Oscar fumbled under the seat for the tin of water Iza had promised would be there; he took a long drag. He slung himself across the seat sideways, then chastised himself, removed his feet from the upholstery. He remembered suddenly, vividly, that the city had had buggies, fancy ones you could rent if you wanted; no one really did, except the tourists. There was a rail for people who had to be everywhere fast. But most people just walked.
His memories raced. Just minutes before he’d been laid out from exhaustion, but now he felt flush with energy, like he could stay awake the rest of his life if the city was at the other end. He crossed his ankles, pinned them under the seat to keep from pulling them back into the seat. “How far do you think it is?” he asked.
“Too soon for that,” Iza said. “Ask me when we get to the salt.”
“Do you drive the desert a lot?” he asked.
“Last little while, yeah,” they said.
“Do you know Kurt?”
“A buddy of yours?” they asked.
“A dog,” said Oscar.
Iza’s laugh was politer than he would have expected, short but serene. “No, never had cause to pick up a dog, Oscar.”
“It’s just, no one’s escaped the prison since I’ve been there. No one’s even tried. So I don’t know why you’re out here so much.” He plucked at a loose thread sticking out from the corner of the seat cushion. He told himself not to pull it. Instead he stroked it end to end to the point of distraction. If it extracted itself, it would not be his fault.
His question still had not been answered.
“Iza,” he prodded. “Why would the prison send somebody out after escapees? Why would they care?”
“You’d rather be left to die?” they asked.
“It’s just I’m surprised they’d rather I didn’t die. Is it because living is part of my punishment?” said Oscar. “Because I have to serve my time?”
“Because it’s wrong,” said Iza. “It’s wrong for you to die hungry and thirsty. Bloody or busted, it’s different. Maybe you got in a fight, or you started a mutiny. Starvation, that’s not your fault; that’s everyone else around you being negligent. There’s not a lot of rules to govern disposition of your set. Somebody’s gotta act lawful.”
“Somebody,” said Oscar. “Why you?”
Iza scratched violently at the spot where their hair met their neck. “I keep forgetting I don’t have to answer you,” they said, and clammed up.
Bored, Oscar stuck his head out the window, expecting wind; mules, however, didn’t go so fast, and the air was as weirdly still as it had been the first day he’d set out. As it had been this morning, when he’d woke at Iza’s feet. From the ground Iza had towered, their body blocking the sun for him, their boots and coat and hat shadowing them head to toe. A big person, Iza was, though not, Oscar thought, in the way of a guard; not, either, in the way of a fighter. More a giant bending its back to seem a mountain.
He couldn’t help making a myth of them. He’d taken a liking.
“The salt,” he called out. “Already!” The flat white gleaming on the horizon.
“That’s right,” said Iza.
“I didn’t think we’d get there so soon,” said Oscar.
The mule brayed, as if annoyed by him.
“And now you’ll tell me how far?”
“Ask me when we make it across the salt,” Iza said, with a wise-guy look back.
“You’ll just keep putting me off, won’t you?”
Iza lifted both hands in surrender, and Oscar could tell they grinned. Oscar could tell a lot about them. Like that they weren’t used to being entertained, that probably if they ever really got going they would look not happy but ill at ease, that they would bare their teeth.
Forty years of driving. Iza was probably a good dozen years his senior. By math alone, they had seen more world than he had. He wished, briefly, that there was more than one part of the world he cared about.
“Iza,” said Oscar. “Have you ever been to the city?”
“Anyone ever look at you funny when you ask that?” said Iza. “There are a lot of cities, Oscar.”
“Everyone always knows what I mean,” he said. “You know what I mean.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean.”
“How old were you?”
“It was a long time ago,” they said.
“When you were a kid?”
“No. If you think about it, there’s space in my life for a lot of long times ago. I don’t have to tell you which one it was.”
“I wonder if you were there when I was there,” he said.
“Why? Thinking what if we had hooked up? You’ve got bright eyes, nice hair. It could have happened.”
“You might have heard about me,” Oscar said. “What I did.”
“Were you famous?”
“I don’t know,” said Oscar. “I got put in prison, and I never found out.”
Iza cracked two joints in their neck, right and then left, and over their shoulder the sun sent out a piercing arc of light, wide and distorted, so that Oscar dug his thumbpads into his eyes to be rid of the spots. And though he’d been so awake only moments before, this made him feel sleepy.
But Iza was talking now about the city.
“The city was nice,” they said. “I spent two months there when I was young. I drove buggies.”
“I was just remembering those,” said Oscar excitedly.
“It was my first job,” Iza said. “That was before they were the attraction. They couldn’t get anyone much to pay for them in the daytime, so they had me working nights, taking people from bars to hotels and back, when they were too happy to notice the gouging. During the day I could do what I pleased. Didn’t really know how to spend my time then. I drove around some, but I didn’t go too far beyond my apartment. Just a few square blocks. Old Town, it was called.”
“That was my neighborhood.” Without meaning to, he shot his hand through the window, clasped Iza’s shoulder. Their bones sharpened throughout, and Oscar withdrew. “Did you like the city?” he asked.
“I hadn’t seen anything like it,” they said. “Yes? I think so. I liked the way the buildings all pushed up next to each other, and the way any little space was an excuse to open some strange, specific shop—hats or candy or magic tricks. I lived above a flower shop. The owner gave me a free carnation every day. Said I could wear it in my buttonhole like a real chauffeur. Sometimes I did. Sometimes I just left it in the backseat for the tourists to take. They seemed to like that. Maybe I started the thing about the buggies being romantic. You think?”
“I don’t know,” Oscar said. “I never took one. I just walked.” He was run out of questions; the questions he would have asked, Iza answered, so that he didn’t even remember what he wanted the answers for anymore, just wanted them to keep coming. It felt like an older time, to have a friend talk, and then to talk back to them, to each say how it was and nobody interjecting vacant reassurances, nobody waiting out the other for a chance to end the one subject, to begin another.
“I walked too,” Iza said. “The city was…something. You could tell the people who were making it. They were just jazzed. The people coming and going in my building, it was like they couldn’t get rid of all the energy. They went out all hours, had parties in the middle of the week, played songs older than them on the guitar. They laughed all night in their own languages. I’m a heavy sleeper, Oscar; believe me, I love my sleep, I could have snoozed through it. But sometimes I stayed up listening, like maybe I would figure out what they were saying. I never could fit into the city like them. I saw as much of the city as I could and in the end it was too big for me.”
“I think I saw all of it,” said Oscar. “They say you can’t, but I’m pretty sure I did.”
“I regret I didn’t go down to the water,” they said. “It was right there, and it would have been easy. Didn’t cost anything. Something you couldn’t find just anywhere else—that much blue water still clean. Especially now. You’ve heard that much from the outside, I’m guessing.”
That much, yes. The disaster, yes, that much, Look at the children, their leaden eyes; look at their water gone brown. No avoiding the fact of the disaster, no satisfaction to the question of how come the disaster. Oscar nodded. The sun set lower still, and the salt before them sent it glaring orange into his eyes, and when had it gotten this late? He closed his eyes, the sun still hanging strange, uneven behind his eyelids, and it was harder than anything not to keep them closed.
“I got too chatty, huh,” Iza said. “I’ll shut up and you can sleep.”
Oscar rifled his fingers through his hair, picking desert grit from his scalp. He combed all the hair in front of his eyes and looked out through it like a dark sheer screen, shifting his focus close and then far, studying how long his hair had gotten, appraising the remaining salt flat.
“When will we get to the end of the salt?” said Oscar.
The mule complained, flapped its lips as Iza pulled the reins, but it came to a stop. They shimmied sideways in the driver’s seat, the buggy rocking with them side to side. They bent low in the driver’s seat to level their head with Oscar’s. Their hat shadowed his head.
They pointed out into the salt. “See that little mountain?”
“Yes.” Iza’s clothes smelled like rubber, like new road.
Iza watched his face like they didn’t believe him, like they wanted to make sure. Apparently satisfied, they continued, “See where it splits?”
“Yes,” Oscar said.
“Look carefully,” they said.
“Oh,” said Oscar. “Yes,” he lied.
“That’s the way out.”
“And we’ll get there how soon?”
Iza ground their knuckles down on his head. “Go to sleep if that’s all you have to say,” they said. “It’ll make the time go faster.”
“I want to stay awake,” he said. “Until we get there. I keep getting tired and I don’t know why.”
“You’ve been a fine companion,” said Iza. “But you can’t hold it off forever.”
And they were right; he was nodding. It had been mere hours since he’d had a sleep; what had he done to earn another? This was life now: exhaustion mounting ever higher in proportion to idleness, sleep knocking sooner and with less cause each day. He couldn’t stand it. The affliction he hated in his cohorts at the prison; the very thing he had always fought against. It seemed the fight was being drained from even him.
He would let himself be all right with it, he decided, only because Iza snapped the reins, driving onward, heading straight at the spot on the horizon they’d let on to him was home, and because sleep reduced the time it’d take to reach it.
While he slept he dreamed of the lake.
Gone were his fairy boats, his white sails softly waving their peace. The jaunty waves, their dance and black sparkle. He stood at the edge of a dock, and it was day, in his dream, but it didn’t look it. The air he breathed was muffled, thick, and lay over the water like a blanket, dark in the same way the water was dark, and where the air met the water it wavered uneasy like a high road on a hot day—vast and flat, a scorching plain. Oscar did not know anything about sailing, but he had used to know what was on the other side of that water. Now he was sure that, if he sailed out as far as he could see, there would only be a dark pitch into space, a head-first fall.
Oscar bent to the water and dipped his hands. The surface rippled like water, gave way like water. He drank, and instead of quenching, it made his stomach full.
If he were to begin walking, he thought, the water would hold like a road. It would bear his weight.
So Oscar stepped off the dock.
He stirred to the ugly flapping of an open tent; to night again, insensible dark; to arresting cold at the small of his back where his blue uniform shirt had ridden up; to Iza’s heavy steps, to their big arms around his middle, carrying him fireman-style toward his bed in the prison tent.
“You lied to me,” he shouted, fighting Iza’s grip.
“I didn’t,” Iza snapped. They dumped him onto the mattress.
Iza pressed a firm hand over his open mouth. “I never promised you anything,” they said.
Oscar shook violently at the chill of the abandoned sheets, at the press of worn-out bedsprings against the red and tender of his skin. He could not get control of his shivering, and lay there coiled as Iza wrapped something heavy over him, tucked it tight at the sides.
“I’ll get out of here,” he whispered through chattering teeth. “I’ll find you again.”
Iza tugged the flattened pillow beneath him so it better held his head. They said, “I won’t come after you next time.” Their hand cupped beside his ear like a conch shell, a sensation unregistered until it was gone.