With some food and a few tins of water, a man could walk eight days. If Oscar set off in a direction, and did not vary from it, he would run into someplace. The modern world was too small for him not to.
He walked the flat of the land all day. To his surprise, it was not hunger or thirst that got to him first. It was boredom. The prison had seemed uniquely razed, uniquely barren of life, but out here, it was worse. There were no snakes or stray dogs. There were no insects to buzz or bite. Just the same thick patches of bristling cactus, the same big black birds circling and never seeming to land. If at least something could surprise or threaten him, if he could tell things one from another by size or species, if the surroundings could even offer some bright, a bloom, some spots, to stand out from the desert’s bland, habitual palette. The eye settled on nothing, and the skin chafed from gathered dust. The sun seemed not to rise or lower. It was winter, the season of wind, and yet the air felt stopped around him, dead.
It made him, more than anything, want to sleep.
Stubbornly he walked on. And thanks to his stubbornness, he got somewhere. The cactuses died out, and the sky took all the room they left behind, filled his sight with blue. A little farther he pushed himself, and he began to feel unsettled.
Because here, in the strange sudden blue, the ground changed. He was on the edge of an empty salt plain that stretched all the way to the horizon and further, flat cracked white, like broken glass.
It went on for miles. He could see noplace in it for him to get to.
Time passed, in which he dully sifted through his circumstances. Where to go, where to go. As if he was back in the prison yard, choosing a spot to pee. It didn’t matter, and he couldn’t decide. And the indecisiveness made him sleepy. He sank carefully to his heels, fighting the urge to collapse, which was now almost unbearable, which whispered to him, like a parent on Christmas Eve, that if he slept now the thing he so wanted would be waiting for him in the morning. The pressure mounted; he flopped over onto the ground, trying in vain to hold his eyes open. He clenched a fist into the ground. The salt was hard as ice and did not budge for him. It burned at his split knuckles. It stung his nostrils with its smell. He grasped at the salt and was still grasping when he lost consciousness, his senses overtaken by enemy sleep.
Oscar woke rudely with an inhale of dust. He choked and coughed, bolting up, only to catch the sun full in his eyes. He swore aloud, then rubbed at his whole face with both hands till it stopped sending bothered signals at him. He sat a while looking straight ahead at nothing, eyes adjusting.
Eventually he understood that he was in the desert. No one was around, and the prison was not in sight. He had apparently fallen asleep. It was an odd place he’d chosen. He scooted himself free, taking care not to scrape against the ugly tangle of thornbush and cactus that hemmed him in.
Standing, Oscar became aware he had blisters. Not so bad it hurt to walk, but every step brought irritation. So he had done it—he had left the prison, as he planned, and he had walked this far. Probably he had overexhausted himself, and this was why he couldn’t remember. If only he remembered which way he had come from and to where he had been heading. He remembered, vaguely, that he had gotten somewhere, that he had made progress. And the shadow of a memory: He had already seen the route he saw before him now. This must be the direction from which he’d come. The direction of the prison.
So he walked the other way. This felt right. It felt new. And steadily, his exhaustion faded, and his mood improved. He ate some lunch. He stopped noticing his blisters. He walked all day, until the sun began to set behind him, casting the sky pink and turning the desert plants to shadows. And there was another shadow not so far ahead, a low congregation of buildings: an outpost. Perhaps a village.
Oscar doubled his pace, and the sun sank. It was dark when he approached the buildings. A solitary lamp hung from the edge of a roof. Oscar made toward it, fired with anticipation. If this was an inn, there would be travelers, there would be transport. There would be people who could tell him where he was and how he could get to his city.
He stopped mere steps away. He realized what he’d found.
The broken wire fence, the tumble-down house. Inside its wooden walls, the prison guards asleep. In two long rows just beyond, the neat raised peaks of canvas, the prison tents, silent and still.
He would not go back. He was escaped, and nothing could make him go back, not even for a night, not even to gather provisions, to find a compass, to trade his shoes, no matter how superior the choice seemed.
He started back out into the desert, aimed in the direction he should have gone.
The whole night he walked beneath a fingernail moon, the desert an endless dark expanse. As the sun rose the next morning, silver, covered in a thin cloud, Oscar came to a place where the land was awful and new: barren blue sky and endless white salt.
Reaching this place, Oscar was unbearably tired. He began to feel as if he would not ache or hunger if he could only rest here; he felt hollowed out of other needs, felt, as he tumbled to his knees and dropped his head to the dirt, sinking into a deep and desperate sleep, that the desert would keep him as long as he would stomach.
Another waking. Oscar found himself in a little gulch, back and sides aching, as if he’d been thrown around in the night. He rubbed his jaw where it had chafed against the ground, squinted up at a round yellow sun. His stomach rumbled. He checked his pack and found his supply lower than he remembered. He doled himself a few bites.
He walked until he reached a place different from the rest, uncanny in its emptiness. A vast, unblemished space. It was as though his view was flattened to just two dimensions. Barren blue sky. Endless white salt.
He collapsed to the ground all at once, as if knocked there by a giant’s blow.
Gritting his teeth around the salt dirt in his mouth, he fought to rise; his body resisted, something beyond exhaustion pressing him down. Distantly Oscar became aware of an approaching rattle along the ground. A clip-clop. When he forced his eyes up, he found a mule and buggy drawing toward him, a driver riding high in the seat, draped neck to sole in some gathered black woolen tunic, like a priest’s dress. A wide black sunhat covered the driver’s face.
Oscar dragged himself out across the salt, and when the mule was wrung to a stop, pacing irritably in place, he grabbed onto its harness, addressed the driver through huffs of breath.
“Where are you from,” he demanded.
A sharp face; unsmiling eyes veiled by wrinkles. “That’s your first question?” the driver said, and if Oscar wanted to decide whether the person was a man or woman, he got no extra information from the voice.
“I want to go to the city,” Oscar wheezed, and once again, enunciating, “The City.”
“For crying out loud.” The driver held out a tin. “Drink something,” they said.
Oscar grabbed the tin, popped the cap, poured the water into him all in one go, guzzling impolite.
“I’m not going to the city,” said the driver.
Oscar handed back the tin, panting for breath. “But can you get to the city from here?”
The driver kneaded the soft of their shoulder, sneaked a scratch to the crook of their armpit. “That’s beside the point, isn’t it,” they said. “This buggy isn’t going to the city.”
Oscar supposed that was enough information for now.
“Do you want a ride,” said the driver.
The driver nodded too, and Oscar took it for permission to haul himself, dusty and sweat-damp, into the buggy. Hoisting up by the gilded molding, he parted the beaded curtain with his face and paused at the interior: dark, roomy, upholstered in velveteen. Faux opulence; none of it plush. But the way his blood swelled when he slumped into the backseat—immediate, a tidal relief. Something about a cushioned seat.
“You can sleep till we get there,” the driver called back. “Good night.”
But here at last was someone who knew the city, who knew its location compared to here, who could even, if persuaded or if thieved, furnish a vehicle. Oscar hardly had to convince his tired bones—he hopped over to the front seat and put his head in the little window. “Where are you from?”
The driver startled at seeing him there. “You’re still awake?”
“Where are we going?”
“Same place as always,” they sighed.
“Home?” Oscar asked.
“No,” they said. “Won’t catch me traveling that road. I’m from a little place up in a mountain hollow. Little as in there’s not a lot of people there. There used to be more people, some hundred years ago, and more kinds of people. Now it’s just artists. They make anything you’ve ever seen that looks like it’s not got a reason to be. Everyone makes a lot of money. If I were there, I’d probably be making wind-up birds or woven wall hangings or something.”
Oscar perked up. The information was just going to come to him. He wouldn’t have to work his way around to it, wouldn’t have to wheedle and beg. He could rack his brain for mountain, for quaint, for artisan, and surely this would give him something he could use to find his way. But the driver’s voice and the rhythm of the ride made him drowsy. He rested his chin on the frame of the window, let it hold him up. “What’s your name?” he asked.
“Not really important seeing as I doubt we’ll talk again,” they said. “I’ve been driving forty years. I’ve spent most of them here, but not all of them. Never married. No kids. I can go on a while. This is what you want to know, right?”
“I want to know how to get home,” Oscar said. Drifting. He was looking up at the driver, he thought. He was sitting with his head in the window watching them through drooping upholstery the color of wine.
At some point, instead, he had slipped down into the seat. His eyes had closed despite him and his arms had wrapped round his poky belly in absence of a blanket. The driver knew this, though they did not turn around.
“Iza is my name,” they said. “Sorry guy, but I’m not taking you to the city. The city’s like another planet from here.”