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art by Tihomir Tikulin-Tico

Twenty Ways the Desert Could Kill You

Sarah Pinsker is a singer/songwriter based in Baltimore, Maryland. She has three albums on various indie labels and a fourth forthcoming. Her fiction has been published in the Emprise Review, Nine, Every Day Fiction and other publications. She can be found online at sarahpinsker.com. She ate a cactus when she was three.

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."
15. You could accidentally wander onto the property of a trigger-happy rancher, and he shoots you, and you die.
I opened her book on Living Off the Grid, so now I know what that means. It explains some of what she's trying to do here, and why we're fixing up this house in the middle of nowhere. It talks about all the things she's installing, like the solar panels and the moisture collection systems. We still have electricity, but maybe she's anticipating a time when we won't. She bought three goats. That's my favorite part of any of this so far. She let me name them, so I picked Hermione for the cute little one and Mrs. Whatsis for the older one. The boy goat is Tumnus, for now, but I have a feeling he's a balrog, not a faun. I checked that we weren't going to kill and eat them before I gave them names.
Living off the grid apparently involves growing your own food too. I'm not sure how New Mexico is a better place to do that than Baltimore. It would make more sense to me to be somewhere that has rain. If we have to grow our own food for real, she's going to have to lock up the goats. Nothing is safe from them.
16. Your horse could spook and throw you off, and you hit your head on a rock, and he stands there waiting for you to get up, but you die.
At night, sometimes we lie on our backs on the back deck. Mom holds my hand and tells me the names of constellations. There's one bright star that keeps getting bigger, which isn't a star-like thing to do. I pretend not to notice it, and she never points at that area of the sky. Her telescope is set up in that direction.
17. Your campfire could jump to your sleeping bag while you sleep. Sleeping bags are highly flammable.
I have a separate list for everything that the bright star might be: a meteor, a satellite, a shuttle, a UFO, a superhero, a God. That list crosses this one. If you're in New Mexico when any of those things hit you, I guess that's another thing that could kill you. Those aren't location specific. I'm leaving the lists separate for now.
I have another list of reasons why we moved here:
i) Mom knows that the speeding thing is going to hit Baltimore and moved us to where it is safer.
ii) Mom knows the speeding thing is going to hit New Mexico, and she has a death wish.
iii) Mom knows the speeding thing is a spaceship full of friendly aliens and she wants to be here to greet them.
iv) Mom knows there is no place that will be safe, but she has always wanted to live in the desert so she came here to do that before it wouldn't be possible anymore.
Any of those would explain the crying, even (iii), though those would have to be tears of joy. I may make another list of clues for each of those options. I could just ask, but I'm afraid she might answer and then I'd have to stop making lists.
18. You could be set upon by wild animals: a cougar, maybe, or coyotes. Possibly both.
19. You could stumble to the border and get caught in a gunfight between the minutemen and the coyotes. These coyotes are actually people.
Most of the possibilities on my list assume that the person writing the list (me) is human. There might be a whole other list of ways the desert could kill you if you were a cougar or a coyote or a cactus or an alien or a jackrabbit.
There is precedent for all of this. I know that she moved everything once before, taking us from Boston to Baltimore after my father died. I was too young to help, and too young to have favorite things. I know that my grandmother objected to that move, but she's dead now. I've only just realized how few ties we have compared to other people. I wonder if that's on purpose?
Really it should mean that the tie between the two of us is that much stronger. She should rely on me and confide in me. I would be much more helpful if she would just explain. Last week I finally got fed up. I said to her, "If you're afraid I'll tell something to somebody you don't need to worry, since I have no access to the outside world." I meant it to sound grown up, but as it came out it felt snarky. Still, she answered the way I had meant it.
"Oh, honey, it's not that," she said.
I didn't budge. "If that's not it, then you're afraid for me, like you're protecting me from something. I deserve to know."
Her face twisted a bit, like it does when she's trying to hide that she's sad, but she just pulled me into a hug and didn't let go for a while. It was the hard-to-breathe kind of hug, but I let it go on as long as she needed. I wished I could go back to the moment before I had asked. Now she knows that I know that she's protecting me from something. I think she liked it better when she thought she had kept it from me completely. She seemed happier. What could be so bad that she'd keep it from me? I'm starting to think that one of the points on my list of reasons we moved here might actually be right. Number (v), which I added later. I wrote it in code, in case she reads my lists:
(v) Mom knows there is no place that will be safe, but she doesn't want me to be around people when the panic starts. We can live happily in our off-the-grid house until the very last moment, without hearing the newscasters or seeing the cities go crazy.
The bright star is about an eighth of the size of the moon now.
I'm trying to be more understanding and patient. We made one more trip into town a few days ago, and then she said that was the last one for a while. She let me buy five new books at a garage sale on the way home. I said I would help more with the goats and the cooking. I've stopped asking questions, in the hopes that she'll stop guarding the answers so closely. It's not possible for me to forgive her entirely while we still have these giant secrets between us: hers that she knows what's going on, and mine that I think I do, too.
20. You could die of loneliness. All the more tragic for being avoidable.
I've picked out one cactus that I water whenever she isn't looking. I think that it is drowning, slowly.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, July 20th, 2012

Author Comments

My family moved to Texas when I was five. Although we only stayed two years, I can still dredge up my terror at the things that lurked outdoors: fire ants, rattlesnakes, scorpions, the deadly sun. Iíve driven through the Southwest many times since, and always been impressed by the ability of its residents to carve existence out of an environment that is at once both beautiful and harsh. Doug Fineís Farewell, My Subaru: An Epic Adventure in Local Living gave me some suggestions as to how and why a person might survive there if she thought she needed to put some distance between herself and everybody else.

This story started with the title, immediately followed by Alisonís main list and the last line. I worked backward to figure out why she was so concerned, and why she was acting out in such a tiny, controlled way. A lot of the questions I asked myself were about protection and the burden of knowledge, both from her perspective and her motherís.

- Sarah Pinsker
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