up a rock and tossed it in Jason’s direction. He and Deanna jumped nervously, glanced at each other, and then quickly scampered down the ravine. Credit knew that it was necessary to make his own escape, to go back to the corral and untie himself before he woke up. But before he could make a move, he felt a sudden, sharp pain in his side, and he buckled over in agony. What could possibly have caused…? Once again the sharp pain struck, and he slumped to the ground in a sitting position. The third time caused him to lose consciousness. At the same time, he opened his eyes. 36 Escape Taking care not to awaken Deanna, Jason arose slowly to his feet and stepped to the side window. With the way his thoughts were racing, he was surprised that he had slept at all. His father had been there earlier. He was almost sure of it. Even though Frankie had kept them on the floor in the corner, they had heard him plainly call out their names. Hadn’t they? Even with Deanna’s agreement, he couldn’t shake his lingering doubts. Shortly after sunset, he had stood at the very same window and watched a meteorite cross the sky. It flared brilliantly before it burned out, like a lightning bolt lighting up the sky. He had seen it. There was no doubt in his mind that it had happened. Why couldn’t he be just as certain with his sense of hearing? After all, he reasoned, the falling star had been just as fleeting as his father’s voice. Perhaps he simply didn’t want to believe. Something very bad had happened to whoever had been outside. He could vividly remember Enrique’s enraged, taunting shouts, and his own bruises were testament to what the smugglers were capable of doing. He peered through the window into the darkness. Except for the braying of the donkeys, the night was very still. He noted the moon about to dip behind the Sierra Ponce, and realized that it was much later than he had supposed. It sent a pang of apprehension through him. He was not eagerly waiting the new day. Just before sunset, Enrique and Romo had brought a man to see them. He wore an expensive, finely tailored suit and his eyes were cold steel. Enrique seemed meek in comparison. Jason had little doubt that he was the leader, the Columbian, El Mano. Their moment of reckoning would come due in the morning. Would they be taken to the interior? Would they take only Deanna and leave him behind? Kill them both or let them both go? Surely El Mano would see the mistake of kidnapping Americans and ultimately set them free. Realizing that there was no end to his rumblings and suppositions, and that he was doing himself little good by dwelling upon them, Jason sat down on his blanket, hoping to get more sleep. The rest would do him good if he could avoid the nightmares. It was bad enough having to live a bad dream. His chin dropped slowly to his chest and then jerked up instinctively. And then it lowered once again. And then his eyes popped wide open and he was nervously alert, listening attentively to a whimpering noise outside the door. It sounded like Frankie in distress; like the devil himself had appeared suddenly in front of him, reducing him to a quivering mass of blubber, and he wondered if Enrique had returned to terrorize Deanna. His musings were shattered by a piercing scream that sent chills down his spine. He heard steps running away, melting into the distance. “What’s going on?” Deanna inquired anxiously, suddenly awake and clinging tightly to his arm. Before he could answer, the door opened slowly, revealing a silhouetted figure. Jason expected Enrique, but the posture wasn’t right. El Mano? No, something was amiss. There was a surreal dimension to the scene. A fog obscured his vision and clouded this thinking. And then the mist lifted and he saw clearly. It was his father’s face staring back at him! “Dad?” “Credit? Bonnie?” Deanna muttered at the same time. Bonnie? Of course! Now he saw it. It was Bonnie and dad! Or was it? What the hell was going on? Had he fallen asleep? Was it all a dream? “Dad? Is that you?” “Mark?” Deanna’s confusion was as great as Jason’s. They simply could not come to grips with what they were seeing. The images changed constantly. Sometimes they weren’t even solid, but a pink and auburn glow that lit nothing; a contained, swirling luminescence; an energy field of some nature. A loud, growling noise suddenly emanated from the wispy presence, and Jason and Deanna cowered into the corner, hugging each other tightly. As the frightening sound dissipated, it was replaced by human sounds from outside, muffled, agitated voices, and Jason realized that the Mexicans had gathered. At the same time, the swirling luminescence faded and a solid figure stood in the doorway. It was his dad! He was motioning at them, beckoning. What the hell had they done to him? Cut his tongue out? Outside the hut, excited, desperate shouts that had been rising in intensity faded abruptly, and footsteps raced away into the distance. “Now’s our chance. Let’s get out of here!” Jason urged. “I’m scared,” Deanna protested. “Is that really Credit?” “I think so. You know what a warped sense of humor he’s got. It doesn’t matter anyway. Whoever it is has chased away the smugglers and given us a chance to get out of here. Come on, we need to take advantage of this.” The figure had faded from the doorway and everything appeared normal. They stepped outside cautiously and found the yard deserted except for Credit and Bonnie, who were standing at the edge of the ravine. “Look at them!” Deanna pointed. “What the hell are they up to?” Jason looked up and saw his father give Bonnie a sharp shove, and she dropped dramatically out of sight. Had he pushed her over the cliff? When they reached the edge of the ravine, they spied Credit at the bottom. Bonnie was nowhere to be seen. “They cut his tongue out,” Jason reasoned. “That has to be it. That’s why he doesn’t say anything. He just wants us to follow him.” As expected, Credit had disappeared by the time they reached the dark floor of the gully, with its black shadows and shades of gray. An owl spooked them by unfolding its wings and gliding closely by, hooting at them as it passed. They followed the path of flight and once again momentarily spotted Credit. “This gully has to lead to the Rio Grande. Even if we can’t catch him, at least we can get across the river and hide.” They learned to rely on the hooting of the owl as they made their way down the ravine. When they reached a larger chasm, they stopped to rest. “Are you all right?” Jason asked after they had sat for a moment. “I think so. My arm is bleeding, but I don’t think it’s too bad. You?” “About the same. I twisted my ankle, but I’ll be all right. Have you seen dad, lately?” “No.” “What do you make of all this?” “I don’t know. I’m trying not to think about it. I feel like I’m hallucinating or something. Basically, I’m just glad to get out of there.” “I know what you mean. Do you think dad was really here?” Deanna remained silent. She wished more than anything that she could comfort Jason. He had kept his head together and helped her through an impossible situation, but she was just as baffled as he. “Well, at least you won’t have to worry about Enrique anymore.” Before she could reply, a falling rock startled them into action. They had no idea whether it was Credit or Enrique bearing down on them, and they had no desire to wait around and find out. The larger canyon was much more open, and being better able to see, they made good time. When the canyon gave way to open desert wash, they stopped once again to catch their breath. The drone of a helicopter could be heard in the distance. “Probably the cops coming to our rescue,” Jason offered. “Always a step late, huh?” “You could be right. It’s hard to tell from which direction it’s coming from,” she said as she looked around uncertainly. “Do you hear something else? Voices?” As he separated the night sounds from the din of the helicopter, he realized that there were, indeed, periodic shouts. They were muffled and distant, but growing louder. And then there was a long moment of silence. “It sounded like it was coming from down the wash,” he said with hesitation. “Maybe we should hide or something.” “Ja…son. Dean….na,” came the shouts again. “Why that’s Bonnie!” he exclaimed in revelation. “I’d know that voice anywhere. That was her and dad after all!” When they saw shadowy figures approaching, Jason ran enthusiastically to greet them, with Deanna right behind. He gave Bonnie a running hug when they met, but was somewhat disappointed to find that her companion was a hobbling, old woman instead of his father. “Where’s dad?” “I don’t know,” Bonnie brooded. “You didn’t see him?” “Not for some time now,” Jason replied. “We were never really sure that he was there,” Deanna added. “Sometimes he was in front of us, and sometimes behind us, but never with us. You were there, too, weren’t you?” Ignoring Deanna’s question, Bonnie glanced anxiously at Teresa. “I wish I could say something to comfort you, dear,” the old woman said, “but I don’t feel good about this.” “Neither do I,” Bonnie uttered in total distress. Without another word, she took off on a run up the wash. “What the hell is going on?!” Jason hollered. Totally bedeviled and infuriated, he uttered a sharp obscenity before turning to follow. 37 Pain Awakened by the intermittent pain in his side, he opened his eyes to find the owl standing next to him. It stared back with huge, blinking eyes, hooted once, and then flew off. The damn bird had awakened him too early, he silently fumed. He had not had enough time in his flipside to untie himself! As he struggled to gain his feet, he discovered that the cord to the fence had been severed. Although his hands were still bound behind his back, thanks to the owl he was free to move about. Awkwardly, he began to make his way through the corral towards the compound when he noticed a movement in the mesquite trees. He dropped to his knees and rolled under the fence beneath some branches, and then watched breathlessly as a figure entered the corral. He saw that it was Enrique, carrying a rifle. Finding the corral empty, Enrique angled off towards the road, running recklessly through the underbrush. The sound of a helicopter was growing louder. Credit struggled to his feet once again and then crept to the hut where Jason and Deanna had been kept prisoner. He glanced through the side window, saw the door wide open, and then edged to the front corner of the building. In order to reach the ravine, he saw that he would have to cross the open clearing, a task that he was not looking forward to. Especially with his hands tied behind his back. The approaching helicopters had evidently scattered the smugglers, but Enrique had been carrying a gun, and others could still be lingering nearby. Seeing no other obvious choice, Credit took a deep breath, and with a knot in his stomach, made a mad dash into the clearing. The closer he came to the edge of the ravine, the more his reservations eroded, and by the time he reached the edge he was feeling quite smug about himself. As he was about to start down the slope, he was lit up by a spotlight from the helicopter. When he hesitated, he heard the muffled sound of gunfire and then a sharp force tore open his right leg. He lost his balance and fell backward into the chasm, rolling over jagged rocks and needle-sharp cactus as he tumbled down the steep hill. He came to rest at the bottom, semi-conscious. Pain rippled through his entire body. He coughed up blood. Well, Lews, he thought to himself as he wheezed, you sure blew it this time. Bonnie’s really gonna be pissed when she sees this mess. He coughed again, flinching from the incredible pain. At least Jason got away. He’ll be safe now. And Deanna. I hope she finds her peace. He didn’t have the strength to move; was afraid of what he would discover if he could. Pangs screamed from his chest and legs, and his head throbbed. Even the breeze against his face stung bitterly. Again he coughed and spit up blood. Bonnie? I’m sorry, Bun. I blew it. I should have wakened earlier. I’m gonna miss you more than anyone, woman. His eyes flooded with tears as his body shuddered involuntarily. The pain finally too great to bear, he lapsed into unconsciousness. 38 Flipside He pushed himself away from the table, stood up, and then glanced around the room. It was a simple twelve by twelve foot cubicle that was carved out of ice. The only furnishings were a lamp, a bed, the table and a chair. It would do. It reminded him of the bunker on the way to Qattarah, although this place was nowhere near Qattarah. He didn’t need Qattarah now. He didn’t need advice. He needed isolation. He wrapped himself with the wool blanket from the bed and then opened the door. An icy swirl gusted into the room. He stepped gingerly into the outside darkness and closed the door tightly behind him. A fierce, howling wind assaulted his ears with a mixture of deep bass tones and high, shrill whistles. Blowing snow whipped past him horizontally even though shoulder high banks on either side of the walk, along with the dwelling behind him, blocked the main thrust of the wind. A glaring, artificial light in the distance silhouetted the snowdrifts in successive waves, a perpetual white capped sea as the gale whipped the white powder from the crests, sending streamers into the darkness. The light implied that there were other people in the vicinity and he felt betrayed. He had assumed that he would be all alone. It was what he deserved; self-imposed exile in the frigid northland of Tunu. To spend the rest of his days there would be worthy punishment for being such a failure. He climbed up onto the hardened crust of the snow bank, and with his back taking the full force of the wind, he attempted to stand erect. The strength of the gale was incredible. It made him feel so minor and insignificant. He loved it. Cre…dit. He cocked his head. He had imagined that he heard the wind whisper his name and he envisioned himself being beckoned to the furthest reaches of the Arctic, using his remaining time in exploration. Certainly he would encounter more of the same conditions; darkness, frigid wind, ice and snow. But perhaps there would also be something more, something worthy of discovery. Magnificent mountains shrouded in mystery. Or an uncharted sea, cluttered with glimmering icebergs, leading to fascinating new lands. “Cre…dit.” The wind WAS calling his name. It wasn’t his imagination! The words were clear that time, distinct, and he probed into the distant darkness. The visibility had been reduced to nothing, and he took several steps down the snow bank, further into the night. “Cre…dit!” He stopped and looked back. Although his vision was blurred by the blowing snow, he could detect a figure standing in front of his door. He did not have to see clearly to know that it was his helper. She was wearing a heavy, fur lined coat, her hands cupped to her mouth as she shouted to be heard over the roar of the wind. “Credit. Come back, Credit!” He hesitated. His preference was to turn around and disappear into the black, frozen tundra. But she had cared enough to help him. She was his friend and deserved a chance to be heard. Fighting the blinding wind, he trudged back to his door. Even though he was standing next to her, she still had to shout to be heard. “Where are you going?” He shrugged. “Out there.” “Why? What are you doing here?” “This is where I belong!” he shouted back, suddenly very angry. “I blew it. I’m all messed up back there, and it’s nobody’s fault but my own!” The woman put her hands on her hips. “You’re a fucking moron, you know that? Can we go inside and talk about this like two rational beings?” He could imagine that there was a smug look on her face, whatever her face looked like. Fitfully, he kicked at the snow. “All right! Have it your way!” He motioned towards the door and they stepped inside. “I still don’t understand why you picked this place,” she said as she sat down on the bed. “I like it here,” he replied dryly. “But you should be preparing yourself for when you awaken.” “I like it here,” he repeated. “In this place there is no pain. The cold has numbed every fiber of my being. If I awaken, my leg will be torn apart, my lung punctured. There is blood literally dripping from my body. I’m not stupid. Why would I want to go back?” “I can give you many reasons,” she whispered solemnly. “Bonnie; Jason. Your love for the Earth. Your love for life.” “I can stay here. I can grow old exploring this world.” “Yes, I’m sure you could. But you would be throwing away everything you’ve accomplished. Man is a duel creature. You need the balance. Body and spirit. Waking world, dream world. Most people live their whole lives and never pay attention to their dreams. They ignore half of their potential, and never attain true balance. They die without ever realizing that they had a chance to be complete, a chance to experience the total gift of life. “But you have discovered the way to exercise your spiritual side. You have taken it from the realm of mere faith, which is useless, and turned it into a practicing art. You have begun to meld your two sides of awareness, and you should be proud of yourself. You have accomplished something that is very rare for this period of time. “And you still have so much to learn. There are seven worlds a person can maintain, and you have only touched on two of them. It would be disappointing to limit yourself to only Tunu. It would be a waste of a life.” Yes. But it is my life to waste, he silently fumed. The woman was a sweet talker. He would have to be careful. “How is it that I can affect reality with my dreams? This is all in my imagination. It’s all in my bloody little head, isn’t it? All of this only appears to be solid,” he said as he spread his arms to encompass everything in the room. He thought he had her, but instead she erupted into spontaneous, musical laughter. He hated to admit it, but it felt good to hear her laugh like that. It drastically lightened his mood. She seemed to have a healing effect upon him. “That should be no mystery to you! Don’t your scientists tell you that mass and energy are equal?” There was a glint of mischievousness in her tone. “Yes.” “So, what’s your problem, then?” She was bouncing up and down on his bed like a child. Stumped for an answer, he stared numbly at his hands folded across his lap. “Perhaps it’s your perception of reality that needs adjusting,” she suggested calmly. “You cling illogically to the notion that the only ‘real’ world is your solid, continuous, waking world, the Earth. I admit, it is a hard notion to break. Its’ history and chronology are undeniable, and continuity is a natural manifestation in that state of awareness. “What it all comes down to is this; reality is nothing but energy, stimuli, whether you are waking or dreaming. You form the images. Solidity and dimension manifest themselves to you, the perceiver, not to the energy object being perceived. Continuity lets you adapt a pattern, and you decipher the meaning.” “Then all worlds are nothing but energy?” “Exactly. Only the natural laws differ. You give it substance. When you dream of the Earth, a knack that very few people have ever had, you affect it in that time and location, according to the laws of your dream. Energy can affect energy. When a person melds his two sides of awareness, he can accomplish extraordinary deeds. And that is reality.” “Then events happened as I dreamed? Jason and Deanna are safe now?” “They were able to get away, and are doing as well as can be expected.” “And Bonnie? Is she all right?” “She is well. After you pushed her into the purple mist, she awoke at the Curandera’s. They called the authorities and then went to meet Jason and Deanna above the spring. When you didn’t return, she went looking for you, and she’s with you now. And Jason, too. They are all there.” Credit realized that he was observing the scene as she spoke. It was being projected on the icy wall above the bed as if it were a movie. He was lying face down on the rocky ground of the ravine. Bonnie was slumped over him, weeping profusely, mumbling incoherently. She was busy trying to keep flies from him. Blood was everywhere. “It’s a shame that you don’t want to return to her.” “She deserves better than my broken body.” Jason entered the picture. Bonnie lifted her head and stared hopelessly up at him. Credit turned his face from the screen. “Was she really in my dream last night? Or was that only a phantom?” “That was really her!” The woman sounded truly impressed. “Fate is on your side. Bonnie can now provide the corroboration that all this has been real. That had been my intended purpose in introducing you to Teresa. But like a numbskull, you never went to see her while you were awake.” Credit shrugged his shoulders. “I really can’t believe that you never want to feel Bonnie’s warm body against yours again, to have her on top of you, loving you. What will you do without her?” He was surprised by her bluntness, but the question touched him deeply. He knew that if he remained in Tunu he would never again experience that type of love. “But my body is such a mess,” he protested. “You’ll break her heart if you don’t wake up. And Jason’s. Look at him.” But he couldn’t look. He flung his arms in anguish. “And Deanna has been your friend for so long now. It was in looking for her that you found me. If you stay here, you will have only your reflection of them, not their true selves.” He looked at her in frustration. “I’m afraid that if I return, I’ll die. All right? You don’t know what it was like.” She shook her head sadly. “Your condition is not as bad as it looks. The Curandera can help. She can see what your body needs to balance itself. And there are medical doctors in your country. You’re not living in the dark ages, you know. “Of course, the most important thing is what you can do for yourself in this world. While you cannot magically alter your condition, you can enhance your natural healing processes. Exponentially. But this is not the proper place, and you don’t have a whole lot of time. The choice is yours to make.” He looked again at the screen. Bonnie and the Curandera were perched above him. Jason and Deanna were in the background, shading their eyes as they peered into the sky. “Where is the proper place to be?” he asked wistfully. “Where do you think? You’ve been there before.” “Qattarah?” He knew his answer was wrong the moment he voiced it. No, the proper place was the underground stream near the south seashore. The room in the tunnel had been specially constructed for the purpose of healing. But it was so far away! It would take so long to get there. His helper rescued him from his doubts. “This is not the Earth, dummy. Different laws here, remember?” He smiled at her. “What would I do without you? If I want to keep two good women in my life, I think I’d better go back soon.” He crossed the room and pulled the bed away from the wall, revealing a small, square door. “Are you coming?” he asked with a huge grin. “Do you know where you are going?” she asked, giggling. “This is a direct door to the seashore!” “Then let’s go!” He pulled himself through the opening and then found himself standing atop the last major dune overlooking the sea. A sharp breeze blew from off shore, bringing with it a heavy fog. He could barely see the outline of the rocky peninsula that jutted into the sea. “Hey! What’s the hold up? Let’s go!” He looked down the back side of the dune and saw the woman standing in front of the tunnel above the stream, which was running very swiftly. In fact, the falls were beginning to flatten out and there was a powerful suction where the water disappeared beneath the ledge. When he dropped down the dune and entered the tunnel, he realized that the stream was more than on the rise. It was already beginning to flood the hallway. Time was running out in more ways than one. The rectangular, stone altar inside the room glowed with a low, eerie luminescence, while the rest of the room was bathed in shadow. The stone seats lining the walls were empty, and the woman was nowhere in sight, although the deepest part of the room was draped in total darkness. Water was creeping over his ankles as he climbed up onto the altar. He laid back. His body was a perfect fit for the sudden contours of the stone slab. It felt soft and comforting. He immediately noticed three beams of light emanating from the ceiling. They came at him from different angles, touching different segments of his body. They were of various hues and intensities and resembled laser beams. When one beam ceased, another would take its place, warming and rejuvenating him. When one of the beams touched his head, he closed his eyes. His attention turned to the soothing sound of the running water. But it went deeper than that. There were other sounds inside the room, humming, melodic. Their harmonies penetrated deep inside him, a medieval choir rising and falling in time with the lights, in tune with the rushing water. He imagined that robed figures were occupying the seats lining the walls, and were the source of the chants and a vital link in the healing process. He lifted his head and opened his eyes. The room was empty except for the water, which was now only inches from the top of the altar. He began to panic. How long had he lain there? He stood up in the waste deep water and waded to the door. The current was rushing through the hallway with a terrific force. Shit! He knew that if he stepped through the doorway he’d be swept away. He’d never get out of there alive. He was going to lose everything! He stood frozen in the doorway, gripped by indecision as the swift current tugged at his legs. “Credit?” He glanced over his shoulder and saw the woman standing behind the altar. She was holding her hand to her mouth as if she was about to blow him a kiss. But she wasn’t blowing him a kiss at all. He saw the bubble in her hand that reflected a rainbow of colors. He stared at it, hypnotized, as it rolled off her palm in slow motion. It dipped to just above the water line and then floated towards him. As it approached, it grew rapidly in size until it matched his own height. For some reason he was terrified of the bubble. He felt trapped, cornered. His only escape was through the tunnel, and that meant being swept underground to certain death. Before he could make his choice, the bubble burst and he was bathed in a purple mist. 39 Purple Mist The room and the water faded as he became cloaked by the purple mist. Over the course of time he had come to acknowledge the mist as being the bridge between the Earth and Tunu, but never before had he actually paid attention; in fact, most of the time he hadn’t even noticed it. He now realized that what he had perceived as a mist or fog was in reality an energy source, a throbbing, luminescent glow. It was also much more than a bridge between two worlds. It was a transition point of awareness, the waiting room where all seven worlds could be entered. He could see those portals as different colored patches in the fog. Tunu was imbued with an auburn hue while the Earth was white. If he had ever visited any of the other five worlds, he could not remember it, although he presently felt an undeniable attraction for the blue patch in the fog. He decided that one day, when he was strong and adventurous he would enter that blue world. But actual time in the purple light was fleeting; choices were made instantly. He had already decided to return to Earth. By paying attention to the mist, he had merely managed to slow the flow of time and grasp a moment of understanding. The thought came to him: As long as one is willing to make the effort to pay attention, conscious awareness never ends. The intensity of the purple mist lightened dramatically and he knew that he was back on Earth. His spiritual energy had rejoined his physical side. But the mist did not entirely evaporate, and his senses were slow to return. The presence of the malingering fog was keeping him confused, clouding his sense of purpose. Was he awake or dreaming? He wasn’t really sure. He felt incredibly weak and did not try to move, even to open his eyes. And then he realized that the pain was not nearly as intense as he had envisioned it would be. He could hear the sound of a helicopter along with soft, muffled voices nearby. As he singled them out, they came into sharper focus. The Curandera was speaking. “He should be coming around soon. I see no reason for his continuing coma.” “I hope the medics get here soon. Where are they, for Christ’s sake?” That was Bonnie’s voice! She was weeping. “They’re almost here,” said the Curandera. “Please, you must calm down, be patient. He will be all right. He has reversed his trend and is healing remarkably fast now. I have never seen anything like it.” After a subtle red shift, the lingering purple mist lifted in its entirety. He knew that Bonnie and Teresa were kneeling beside him and that Jason and Deanna were nearby. There was no sense in prolonging the suspense. It was time to open his eyes. Bonnie’s face was covered by her hands. Jason and the Curandera were staring at him. Deanna noticed when he gave them a wink. It pleased him to see their grief turn to joy. Bonnie’s sobbing came to an abrupt halt as she opened her eyes wide in astonishment. Utterly precious, he thought. The woman was a gem. He smiled, and then managed a hoarse whisper. “Are you ready to nurse me back to health again, Mrs. Lews?” Bonnie’s face turned to joy. “You bet I am, Mr. Lews!” She hugged him tightly, but carefully, as the medics dropped over the canyon rim. As they gently lifted him onto the stretcher, a sharp pain pierced his chest. He broke into a sweat and shuddered when a strong, cold wind began to blow. Before he could close his eyes, he was once again swept into the purple mist.Life is a gift
And you’ve only one chance
Time becomes your enemy
As time has been your friend
Will he grant you time to make it
All the way to the top?
Will you revel in the view of life
Before you must stop?
When will death catch you
And give you his tap?
Or can you gather your awareness
To evade that trap?
--from the Songs from Long Road
By C. L. Walker—