written by Greg Chidley
The car sputtered out a few miles past Nipton, California, which is basically nowhere. If you know where Nipton is, then I’m sure it’s because you just googled it, and if you haven’t then you should really start utilizing your resources more. A simple google search would have informed you that Nipton, California is a small little community in San Bernardino County on the edge of the Mojave National Preserve, 12 miles Southeast of Primm, Nevada with a population of about 15-20 people. That’s a lot of words to say “the middle of the goddamn desert”. Josh lit a new cigarette off of the butt of the one he was finishing up and exhaled through a stale grimace. One would assume that he was expecting his brother, Sam, to have all the answers on this one, but that wasn’t shaping up to be the case. Sam was almost a decade older and had traveled the world for most of his adult life. Josh thought driving through Nipton would be an adventure.
“It’s cold, dude.” Josh sighed like he was bored. His video game system had died about an hour earlier, so he was pouting now. The two brothers sat on the bumper of the Uhaul under the lightly speckled night sky, silently not enjoying each other's company. Every now and then, two pale white headlights would careen over the top of the pavement and whirr on past them, which would then be followed by a swift burst of breeze that was trailing behind each vehicle and slapping the brothers already cold and swollen faces with crisp, cool air. “Have you tried Triple-A again?”
“Yes, Josh. Obviously I tried Triple-A again. I don’t have any fuckin’ service out here.” Sam stared at the Call Log on his iPhone. He’d called the number nearly 30 times, but the call just wouldn’t go through. He was beginning to worry they’d be sleeping in the car for the night, but there was no chance in hell he’d let his brother see the stress on his face. “I’m gonna pee, try calling this number,” Sam got up and stretched, then handed his Triple-A Membership Card out towards Josh.
“I don’t have a cell phone, dude,” Josh said like it was a matter of fact.
“What??” Sam said, audibly annoyed.
“I don’t have a cell phone. Trashed it a few years back. They’re watching you on that thing, you know.” Josh puffed some smoke out of his cigarette.
“You don’t have a cell phone, Josh? Do you know what year it is? How do you get anything done??”
“Judge all you want, I just prefer to stay off the grid.”
“Well,” Sam sighed and looked out into the deep abyss of the desert, “We are definitely off the grid right now.”
Sam trudged down the hill from I-15 and down into the pale blue hills of the Mojave. He grumbled to himself about lack of sleep, about his idiot younger brother. He didn’t know why he felt such disdain and aggravation towards Josh, but he did. He always had. A few nights earlier, however, he was convinced to try and make amends and have some type of “brotherly bonding experience”, which was officially beginning to feel like a mistake. A week ago, Sam had just flown in from London, where he had been living for a few years, and his mother had arranged for him to come by their LA home and pick up some things of his and his late fathers before his big move to Vegas. When he walked into the house he grew up in, he felt cold air, like the room was filled with nothing but silence and sorrow. His father had passed away 8 years prior and things had just never really felt the same at home, and that’s one of the reasons he stayed away.
Josh was sitting on the foot of the staircase playing an out-of-date handheld Nintendo gaming system, looking just the same as he did the day Sam left. “What is that? PokeMan? When are you gonna grow up?” Sam said as he extended his left arm to kind-of hug his little brother, lightly tapping him as if he were contagious.
Sam and Josh’s mom was keeping surprisingly busy and doing well these days, something Sam tended to worry about frequently since his dad died. She had plenty of friends who she’d formed closer ties to recently, activities she liked to go out and do, and a long list of movies and television shows she’d watch in her free time so she could post online reviews for them. Sam wasn’t sure if anyone actually read her online reviews. She had started working at Wal-Mart, though she didn’t really need to with the money she made monthly off her retirement. Sam figured it was just a way to pass time. Sam figured this was all just a way to pass time. One thing that did tend to confuse Sam was the fact that she’d taken a roommate about five years earlier. A pretty young girl finishing up college named Natasha or Natalie or something like that, she’d ended up staying at the house a couple of years longer than expected after forming a good relationship with Sam’s mother, who said she had put an ad out for a roommate mostly for the company, and so she’d have someone to help her with her garden, which enraged Sam. With his seemingly consistently jobless brother drifting through life, surely he could get off his ass and hang out with her, right? Surely he could help her in the damn garden. Our time is so finite and he was wasting the precious time they had together playing video games, thought Sam.
“I’m gonna take Josh with me,” Sam said out loud to his mom. Thinking about it now, he guessed it was technically his idea to invite his brother along. Something told him to try. Maybe he could have a relationship with his brother, even just a small, forced one. His mother’s eyes welled up with tears and she hugged her son. It was a long time coming.
“I think that would be nice.”
Sam walked back up the steep-ish hill back up to the Uhaul to his brother who was still sitting there sipping on a cigarette. He sat beside him and checked his iPhone one more time, which still showed zero reception. He looked out at the next pair of pale lights gliding down the highway, and then again at some lights in the distance, which he assumed was Baker, California. Then something new caught his eye. Sam had traveled since he was 19 years old, for almost a decade he’d witnessed most of the gifts this Earth had to offer with his own eyes. He’d drank wine atop the Eiffel Tower in Paris, gone fishing in the Gulf of Mexico and seen the Aurora Borealis on several occasions. It was part of what he did for a living. But this was something he hadn’t seen anywhere before.
Out about a quarter of a mile from where his brother and he sat on the Uhaul, in the middle of the desert, was a glowing orange sphere, like a star hovering down here on Earth. At first, he thought maybe it was a person with a phone light or something, way out in the Mojave for God knows why. But as he kept staring, he noticed the light wasn’t moving, and it was even casting a faint yellow glow on the sand beneath it.
“Do you see that?” Sam said to his brother. He could start to make out the spherical shape of the glowing object. Something in him wanted to reach out to the light, like a moth desperate to move closer to blinding promises. “Josh, seriously, do you see that light out there??” Sam repeated himself, eyes fixed on the ball of light. Josh wasn’t saying a word, so Sam frustratedly turned to his brother to point out the strange phenomenon to him, but there was no one beside him.
In a panic, Sam jumped to his feet and ran to the side of the car nearest the Highway. Nothing. He jiggled the door handle and flung the door open to check the back seat of his car and then slammed the door shut and looked around frantically. He even checked under the car. A ringing had begun in Sam’s ears as he assessed the extremity of the situation for a moment. He then looked out again at the gorgeous orange ball of light, which he felt like he could almost hear calling his name. A person in the distance was moving closer to the light. Josh. Sam exhaled in relief, and then called out for his brother. “Josh! Get back! What the fuck are you doing?” But after several minutes of this, Sam decided he’d have to run out to the desert and get his brother back himself.
“Josh!” Sam yelled as he tackled his brother to the ground. “You don’t know what that thing is." The desert was cold and black. Dark, shapeless masses formed out on the horizon and only where the moon cast its dazzling light could you make out the difference between the night sky above and the cold blue sand below. The sky was littered with stars like a large black tarp had been thrown over the globe and a small child had tried to puncture his way through with a pair of scissors. Up close, Sam could make out a bush, or a small steep slope of dirt, but as he ran towards his brother, all he could see was a silhouette draped in front of glowing orange light in the distance. You could see the light for miles, but there was not a soul on the highway around them. The soundless desert had begun to feel like a vacuum in space until the grunting and rummaging had become audible. The two brothers wrestled in the sand beneath the blue glow of the moon, before the orange glow of the sphere. Just them and the desert.
“Can’t you hear it?? It’s calling for me, Sam.” Josh yelled as he struggled to fight his brother off of him. The two kicked up dirt and knocked each other down a few more times before finally giving up, laying on each other, panting and staring at the apparent star in front of them. Sam stood and dusted himself off, then extended a hand to help his brother off the ground. The two just stood and stared at the light, unsure of what to do or say next. Josh sat and stared at it as he raised another cigarette up to his mouth to light. “Let me touch it,” Josh said calmly. Sam’s silence spoke volumes. The two sat here like this for another hour before Sam finally stood up.
“Should we take a picture of it? My phone is all the way back at the car,” he looked back towards the Uhaul, which seemed much further away now than it did before. Then he looked back at his brother. Josh’s hand was inside of the orange ball of light, up to his forearm almost, and his head was tilted back with his eyes rolled back into his head. Sam quickly grabbed his brother and pulled him back down to the ground, and strangely enough, he felt a force pulling back on the other side. Josh quickly snapped out of it and looked at Sam in a daze.
“Sam?” Josh asked in a confused voice.
“What the hell was that? What were you thinking? We have to leave. How have no cars passed in an hour??” Sam seemed frantic. He couldn’t explain what it was they were looking at, but he was done tempting whatever it was with his attention.
“Sam. I saw Dad.” The dark sand dunes grew darker and the cold air grew colder. Sam stared at his brother with his mouth hanging open for a second and for a second he didn’t know what to say. Until he did.
“Sam. Don’t. Listen.”
“Fuck you, Josh. Let’s go back to the car.”
“I understand what’s going on now, Sam.” Josh looked worriedly at his brother like he had something to confess or profess, or announce. Sam, however, was over having this conversation. He turned and began walking towards the Uhaul again. “Sam, wait. It wasn’t your fault, man. I know what’s hurting you now and I can’t believe I--”
“Josh shut the FUCK up and let's get to the car.” Sam was so frustrated he was in tears now. But Josh protested.
“I think if you come towards the light, if you let it show you, I think you’ll feel better.”
Sam stood cautiously a few steps back from the light as he stared at it. He could feel the warmth coming from it, and he could feel himself choking back tears. When he first reached his hand into the light, it was the single greatest sensation Sam had ever felt before. Around him, gold strings of lights swirled and danced and burst and exploded around him, painting the sky in a beautiful golden tinge. The golden lights cascaded around the desert, creating the shapes of trees, and rivers, and waterfalls, and animals, and eventually people and buildings and cars and houses and families and…. suddenly Sam was staring out at the street he grew up on, standing on his childhood porch on a clear sunny afternoon. He looked in every direction and everything was as he remembered it. The Shannon’s House next door with their ugly red fence and matching red door, the Vernon family’s obnoxiously loud 1966 Chevelle that was painted half matte black and half yellow because they never finished painting it (they’d eventually sell the car before they could finish the job). Even the air smelled fresh and crisp and like Granny Apple Smith candies like his grandmother used to make in his kitchen back when she was alive. Sam was in complete shock, and he felt anxious and happy and scared and warm all at once.
“Josh! Joshy-Boy, come over here. I got you that thing you wanted.” Sam heard his dad’s voice call to the porch from the side yard. He looked down at the floor. Josh and Sam, as they existed in their younger shells of themselves, laid on the floor playing with what seemed like an endless sea of Legos. But it didn’t seem right. Josh was much younger than Sam. Wasn’t he? Suddenly the scene shifted to their living room where Josh opened gift after gift, game after game, handheld Nintendo entertainment system after handheld Nintendo entertainment system. Sam got socks. He could hear his parents arguing from the next room. When the scene shifted next, his dad was smacking him around his bedroom for failing a test. Sam was 7 when that happened, so why did he see Josh watching from the hallway, just as he looks now?
Another scene shifts. Now Josh is playing on his handheld Nintendo entertainment system next to Sam. He’s explaining the game to him. Electric-type is strong against water. Charmander is good against Bulbasaur. Sam could suddenly name all 150 original Pokemon if he tried. Had he heard this all before?
This time, when the scene shifted, Sam felt like he had been hit by a bus. He was laying on the desert floor, same dark dunes and same floating ball of light. He was panting, and he was confused and he looked at his brother like he had seen a ghost.
“We used to play Pokemon together.”
Another hour passed. Sam and Josh sat on the desert floor staring at the magical light that somehow let them view their past. Neither of them could explain it, but neither of them could look away.
“I’m sorry Dad used to treat you like shit. I didn’t understand then, how little effort he had made with you.” Josh lit another cigarette but never once looked up from the orange glow on the sand below. “I’d hate me, too.”
“It’s like I completely blocked out their divorce… our childhood. I stopped thinking about it altogether, so much so that I couldn’t even remember why we didn’t get along.” Sam lit a cigarette of his own and stared at the dirt. “But we did, didn’t we? I blocked out that you were kind to me when he wasn’t…”
“You blocked out Pokemon, man. Shit must’ve cut deep.” The two shared a brief laugh. Sam tilted his head backward and shut his eyes. It’s amazing what people can forget from trauma, how depression can affect our memory. It’s like some things just never happened. This thought was relieving to Sam. Maybe he was wrong about a lot of the things he worried about. Suddenly the silence of the desert had a sound, albeit not one he could describe. He heard his brother sigh and he heard the wind move the tiny pebbles across the floor.
“So is that all you saw?” Josh asked firmly, almost like he was disappointed.
“Yeah, just brief moments from when we were kids. I’m telling you, we gotta call someone about this thing. I don’t know what it is but we --- we could make a fortune, or help solve crimes or some shit with this thing.”
“Yeah,” Josh said. Sam opened his eyes and, for the first time in hours, saw another form of life. A plane gently floating through the sky above them. Its lights on its wings blinked in and out of time and it sped through the air in what seemed like slow-motion, cutting a path across the starlit sky. It’s like every star moved out of the plane’s way, and if they didn’t then, well, they would simply crash and burst and cease to exist somewhere over Nipton, CA, birthing meaning to an otherwise meaningless piece of land.
“Do they collide?” Josh asked.
“Does what collide?”
Sam sat up abruptly, like when you wake from a nightmare. He was sitting in the dirt by himself. No Josh, no floating ball of orange light, no light at all other than the light the setting moon cast over the dry Mojave.
“Yeah,” Sam sighed, “I get it now, too.”
Sam dragged his feet across the desert floor and up the steep hill to the Uhaul. He put the key into the ignition and started the car, which was very much still alive and not out of gas. He flipped the heater to start warming the car and exited the vehicle one more time. As he walked around to the back of the Uhaul he opened another pack of cigarettes and slapped the bottom of them as he walked. He then turned the corner and reached the passenger seat door. In the passenger seat were a few things he’d forgotten he had. A couple of lighters, his wallet (which he really should not have left in the car unattended for so long) and an urn containing his brother Josh’s ashes. His father probably lived somewhere in Arizona right now, he’d moved there after the divorce and made it clear he’d wanted nothing to do with the family after Josh had died. Eight years ago, Josh was speeding down I-15, passing through Nipton, CA, when he skidded off the road for an unexplained reason and flipped six times. The police assumed an animal had crossed the road and Josh, who was speeding, had swerved to avoid it. Maybe he was on his cell phone. There are certain things Sam doubted he’d ever know.
Some things are hard to think about. Traumatizing incidents and depression can affect your memory and the way you handle said incidents. Pretending his asshole father died was just easier for Sam than accepting the loss of his brother, and this is how he lived his life. Josh had always been there, through everything. Everything. He had taught him how to play video games and bought him his first pack of cigarettes. His first pack of condoms. One day after years of traveling, he decided to settle down somewhere and moved to Las Vegas (to keep his life exciting), but he never made it. Afterward, Sam moved to London for school and his mother moved on with her life, filling their rooms with two new tenants attending UCLA: Natalie and Natasha.
As he turned the urn upside down and poured the remains of his brother across the desert floor, he thought about all these things and how simple it all felt now that he was thinking about it. The facts were facts, and he’d known them all along. Still, the night so far had felt surreal. He had felt Josh there, felt his presence. He had seen his father, seen their past. He felt the warmth of the light. He knew he did. At least he felt right telling himself that. Sam returned to the Uhaul and switched the gear from Park to Drive. He was heading to Las Vegas for a new life, you know, to keep things exciting. As he passed through Nipton he lit another cigarette, cracked his window and looked up into the sky. A plane was flying past, the stars dodging its every move before they could collide.
What was stolen from us
Now is forever lost
Just because we'll never pay the ransom
- Through the Desert Alone, Circa Survive