Lightning flashes in the grainy dusk and your silhouette freezes, oddly contorted, on Nora's motel door. You glance back at the serpentine formation of tiny drones creating a ladder of low-pressure pockets, drawing moisture from faraway mountain ranges. Pretty soon the tempest will release the rain, every last drop.
You rattle Nora's door more violently, like you own the wind itself. No answer. All too familiar to find yourself chasing her again, but you won't let one toxic year corrupt twenty-three good ones.
The neighbor's door, room twelve, creaks open. A bearded man with bloodshot eyes and a bullring through his nose eases into the hallway. "You tried thrice, honey. She's not home."
You release the doorknob, now slick with sweat, and politely lift off your white Stetson hat. "Sorry to bother. I'm looking for Nora. I'm her friend."
"I'm her friend too."
An incoming gust of wind muffles the harshness of your scoff. He's nothing like the people that you and Nora once considered your friends.
"Need directions? Water? It's hell out here," he says.
You glance through the barred window into her room—open pill bottle on her table, fast food wrappers all over the floor.
"That's a nasty looking tempest." He leans against the railing, eyes fixed on the sky serpent. Gym shorts and a ratty white tank expose his bucking-bull-like dimensions. "This is a big city for a country mouse. You come all the way from Prescott? Soni?"
Apparently you're conspicuous, not that you were trying to hide.
"I feel like I know all about you. Nora talks about you a lot," he says.
Your hand moves to your chest like it's trying to hold together bone and flesh. "Where is she?"
"Come on in for an iced tea. She's usually back much later." He waves you inside. "Not the time for an old lady to be out wandering."
First honey, now old lady—he's just asking for a fight. "Before you crawl back into your rat hole, I'm going to ask again, kid, where the fuck is Nora?"
He raises his hands. "No need to get salty. She's at RiverCloud. Poker tourney."
You rush down the stairs and peel out the motel parking lot towards the casino. At the intersection, you glance over your shoulder at the shapes of abandoned hotels—this place of dead giants, where fish skeletons decorate the limestone sand bowl of Lake Mead.
You and Nora lived in Baker in your old life, owned a three-bedroom tract home, raised a boy and girl you loved so much. After the reservoirs dried out, networks of drones scoured the bone-white sky like flocks of starlings, but the tempests only lasted a few months. Then overnight the town straight ghosted and your life together evaporated. That was nine months ago—thousands of miles on the road, thousands of dollars on gas, and the more salient issues of how much more your arthritic knees and aging heart can handle.
Fifteen minutes later, you reach the strip. The drones buzz overhead in deafening unison. You've seen your share of tempests, but this is starting to look like a hive break—unprogrammed drones from all over the region converging on some unseen, hidden moisture.
The casino doors close behind you and the heat's suffocating embrace vanishes. The cool air tingles on your skin. A fountain of recycled water gushes lavishly in the foyer.
You troll the casino floor—a mind-numbing cacophony of ringing bells and red lights—past folks strapped into full-on VR body suits, their minds churning with cards, dice, tits and ass, fights, sports, anything they want really. You don't belong here. You live in the foothills of Prescott and grow cacti (yes, they need a little tending too).
A fight night just ended, some poor young guy reduced to a bloody pulp. The throngs empty out from the arena, eyes feverish, grins fixed and glittery. The blood, sweat, and spittle might as well have been smeared on them.
It feels tight, like you can't get enough air.
Bang! Bang! Two glass panels crack with little holes in the center. Tempered glass fragments crumble onto the lobby floor.
Screams erupt, the shrill roars of a dying beast.
On every face is the look of fear. A common, binding fear that has been planted inside you, day after day, year after year, erupting at the same time, in the same way. The panic drives the horde as it swerves wildly down hallways and races up ornate staircases.
You pull your Stetson low and stay small, cowering in between two slot machines, but you feel your heart ringing as loud as a cattle bell. You tell yourself handling horses has made you strong because right now that's what you need to be.
Within minutes about two dozen cops stand guard at the doors and sirens blare outside. You race to the poker room, but it's emptied out. A broken candy-red heel stabs the center table. The loudspeaker blares overhead. "There is no active shooter. The casino is resuming all functions."
You saw the two little holes. You saw the glass crumble.
A colossal roar of delight sounds through the casino, and the horde streams out from their hiding spots, clogging up walkways and tables. You're not going to find Nora in this chaos. There's a chance that you're never going to see her again.
Your eyes brim with moisture, but you stave off a breakdown. Standing under the AC vent reminds you of standing in front of the refrigerator when you were a kid. You close your eyes, and you can still hear your mom yelling about an electricity bill and how hard your father works to keep you all fed. She never did come to your wedding. She never spent any real time with Nora or your kids. But not a day goes by when you don't think about her.
You stumble outside into the desert night. The air burns from the tip of your nose to the deepest parts of your lungs. What's hotter than a one-hundred-five-degree Mohave day? A one hundred fifteen-degree Mohave night.
Above you the gray drones of the tempest twist and writhe. Electrical charges sizzle in its fluid bulk. A roll of thunder eclipses the tiny noises of the city and its people. The hive, this water serpent, isn't here to deliver rain. It's gone haywire. Being inside was only a short reprieve from the elements, but they never really let up, do they?
You get off the main drag onto a smaller street. No big screens, perfumed air, holo-suites, or pretty girls. Nothing to make it all nicey. Lurid purple and red lights oscillate over the sidewalk. It's around 2:30 a.m. Around because at 2:30 a.m. nobody is keeping track of time. A naked old man, so weather-beaten and tanned he looks like wrinkled gold, conjures his version of realty on the curb. You might be wearing a new pair of wrangler jeans, a turquoise studded cowgirl hat, and own a RV, but you're just a few bounced checks away from street life.
She's standing under a stoplight, bug-eyed with shock to see you. She's lost weight, but she's still got muscles and healthy curves. Forty-five still sounds young, still feels fresh. The change hasn't done the thing that it does yet.
"Did you think the third time's the charm?" Nora says.
"We have the RV. It's cooler in Prescott," you say.
Nora rolls her eyes and scoffs. "In that case, trying a third time is insanity. Anyway, my game is getting better. I'm paying my bills now."
"Nora, what happened sucked. You got hooked on narcs, but we can start over."
She opens her arms wildly and points to the skyline of abandoned high rises. "I did start over."
A long breath to reel in your flaring temper. "You can make a case to the nursing board. Get your career back. We can find an affordable little commune out in the cool country."
A look of panic crosses her face with the thought—no drugs, no gambling, no distractions. "That's who I was, who you still want me to be, but I'm over that now."
She starts to cross the street when a bolt of lightning so clear that it looks like it's from the hand of Zeus plasters the sky.
"I won't go back."
"I'm your wife!"
She smiles sadly, tragically. "I paid my debts, Soni. Now I'm living free."
A boom of thunder rolls through the half-dead cityscape and cracks your heart. You never could stop her from leaving. It's a choice to stay with another person, do the hard work, and find the moments of joy. That's all it ever is.
You watch her cross the intersection and disappear around the corner. The entire atmosphere of gruesome reality pummels you—the wall of heat and humidity, secondhand weed strong enough to get a whale high, eyes locked on screens, ears plugged with little white pieces of plastic, chips inserted into skulls. Trillions upon trillions of synapses altered in an electro-chemical haze.
The next fix is never far off. Take it in. Put your nose right to the screen and breath deep...want...fabricate...escape...
You start to cough.
That might work for some folks but not for you. Never has and never will.
You won't leave her here to rot.
Running feels right to you. It's a good thing you're wearing cushiony sneakers with orthotics and not your cowgirl boots. The mad heat radiates up from the concrete and asphalt. A few blocks down a ramp, you reach her on a wide road descending from the strip towards the west side of town.
"Nora!" The noise of the buzzing drones and thunder overwhelms your voice. So, you yell louder.
"Are you ever going to give up?" she yells back.
A red truck with oversized tires and tinted windows pulls up to the corner. The door opens and out steps her neighbor, but he doesn't seem so menacing now.
"It's hell out here ladies. Need a ride?"
You cock your head, a little surprised to see him. "Who, exactly are you?"
"The name's Jimmy. I'm up at strange hours trading commodities." He shrugs haplessly. "It's nice to have someone else to worry about."
You all turn in the direction of the rain that sounds like rising static. The sky is black now. Another blast of thunder shakes the ground.
The first bits of water squirm and writhe like electric tadpoles on the pavement.
It tastes fresh and sweet and falls down your throat, which feels like a dried riverbed.
"We need to move!" Jimmy runs back to the truck.
You realize why he's panicking. Flood water flows down the roads leading away from the casinos. The tadpoles become a wall of watery flesh. The ground tremors as you slosh through the intersection. Several blocks away, along a ramp, you see cars and trees spinning and floating in the darkness.
The water rises from your ankles to your knees. You manage to reach Nora and lock arms as you race towards the oversized truck. Jimmy reaches out and pulls Nora in. Nora grabs onto you, but a surge pulls your feet off the ground, and in a few seconds, you tumble downstream.
Your arm catches a streetlamp, and you hoist yourself up. The truck's headlights turn away as it splashes up an alley towards higher ground. You can't hear Nora screaming for you, but you know she is.
The next surge hits fast like a wall of cold, and you lose your grip, twisting, choking, and sputtering in the serpent's mouth. It feeds on inescapable destruction and crushed dreams.
But you know how to swim. You can't fight the current but just maybe you can keep from drowning and pray that a car doesn’t' flatten you against a building.
It's a terrifying ride before the serpent spits you onto a parking lot near an abandoned stadium. You crawl up a statue's base and just try to breath. Screams and wails rise into the night. The serpent has left the wounded on the watershed.
The tempest wanes to a drizzle. You shiver in the breeze as the ambulances arrive. The drones have dispersed, following new coding commands. The weather people must have finally caught on that they'd hived. The unseen pockets of low pressures and moisture vanish in the desert air.
You limp aimlessly for a while, until you recognize Jimmy's rectangular headlights, looking like giant reflective sunglasses. Nora jumps out of the car and races towards you. The embrace is hard and desperate, and your soggy body just takes her in.
"You're okay!" Jimmy says with relief.
In your patch of the field, it's dark. And contrary to what seems obvious, it's hard to hide in the dark. No screens, no lights, no distractions. The dark reveals. Nora sobs in your arms.
A loudspeaker makes an announcement that the medics are triaging patients. A set of floodlights switches on near the ambulances.
"Are you hurt?" she asks.
"The tempest spared me." You shake your head, the mind fog clearing, but there are others who aren't so lucky. You notice bodies in the grass, mostly faceup, but a few facedown.
"I've got some supplies in the truck," Jimmy says gently.
Nora stays quiet, her eyes growing like blue puddles, swallowing her face. Sometimes a person must make the climb out of the serpent's mouth on their own terms. Something inside her won't let her just walk away, and that is the reason you are here at all, but now you know it's not enough.
Your palms clasp and fingers intertwine in wordless communion. Twenty-three years packed together into that last touch, one that was once tight and layered like river rock. Now it's cracked, sliding apart like water off your skin, no matter what you might wish for.
You watch her crossing the field, becoming smaller and distant in the dawn light. You came for goodbye, and the hurt you feel watching her walk to that medic hut is the best goodbye you could have hoped for.
© 2023 Rajeev Prasad