The Wrong Stars
In the evening of the last good day either of them would know for years to come, the girl pushed open the sliding glass door and stepped through onto the back porch.
Will Innis set the legal pad aside and made room for Devlin to climb into his lap. His daughter was small for eleven, felt like the shell of a child in his arms.
“What are you doing out here?” she asked, and in her scratchy voice he could hear the remnants of her last respiratory infection like gravel in her lungs.
“Working up a close for my trial in the morning.”
“Is your client the bad guy again?”
Will smiled. “You and your mother. I’m not really supposed to think of it that way, sweetheart.”
“What’d he do?” His little girl’s face had turned ruddy in the sunset and the fading light brought out lighter strands in her otherwise-midnight-dark hair.
“What’s that mean?”
“Means it’s not been proven. He’s accused of selling drugs.”
“Like what I take?”
“No, your drugs are good. They help you. He was selling, allegedly selling, bad drugs to people.”
“Why are they bad?”
“Because they make you lose control.”
“Why do people take them?”
“They like how it makes them feel.”
“How does it make them feel?”
He kissed her forehead and looked at his watch. “It’s after eight, Devi. Let’s go bang on those lungs.”
She sighed but didn’t argue. She never tried to get out of it.
He stood up, cradling his daughter, and walked over to the redwood railing.
They stared into the wilderness that bordered Oasis Hills, their subdivision. The houses on No-Water Lane had the Sonoran Desert for a backyard.
“Look,” he said. “See them?” A half mile away, specks filed out of an arroyo and trotted across the desert toward a shadeless forest of giant saguaro cacti that looked vaguely sinister profiled against the horizon.
“What are they?” she asked.
“Coyotes. What do you bet they start yapping after the sun goes down?”
When Devlin had gotten into bed, he read to her from A Wrinkle in Time. They’d been working their way through the penultimate chapter, “Aunt Beast,” but Devlin was exhausted and drifted off before Will had finished the second page.
He closed the book, set it on the carpet, and turned out the light. Cool desert air flowed in through an open window. A sprinkler whispered in the next-door neighbor’s yard. Devlin yawned, made a cooing sound that reminded him of rocking her to sleep as a newborn. Her eyes fluttered and she said softly, “Mom?”
“She’s working late at the clinic, sweetheart.”
“When’s she coming back?”
“Tell her to come in and kiss me?”
He was nowhere near ready for court in the morning, but he stayed, running his fingers through Devlin’s hair until she’d fallen back to sleep. Finally, he slid carefully off the bed and walked out onto the deck to gather up his books and legal pads. He had a late night ahead of him. A pot of strong coffee would help.
Next door, the sprinklers had gone quiet.
A lone cricket chirped in the desert.
Thunderless lightning sparked somewhere over Mexico, and the coyotes began to scream.
The thunderstorm caught up with Rachael Innis thirty miles north of the Mexican border. It was 9:30 P.M., and it had been a long day at the free clinic in Sonoyta, where she volunteered her time and services once a week as a bilingual psychologist. The windshield wipers whipped back and forth. High beams lighted the steam rising off the pavement, and glancing in the rearview mirror, Rachael saw the pair of headlights a quarter of a mile back that had been with her for the last ten minutes.
Glowing beads suddenly appeared on the shoulder just ahead. She jammed her foot into the brake pedal, the Grand Cherokee fishtailing into the oncoming lane before skidding to a stop. A doe and her fawn ventured into the middle of the road, mesmerized by the headlights. Rachael let her forehead fall onto the steering wheel, closed her eyes, drew in a deep breath.
The deer moved on. She accelerated the Cherokee, another dark mile passing as pellets of hail hammered the hood.
The Cherokee veered sharply toward the shoulder and she nearly lost control again, trying to correct her bearing, but the steering wheel wouldn’t straighten out. Rachael lifted her foot off the gas pedal and eased over onto the side of the road.
When she killed the engine, all she could hear were the rain and hail drumming on the roof. The car that had been following her shot by. She set her glasses on the passenger seat, opened the door, and stepped down into a puddle that engulfed her pumps. The downpour soaked through her black suit. She shivered. It was pitch-black between lightning strikes and she moved forward carefully, feeling her way along the warm metal of the hood.
A slash of lightning hit the desert just a few hundred yards out. It set her body tingling, her ears ringing. I’m going to be electrocuted. There came a train of earsplitting strikes, flashbulbs of electricity that illuminated the sky just long enough for her to see that the tires on the driver’s side were still intact.
Her hands trembled now. A tall saguaro stood burning like a cross in the desert. She groped her way over to the passenger side as marble-size hail collected in her hair. The desert was electrified again, spreading wide and empty all around her.
In the eerie blue light, she saw that the front tire on the passenger side was flat.
Back inside the Cherokee, Rachael sat behind the steering wheel, mascara trailing down her cheeks like sable tears. She wrung out her long black hair and massaged her temples, trying to alleviate the headache building between them. Her purse lay on the floor on the passenger side. She dragged it into her lap and shoved her hand inside, rummaging for the cell phone. She found it, tried her husband’s number, but there was no service in the storm.
Rachael looked into the back of the Cherokee at the spare. She had no way of contacting AAA, and passing cars would be few and far between on this remote highway at this hour of the night. I’ll just wait and try Will again when the storm has passed.
Squeezing the steering wheel, she stared through the windshield into the stormy darkness, somewhere north of the border in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Middle of nowhere.