art by Tihomir Tikulin-Tico
Twenty Ways the Desert Could Kill You
by Sarah Pinsker
1. A poisonous snake could bite you, and you could die.
2. You could prick your finger on a previously undiscovered poisonous cactus.
3. The cactus isn't poisonous, and neither is the snake, but the snake's venom is a powerful anti-coagulant. You could bleed to death from the place you were bitten and/or pricked.
My mother says that English gardens don't belong in New Mexico. Whenever we drive into town for supplies she throws dirty looks at all the houses with grass and flowers and automatic sprinklers. She spends a lot of time working on her rock gardens and moisture collection systems. "Cacti are just as beautiful as lawns," she tells me each time we buy another one. The English gardens remind me of home, even though home is Baltimore, not England. The sun is more intense here. Mom says it's a dry heat, but it just feels hot to me.
4. You could wander into a deserted town, but it turns out to be a nuclear testing facility. I saw that one in a movie.
5. There is an entrance to an old mine shaft hidden under the sand, and you could fall through the hole and break your neck and die.
6. You could survive the fall into the mineshaft, but then the ghost of a forty-niner kills you with a pickax.
We left Baltimore five weeks ago. Mom came home early from her job at the space telescope. She said, "Pack your summer clothes and your five favorite things, Allie. We're leaving on an adventure." If I had known her idea of an adventure I might have packed better. I would have said goodbye to my friends.
7. You could see a lake, but it is only a mirage. You drink it, thinking the sand is water, and you choke on the sand and die.
To be fair, she didn't bring more than five things either. She brought: a picture of the three of us when Dad was still alive; a book called Living Off the Grid; her biggest home telescope; and probably a couple of things I haven't seen, since that's only three. I assume she's not counting stuff like sheets and pots and pans and her gardening hat.
I brought: my favorite stuffed animal, Charley the Sea Lion; my photo album; my eReader and my iPod (the only electronic things Mom let me take) and a solar charger for both, which didn't count as a separate thing; and the cat, Gandalf the Gray.
We fought about Gandy. She said we should just ask the neighbors to watch him while we were gone. I said favorites are favorites, and she had already vetoed my laptop and my DS. She said cats aren't things. I said no, but cat carriers are, and she would feel guilty if I took an empty cat carrier as one of my favorite things. I am so glad I fought for Gandy, now that I know where we were headed. I don't know why I thought to bring him when I didn't know we'd be gone for a long time. Maybe that's what happens when you have to narrow your life down to five favorite things. Does it get easier or harder when you're as old as Mom? She's lived long enough to find more favorite things, but also had more time to figure out which ones are more important than others. I wonder if I'm one of her five things.
If I had known how long we would be gone, I would have pushed her on a couple of other things. Instead of just bringing the electronic books, I would have argued that a home library is a single thing. I think she would have gone for that. This notebook was a secret sixth thing, smuggled in my clothing. If Mom noticed, she didn't say anything.
8. One word: Roswell. This applies if you are an alien, but possibly also if you saw an alien land.
9. The canyon you are walking in could be overtaken by a flash flood, and you drown.
10. You could step on a fire ant hill, and they swarm your legs and your body and your arms, and you die.
If I had siblings maybe this wouldn't be so difficult. Maybe I wouldn't mind that there are no other kids around, or that I'm not allowed off our property on my own. We have to drive everywhere, which means we never get to go anywhere I want. Mom says gas is too expensive to waste on frivolous trips. "This whole move was a frivolous trip," I told her last week. She made me go to my room, but my room is right next to hers, so I heard her crying a little while later.
If I had siblings maybe I wouldn't mind that everything outside the front door burns, bites, stabs, or stings. We would play board games. We could pool our allowances to buy a television even though Mom doesn't want us to have one. We could buy a tablet or a game console or a computer with satellite Internet access.
"What's wrong with reading?" Mom would ask us, just like she asks me now.
"Nothing," my sassy older sister would say. "We love reading. But we could use some new books. Ones we haven't read a thousand times. We just want a little something to break up the evening. You know, since we don't have any other friends here."
I don't know who would win the argument. Some days I imagine it going one way, some days the other. If I had an older sister she would take some of the pressure off me, so I wouldn't feel like such a jerk every time I ask for something. I don't think I'm being unreasonable. I really don't.
11. You could wander for years, eating only cactus and the occasional jackrabbit. The rabbit tends to be old and gamey since you can only catch the slow ones. You starve in increments, but you die.
12. You could die of exposure; your fair skin is not cut out for the unrelenting, gradual poison of the sun.
13. You could find a real oasis and you are so thirsty you just keep drinking water. You drink too much, like that woman who tried to win a radio contest for a game console, and then you die. That may be irony, to die of drinking too much water in the desert.
14. You could find a shack that turns out to belong to a deranged serial killer who had purposefully removed himself from society. Now that you are there, he can't help himself.
I get more of what's going on than she thinks. This isn't just an adventure. That might have worked on six-year-old me, but it doesn't work now that I'm eleven. You don't leave in the middle of the night and just start driving west. You don't just get rid of the phone, the TV, the radio, the computer. You don't insist that your kid go everywhere with you, even on the tiniest errands, when she is perfectly capable of staying home alone. What I don't know is whether we are running to something or away from something. I don't know how much I want to know. I ask if I'm going to go to school here, and she says, "We'll see."