Ahead on the left, a rocky hillside sloped steeply away from the road. Aside from the shale and lava rock surface, it was strewn with occasional boulders. About two-thirds of the way up, a sandstone ledge traversed the face, angled slightly up toward the far end.
A scrub juniper tree balanced in one broad crack in the ledge. Yuccas and drought-stunted mesquite and creosote bushes grew from other cracks. They and various varieties of cacti also grew among the rocks on the slope of the hill.
On the other side of the road, the land sloped more gently away toward a broad, sandy arroyo. That slope too was covered with similar vegetation. Now and then a lizard flitted from one bit of shade to another. The prairie dogs were all underground beneath their horseshoe-shaped mounds. The rabbits and coyotes too were more intelligent than to be moving about in the heat of the day.
He trudged along. Even in the heat, it would be a pleasant walk if he hadn’t made it so many times. More than once he had considered naming some of the larger trees so he would have someone to talk with. Or at least someone to say hello to.
Soon, perhaps, he would have saved enough money to buy a horse. Not one of señor Vargas’ horses though. Those he could only help tame. They were far too expensive, if not for his taste, certainly for his wallet.
But for now, for the time being, he walked.
He enjoyed walking anyway. It was just over three kilometers to the near side of the village, and just over another kilometer to señor Vargas’ small ranch on the other side. But that was in the cool of the pre-dawn morning. In the heat of the afternoon, the walk was much longer.
The road was caliche. With every step, white dust hovered around his brown leather boots and settled on the lower legs of his jeans. His faded-blue long-sleeved shirt was damp in broad arcs beneath his arms and at the top of his chest.
Even his brown leather belt was discolored with sweat. Especially at his sides and at his lower back where it passed through the loops of his jeans. The brown leather braided hat band faded into the sweat stain on the crown of his worn silver belly Stetson.
Off to his left, the sun was still perhaps two hours from setting. The temperature hovered around 108.
He reached for his left rear pocket, pulled out a folded blue bandanna with white geometric figures around the edge. He took off his hat and dabbed at his brow, then ran the bandanna around the sweatband.
Shoving the bandanna back into his pocket, he put on his hat again and tugged it into the right position. He looked to the right, out over the expanse of desert. This part of the Sonoran was scattered with the same fragmented, dark lava rock and shale that was on the hillside. And heat.
Here and there in the distance, a shale or sandstone ledge protruded out of the side of an arroyo. Sometimes they were integrated among the long, tangled roots of the mesquites or creosotes growing too close to the edge above.
The rocky ground was punctuated now and again with scrub mesquite and creosote, as well as the occasional yucca, prickly pear or cholla. Many of the prickly pear had wan yellow pads, long since drained of all moisture. Yet next to them grew vibrant yellow or purple flowers. Occasionally a fishhook barrel cactus reared up out of the ground, a crown of fiery red and yellow streaked flower pods on top. They would bloom in another week or so.
He turned his attention back to the road.
And on the edge of his vision to the right, something fell through the sky.
He stopped and jerked his head back to the right, but it was gone.
He stepped off the road and crouched along the east side of a stunted corkscrew mesquite. He scanned the desert, looking for anything out of the ordinary.
At first he focused on the sandy bottom of the main arroyo, maybe a hundred meters away. That’s where he thought the thing might have landed.
He scanned back and forth there for a long moment.
Then again, it was something large. Or it seemed large. Maybe it landed a little farther away.
He adjusted his range of vision, scanning the desert just beyond the arroyo.
Then farther, working his way slowly toward the horizon in the east and north.
He craned his neck, peered up into the hot, cloudless sky.
But there was no need for that. He shook his head. Whatever it was, if it was anything at all, it was on the desert floor. It had come down, after all, not up.
He looked back down to the horizon and began searching for a cloud of dust. Anything that hit that hard would have to raise a dust cloud. Or at least a puff. Wouldn’t it?
Yet there was nothing.
He frowned. It was something like a shooting star. Something like that, but much larger. Or more substantial, maybe.
And in the daylight. So not a shooting star.
He grinned. Probably he was seeing things.
If something that large had hit the desert, there would have been a sound too. Wouldn’t there? But again, there was nothing. No sound. No dust cloud.
He grinned again and shook his head.
His imagination was working overtime. Nothing falls out of an empty sky.
But he had seen it.
Something had fallen, yet it couldn’t have.
He had seen it, yet it wasn’t there.
It didn’t make sense.
Still crouched, he took off his hat. The slight breeze felt good on his damp forehead.
He scanned the desert again, but more calmly. More sensibly. And closer. Maybe it wasn’t something large and far away. It was in his periphery, after all. Maybe it was closer and smaller.
Maybe it was a meteor. A speck of dust that somehow glowed brightly enough to garner his attention even on a bright, hot day. It wouldn’t have hit anything. It would have flashed and disappeared.
That’s probably all it was. Probably it was nothing more than that.
His grandmother would love this.
She had told him dozens of stories about such things. All of them, too, occurred on the periphery of the world. “These things happen,” she said, speaking in her slow way, “at that special place on the horizon where imagination folds into reality.”
In the stories, there was a magical rabbit who hopped unscathed through a town full of starving citizens. There was a priest who was much more than he first appeared to be. There was even an incredible angel, a bony old man with massive, if ragged, wings. That one, like whatever he had seen today, fell from the sky.
So there was precedence, at least in his grandmother’s stories.
He grinned. But that one, at least, certainly landed in the wrong place. He was captured and kept in a pen in a farmer’s back yard. The farmer’s neighbors queued up to see him, and annoying children poked at him with sticks.
There were other stories too. One was about a prophet who was born of a field of mud after forty days and nights of rain. The rain was so hard that even the birds and the insects took to the ground. The mud was deep and well-mixed with grass that washed down from the nearby mountains. The people from the nearby village, after witnessing the birth of the man of mud, retrieved whole bricks from the field for years.
Many people—both people in the story and those to whom his grandmother had conveyed the story—believed that man, too, initially had fallen from the sky.
And there was another story about a man who died. As if in a dream state, his lover brought his spirit and laid it on her kitchen table. “He was a very special man,” his grandmother said. “The sun refused to shine and the clouds wept for days, both to say goodbye and to welcome him home to the heavens.” So the sky yet again.
And there were many more. They were beautiful stories, if fanciful. And many had their roots in the heavens.
But this was different. Wasn’t it? This wasn’t magic at all.
He had seen something. It was like a shooting star but more substantial. Something that fell from the sky.
Ah. Of course. The fact that it fell from the sky didn’t mean it started in the sky.
Still crouched in the fickle shade of the corkscrew mesquite, his hat still in his left hand, he turned his head to study the hillside to his left above the road.
Maybe it came from up there. But why? And what was it?
It would take a pretty strong arm to throw something from there all the way to the other side of the road, much less across the valley. And for it to approach at the angle he had first witnessed. No, it would be all but impossible. It would have to be small enough to throw, but heavy enough to travel the distance after it was thrown.
Plus someone would have to be there to throw it. But nobody was there now. And he had heard none of the scuffling that would accompany someone scrambling out of sight down the other side of the hill. Besides, even if someone threw something, it would make some sort of impact when it—
“What’cha looking at so hard?”
Pete cringed, startled, then spun to look over his left shoulder.
A slip of a woman, a sprite, no taller than five-two or five-three, had somehow crept up behind him.
She was trim but curvaceous. Her seemingly flawless skin was golden in the sun and stretched over small, sinewy muscles. Her blond hair was parted in the middle. It framed crystal clear blue eyes and cascaded down to somewhere beyond both shoulders.
A pink, long-sleeved button-down blouse was tucked into faded blue jeans. The sleeves were rolled up a couple of turns. Below her forearms, her fingers were half-hidden in the front pockets of her jeans. Beneath those were cream-colored western boots with rounded toes.
He had never seen her before. He was sure of it.
But he was aware of all the local women. Wasn’t he?
Then he remembered why he was crouching. “Shh!” he said, then gestured. “Get down!”
She pulled her hands from her pockets and quickly crouched a few feet behind him, her fingers splayed on the ground to steady her. The whole time she kept her gaze locked on him.
He frowned, and hoped the frown didn’t appear to her as harsh as it felt. He didn’t want to frighten her. Quietly, he said, “Wait. Who’re you?” He leaned slightly right to glance past her, back down the road.
It sloped away gently and was empty all the way to the village. “And where’d you come from?”
She whispered, “I’m—” She wrinkled her brow. A little more loudly, she said, “Well, I’ll be. Anyway, I’m from—” Her frown deepened. “Huh! I’m not sure. Isn’t that strange? I should know that.”
She looked at the ground and her hair slipped forward over her right shoulder. It caught the sun’s rays and shimmered. It was radiant.
She nonchalantly pushed it back over her shoulder, then stood and flexed her shoulders before leaning forward again to slap dust from her jeans. “Where in the world does all this dust come from?” She glanced at the hillside.
Then she seemed to remember she wasn’t supposed to be standing up. She quickly crouched again. Quieting her voice again, she said, “Anyhow, who’re you? And what’re we looking for?”
“Pete. Uh, Pete Grissom.” He swiveled back around to study the hillside. “And we aren’t looking for anything. I’m looking for— Well, I’m not sure.”
He turned back to look at her again. She was not at all difficult to look at. “It’s hard to explain. I saw something. I mean something fell, like right outta the sky.” He turned back to look at the hillside, but he pointed off to his right front. His index finger made little circles in the air. “Out there somewhere. But I think just a little ways off the side of the road.”
“What was it?”
Still studying the hillside, he shook his head. “I don’t know.”
She frowned. “Then how do you know what to look for? And why are you looking up there?”
Both questions seemed profound in their simplicity, and that was annoying.
He huffed. “That’s just the thing. I don’t know,” he said. “I mean, I don’t know what I’m looking for. So I was looking up there to maybe see where it came from.”
He continued to scan the hillside. “I thought it was bigger at first. You know, just the way it seemed. Bigger and farther away.” He gestured overhead, then looked straight up. “But the sky’s been empty all day. Not even a cloud. And no planes, nothing like that for something to fall out of. So I figure whatever it was, maybe it came from up on the hill.”
“But you have no idea what it was?”
Frustration crept into his voice. “Look, it was just something, you know? When I first saw it, I had a feeling it was— Well, kind’a like a person.”
She frowned. “A person?”
“Yeah, but folded, sort of. Like at the waist. Kind of scrunched down. You know. Like maybe with its knees bent, maybe its arms wrapped around its legs.”
It sounded stupid when he said it. He might have gotten the notion of the figure being scrunched from his grandmother’s story about the man of mud. If it was a figure at all.
He glanced back at her and studied her eyes for a long moment, checking for ridicule. He saw none. Only mild curiosity.
He turned away again. “It was only for an instant, but I thought I saw something sort of— Sort of smooth. Sort of soft, maybe, but folded around a human. Almost like a capsule of some kind. And with the human kneeling, sort of.”
He turned back to her.
Still there was no untoward reaction. Her eyes were clear, warm and— inviting? No, that was wishful thinking. He almost grinned. But those eyes— They were somehow both ancient and innocent.
An urge, a need, to trust her washed through him. He rushed ahead. “It’s gonna sound dumb, but I think maybe it was an angel or something, okay? My grandmother told me many stories— Well, about things like that.”
Mischief filled her eyes and pulled her lips into a slight smile. “An angel?”
He stood suddenly, color creeping into his cheeks. He put his hands on his waist at his belt and shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “Yes, an angel! That’s what I said, isn’t it?”
She stood too, and looked up into his eyes. “Hey, it’s okay.” She shrugged one shoulder, her head tipping slightly to that side, an endearing gesture. “I was just asking.”
She glanced toward the hilltop again, then leaned a little to the right to look down the road past his shoulder. “So Pete. Is it okay for us to be standing here talking now or should we still be hiding?”
He glanced around quickly again, first looking at the hillside and then out across the valley. When he looked at her again, his chest had noticeably expanded. “Nah, you know, it’s prob’ly all right. I was just being careful, that’s all. So anyway, where were you headed, Miss…?”
She looked at him for a moment, then shrugged and mumbled. “I feel kind’a good right here.” She looked up at him again. “Where’d you say the angel thing fell?”
He jerked his left thumb over his shoulder. “Back there somewhere. I don’t know, prob’ly a hundred meters or so off the side of the road. It happened kind’a fast.”
She brushed past him. “Well, let’s go have a look.”
He pivoted on his heel and grabbed her arm just above the elbow. “Hold on a minute. Let’s just take a minute here. Scope it out, y’know?”
She put her hands on her hips. “C’mon, Pete. If it was something dangerous and it wanted to give us grief wouldn’t it have jumped us already?”
He nodded, tentatively. “Maybe.”
She took his hand. “So let’s go have a look. Maybe we can find where it hit. Or maybe tracks or something.”
As they walked, he said, “What’d you say your name was again?”
Angie? No, that isn’t right.
Angela? That seems right, but not quite.
Angelita? “Angelita? Angelita, I think. Does that sound right?”
“Well how am I supposed to know?”
She stopped and released his hand. Her hands went to her hips as she glared up at him. “What? Don’t you know me?”
He shook his head. “Nope. But if you don’t mind me saying, I kind’a wish I did.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I thought we knew each other. I felt like— like this was where I was supposed to be. I mean, with you.” Color rose in her cheeks. “I’m so sorry! And I just barged in like—”
“No no. Don’t worry about that, now. Besides, we know each other now, right?”
She hesitated. “I guess.”
“So let’s follow your instincts and go see what came down over there.” He looked out across the desert again.
Again she took his hand. “All right.”
As they made their way off the side of the road and down a gentle slope through the scrub brush, she said, “So you were on your way somewhere? When you saw it, I mean?”
He shrugged. “Just going home.”
“Ah.” She nodded. “That makes sense. How far?”
“From town, a little over three kilometers. From where I work, a little over four. So it’s close by.” He hesitated. “I live with my grandmother.” He laughed lightly. “Well, she says she lives with me. But it’s her house. Only she says she’s retired so it’s mine now. Oh, watch for the babies.”
He stopped and pointed. “See the little cactuses there? It’s like they’re hiding.” He grinned.
A small group of cacti were all but hidden beneath a low creosote limb.
“They get through the side of your boot pretty easily. They don’t mean to hurt you. They’re just protecting themselves.” Color rose in his cheeks again. “That’s what my grandma says. Anyway, they’re hard to see if you aren’t watching for them.”
He pointed ahead. “Seems to me whatever it was hit probably right around there.” At the end of his fist, his index finger again made little circles in the air.
“And you think it was an angel. Or something like that.”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. I hope there’ll be tracks or something. Like you said.” He released her hand and stepped past her. “Anyway, here, I’ll go first and you can follow me.”
She smiled as he started walking again, then moved in behind him. “Okay.” He seems like a good human.
Where’d that come from? Human? Like I’m not?
But he does seem like a good man.
A little over a half-hour later, he stopped and pointed again. “There.”
She looked up, then moved up alongside him and looked where he was pointing.
“See the indentations? Are those tracks?”
“Maybe.” She frowned. The indentations—if that’s what they were—were very light. “But wouldn’t something that fell that far make a bigger splash than that?”
“I guess. Maybe.” He paused. “Or maybe it landed farther up the arroyo and—”
“But then wouldn’t there be more tracks? I mean, the bottom’s all sandy so—” She let the sentence die.
He turned to face her. “I need you to work with me here if we’re gonna solve this thing.” Then he glanced past her. “Anyway, the sun’s getting kind’a low. Probably we ought to get back to the road for now. Maybe we can come back in the morning and see what we can find.”
She shrugged. “Sure. You don’t work tomorrow?”
“Well, yeah, I do. But maybe you can walk with me? Señor Vargas won’t mind if I get there a little later than usual.”
“Señor Vargas? Who’s he?”
“Wow, you really aren’t from around here. He breeds and raises horses. He’s like the fourth generation on the same land. I break horses for him.”
“So bucking them and all that?”
He shook his head. “Nah, that’s called rough-breaking. I don’t do that. Well, sometimes toward the end with the more stubborn ones. But mostly I just talk with them, let them get used to me. I can usually calm ‘em down pretty quick.” He looked around. “Anyway, I can remember where this is.” He gestured toward the hill across the road. “Straight across from the top of that ledge over there.”
“Sounds good to me.”
“Well. Okay then. Let’s go.” And he moved past her to start back toward the road.
She turned and followed him.
Just before they got back to the road, she said, “So where’d you say your house was again?”
He gestured to the right. “Just a little ways up there. Maybe a third of a kilom— Wait. Where do you live?” He stepped past a creosote bush and onto the road.
She shrugged. “I don’t know. Are there any other houses out this way?”
“A few, but I know the people who live in them.” He grinned. “And none of them are you.”
“So where do I live?”
He frowned. “What happened to keep you from remembering?”
“I don’t know that either. I mean, I don’t even know my name, except Angelita seems close.” She held out her arms and looked at them. “But I don’t look Mexican, do I?”
He grinned. “No, you don’t look Mexican. Maybe Spanish.”
“I don’t know my name for sure. I don’t know where I’m from and I don’t know where I live. But I feel like I belong here. Like I’ve always been here. But you say you don’t know me, so—” She stopped and frowned up at him. “Wait. How long have you been here?”
“Oh. My whole life. That ain’t it. I mean, if you were from around here, I’d know you.” He frowned. “So you don’t remember anything?”
She shook her head. “Nothing. Well, the past hour or so.” She glanced back toward town. “I was— No, I wasn’t in town.” She paused. “I don’t think I’ve ever been in that town. Or maybe. A long time ago.” She shook her head again and looked at him. “Anyway, I was just— on this road.” She shrugged. “I walked a little ways. Maybe a few minutes. And then I saw you.”
“It’s weird that you aren’t scared.”
“Seems to me if I woke up not knowing my name or where I’m from or where I was, I’d be scared. But you’re not scared. Or you don’t act like you’re scared.”
She hesitated, then said, “No. No, I don’t feel scared. And I do know where I am. Sort of. I mean, I feel good here. I guess that’s why I assumed this is where I’m from.”
“Well, we’ll figure it out. Come on.” He turned away.
She followed him, and a short moment later she caught up with him. “Where are we going?”
“My house, I guess. Well, my grandmother’s house. You can stay there with us. She won’t mind. I mean, if you want to.”
She nodded. “I seem to be going on feelings a lot right now. So I’ll say okay for now, but I might change my mind. Is that okay?”
“Sure. Hey, whatever you need to do. I’m just trying to help. I don’t like to think of you out here by yourself all night. There are coyotes about, and maybe a lion or two. And snakes and—”
“They won’t hurt me.” She frowned. “How do I know that?”
“You don’t. If you ever come across a big cat out here—”
“No, but I do. I know that. They won’t hurt me. I know it, but I don’t know why I know it.”
“Well anyway, we have a spare room. It’s all yours if you want it. Or there’s an old bunk house out on the other side of the yard if you want to stay there. ‘Course there are probably spiders out there.” He grinned and cast a sidelong glance at her, but she didn’t seem bothered. “We could move some bedclothes out there for you and—”
“I’m really looking forward to meeting your grandma.”
He stopped. “What? Why?”
She stopped and looked at him. “I don’t know. I just am. I’m getting kind’a used to this going-along-with-my-feelings thing. I think maybe I like it. Hasn’t steered me wrong yet.”
He laughed as he started walking again. “Other than setting you down on a road in the middle of nowhere with a man you don’t know.”
She smiled. “You’re a good guy. You wouldn’t hurt me.”
“Well, thanks. You’re right, but you have no way of—”
She frowned. Quietly, she said, “Or maybe you couldn’t. Weird.”
She looked at him. “Oh. I was just thinking you wouldn’t hurt me. Then a stronger thought came that you couldn’t.” She shrugged. “Like I said, weird.”
“Well, maybe my grandmother will have some answers for us. She knows a lot of stuff about magic and angels and—”
When he stopped, she looked at him. “What?”
But he glanced at her as they continued to walk.
Angels. Maybe what I saw falling out of the sky was an angel. Maybe it was her. That makes as much sense as any of the rest of this. Wish I’d gotten a closer look at those tracks.
He glanced down at her feet. But do angels wear western boots? He grinned and shook his head.
She stopped in the road, her eyebrows arched. “What? Pete, what did you say?”
He stopped and looked at her.
Oh oh. Did I say that out loud? I don’t think I said that out loud but—
“Why did you ask me if angels wear western boots?”
“What? I didn’t.”
“Yes, you did. You said, ‘But do angels wear western boots’.”
“No, really. I’m sure I didn’t say—” He stopped and looked at the ground, then looked back up at her. “Okay, this is weird. I didn’t say it. Or at least I don’t think I did. But I did think it.”
She crossed her arms over her chest and shifted her feet. “Why?”
He shrugged. “Just the way my brain works I guess. It was just a stream-of-consciousness thing. Remember I said my grandmother knows all about magic and angels?”
“Well right after that I thought maybe what I saw fall was you. I wondered if maybe you were an angel.”
“What?” She laughed, her eyes wide. “You can’t be serious.”
Color rose into his cheeks again. “No, I didn’t mean it seriously or anything.” He paused. “But you gotta admit, it is kind’a weird.
“I mean, you came out of nowhere right after I saw whatever it was. And then you said awhile ago you felt good here, like you belonged here. Or maybe even belonged with me. And you said maybe you were in town a long time ago.
“Oh. And the animals out here can’t hurt you and I can’t hurt you. Not won’t, but can’t. Like you know things you can’t possibly know. All that stuff.”
She uncrossed her arms and dropped them to her sides. “Well, all of that’s true. But I know me, Mr. Man, and if there’s one thing I know it’s that I’m no angel.”
He grinned. “Oh yeah? How do you know for sure? I kind’a like the idea of having my own personal angel.”
“I know because angels aren’t—” She gestured with both hands up and then down along her sides. “You know, like humans. They don’t have human parts.”
“You mean like girl parts and boy parts?”
She blushed. “Yeah, like girl parts and boy parts.”
He laughed and turned away. “All I know for sure is there’s probably more than one kind of angel.”
She hurried to catch up with him. “Well, let’s just go see what your grandma has to say.”
They turned off the road up a small path that led to the west around a massive boulder.
A stout adobe house lay before them. It was in dire need of a coat of whitewash.
The brown adobe block showed through at both front corners and beneath both windows. The front door was painted a vibrant but severely faded shade of blue. In front of it, a wood-frame screen door moved gently in the breeze. It hung at an odd angle from only the top hinge, and the screen was rusted out of the top of it.
A rust-colored screen was still in place on one window. It hung at an angle from the hook on the left side of the frame. The right hook lay on the deep window sill. The screen for what was left of the other window lay face down among the tumbleweeds that had grown up in the yard. The frame for that window contained only jagged shards around the sides and bottom.
Angelita stopped and stared, her eyes wide. “Pete, is this a joke? What’s going on?”
He pointed to the left. “That’s the old bunk house I told you about over there. See? You wouldn’t want to stay in there.”
She looked. There was no building. Only a long pile of sun-rotted, worm-eaten wood.
“And the old windmill’s pumping strong as always. Best water in the world. Kind of alkaline, but it tastes great. Y’know, cancer cells won’t grow in alkaline water.”
What? Cancer cells?
She looked at the windmill. The wooden tower stood just past the pile of wood. At the top, only one worm-eaten wooden blade and the metal vane were left. The vane was solid rust. The thing looked as if it hadn’t pumped water for a century. “Pete, that thing—”
But he’d already started across the yard. “Come on. I can’t wait for you to meet Grandmother.”
Stunned, she followed him across the yard and onto the stone walk. Half of it was covered with sand. The porch was missing the center post on the left side of the stone walk. It was sagging badly.
He cupped his hands around his mouth and called out “Mi abuela, I’m back. And I’ve brought a friend.”
Seriously? She could only barely believe any of this was happening.
She closed her eyes, opened them.
The door was opening, and Pete—
Where did Pete go? Pete?
She closed her eyes again, opened them. Pete’s abuela was coming through the door. She was smiling broadly, her arms outstretched. “I’m so glad you’ve come back to us, my dear.”
She closed her eyes, opened them.
A nurse was standing over her, a broad smile on her face, her arms outstretched. “I’m so glad you’ve come back to us, my dear.”
Analee Grissom tried to focus, shifted her head a bit. And there was Pete, peering over the nurse’s right shoulder. But there were tears on his cheeks. Why is he crying?
The nurse stepped aside, her hands over her mouth, a smile in her eyes.
Pete took her place. “I’m so glad you’re back, my angel. You are my angel, you know.”
She felt her forehead furrow. “What? Angel? What’s going on, Pete?”
“The doc said he wanted to try a new therapy. Said cancer cells can’t grow in an alkaline environment. I didn’t know what else to do, so—”
“Alkaline? Like the water well in Mexico?”
Pete laughed. “If you say so, Angel.”
* * * * * * *