“Southwestern Gothic” by Simran Khalsa

The desert is quiet. The sand takes momentary flight only to fall again with each wind gust. The sun is a white hot light in the corner of my eye.

The desert is quiet but my head is filled with that familiar buzz of the mind stream that comes when it is not being used. The normal silence of everyday life has been filled with this for months now. It has become almost a comfort as I sit, watching the gate while my hair gets plastered to my back with sweat.

Southwestern Gothic
illustration by Quentin Freeman

It’s easier when no one is talking, when neither Adri nor Jess’ voices are floating through my head and I can get lost in the steady sound of nothingness.

And then, for the first time in months, it stops.

There’s only one thing that can break the mind stream when we’re this far into the Zetas. “Jess!” I yell, my mind straining, my thoughts swaying from my post at the gates of the Gallium base. “Adri!”

I can’t leave. I can’t move. I can’t abandon my cover, but it might all mean nothing if they’re dead: If they’ve been eaten by coyotes or shot by that farmer from the valley or–

There’s only one thing that can break the mind stream when we’re this far into the Zetas; they’ve got to have started kissing.

Direct head-to-head contact. The magister had said when we’d first been connected, as she’d gone over the rules: If it happens in battle – say, two of you get your heads bashed together – it should be fine, since Adri here can reconnect you easily. But there is one thing that can disconnect the three of you to a point where it may take hours before the connection is strong enough to reconnect again for hours. She’d turned towards me then, ironically, since it’s obviously not my fault that this has happened, and smirked. No kissing. The connection will short-circuit when that kind of sustained connection happens.

So yeah, definitely kissing.

It’s either that or they both spontaneously combusted at the same time – although, to be fair, that’s probably a pretty accurate representation of what happened if their unresolved sexual tension has finally gotten to the point where they’d jeopardize their own safety and possibly our entire mission here for the sake of a kiss. If they’re dead, they most likely would’ve at least let out some sort of cry for help before the coyotes tore their throats out, so they’re probably fine. Probably.

I, however, am not. Whoever wore this suit last had a cat and cat hair and I do not get along. I’m seriously considering risking probation to wash this thing when Dawn comes by.

It would be ironic that I’m thinking of doing laundry and someone with the same name as a detergent comes by if Dawn wasn’t less of a detergent-type-Dawn and more of a blinding-Southwestern-sunrise-type-Dawn. If possible, her red hair’s gotten bigger since the last time we talked. “You know,” she starts, putting a large pale hand on the curve of her hip, “some of us over in maintenance were thinking of havin’ a little shindig over at the diner tonight, and it’s just so not right for someone as young as you to go around town with only that bad-news-of-a-girl, Violet, to show you who’s who around here, so Bette Carver suggested you come to our little thing tonight and I think that’s just an absolutely wonderful idea.”

Two things to know about Dawn: Number one is that she never directly asks for anything, just kind of forcefully suggests it all while letting you know if you refuse she might not invite you to her next potluck. Number two is that Dawn’s lived her entire life in this town – and will swear to it on her black bean casserole – yet somehow she’s trained her voice to sound like someone who lives not in the Southwest, but just the plain old South. She says young the exact same way all the other women at the base do, though; with that envy that comes about five to ten years into their high-school-graduation marriages, when they realize their firm anti-divorce stance over the years has glued them into a corner of drinking wine and harassing not only their own children, but other well-intentioned teenagers like me into letting them take full control over our lives so they can live vicariously through us.

Okay, maybe not all of them, but Dawn herself is practically passive-aggressively begging to have another daughter so she can be featured on Toddlers and Tiaras.

“Unfortunately,” I tell her, “I’m helping stage an intervention for a few of my friends who broke curfew to go on a date, and you can understand why, with me now working for the Gallium base and all, I’d need to help spread the things I’ve learned here about values and such to them.”

I’d be amazed she buys it, since I can’t even recognize my own voice when I start talking like that, but this whole Zetas thing has made me get pretty good at lying. Even to myself. You’d also get pretty good at lying to yourself when you have death breathing over your neck every day as you are forced to watch Adri and Jess make heart eyes at each other. You’d get so good at it that you’d also be left standing in the sand in khakis thinking that it’s them jeopardizing the mission that makes you angry about all of this, and not anything else.

Dawn tells me to take care of myself and struts across the sand in chunky heels back to where maintenance is the way only she can.

When the bell rings, I go to the locker room, strip out of the cat-hair-khakis, and put back on the black stuff that’ll keep me warm as the heat leaves the air and the sun goes down. Then I shoulder my bag and begin the trek to the mesa where we’ve camped out.

This story may continue in future issues of The Finch.

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