Michael’s Wife





Michael's Wife

Marlys Millhiser

For my husband, David


A screeching cry made her roll over. The hawk circled above her in a light gray sky, swooped lower to take a final check, and then silently folded itself into a nest on top of a strange tree.

No. Not a tree.

She closed her eyes tightly and then opened them just enough to peer through dark lashes. It was a tall cactus, weird and distorted, with three spiny green arms reaching upward as if signaling a turn in traffic. Others like it were all around her, and still others without arms, that were short and stubby, shaped like barrels. She shut her eyes again trying to make sense of what she'd seen.

Something she couldn't identify nagged at one corner of her consciousness.

Birds—it sounded like hundreds of them—trilled and chirped somewhere close and a light but heady sweetness scented the air. The pain at the base of her skull tightened the skin under her hair, spread to her forehead, pulling up on her eyelids, forcing them open.

The sky a lighter gray now.

Cold. She raised first one bare arm and then the other; both felt laden and prickly with sleep. Flexing numbed fingers, she examined her hands curiously and finally forced cold, stiff muscles to let her sit up.

Nausea. It pushed up from her middle to her throat and brought sickly sweat to her face. Shivering, drawing the sweet air into her lungs in deep measured breaths, she waited it out.

She sat in a miniature stream bed without water that twisted away through cacti, small trees, and clumped bushes until it was out of sight. Around her night shadows lingered still, but the edge of a red-orange sun peeked over a dark mountain range low on the horizon. It rose to sit on a mountain crest, bringing a strange world into sharper focus, drawing out the colors around her as she waited for the sense of it all to come to her.

She was sitting in a desert at dawn, but for the moment she couldn't think why.

The tranquil, familiar sound of flies. Three buzzed past her to settle on a hardened cow pie nearby. A bee scuttled into an opening purple-red blossom crowning a small paddlelike cactus. The nagging something was growing stronger, creeping up through the haze of her thoughts.

Carefully now, not wanting to disturb her aching head more than was necessary, she got to her feet, placing her weight on one tingling foot and then the other. She searched the ground around her, not knowing exactly what she looked for—a purse, a jacket, some belonging. But there was nothing.

Her body had left no impression on the packed sandy earth. The desert stretched vast and endless in every direction, repeating the same scene over and over.

And then it hit her, with almost a physical blow. Fear, full-blown, unmistakable.

She was racing down the stream bed away from the mountains, blindly following its twisting course as if something monstrous were at her heels, one small part of her trying to analyze what it was she feared, the rest consumed with the fear itself till she was breathless with it, weak.

At one point the stream bed made a wide curve and she overran it just a little. Just enough to step into a nest of lime-green bristles beneath a lime-green bush that glistened in the strengthening sunlight. As she hurriedly stooped to extract the painful barbs from her sandals, exposed foot, and then from her fingers she saw the track, a double car track with a feathering of grass and short weeds in the middle just a few feet from the edge of the stream bed.

Rubbing a sore foot, she tried to push down the panic and to assemble her confused thoughts into a pattern that would help her remember what had happened. That momentary loss of being that sometimes comes in a dream or between sleeping and waking was still with her. But she was fully awake, had been for some time. She must know how she had come to be here and what caused her to be afraid, if only to know that she was running in the right direction.

The feeling of urgency, or danger about to rush around that curve in the stream bed, was strong, but she forced herself not to look over her shoulder, to walk and not run down the double track, to give herself time to think this out.

Only one coherent thought surfaced, and when it did it was a shock. The very first memory she had of her life was that hawk screeching above her, as if she'd been born that instant. And she was running again.

She didn't notice the cattle guard that stretched across the track until it was too late. It caught her toe and she sprawled across it.

As she raised her head to spit the grit from her mouth she saw the paved road, undulating at first behind dancing transparent red and green splotches and then settling into a smooth ribbon-band of highway that stretched taut between either horizon. The early sun had washed away the night and left illusions of shimmering pools on its surface.

She couldn't believe that in all that vastness she'd been less than half a mile from a highway even as she crossed it, felt its hardness under her feet, heard the rumble of an engine in the distance.

Except for the blue pickup that rattled toward her, the road was empty. She stood at the edge of it, a willowy figure swaying slightly with the tall grass and flowers of a desert spring that crowded up from the ditch behind her.

The pickup slowed and came to a stop. Its driver leaned elbow and head out the window and looked her over twice from bottom to top. “Hey, you bummin' a ride somewheres or out picking daisies?” Blue eyes grinned over a swirl of cigarette smoke.

“Please, I'd like a ride.”

“I'm just going to Florence.” He pushed the door open and watched her climb in. “Where'd you come from?” He made no move to start the truck.

“From there,” she said, pointing past him to the double track that led to a break in the barbed-wire fence and began again across the shiny steel poles of the cattle guard.

“There's nothin' up that road but a broken-down ranch house. That's a long walk this early.”

“Oh. Well … I was lost.” Despite the warmth of the truck she trembled with cold and fear. Or was it just reaction?

“Your car back there?” he asked, his expression good-natured, his curiosity obvious.

“No, I was walking.”

Squint lines deepened at the corners of his eyes, and he managed to broaden his grin without losing the cigarette from his lips. “In sandals?”

“Can't we just go, Mr.…?”

“McBride, Harley McBride.”

They started down the road with a jerk, the truck smelling of raw gasoline and dust. There was a waiting silence as she tried to run her fingers through long matted hair and stared at the rip in her slacks.

“You going to tell me your name?”

A pleasant numbness began to dull the ache in her head, the insistent hunger in her stomach. The warmth and motion of the truck soothed the confusion in her mind. She studied the man next to her. Should she tell him? Ask for his help? Surely there was no danger here. Still she didn't answer.

Harley McBride, in faded denim jeans and jacket and a T-shirt so stretched at the neck that the sandy hair on his chest curled over the top, slouched easily behind the wheel.

She was still wondering whether or not to confide in him when the truck braked to a halt so suddenly that she had to grab the dashboard to stay with it. And just that quickly her fear returned.

Harley turned to her, the easy slouch and grin gone. “You a hippie?” He finally removed the cigarette from his lips and blew the smoke between his teeth. “Because if you are, little lady, you can get out right here.”

Her eyes followed his down her dirty sleeveless blouse, the awful orange slacks and sandals. “I'm not a hippie,” she said quietly, wondering if she lied.

He studied her face and then threw the cigarette out the window and shifted the truck into gear. His grin returned. “I heard they was squatting around here, looking to get some sun. Papers say they're going to raise hell at the air bases.” And he tapped the newspaper lying on the seat between them.

HIPPIES PLAN DEMONSTRATIONS FOR PHOENIX AIR FORCE BASES. HIPPIES FROLIC IN THE SUN—PICTURES, PAGE 12. She turned to page 12, more to fore-stall his questions than because she was interested in hippies. A tall, emaciated girl picked desert flowers, stringy hair hiding half her face. Another picture showed a rangy bearded boy with wire-rimmed glasses sitting on a sleeping bag. A full page of pictures was devoted to long-haired people eating, standing, sitting. She could see no sign of frolic.

Unwilling to face Harley or the alien world outside the truck, she hid behind the paper, wishing that this ride would go on forever.

“You come back to haunt me, Doe Eyes?”

His strange question brought her up from behind the paper to find him grinning at the tear in her slacks. “Have you seen me before?” Hope and fear mingled as she tried to adjust to this new thought.

Small even teeth gleamed behind his grin. “I was huntin' once, up north in the mountains. Stopped at a stream to get a drink. When I looked up, there was this deer, not ten feet away, so still I hadn't seen her before.”

Something inside her went very still, tense, as she pictured the deer standing in the sunlight, her head high, watching her hunter, her nose and ears quivering as she sensed the danger. “And you shot her, I suppose?”

“Right between her beautiful blank brown eyes!” More light curly hair escaped from the cuffs of his jacket and spread onto the back of his hands, and heavy blunt fingers.

“But you know”—Harley turned the truck onto a side road where cultivated fields replaced desert and trees grouped around buildings just ahead—“… she's haunted me ever since. Had eyes just like yours.” His grin was conspiratorial. “Never trust a hunter, Doe Eyes.”

She decided to keep her problem to herself. Things would come straight any minute now.

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