Forty-nine hours is enough time to convince myself of anything.
Sam is the last person on the planet and he doesn’t know how it happened. An atomic bomb went off and obliterated every shred of life except Sam. No, that’s not what happened, Sam’s in the desert, he’s the only one for miles and miles. Hot, dry, scrubby, desert. Smeared expanses of black and brown beneath an all-seeing sky. Brittle, half-hopeful chances at life that burst through the soil and sand and withered in the sun. And people might exist elsewhere, sentient souls might be living and performing expected, human acts of reality somewhere else, but here, in this last-chance speck in the desert, Sam is the only one.
I could convince myself of anything. But this is not about me. Sam’s story is my story, but this is about Sam and I am only telling it.
There is a great, wide haze of mountain breath heaving across the indistinct land: it is not good. This is not a good thing. I do not trust it.
“I have no idea where I am,” says Sam. “I’M LOST,” he says a little louder because it clearly doesn’t matter, not in this dead land, if he keeps his voice at an appropriate volume.
He expects to hear a multitude of Sams shout back at him, but instead: silence. There are no echoes in the desert.
He approaches a stately cactus.
“I read once,” says Sam to the cactus, “That cacti store water inside of them. I don’t know how much. A glassful, maybe? Two? And if I can just get to it, somehow, I can have it.”
“Back off, home skillet.”
Sam stares, bewildered.
“I said back yourself up off me,” says the cactus. “What, you deaf? What, you think you’re gonna jack me up, cut off one of my arms or something so you can have a drink, home slice? That what you think?”
“No, I’m sorry,” says Sam, backing away from the cactus. “Please excuse me.”
“Yeah, that’s right, keep walking.”
The Mojave Desert’s boundaries are generally defined by the presence of Yucca brevifolia (Joshua trees), considered an indicator species for the desert. Sam passed through those a long time ago. The desert is believed to support four hundred and thirty-nine vertebrate species of animals. And who knows how many other creeping things that never wound up with a spine.
Sam cannot remember how he arrived here. He remembers a blistery, blue pickup truck with a taillight out. A gas station. Or maybe, he doesn’t remember a gas station. And the not-even-one-single car that drove by. Not even one. How is it that he’s the last one alive?
It’s just past the sun’s highest place in the arc and Sam has no shadow and he is thirsty. He is parched. He hasn’t had anything to drink in forty-nine hours. Sam has long legs and a rip-curl of sandy hair over his forehead.
“You there, boy.” Sam looks around for the source of the voice. “How do you account for the gap between knowledge and experience?”
Who is speaking? Sam cannot see anyone, he is alone, he is the only one around for miles and miles.
“Will knowledge suffice when environmental conditions seem to be an insufficient source of information? Down here!”
The Lizard on the ground gives him an appraising look.
“Are you a hallucination?” asks Sam.
“I am offended,” says the Lizard.
“I didn’t mean to offend you,” says Sam. “Honestly. But I’m pretty sure I’m just imagining.” That’s the only explanation, right? RIGHT?
“Son,” says the Lizard exasperatedly. “Don’t let your reality define you. Now how are you going to get out of here?”
“I think I lost my car,” says Sam.
“Your car, boy, is not lost,” says the Lizard. “Come, let’s walk.”
The sand is scalding like the concrete at the crowded public pool where your dad might have taken you when you were younger until he eventually decided it wasn’t even worth it to take you anymore and so you played on the scalding sidewalk at home instead.
“The last thing I remember is leaving home,” explains Sam to the Lizard. “My mom...I think she was there. I think I said goodbye. I was headed out?”
The Lizard listens stoically. A giant, cottontail rabbit is methodically preening her giant rabbit feet.
“But Dad, well, about eight months since I’ve heard from him. Long time, right?”
“Typical human,” yawns the giant cottontail rabbit. “Always going on and on and on about their parental issues. Gawd, it’s enough to make you gag.”
“You leave the boy alone,” says the Lizard. His voice is much lower than you would think possible in such a compact creature.
“Mom!” “Mommy!” “Mom!” “Mom!” her cottontail rabbit babies shriek. “We are starved for affection!” “We are experiencing emotional deprivation!”
“Hush it!” bellows mother rabbit, grabbing the babies by the scruffs of their rabbit necks. “Kids,” she mutters and bounds away.
“Please continue,” says the Lizard politely. “Where were we?”
Thirteen Years Ago
Sam selected, with care, a virescent rubber dinosaur from the bin beneath his bed.
“Shut up!” his father’s voice didn’t stop at the ceiling beneath him, but shouted all the way up. “You always protect him. This ends! Now!”
“Let’s go for a walk,” Sam suggested to the dinosaur, clunking it along his footboard.
“Look, it’s not my fault, and don’t act like it is, I just went to get him from school, I don’t even know what the big deal is!”
“I can see the whole bedroom from up here,” said Sam, talking over his mother’s voice.
“The seventh time this year! Seventh, goddamit!”
“WHAT A BEAUTIFUL VIEW.” But Sam could still hear them. He rapped the minuscule dino against the wall, creating a racket. “GOSH THIS WALL SURE IS HARD.”
“You know he has problems with the other boys, you know that, and what am I supposed to do, just leave him there? I’m sorry, but one of us has to stay engaged.”
“What is that supposed to mean!? He’s got to grow up! You can’t protect him forever!”
The horizon is a glowing, blurred caterpillar, creeping along the peripheral limits of the desert. That shimmering haze still hangs heavy over the land.
“And how long ago was that?” asks the Lizard. He might have been a therapist with a leather couch, a wise uncle who took you fishing when no one else would.
“Dunno,” says Sam. “Long time ago. Must’ve been.” He pauses and crouches to the ground. Ear to the ground, like an Indian. “I read once that if you stack rocks up in a pyramid when it’s dry, they’ll collect condensation on them. Water.”
Sam has read many books. A lot of good that’ll do him, being the last person on earth. No, that’s not right. He’s not. He just has to make it out. That’s all.
“You still haven’t answered my question.”
“Knowledge and experience. How can you claim to know something when you don’t even know what knowledge is?”
“I...I don’t think I claim to know anything.”
Sam looks up.
“What was that?” He abandons the condensation pyramid; he couldn’t find any rocks anyway. The Lizard raises his eyebrows.
“Haven’t you guessed?”
I don’t know what’s going to happen to Sam. I’ll confess I’m worried.
A noise, A NOISE, where is it coming from, who makes it? Noises in the desert, where are they coming from? There. Curled, childlike, against a dune of sand is a twelve foot tall velociraptor. A large head, large manus ('hand') with three strongly curved claws, which were similar in construction and flexibility to the wing bones of modern birds. Extinct, probably. He is sobbing violently into large quantity of material that looks unnervingly like the sheets from Sam’s bed. Sam stares.
“Lizard, are you seeing what I am seeing?”
Sam, cautious, approaches the sobbing velociraptor.
“What’s the matter?”
The velociraptor buries his face in the sheets. “Mean man won’t let me though,” he whimpers. Sam cannot remember anything quite as grossly pathetic as this weeping reptile. He pats the clawed foot, awkwardly.
“Um, which mean man?”
The velociraptor points.
“We’re heading that way. If you’d like to come.”
The velociraptor considers this, then arranges himself into an upright position and shuffles after the boy and the Lizard. The Lizard gives Sam a gruff nod.
“You’re a good kid.”
How does Sam not understand? How does he not second guess the primordial creature, dragging his sheet through the sand? The air seems to shift as they walk, the temperature varying, the very ground beneath them quivering, but none of the three care to acknowledge it. Or maybe they don’t notice.
The man, the mean man, is waiting for them. His wall stretches in either direction and his post, the one which he is guarding with admirable diligence, is just a hole in the wall beneath a red light. The velociraptor cowers.
“Good afternoon,” says the Lizard with a cordial tone befitting the thoughtful questions he tends to ask. “Who are you?”
“I’m the commencement speaker,” the man replies sternly. “Unless you can pay the toll, you cannot pass.”
A great gush of blood rushes to Sam’s sunburnt face. The man and his toll road swim hazily before him. Sam is still, he is paralyzed.
“Lizard,” says Sam. “Lizard, something isn’t right.”
“Sam, you’ve got to pay the toll.”
“You’ve got to pay the toll!”
“I HAVE NOTHING LEFT TO GIVE YOU.”
The commencement speaker nods submissively and the light turns green.
Sam and the Lizard are alone.
“Did we make it?”
Two Years Ago
Sam arranged his satin stole over top of his black robes. He was counting the clouds in the sky. It was difficult because they kept changing. Twenty-four, twenty-five...
“Now don’t you go worrying your head, honey, you’ll get all that financial aid taken care of, just you wait.” Mrs. Shroeder had a flaky, crescent-roll voice and she meant well. Sam knew she meant well. He listened to her, watching the sea of other black robes flood out of the auditorium, brandishing tightly curled diplomas.
“I know things seem tight honey, but your mama is one tough cookie and it’ll all work out, I know it.” Twenty-six, twenty- no, wait, twenty-five...
“Excuse me, Mrs. Shroeder, I’m going to go find Lillian.”
So many black robes, much more difficult to count than clouds. And there was Lillian, her face all freckles and smile lines in the sunlight.
“Happy graduation,” she toasted him with an imaginary glass.
“Happy graduation.” He clinked her imaginary glass. “So college?” They would stay together at college. He was sure.
“College,” she agreed. “Parties and study abroads and all-nighters with coffee, so many adventures.”
“Yeah, college, like books and classes that cost more than a house. So I can walk into a job interview and say, ‘yeah, I’m worth more than washing dishes,’ and that somehow makes me a functioning member of society, and I can provide for that proverbial family so it doesn’t blow up like a house of cards.”
She smiled ironically at him. “You’ll be my adventure, won’t you, Sam?”
Sam didn’t know how to give someone that.
Fifty-four hours is enough time to forget everything I know.
“Who was Lillian?” asks the Lizard.
“My girlfriend,” says Sam, not managing to add the obligatory “ex” in front of the word, not even sure if it’s applicable. “My girlfriend, she’s my girlfriend.” He looks out and sees the velociraptor, or perhaps a whole family of velociraptors, on the indistinct horizon. They walk off together, holding hands.
“Doubt the stars are fire, doubt the sun doth move, doubt truth be a liar, but never doubt thy love,” says the Lizard. The sun is searing like an apricot caught on fire.
“I was going to propose,” Sam continues. “I told her that. Eventually. Had it all planned.” His voice in unbearably tough. “Right under our tree. We called it the Granddad Tree. Always have, but I’m not sure why. That’s what we called it. Strange, right? It’s where we had our first kiss. There used to be a treehouse up in the Granddad Tree, when we were kids. It fell down eventually and, you know, it’s not like a kid can rebuild a treehouse by himself. They built a mall back behind it last year. Destiny Hills Shopping Center. So bright, you can’t even see the stars anymore.”
“So you haven’t proposed?” pressed the Lizard.
“No,” replied Sam. “No, I... I haven’t. But I kept thinking, even when things got bad, I kept thinking about taking her there, and everything’d be alright, and I’d get down on one knee and say, ‘Lillian, do you know why this place is special?’”
“Sam,” says the Lizard. “How, do you imagine, did you come to be here? Not on this earth, exactly, but here on this spot on this earth?”
Shouldn’t he already know the answer?
“I was driving...I lost my car, remember? I was looking for something. I can’t remember.”
“I don’t believe it’s your car that’s lost, but rather, you. Something happened to you, Sam. Something troubling. Traumatic. You began to drive away from it all, without a thought to your empty gas tank. You were stranded. You went to look for help. You found none.”
The boy, drenched in desert heat, stares agape at the Lizard. Is it true?
Sam jumps. The sound is louder. He glances at the Lizard, but having not received a straight answer before, is resolved to not to ask the Lizard about the sound, growing louder and closer, anymore. He has resolved not to ask, just like we always tell ourselves not to ask, NEVER, the one thing we need to, the one thing we just can’t let go of, because isn’t this what it means to be a human?
Suddenly, it hits him. He can’t get out of the desert. It’s too far. He never was going to make it out. That horizon where the rabbit and the raptor and the endless, bleeding sun disappeared: too far. I can’t make him get out because I don’t believe he can.
“I can’t make it.”
Sam sinks to his knees.
“Sam, get up.”
“No. Lizard, I’m sorry. I can’t make it out.”
Two Days Ago
Sam’s car puttered to a halt. The blistery blue pickup with the taillight out. He turned around and stared hard out of the back window. Nothing. The sky had gone dark. For miles and miles and miles, there wasn’t a speck of light, just a road with no boundaries and Sam with car that would drive no further.
Suddenly, he was screaming. Pounding on the steering wheel. Tears scorched down his neck. He yelled and shouted until his throat ached. He threw himself against the window until his arm was bruised. He went on screaming and screaming and no one could hear him and eventually, he fell asleep.
In the morning, the sun was high and the gas gauge still read “E.” Sam sat slowly upright. Everything felt alien. There was an apocalyptic hush. There was nothing left to do except open the door and get out and start walking. He started walking. The traumatic event faded from his mind, just like his car, abandoned on that cursed road, faded slowly out of sight.
The boy lies spread-eagle in the sand and the world circles slowly around him like a vulture and you might think he was alone if you didn’t see the small, horned lizard, shouting into his ear.
“Get up, Sam, get up! Don’t give in!”
Sam stares, glassy-eyed.
“My question, Sam! Perception requires the attention of the observer on some focal point or stimulus. Don’t you see? Don’t you understand?”
This explosion is the loudest yet. And over the nearby dune, like some calvary of nightmares, appears a soldier. A monstrous, confederate soldier, Civil War era. His eyes spark with fire and the brass buttons on his uniform flare in the sun and strangely, his face is that of Sam’s father. WHO IS THIS.
“Stand and fight, y’ no account muggins!” bellows the soldier, firing his cannon again.
A tsunami of sand crashes over the Lizard and Sam and there’s a crater in the earth and Sam trembles. HOW CAN THIS BE HAPPENING. The sound is a car wreck you can’t afford on the way home from terrible visit with someone you love.
“Yer a soft-bellied coward and you’ll never amount to anything! Fight!”
The soldier is drawing nearer with his cannon, hunched and menacing. He bares his teeth in a despicable smile.
“NO!” Sam shouts and leaps to his feet. He has a series of cosmic revelations; spiraling, vast, brilliantly colored revelations which result in jumping to his feet and deciding to not be killed by a cannon ball. “NO!” he screams again and begins to run. The cannon blasts explode around him but he doesn’t stop running.
The silver sky flashes like a warning. He is gasping. He sees the giant rabbit embrace a lime green soda can who is not her husband, smiling adulterously. He sees a sailing ship, absentee ballots for sails, caught in a whirlpool. He sees a sad, store-bought Christmas tree take the elevator up and out of sight. He doesn’t stop running.
Cacti lining his path shout at him with familiar voices.
“Begin each day anew, Sam!”
“Point out one of my flaws! Point out one of my flaws!”
“You may not believe it now, sweetie, but the way you’re feeling will change!”
He pumps his arms, running, running. Until suddenly: no cannon. He stops. Is it over? Oh please, tell me it’s over.
Alone. He is alone. No one, NOTHING, around for miles and miles and miles. He is the last one.
He is gone.
“Lizard!” Sam screams. “Lizard, where are you?”
But the small, wise, horned lizard is GONE.
“I thought you’d always be there for me!”
He sobs; dry, racking sobs because his tear ducts (‘nasolacrimal’) have stopped producing tears. His body shakes and, in the wake of his cosmic revelations, he feels depleted and empty and condemned and forsaken.
“I thought,” Sam cries. “I thought...”
He looks up. There, there it is. THERE IT IS. Glowing on the horizon like a degenerate sunrise. He knows what it is. I know what it is too. I know. He knows. What else could it be? He stares, hardly daring to believe. The Destiny Hills Shopping Center.
He remembers it. The day they finished construction on the mall, it was there scarring up the view behind their treehouse-that-had-once-been, but he didn’t love the tree any less.
But it was far away, home, not here in the desert. There’s only one explanation. He must have walked all the way, he must have made it. He must have walked all the way from the desert to Destiny Hills. There, in front of the mall, tiny and far away: the Granddad Tree.
“I MADE IT,” shouts Sam. The Granddad Tree, the mall, burning surreally. Blazing through the crimson sky.
And he starts running, knowing, finally, that everything is going to be alright.
His eyes are fixed on the tree, waiting for him as it always had.
A look of wild joy spreads across Sam’s face and he doesn’t stop running.