I wish the weirdest part of my story was how I came to be abandoned in the middle of the Cement Desert. I wish it was how I got dragged into a deal over my head and things went pearshaped and I was sent out into the sun-seared, shadeless waste to die and take that whole story with me. I kind of wish it had succeeded, that I had just walked and walked and walked until I couldn’t walk anymore and then crawled until I didn’t have the energy for THAT any more and then fell asleep until the sun dried me out and flaked off my skin and flayed my flesh and bleached my bones until I matched the cement underneath me.
It almost happened that way. I walked, and walked, and walked, and night was not much better than day because all the sun that spilled across the cement during the day baked heat back up out of it to cook me slowly. It only took two days before I wasn’t even feeling myself sweating anymore because I was just too dry. The headache was massive. I wonder if this was the kind of pain mom talked about when I was small and she had migraines that landed her on the couch in the dark. I felt like there was something inside my skull that was too large for that space. I felt like my eyeballs wanted to burst, and it was hard to focus, even squinting against the light. Not that there was much to focus on. Horizon, just the horizon, walking as if I had any chance in hell of making the far side of the desert. Going back to find my escorts and the bullet-end of their guns was sounding better the further I walked.
I didn’t believe there even was anything at first; I figured the slow-growing lump was just a figment, a what-do-you-call-it? A mirage, that’s right. Like that place in vegas. It was like that place for sure. Walking across the desert, watching it slowly get bigger, it was shining and impossible but it was SOMETHING, that lump, and I couldn’t conceive of not going to check it out. It took a long time to get to, longer than I expected. When there’s that much empty space, it’s hard to tell how far away anything is any more. The only thing that feels close is death.
The sun went down and I slept the night, and got up with my head pounding so bad it could have provided the beat for a Brit techno group, and the first thing I looked for was the lump. Still there, and it actually had a shape, now. It was round on the top, and taller than it was wide. And dark on one side – oh blessed mercy, that meant maybe there was shade, at least early and late in the day! So now I had a goal, and I got up, and I walked.
I walked. I walked.
I walked until it was close enough in front of me that I could see it was made of cement just like the desert. It was rounded as smoothly as the rest of the Cement Desert was flat. It was, as I staggered very close, twice as tall as I was, and with the sun behind me the shade had to be on the other side. I won’t lie, I was totally leaning against it as I made my way around, and I was so out of it that when the rounded surface stopped abruptly, I slid a little. Chevy Chase would been proud. I kept my feet, and oh the shade, the lovely shade! I know it wasn’t really doing anything for my skin, which going by my hands was totally red all over by now, but just being out of the sun made the constant flame of it ease down to an awful prickling.
The lump wasn’t just a lump; it was a half-shell, hollow inside, curved like the interior of an egg, and set into it was a huge shell that was the same color as the statue of liberty, and above it a weird statue that I guess was some kind of mermaid. Its tail was on top, belly against the wall, but instead of being the usual gorgeous chick mermaid (y’know, like Starbucks used to have on their sign before people got offended that she had tits) it was sort of… mostly a fish, long sinuous body and two fins sticking out the side.
The face was all human, though; it was a man, with a wide open grin, very careful even teeth, and it even had hair. Not wild merman hair, but really smooth, slick, side-parted hair that waved just so over the forehead. It was the kind of hair you see on a VP in some office building somewhere, not on a merman statue. But there it was.
“And here you are.”
Given everything else, seeing the mouth move and hearing it talk was pretty much all it took for my knees to buckle and my ass to hit the pavement.
“I imagine you are thirsty, aren’t you?”
It was too bizarre, seeing that metal mouth move and bend like flesh; it was like the animatronics of early 90’s movies, and I wondered if somehow I was being had, except what the hell would be the point of a toy statue way the hell out here? Although even that was more likely than-
“Magic fish, magic bowl, look, do you want some damn water or not?”
“Ye-heh-heh-heh-hehs,” I managed, coughing the word out raspily. I’d barely even opened my mouth in a day, since I realized it was drying me out worse to try to lick my lips.
“Marvelous. Good. So here’s the deal. Make a wish, and then you get the water.”
“I don’t-” I stopped, coughing to clear my throat uselessly. “I don’t wish for the water?”
“No sir, the water comes after the wishing. What way did you come from, anyway?”
I lifted a shaky hand to point. “Two days’ walk that way. Drove me out and dumped me.”
The metal almost looked as if it was melting around his head, the way it shifted to let him nod. “Right then. So what is your wish?”
“I wish…” I looked down at my hands, burned and cracked and thick with sun poisoning. Christ, they looked like effing sausages. I wished I hadn’t gotten in the middle of this mess. I wish I knew how to say no. I wish I’d had a gun of my own when Alaina and Mauricio showed up. “I wish they were dead,” I mumbled sourly, and coughed again.
“Alaina and Mauricio. They work for the Big Girl.”
“Are they the ones that… dumped you?”
“Yeah.” Even as I nodded, the merman’s head went still, mouth opening wide in a weird, yawing grin. There was a sound almost like a burp, and a gout of water burst forth to splash in the bowl, staining the oxidized copper with wet. I could SMELL the water, not a bad smell, but like when you’re a kid going to the seaside and you can’t see the beach or the ocean yet, but you can feel it in the way the wind is cool and damp. It was like that, an impossible burst of wet air in the middle of that cement oven.
I wish I could say I didn’t crawl to get to it, but I did, and dragged myself up on the edge of the bowl to shove my hands in. The water was cool and it was wet and felt so good and yet it HURT in the cracks in my skin and I screamed, and christ if that even wasn’t a wimpy sound, dry and thin and ragged. Then I was able to drag myself up almost to standing – really, I just sort of draped myself over the side of the huge shell-shaped bowl – and shoved my whole face into the water. That hurt too, and I screamed right into the water before backing out. Just a breath, and then I started drinking. Too much, too fast, and my stomach twisted and cramped around it and set it back up. I had to sling my head aside to vomit it out onto the hot cement. Even in the shade it was so hot that where it it, pink-stained, it hissed and began to steam.
That first run slowed me down, then, and I went for a few careful shaky gulps before sitting back down and catching my breath. “I think maybe you’re saving my life,” I pointed out, not really able to think much past the headache beyond pointing out the obvious.
“I am,” the creature grinned, and gouted a little more water out into the bowl. “Here, take this.”
Its mouth yawned impossibly huge, and a Ruger clattered out into the bowl, landing with its nose in the water. “You will go make Alaina and Mauricio dead,” it said simply, and I stared.
“You will. Or you will stay here with me.”
“Well, it’s not like I can walk two more days back like this, and even if I do it’s not like they’ll just sit there and wait for me to shoot them!” Even so, I reached a shaky hand in to gingerly pluck the gun from the shell bowl.
“You will.” The creature was implacable, lapsing back into that broad weird grin each time it spoke, and the gun lurched around in my grasp, wrenching my arm upward to slam the nose of it against my temple. “Or you will stay here with me.”
“JESUS CHRIST!” I yelped, my hand shaking, but I couldn’t pull my arm down, couldn’t let go of the gun, and my finger quivered on the trigger.
“You will go make them dead. Then you will come back. I will give you water. And you will grant my wish.”
Which is how I ended up walking back across the Cement Desert, holding myself at gunpoint. I can see the road in the distance, and I can see a car, and the sun is winking off of someone. I don’t even know if it’s them, but I’m going to do it. I will. And then maybe I can get myself before I need to go back there and find out what that thing could wish for. I have a terrible feeling that it’s going to want to leave with me next time.
This piece of Nightmare Fuel was inspired by this picture by Carabou of Flickr, shared under a Creative Commons license.
For more info on the Nightmare Fuel project, click here.