“Water in the Desert” by Clare Wilson

01 November 2019 on Fiction   Tags: , , , ,

“I can see it—” Eva said. “How the sky will stretch like a blue sheet between the peaks.”

Ray stared through the sunroof of her VW bus. He almost expected the scene she described to appear in the intense blue above, as if the tide had gone out and uncovered the ground beneath.

“And the canyon diving below us,” the girl went on, “filled with aspens and whitebark pine. Ray’ll scatter the ashes. They’ll drift in the sunlight like snow in August.” She nodded at Brother Michael in the passenger seat. “You can sing something. You know, that hymn for funerals that’s chanted as the body is carried out.” She hummed a few bars. Ray didn’t recognize the tune.

“Yeah,” said Brother Michael—the kid, as Ray preferred to label the would-be monk. His tendency to wear his feelings on his face made him seem too young for any kind of official title. He sat now in the passenger seat, shoulders hunched around his ears, the picture of defeat. But he mimicked Eva’s wandering notes gamely enough, adding words Ray didn’t know: “In paradisum deducant te angeli.”

Ray let his head sink onto the camper cot where he lay behind Eva and the kid. He could see what she saw, too. Lamoille Canyon. Lorraine had always loved the place.

A week after their move to Elko, they’d wound up the long road to where the ravine began in a narrow, sloped plain between snow-capped peaks. They’d hiked until they found springs, bubbling from inch-wide holes burrowed through gravel and gray, shattered rock, veined with ochre minerals. First a film over the ground, the waters deepened to a trickle, a creek, a stream pooled around beaver dams; widened, widened still more, cut into the ground, dug the canyon, ran to fill the Humboldt River. Lorraine had spun in a circle, laughing. “It’s like we’re at the beginning of the world,” she shouted.

The canyon would be a good place. Eva was right. Only twenty-four and already right about everything. Typical woman. Ray would stand there, open the urn, cast the ashes onto the water. Eva would tuck her hand under his arm for support. The kid would stand a few feet back, singing. Lorraine would like the singing.

Ray blinked the burn out of his eyes.

He pictured crawling out of Eva’s bus, his one good arm clutching the urn while the other dangled. He’d hobble across the rough ground. Struggle one-handed to unscrew the top. He’d be an old cripple, forced to ask for help.

He glanced down at his right arm. It flopped on the cot like a dead animal. The kid had said something about complete dislocation. Ray couldn’t move the arm, couldn’t even feel it. No pain. It was as if the arm didn’t exist. That sounded better than excruciating agony, but the lack of sensation was troubling. What if something fatal had happened when he hit the ground after his motorcycle high-sided and flew out of his control? In Ray’s experience, no one walked away from the kind of crash he’d just endured. His suspicion lingered. To avoid confirming it, he decided to ignore the arm altogether.

Now, though, when he raised his head from the cot, he could see that only a few curves of road remained before the turnoff to the springs. It was nearly time to bring Lorraine home, like he’d promised. He needed two working hands to finish the job. He pushed himself upright, swung his legs down from the cot. Gazed through the rear window at the vastness of Nevada beyond the canyon mouth. “Hey, Brother Michael,” he said. “You gonna climb back here and fix my arm?”

The kid’s head whipped around. Eyes big. Must’ve thought he’d never hear those words. Thought he’d been totally overruled. “Don’t touch my arm,” Ray had said more than once, afraid of the diagnosis if Brother Michael looked closer.

But the kid was a stubborn son-of-a-gun. Kept asking. Kept arguing. Kept realizing he’d been beat.

Like fifteen minutes ago when Eva still wouldn’t yield the kid an inch, no matter how logical he tried to make his argument.

“I know you feel strongly about this, Eva, but I really think we should get Ray to a hospital,” Brother Michael had said. Probably the sixth time.

“I thought you were supposed to care about people’s souls,” Eva said. “Haven’t you been listening to me? Don’t you think Ray needs this? He made his wife a promise.” She pushed her foot into the accelerator for emphasis. “A promise. You should know about those. Didn’t you make some big ones when you became a monk?”

From the cot, Ray had a prime view of Eva’s back and Brother Michael’s profile over the low back of the front seats. The kid’s shoulders slumped. “Yeah,” he said. “Vows. I haven’t made any. I’m not a real monk yet.”

“What are you doing then? Wearing a costume? Are any of the other guys back there monks?”

He lifted a hand, palm out in protest. “Of course they are. I’m just trying it out. I only got to the monastery—” he paused, calculated, “ten weeks back.”

Eva’s hand hovered over the monk’s forearm. “No offense, but have you considered that being a paramedic might have been a better fit?”

A muscle twitched in Brother Michael’s jaw. “Oh, no,” he said. “Hasn’t even crossed my mind. Doesn’t every guy want to give up his job and money and the family he might have, to go hang out with a bunch of dudes in dresses for the rest of his life?”

“Don’t be a jerk,” Eva said. “I was just asking a question. Why are you trying it anyway?”

Silence for a minute. Ray stared out the window while he waited for the answer. Remorse for letting Eva push on the kid plucked at him. His fingers dropped to his rucksack, folded around the urn. Lorraine would want to know. She appreciated kids like Brother Michael. Strays to collect and care for. Neighborhood kids at the dinner table because their parents worked, mumbling answers to her questions about school and sports. Shy newcomers from her church at summer barbeques, clutching the lifeline of her friendly chatter while she circled with platters and bowls.

Ray closed his eyes. Still could feel how the landscape folded inwards toward the bus. Spiny sagebrushes looming from steep slopes, rippling past the windows and skylights. In the distance, ragged edges of cliffs marching closer, glaciered peaks beyond that. The backdrop of life in Nevada with Lorraine. Now without her. 

“Two Junes back our ambulance got called out,” Brother Michael said. “A bad accident on the way from Carlin to the mines. Some guy had been driving a van full of steel pipe and scaffolding for a construction project. A car in front slammed on its brakes for a crossing deer. The van barely managed to stop, but the truck behind smashed right into it. The man got impaled by a piece of the scaffolding. The firemen weren’t sure they could cut him out without killing him, so I crawled in to see what I could do.”

The kid stopped speaking. Ray knew that treacherous road. He’d worked at the mines as a diesel mechanic for two decades. He could picture the pile-up. The pressure from impatient drivers behind the accident, needing to get to work. The pressure of life and death.

“His mouth was full of blood. He could hardly talk,” the kid said. “But he kept trying, clutching at my sleeve, until I realized he was saying ‘priest,’ over and over.” He shook his head. “There was no way we could get anyone out there in time. The guy was a wreck. I grabbed his hand, reciting the Our Father. I could hear his blood gurgling while he tried to say it with me. I started into the Act of Contrition. Took me a minute to realize I couldn’t hear him anymore.”

Eva sighed. “But he didn’t die alone.”

“Yeah, I guess.” Brother Michael shrugged. “After an experience like that, you start to think. That guy was dying, but he just wanted someone to pray for him. I asked myself why I wasn’t that someone. Next thing I know, I’m writing to this monastery down in New Mexico, asking to visit.”

Eva’s hand appeared again, this time settling on the kid’s arm, squeezing it. “You’ve got to see what I’m saying, then,” she said. “It’s so important to help people find closure. Ray needs closure.”

Brother Michael’s head canted to one side. “Yeah,” he said, “but that arm worries me. Ray should be screaming in pain. He’s probably severely concussed, maybe disassociating from the shock. There could be other internal injuries.” He glanced back into Ray’s eyes. “No offense, but you’re not a spring chicken. You should be dead after that crash.”

Eva groaned. “You don’t get it at all,” she said. “What about that guy you helped? He didn’t know when his time would run out. Ray doesn’t either. You don’t. I don’t. I learned that the hard way. That’s what I’ve been trying to say this whole time. You have to do the important things when you get the chance.”

Brother Michael opened his mouth again, but Ray’d had enough. Eva’s plan was better. Ray wasn’t ready for the doctors’ sentence once they finally examined his painless arm. “Give it a rest, you two,” he said. “You’ve been bickering for fifty miles. No need to fight over what to do with me.” He jabbed his chin at the kid. “Sorry, son,” he said. “The secret to happiness is making sure the woman’s happy first. Your chance will come later.”

That’s when Brother Michael subsided for the last time. He knew he’d good and lost.

But now that Ray thought of it, maybe the kid really lost half an hour before that, right after Eva veered onto a turn toward the Ruby Mountains. “I still think heading off into the wilderness at a time like this is irresponsible,” Brother Michael had insisted. They’d been listening to Eva’s fervent argument to the contrary for several miles, as she barreled along I-80 toward Elko. Obviously, it hadn’t had the effect she intended. Ray suppressed a chuckle.

“Have you even been listening?” she shouted. She was worked up. Ray guessed she got worked up easily. Probably why she was a journalist, as she’d explained earlier, back when the conversation was still polite. Went around investigating food deserts in low income urban areas, reporting her findings and proposing solutions, making the world a better place. Ray recognized the type; Lorraine had the same burning drive.

“Of course I have,” Brother Michael retorted. “I just think we could be guilty of gross negligence if we get out to this canyon in the boonies of Nevada and Ray dies because he’s got a cracked rib that punctures his lung.”

“Don’t be dramatic,” she said.

“I’m not,” he shouted. “This could actually happen.”

Ray prodded the right side of his ribcage. It was plenty sore, but not in the sickening way that came with broken bones. He wasn’t too concerned about Brother Michael’s worries, and he preferred not to remember his mysterious arm. Plus, he’d been trying to figure out what to do with the ashes for the last ten days, ever since the soft-voiced guy at the funeral home had nestled the urn into his hands. Whenever he thought of them his brain throbbed. It was restful to have Eva sweep in with a vision, no matter how crazy.

“Why do you care so much, anyway?” Brother Michael muttered. His jaw jutted as he glared through the windshield. “Ray hasn’t said he even wants to dispose of the ashes in this canyon. Why do you have to interfere with something this personal?”

“Ray doesn’t know what to do with them,” Eva said. Her hand appeared in Ray’s line of vision, palm up and flat, as if she presented an inarguable fact. “You heard him yourself. Haven’t you ever been in that position? No good solution to your problem?” She shook her head. “I know I’d want help, and so would you—even if you’re too proud to admit it.”

Ray considered pointing out that he was lying right there, listening to their bickering. They didn’t need to talk about him as if he was already dead, even if he had privately wondered if he actually was dead, and the last two weeks—or at least the couple hours since the crash—had been nothing but an extended trip to hell. But Eva’s hand was slicing the air as she continued her reasoning, so he gave up any protests as a lost cause. Even if he was a delusional ghost, he knew when to argue with a woman and when to keep quiet. Benefits of a forty-year marriage.

“I’m willing to help,” Brother Michael explained, distinguishing the syllables as if he thought she’d gone deaf. “I just wonder if he’s in a clear enough frame of mind to make the right decision.” He turned to frown at Ray. “I mean, his arm’s hanging out of its socket, for pity’s sake.”

“He can make good decisions,” Eva said. “Sometimes you need that kind of shock to help you see clearly. Right, Ray?”

“I don’t think this is our business, Eva,” the kid interrupted. His hand curled into a fist against the dashboard.

She pounded on the steering wheel. “It may not be your business, but it is mine.” The edges of her voice melted into tears.

Brother Michael threw his hands up. “Whoa, whoa,” he said. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know.”

Ray didn’t know either. Eva’s business was something big, though. He’d seen as much in her eyes, when he’d first showed her the urn. They’d widened like the breath had been punched out of her. Like Ray had felt when he found Lorraine. Her body had become so small, once she was no longer inside it. He’d had no warning. Her occasional complaints about shortness of breath had seemed merely the territory of age.

“My dad died when I was seventeen,” Eva said. Her voice caught in her throat. Her words jumbled out between sobs. “I hadn’t seen him in months. Mom had moved us to Washington after he stopped going to the AA meetings. But I still talked to him. I told him I’d come down and take care of him after I turned eighteen. He was never mean. He just couldn’t hold down a job. That made Mom madder and madder until she couldn’t stand it anymore.”

Ray reached over the back of her seat with his good hand and squeezed her shoulder. A little stabilization. She heaved a shuddering breath.

“I missed him so much. He helped me. Yeah, he had a fifth of whisky stuffed in the glove box of this very bus every time he took me somewhere to get a story for the school newspaper, but at least he cared that I wanted to be a reporter. He acted like I could do it, and guess what, I can,” she shouted. “He left me this bus, and now it’s my home while I freelance, make a name for myself. I’m here because of my dad.”

Brother Michael’s face had frozen in horror. Ray remembered when he used to feel the same way about crying women. But then Lorraine had learned she couldn’t have kids. After the first two miscarriages, she tried to laugh when she said even one baby would be as good as the ten she’d told Ray to plan for. Three more miscarriages, each taking her to the hospital with life-threatening hemorrhage. They told her only a hysterectomy would solve the problem. Ray had become an expert at tears after that.

“The police called my cellphone when it happened,” Eva said, her voice calmer. “Two weeks before my eighteenth birthday. He’d veered off the road between Elko and Spring Creek. The sedan he was in just kept going, while the undercarriage scraped across rocks and fencing and tree stumps. Apparently something flammable started leaking. The whole front of the car caught fire while it was still in motion. Dad’s body was so charred they almost couldn’t identify him. They traced him through the rear license plate. My number was the last one listed in the caller ID on his landline.”

Ray gazed through the ragtop sunroof at the infinite blue sky. He held on to Eva’s shoulder as if she might float away. Or he might. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Brother Michael’s head drop forward. Was the kid praying?

Finally, she added, “Mom didn’t bring me down for Dad’s funeral. She came and sat on my bed to explain she couldn’t afford plane tickets, after all the moving bills, or ask for time off at her new job.” She drew a long breath. “I said we could drive down, take shifts through the night, but she argued that his funeral would be too hard on me, since all they had to bury were ashes. I think she couldn’t bear to go. His death had just made her madder because I was so sad.”

Brother Michael looked back to catch Ray’s eyes. What did they do now? Ray shrugged. The answer was plain as day: the girl wouldn’t give in until she helped Ray the way she saw fit. Laid her own ghosts to rest. Any nay-sayers had already lost.

But really, if Ray were honest, in the boxing-ring of this argument Eva had won the second all three of them were situated in her bus. She’d climbed in the driver’s side, leaned around to smile at Ray, and said, “Where to?”

Ray didn’t answer. He was surveying the back of the vehicle. Kitted out like a tiny house. The retrofitted cot where the monks had deposited him. Miniature refrigerator, sink and hot plate. A small bench anchored to the floor, with a fold-down tabletop above. Drawers tucked into empty spaces below the curtained windows, probably hiding glasses and dishes, clothes and supplies. A basket rigged along the rear window as a home for a many-armed aloe. Eva lived here—at least sometimes. He should ask how she’d managed this set-up. Maybe it was what he needed. He couldn’t imagine returning to the little rancher in Spring Creek, shockingly empty of Lorraine.

“I’m hoping you have a cell-phone we can use,” Brother Michael interjected. “I’m not too familiar with Elko’s medical facilities. Battle Mountain and Winnemucca were more my territory.”

She slid down into her seat. “Did I ask you?” she said. “I’m pretty sure I was talking to Ray.” She adjusted the rearview mirror, turned the key in the ignition. “What are you doing in Elko, anyway, Ray?”

He tugged his rucksack closer, reached in with his good hand. Pulled out the urn. Weird, space-agey thing, all shiny silver metal. Looked like a tiny rocket. Dented on one side after the crash. He hated it. Lorraine probably hated it. But he had needed something to hold the ashes until he figured out what to do with them.

“I’ve been traveling,” he said. “Made a promise to my wife. I had to take her to the last three states she never visited.” He sighed. “I’d been to them myself. Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho. But I’d never taken her. She had the other forty-seven under her belt, but the missing ones made her restless, especially with how close to home they were. She kept bugging me about it.” He held up the urn. “So I took her with me. We had a good run until I went and crashed sixty miles from home. Figures. Don’t quite know where to go next.”

Eva spun her head to look at Ray. He recognized the shock on her face.

“Whoa, keep your eyes on the road!” Brother Michael shouted. His hand shot out to grab the steering wheel.

Eva whirled back. “I don’t need your back-seat driving,” she snapped. She smacked his hand away, jerked the bus back into the right lane.

Ray had a wild urge to laugh. At age seventy-two, a brand-new widower with no kids, was he suddenly being treated to the family road-trip experience? This scenario seemed like something Lorraine would dream up. She’d constantly volunteered to teach catechism classes at her church, or run the local 4-H, or direct summer camps. Seemed like twenty kids were always at their house, while Lorraine peered over their heads with a flushed face and sad corners to her smile. He’d just shrug when she met his eyes. Whatever she wanted.

“Did you scatter her ashes across the states you visited?” Eva asked. She and Brother Michael had reestablished their uneasy truce.

A week’s worth of snapshots, devoid of color, as if the sun had been missing the whole time, flickered inside Ray’s eyelids. Gray, changing countryside: cropped wheat fields, pine forests, rivers in striated canyons, vast expanses of ranchland with an occasional cow watching him without blinking as she chewed her cud. Judgmental, he always thought cows looked. Lorraine used to laugh at him when he told her that.

“I considered it,” he said, finally. “It didn’t seem right. I’d drive up to these scenic spots and think maybe here was the place. Then I’d open the urn and look at the ashes. Every time I imagined abandoning little pieces of her everywhere, I couldn’t bring myself to do it.”

“That’s not the best way, certainly,” Brother Michael said. The kid’s mouth was pressed into a thin line. Disapproving of Ray’s decision to cremate Lorraine. Ray wasn’t surprised. This was why he’d kept away from Lorraine’s church friends. She’d made fun of him for acting like her faith was a communicable disease, but she didn’t notice how they looked down on him. After she died, they’d descended like well-intentioned vultures. He’d seen plenty of thin lips when he explained there’d be no burial service after the funeral Mass. Lorraine’s priest had seemed convinced Ray wanted to perform some sort of pagan ritual with his wife’s ashes.

“Do you have to be so judgmental?” Eva said. “Jeez.”

Brother Michael held up his hands. “What? I’m just saying. It’s not exactly the approved practice in several major religions.” He glanced back at Ray. “Was your wife religious?”

“Catholic.” Ray nodded. “You two would have gotten along great. She’d probably agree with you.”

“I’m Catholic and I think what Ray’s doing is fine,” Eva said. Even her voice sounded like it was glaring at the hapless kid. “You’re probably judging me too, right? Thinking it’s not exactly the approved practice for me to dress like this.” Her hand drew a circle that encompassed her body. Ray recollected her bare, tanned legs and midriff, how the monks had all shifted from foot to foot when she arrived in their midst.

Brother Michael pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. “No,” he said. “I’m a monk. We’re supposed to let go of all that. We just thank God for the beauty we see and go our way.”

She huffed. “Yeah, sure. I’m not getting critical vibes from you at all.”

“Please,” the kid said. “Can we go back to deciding where to take Ray?”

“Oh, I’ve got that all figured out,” she said. “I’m driving us to Lamoille Canyon.”

“What? Where?” Brother Michael said, dropping his hand and straightening in his seat. “Why? I thought we were headed to an urgent care.”

“The urgent care Ray needs is a suitable place to put his wife to rest,” Eva said. “He needs to finish his journey and bring her home. The canyon’s the most beautiful place around. If I were being laid to rest in Elko, that’s where I’d want them to take me.”

Ray drew a long breath. His bruised ribs protested as they expanded. Whenever he visited the canyon with Lorraine, she’d say how it reminded her of their first meeting. He’d point out that they met on Pismo Beach, not in the high Nevada desert. She’d shrug. Yeah, but the rippling water, the blue sky—it was the same somehow. He’d watch her as she insisted: her face a little lined then, the first gray streaks through her hair. Later, her skin had softened to crushed velvet; her hair turned to solid silver. To his eyes, her changing appearance had floated like a reflection on water. Whenever he wanted, he could see past that reflection to her face on the first day.

He’d been traveling the California coast, earning each day’s wages on farms, working alongside Mexican migrants, picking grapes and strawberries and lettuce. In the evenings he’d sit with friends, playing bluegrass, smoking weed, listening to them toss around theories to explain the meaning of life. Then he’d caught sight of her: long-limbed, mid-twenties girl in a cotton dress, brown hair under a straw hat, strolling the beach during a soft sunset, a little ahead of her friends. A magnet. He went right up and asked her to come to dinner with him. Strange thing was: she said yes.

“But he’s got a dislocated shoulder,” Brother Michael protested. “Maybe cracked ribs and a concussion. This is not the time.”

“It is the time,” Eva said. Her certainty was so perfect that Ray knew she’d win. The kid just didn’t know how to recognize when he’d walked into someone else’s victory parade.

Not that Brother Michael had much of a chance even before the girl showed up and staked her claim. The kid had been losing from the beginning, from the moment when Ray came to and found the blue sky towering over him. The sight had seemed wrong. Hadn’t he just been driving toward the Ruby Mountains, an hour out from Elko? Was he now driving straight into heaven? He could envision Lorraine rigging up such an arrangement. Some deal with God. My recalcitrant husband, she would say. Gotcha covered, God would answer.

Gravel dug into his back. His right side hurt like hell. Except for his right arm, which he couldn’t feel at all. He gulped, afraid to look in case it turned up missing. Instead he shifted his head and squinted. A long, gray ribbon of crumbling highway shoulder unfurled from under his cheek, narrowing into the distance. Where was his bike? More importantly, where was his rucksack? He couldn’t afford to lose that. The whole trip would be a waste.

He scrabbled with his good hand against the crumbling pavement, pulling himself around until he could see the embankment. A sign announcing a junction with US-80 stood twenty yards downwind. His motorcycle appeared to be embracing the sign pole. It emitted an asthmatic coughing sound. Had he high-sided? If so, shouldn’t he be dead right now? Was he dead?

He dropped his head and stared into the pit of the sky. This was not a good question to be asking.

He closed his eyes, and everything came back. Cruising south from Twin Falls, gunning his engine when the speed limit jumped to ninety and oncoming cars melted into streaks of color. He hardly felt the speed, flying through the sagebrush flats, unmarked except for a wavering line of tattered fence. A rattle-trap of a Chevy Suburban passed—a big monster from the ’80s, badly rusted, giving a hellish sound of screaming belts. He was so surprised it could even drive that his eyes drifted after it. His bike swerved, wobbled. He glanced at the speedometer: 110 mph.

Air rushed past his clenched teeth too fast to suck in. He should have worn his helmet, not strapped it to the back of his bike. On reflex he slammed his heel into the rear brake, felt the back wheel lock and begin to drift. His mouth gaped for breath. Black walls zoomed in from the edges of his vision; sound rushed out from his ears and left him floating.

The sun beat on his face. He needed water. He opened his eyes. Five heads hovered over him. Weird-looking. Shaved bald as cue balls, except for one with a ring of hair circling back from his temples. “Sons-a-bitches,” he shouted, startled by their silent appearance. He swiped at them with his left arm. “I got nothing! Leave an old man in peace.”

It was the kid who dropped to his knees beside Ray. A dark-skinned, mid-twenties guy. The sort who could shave at eight in the morning and have a five o’clock shadow by noon. “Sir,” he said, “you’re hurt. We’re here to help.” He waved a hand in front of Ray’s nose. “How many fingers am I holding up?”

“Three,” Ray said, taking another swipe at him. He was terrified the kid would shortly inform him that he had lost his arm in the crash. He needed an escape route. “I don’t have time for this. My bag’s disappeared. I’ve got to find it. Got to pull my bike out of the ditch.”

He struggled onto his left elbow. He glanced at his right arm, felt a rush of relief to see it dangling at his side. The kid leaned in, helped pull him into a sitting position. Ray realized the situation was even weirder than he thought. All five of the guys around him wore black dresses. Long, loose things, belted at the waist. Big, pointed hoods down their backs. He tried to place where he’d seen something similar. Lorraine’s church, maybe. Not that he went—he’d made it clear to her from the start that he had no use for praying in churches—but sometimes he’d drop her off in the winter when she was too nervous to drive. Her priest was always swanning around, greeting people in a white nightgown-looking thing. Priests—they sure had balls to dress like that in public. “Who are you?” he asked.

“I’m Brother Michael,” the kid said. “Brothers Francis and Maurice are down in the ditch getting your bike. This is Brother Daniel.” He pointed at the one with the ring of hair. “And that’s our boss, Father Gregory.”

“A priest?” Ray asked. “I don’t have much use for priests. Don’t go trying to save my soul.”

Brother Michael’s lip twitched. “I’m impressed you can worry about your soul at all,” he said. “Let’s focus on your arm first. That’s got to be incredibly painful. It looks like the humerus is completely dislocated from the shoulder socket.” He reached toward Ray’s right side. “If you provide resistance, I can pop it back into place. That’ll give you some relief.”

Ray frowned, jerked his shoulder back. His arm still felt like it had disappeared. Knotted his belly up with fear. “Don’t touch me,” he said. “Not letting any dress-wearing priest mess around with my arm.”

“We’re monks actually,” the kid said, his hands still hovering. “You sure I can’t fix your arm? You’d be in a lot less pain.”

“Who said I was in pain.” Ray thrust out his jaw. “You got any water? I’m parched.”

Brother Michael’s eyes darted toward Father Gregory. “We need to get him to a hospital,” he said.

The priest scratched the back of his head. “I’m not sure how to go about that without a phone to make calls. If we take him with us toward Twin Falls, he’ll end up stranded, since we don’t have room to bring along a new passenger and a bike.”

One of the other monks jogged up from the ditch. “This yours?” he asked. Ray’s rucksack hung from his fist.

“Give that here,” Ray snapped. He fumbled with the string holding the leather mouth shut. It was double-knotted. He couldn’t untangle it with one hand. The kid’s fingers appeared, teased the knot loose.

“You sure I can’t fix your arm?”

“You touch it, I’ll pull your arm out of its socket,” Ray said. “Can I get a little space here?”

Brother Michael scooted back, crouched on the broken edge of the asphalt. Ray peered at the other men to make sure they weren’t spying, then reached inside. His water bottle had broken. Everything was wet. He cursed under his breath and felt around. Socks, an orange, some weed in a plastic bag, his wadded sweatshirt, his drowned cellphone.

The urn, cold and slippery at the bottom. Dinged up pretty good, it felt like, but intact. Lorraine didn’t have to be mad at him.

He squinted at Brother Michael. “You never told me if you have water.”

The kid gulped. Ray knew he was going to say no. Useless.

A car flew past while they stared each other down. Its brakes screeched. It juddered to a stop, reversed and veered onto the shoulder a few yards past Ray’s wrecked bike. VW Samba bus, light blue. Great condition. Someone really loved that thing. Not like the junker Suburban he’d passed earlier.

He and the monks all turned to look, wondering what came next. Nothing happened for several minutes. Maybe the driver was crazy, reversing down the freeway like that. Hadn’t stopped to help—just wanted the perfect shot of the mountains for Instagram or some nonsense.

The front door swung open. Miles of golden leg slid out. The men froze. A girl sauntered toward them. Long blond hair. The magazines he’d read over Lorraine’s shoulder in dentist waiting rooms would say she had ‘beachy waves.’ Long blond body, barely covered by a white crop top and Daisy Dukes. Those sexy sandals girls wore these days with just a couple of white straps on elegant feet. She drew closer, smiling like she was happy to see them all, her face even better than her figure. Not that such things mattered to Ray. He glanced sidelong at Brother Michael. The kid’s mouth had dropped open. Sweat stood on his forehead. Monk my ass, Ray thought.

“Hey, Fathers,” she said. “I’m Eva. Can I help?”

Brother Michael stood up, brushing off his knees. Trying to think of something to say, most likely. Still useless. “You got any water?” Ray growled.

She blinked at him. “Why yes,” she said. “Yes, I do. Hang on a sec.”

She loped back to her bus—everyone still watching her like an apparition. She hopped in. Several beats went by. The hot breeze stirred the sagebrush into a dry whisper. Far away a hawk screamed.

She emerged, walked toward them, a procession of one. In her hands she held a tall glass. Ice cubes clinked. Water dribbled over the rim. She knelt on one knee at Ray’s side. He stared at her offering. Water he could explain. Ice cubes, too; coolers were a thing. But who, he wondered, drove through Nevada with a supply of real glass glasses in the back of their car?

He took the glass in his good hand. Drank it down in one continuous swallow. God, it was good. Nothing better than water in a desert. Probably tasted better in the proper vessel, too.

He handed it back and wiped his mouth with his good hand. “Thanks,” he said. “Just what a body needs.”

“No worries,” she said. “I try to stop whenever I see people on the side of the road. You never know who might be in trouble. Did your car break down? That Suburban looks like it’s seen better days.” Ray blinked, twisted his head to see. Of course the monks had been driving that piece of junk.

“His bike spun out of control,” the kid said. “We watched him fly off the side of the road and turned around to help. We’re figuring out where to take him.”

Eva smiled. “I could drive—.” She looked down at Ray. “What’s your name, sir?”

“Raymond Decker,” he said. “But my friends call me Ray.”

She winked. “Why don’t I drive Ray where he needs to go? You all can get on your way.”

“That won’t work.” Brother Michael frowned.

Eva blinked. “Oh, it won’t?” she said.

“Not really. See, there’s the bike. We can put it in the back of our SUV and follow you wherever we decide to take Ray.” He squinted at Eva. “But I don’t think all us monks plus the bike will fit in the Suburban. What could work is if we put Ray in your car and I come along to keep an eye on him. The others can follow with the bike.”

“And why do you personally need to come?” she asked. Her hands were on her hips.

“Oh, right.” The kid nodded. “I’m a licensed EMT. I’m qualified to give medical help if needed.” He frowned again. “You sure you don’t want me to fix your arm, Ray?”

Ray looked down at his limp arm. Maybe it was a good thing it didn’t hurt. Meant he could get on his way. Avoid all this fuss. He raised an eyebrow at the monk. “Son, when I need your help, I’ll ask for it.” He tried to pull in his legs so he could stand. “But I don’t need anything from anybody. That water did the trick.”

Eva and Brother Michael simultaneously pushed him back to the ground. “Don’t be ridiculous,” they chorused. Ray looked at their fierce faces, forbidding him from escaping. Beyond them the other monks hauled the crumpled motorcycle toward their Suburban. Lorraine’s ashes sat in his lap. His dislocated arm hung like a dead weight from his shoulder. He realized everything was out of his hands.

And really it had been ever since the priest at Lorraine’s Mass had climbed into the pulpit and started yammering about Lorraine’s life. She’d been a great lady, he said. Dedicated her life to helping other people and their children. You would never have known that every day she carried a cross of sadness that she couldn’t have her own kids. True generosity.

Ray sat in the first pew with the coffin in the aisle beside him. Did he feel irked that the priest hadn’t mention him at all? Lorraine sounded like a kindly old maid based on this eulogy. Maybe he should stand and protest.

He didn’t have the energy. He thought of the morning five days before when he woke and rolled over toward Lorraine. A motionless heap under the blankets. He knew before he touched her that something was wrong.

He wondered if the air in the church had become hard to breathe. Probably the clouds of incense the servers were wafting around. Probably the reason his eyes were stinging, too.

The priest finished, climbed down, went on with the Mass. Ray sat through it all. The congregation rose and sank and advanced on the altar and fell back, like a wave. When they came past for communion, some of them squeezed his shoulder. Kids he’d seen in his house with Lorraine, years before.

What came next? He’d intended to die before Lorraine. That had always been the plan. He used to ask her what she would do when he went. “Pray for you all the time,” she’d answer. But now she was the one gone. He had to do something with her ashes after the cremation, something with his life after that.

A few weeks before, she’d curled up alongside him one night in bed. “You know, Ray,” she said, “you’ve been neglecting me.”

He lifted his head. “Not true,” he said.

“Yes,” she said. “You promised we’d visit all fifty states before we died. We went to Hawaii for our honeymoon. You took me to Alaska when you retired. We’ve driven almost everywhere else.” She poked his side. “We’re getting old, Ray. I want to see my last three states.”

He scrunched the muscles in his neck so he could peer down at her. “This very instant?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I mean in the next couple of weeks. Next month at latest. Soon. I want to cross them off my bucket list so I can say I’m home for good when you bring me back.”

Ray nodded. “How do you feel about taking the motorcycle?”

She laughed. “If you want to massage my legs back to life every time we stop. You know how I stiffen up on that thing.” She rested her hand on his chest, tapped one finger on his sternum. “I’m envisioning the truck. We can throw all our stuff in the bed, get comfy in the cab. I’ll make sandwiches every morning, so it won’t get too pricey. I’ve got it all figured out. You just need to drive.”

He grinned. Typical. “All right, all right,” he said. “You’ve twisted my arm.”

She giggled like a girl, pleased with herself. “And as soon as we come back, before we even stop at the house, we should head up to Lamoille Canyon,” she said. She closed her eyes; so did Ray.

“I can see it,” she whispered. “The perfect end for our trip.”

Ray could see it too. The freezing spring water rinsed over their feet. At their elevation of ten thousand feet, the hot blue sky embraced them, lifted them into itself. Lorraine stood, tendrils of her hair teased out by the breeze. They streamed across Ray’s vision like snow in August. Her hand reached out to take his.

“I’ll go wherever you want,” he said and opened his eyes.

Ray stared through the sunroof of her VW bus. He almost expected the scene she described to appear in the intense blue above, as if the tide had gone out and uncovered the ground beneath.

“And the canyon diving below us,” the girl went on, “filled with aspens and whitebark pine. Ray’ll scatter the ashes. They’ll drift in the sunlight like snow in August.” She nodded at Brother Michael in the passenger seat. “You can sing something. You know, that hymn for funerals that’s chanted as the body is carried out.” She hummed a few bars. Ray didn’t recognize the tune.

“Yeah,” said Brother Michael—the kid, as Ray preferred to label the would-be monk. His tendency to wear his feelings on his face made him seem too young for any kind of official title. He sat now in the passenger seat, shoulders hunched around his ears, the picture of defeat. But he mimicked Eva’s wandering notes gamely enough, adding words Ray didn’t know: “In paradisum deducant te angeli.”

Ray closed his eyes and let his head sink onto the camper cot where he lay behind Eva and the kid. He could see what she saw, too. Lamoille Canyon. Lorraine had always loved the place.

A week after their move to Elko, they’d wound up the long road to where the ravine began in a narrow, sloped plain between snow-capped peaks. They’d hiked until they found springs, bubbling from inch-wide holes burrowed through gravel and gray, shattered rock, veined with ochre minerals. First a film over the ground, the waters deepened to a trickle, a creek, a stream pooled around beaver dams; widened, widened still more, cut into the ground, dug the canyon, ran to fill the Humboldt River. Lorraine had spun in a circle, laughing. “It’s like we’re at the beginning of the world,” she shouted.

The canyon would be a good place. Eva was right. Only twenty-four and already right about everything. Typical woman. Ray would stand there, open the urn, cast the ashes onto the water. Eva would tuck her hand under his arm for support. The kid would stand a few feet back, singing. Lorraine would like the singing.

Ray blinked the burn out of his eyes.

He pictured crawling out of Eva’s bus, his one good arm clutching the urn while the other dangled. He’d hobble across the rough ground. Struggle one-handed to unscrew the top. He’d be an old cripple, forced to ask for help.

He glanced down at his right arm. It flopped on the cot like a dead animal. The kid had said something about complete dislocation. Ray couldn’t move the arm, couldn’t even feel it. No pain. It was as if the arm didn’t exist. That sounded better than excruciating agony, but the lack of sensation was troubling. What if something fatal had happened when he hit the ground after his motorcycle high-sided and flew out of his control? In Ray’s experience, no one walked away from the kind of crash he’d just endured. His suspicion lingered. To avoid confirming it, he decided to ignore the arm altogether.

Now, though, when he raised his head from the cot, he could see that only a few curves of road remained before the turnoff to the springs. It was nearly time to bring Lorraine home, like he’d promised. He needed two working hands to finish the job. He pushed himself upright, swung his legs down from the cot. Gazed through the rear window at the vastness of Nevada beyond the canyon mouth. “Hey, Brother Michael,” he said. “You gonna climb back here and fix my arm?”

The kid’s head whipped around. Eyes big. Must’ve thought he’d never hear those words. Thought he’d been totally overruled. “Don’t touch my arm,” Ray had said more than once, afraid of the diagnosis if Brother Michael looked closer.

But the kid was a stubborn son-of-a-gun. Kept asking. Kept arguing. Kept realizing he’d been beat.

Like fifteen minutes ago when Eva still wouldn’t yield the kid an inch, no matter how logical he tried to make his argument.

“I know you feel strongly about this, Eva, but I really think we should get Ray to a hospital,” Brother Michael had said. Probably the sixth time.

“I thought you were supposed to care about people’s souls,” Eva said. “Haven’t you been listening to me? Don’t you think Ray needs this? He made his wife a promise.” She pushed her foot into the accelerator for emphasis. “A promise. You should know about those. Didn’t you make some big ones when you became a monk?”

From the cot, Ray had a prime view of Eva’s back and Brother Michael’s profile over the low back of the front seats. The kid’s shoulders slumped. “Yeah,” he said. “Vows. I haven’t made any. I’m not a real monk yet.”

“What are you doing then? Wearing a costume? Are any of the other guys back there monks?”

He lifted a hand, palm out in protest. “Of course they are. I’m just trying it out. I only got to the monastery—” he paused, calculated, “ten weeks back.”

Eva’s hand hovered over the monk’s forearm. “No offense, but have you considered that being a paramedic might have been a better fit?”

A muscle twitched in Brother Michael’s jaw. “Oh, no,” he said. “Hasn’t even crossed my mind. Doesn’t every guy want to give up his job and money and the family he might have, to go hang out with a bunch of dudes in dresses for the rest of his life?”

“Don’t be a jerk,” Eva said. “I was just asking a question. Why are you trying it anyway?”

Silence for a minute. Ray stared out the window while he waited for the answer. Remorse for letting Eva push on the kid plucked at him. His fingers dropped to his rucksack, folded around the urn. Lorraine would want to know. She appreciated kids like Brother Michael. Strays to collect and care for. Neighborhood kids at the dinner table because their parents worked, mumbling answers to her questions about school and sports. Shy newcomers from her church at summer barbeques, clutching the lifeline of her friendly chatter while she circled with platters and bowls.

Ray closed his eyes. Still could feel how the landscape folded inwards toward the bus. Spiny sagebrushes looming from steep slopes, rippling past the windows and skylights. In the distance, ragged edges of cliffs marching closer, glaciered peaks beyond that. The backdrop of life in Nevada with Lorraine. Now without her. 

“Two Junes back our ambulance got called out,” Brother Michael said. “A bad accident on the way from Carlin to the mines. Some guy had been driving a van full of steel pipe and scaffolding for a construction project. A car in front slammed on its brakes for a crossing deer. The van barely managed to stop, but the truck behind smashed right into it. The man got impaled by a piece of the scaffolding. The firemen weren’t sure they could cut him out without killing him, so I crawled in to see what I could do.”

The kid stopped speaking. Ray knew that treacherous road. He’d worked at the mines as a diesel mechanic for two decades. He could picture the pile-up. The pressure from impatient drivers behind the accident, needing to get to work. The pressure of life and death.

“His mouth was full of blood. He could hardly talk,” the kid said. “But he kept trying, clutching at my sleeve, until I realized he was saying ‘priest,’ over and over.” He shook his head. “There was no way we could get anyone out there in time. The guy was a wreck. I grabbed his hand, reciting the Our Father. I could hear his blood gurgling while he tried to say it with me. I started into the Act of Contrition. Took me a minute to realize I couldn’t hear him anymore.”

Eva sighed. “But he didn’t die alone.”

“Yeah, I guess.” Brother Michael shrugged. “After an experience like that, you start to think. That guy was dying, but he just wanted someone to pray for him. I asked myself why I wasn’t that someone. Next thing I know, I’m writing to this monastery down in New Mexico, asking to visit.”

Eva’s hand appeared again, this time settling on the kid’s arm, squeezing it. “You’ve got to see what I’m saying, then,” she said. “It’s so important to help people find closure. Ray needs closure.”

Brother Michael’s head canted to one side. “Yeah,” he said, “but that arm worries me. Ray should be screaming in pain. He’s probably severely concussed, maybe disassociating from the shock. There could be other internal injuries.” He glanced back into Ray’s eyes. “No offense, but you’re not a spring chicken. You should be dead after that crash.”

Eva groaned. “You don’t get it at all,” she said. “What about that guy you helped? He didn’t know when his time would run out. Ray doesn’t either. You don’t. I don’t. I learned that the hard way. That’s what I’ve been trying to say this whole time. You have to do the important things when you get the chance.”

Brother Michael opened his mouth again, but Ray’d had enough. Eva’s plan was better. Ray wasn’t ready for the doctors’ sentence once they finally examined his painless arm. “Give it a rest, you two,” he said. “You’ve been bickering for fifty miles. No need to fight over what to do with me.” He jabbed his chin at the kid. “Sorry, son,” he said. “The secret to happiness is making sure the woman’s happy first. Your chance will come later.”

That’s when Brother Michael subsided for the last time. He knew he’d good and lost.

But now that Ray thought of it, maybe the kid really lost half an hour before that, right after Eva veered onto a turn toward the Ruby Mountains. “I still think heading off into the wilderness at a time like this is irresponsible,” Brother Michael had insisted. They’d been listening to Eva’s fervent argument to the contrary for several miles, as she barreled along I-80 toward Elko. Obviously, it hadn’t had the effect she intended. Ray suppressed a chuckle.

“Have you even been listening?” she shouted. She was all worked up. Ray guessed she got worked up easily. Probably why she was a journalist, as she’d explained earlier, back when the conversation was still polite. Went around investigating food deserts in low-income urban areas, reporting her findings and proposing solutions, making the world a better place. Ray recognized the type; Lorraine had the same burning drive.

“Of course I have,” Brother Michael retorted. “I just think we could be guilty of gross negligence if we get out to this canyon in the boonies of Nevada and Ray dies because he’s got a cracked rib that punctures his lung.”

“Don’t be dramatic,” she said.

“I’m not,” he shouted. “This could actually happen.”

Ray prodded the right side of his ribcage. It was plenty sore, but not in the sickening way that came with broken bones. He wasn’t too concerned about Brother Michael’s worries, and he preferred not to remember his mysterious arm. Plus, he’d been trying to figure out what to do with the ashes for the last ten days, ever since the soft-voiced guy at the funeral home had nestled the urn into his hands. Whenever he thought of them his brain throbbed. It was restful to have Eva sweep in with a vision, no matter how crazy.

“Why do you care so much, anyway?” Brother Michael muttered. His jaw jutted as he glared through the windshield. “Ray hasn’t said he even wants to dispose of the ashes in this canyon. Why do you have to interfere with something this private?”

“Ray doesn’t know what to do with them,” Eva said. Her hand appeared in Ray’s line of vision, palm up and flat, as if she presented an inarguable fact. “You heard him yourself. Haven’t you ever been in that position? No good solution to your problem?” She shook her head. “I know I’d want help, and so would you—even if you’re too proud to admit it.”

Ray considered pointing out that he was lying right there, listening to their bickering. They didn’t need to talk about him as if he was already dead, even if he had privately wondered if he actually was dead, and the last two weeks—or at least the couple hours since the crash—had been nothing but an extended trip to hell. Eva’s hand was now slicing the air as she continued her reasoning, so he gave up any protests as a lost cause. Even if he was a delusional ghost, he knew when to argue with a woman and when to keep quiet. Benefits of a forty-year marriage.

“I’m willing to help,” Brother Michael explained, distinguishing the syllables as if he thought she’d gone deaf. “I just wonder if he’s in a clear enough frame of mind to make the right decision.” He turned to frown at Ray. “I mean, his arm’s hanging out of its socket, for pity’s sake.”

“He can make good decisions,” Eva said. “Sometimes you need that kind of shock to help you see clearly. Right, Ray?”

“I don’t think this is our business, Eva,” the kid interrupted. His hand curled into a fist against the dashboard.

She pounded on the steering wheel. “It may not be your business, but it is mine.” The edges of her voice melted into tears.

Brother Michael threw his hands up. “Whoa, whoa,” he said. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know.”

Ray didn’t know either. Eva’s business was something big, though. He’d seen as much in her eyes, when he’d first showed her the urn. They’d widened like the breath had been punched out of her. Like Ray had felt when he found Lorraine. Her body had become so small, once she was no longer inside it. He’d had no warning. Her occasional complaints about shortness of breath had seemed merely the territory of age.

“My dad died when I was seventeen,” Eva said. Her voice caught in her throat. Her words jumbled out between sobs. “I hadn’t seen him in months. Mom had moved us to Washington after he stopped going to the AA meetings. But I still talked to him. I told him I’d come down and take care of him after I turned eighteen. He was never mean. He just couldn’t hold down a job. That made Mom madder and madder until she couldn’t stand it anymore.”

Ray reached over the back of her seat with his good hand and squeezed her shoulder. A little stabilization. She heaved a shuddering breath.

“I missed him so much. He helped me. Yeah, he had a fifth of whisky stuffed in the glove box of this very bus every time he took me somewhere to get a story for the school newspaper, but at least he cared that I wanted to be a reporter. He acted like I could do it, and guess what, I can,” she shouted. “He left me this bus, and now it’s my home while I freelance, make a name for myself. I’m here because of my dad.”

Brother Michael’s eyes were wide. Ray remembered when he’d also been horrified by crying women. But then Lorraine had learned she couldn’t have kids. After the first two miscarriages, she tried to laugh when she said even one baby would be as good as the ten she’d told Ray to plan for. Three more miscarriages, each taking her to the hospital with life-threatening hemorrhage. They told her only a hysterectomy would solve the problem. Ray had become an expert at tears after that.

“The police called my cellphone when it happened,” Eva said, her voice calmer. “Two weeks before my eighteenth birthday. He’d veered off the road between Elko and Spring Creek. The sedan he was in just kept going, while the undercarriage scraped across rocks and fencing and tree stumps. Apparently something flammable started leaking. The whole front of the car caught fire while it was still in motion. Dad’s body was so charred they almost couldn’t identify him. They traced him through the rear license plate. My number was the last one listed in the caller ID on his landline.”

Ray gazed through the ragtop sunroof at the infinite blue sky. He held on to Eva’s shoulder as if she might float away. Or he might. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Brother Michael’s head drop forward. Was the kid praying?

Finally, she added, “Mom didn’t bring me down for Dad’s funeral. She came and sat on my bed to explain she couldn’t afford plane tickets, after all the moving bills, or ask for time off at her new job.” She drew a long breath. “I said we could drive down, take shifts through the night, but she argued that his funeral would be too hard on me, since all they had to bury were ashes. I think she couldn’t bear to go. His death had just made her madder because I was so sad.”

Brother Michael looked back to catch Ray’s eyes. What did they do now? Ray shrugged. The answer was plain as day: the girl wouldn’t give in until she helped Ray the way she saw fit. Laid her own ghosts to rest. Any nay-sayers had already lost.

But really, if Ray were honest, in the boxing-ring of this argument Eva had won the second all three of them were situated in her bus. She’d climbed in the driver’s side, leaned around to smile at Ray, and said, “Where to?”

Ray didn’t answer. He was surveying the back of the vehicle. Kitted out like a tiny house. The retrofitted cot where the monks had deposited him. Miniature refrigerator, sink and hot plate. A small bench anchored to the floor, with a fold-down tabletop above. Drawers tucked into empty spaces below the curtained windows, probably hiding glasses and dishes, clothes and supplies. A basket rigged along the rear window as a home for a many-armed aloe. Eva lived here—at least sometimes. He should ask how she’d managed this set-up. Maybe it was what he needed. He couldn’t imagine returning to the little rancher in Spring Creek, shockingly empty of Lorraine.

“I’m hoping you have a cell-phone we can use,” Brother Michael interjected. “I’m not too familiar with Elko’s medical facilities. Battle Mountain and Winnemucca were more my territory.”

She slid down into her seat. “Did I ask you?” she said. “I’m pretty sure I was talking to Ray.” She adjusted the rearview mirror, turned the key in the ignition. “What are you doing in Elko, anyway, Ray?”

He tugged his rucksack closer, reached in with his good hand. Pulled out the urn. Weird, space-agey thing, all shiny silver metal. Looked like a tiny rocket. Dented on one side after the crash. He hated it. Lorraine probably hated it. But he had needed something to hold the ashes until he figured out what to do with them.

“I’ve been traveling,” he said. “Made a promise to my wife. I had to take her to the last three states she never visited.” He sighed. “I’d been to them myself. Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho. But I’d never taken her. She had the other forty-seven under her belt, but the missing ones made her restless, especially with how close to home they were. She kept bugging me about it.” He held up the urn. “So I took her with me. We had a good run until I went and crashed sixty miles from home. Figures. Don’t quite know where to go next.”

Eva’s head whipped around over the seatback. Shocked eyes met his. Ray recognized the look.

“Whoa, keep your eyes on the road!” Brother Michael shouted. His hand shot out to grab the steering wheel.

Eva whirled back. “I don’t need your back-seat driving,” she snapped. She smacked his hand away, jerked the bus back into the right lane.

Ray had a wild urge to laugh. At age seventy-two, a brand-new widower with no kids, was he suddenly being treated to the family road-trip experience? He closed his eyes. This scenario seemed like something Lorraine would dream up. She’d constantly volunteered to teach catechism classes at her church, or run the local 4-H, or direct summer camps. Seemed like twenty kids were always at their house, while Lorraine peered over their heads with a flushed face and sad corners to her smile. He’d just shrug when she met his eyes. Whatever she wanted.

“Did you scatter her ashes across the states you visited?” Eva asked. She and Brother Michael had reestablished their uneasy truce.

A week’s worth of snapshots, devoid of color, as if the sun had been missing the whole time, flickered inside Ray’s eyelids. Gray, changing countryside: cropped wheat fields, pine forests, rivers in striated canyons, vast expanses of ranchland with an occasional cow watching him without blinking as she chewed her cud. Judgmental, he always thought cows looked. Lorraine used to laugh at him when he’d tell her that.

“I considered it,” he said, finally. “It didn’t seem right. I’d drive up to these scenic spots and think maybe here was the place. Then I’d open the urn and look at the ashes. Every time I imagined abandoning little pieces of her everywhere, I couldn’t bring myself to do it.”

“That’s not the best way, certainly,” Brother Michael said. Ray opened his eyes. The kid’s mouth was pressed into a thin line. Disapproving of Ray’s decision to cremate Lorraine. Ray wasn’t surprised. This was why he’d kept away from Lorraine’s church friends. She’d made fun of him for acting like her faith was a communicable disease, but she didn’t notice how they looked down on him. After she died, they’d descended like well-intentioned vultures. He’d seen plenty of thin lips when he explained there’d be no burial service after the funeral Mass. Lorraine’s priest had seemed convinced Ray wanted to perform some sort of pagan ritual with his wife’s ashes.

“Do you have to be so judgmental?” Eva said. “Jeez.”

Brother Michael held up his hands. “What? I’m just saying. It’s not exactly the approved practice in several major religions.” He glanced back at Ray. “Was your wife religious?”

“Catholic.” Ray nodded. “You two would have gotten along great. She’d probably agree with you.”

“I’m Catholic and I think what Ray’s doing is fine,” Eva said. Even her voice sounded like it was glaring at the hapless kid. “You’re probably judging me too, right? Thinking it’s not exactly the approved practice for me to dress like this.” Her hand drew a circle that encompassed her body. Ray recollected her bare, tanned legs and midriff, how the monks had all shifted from foot to foot when she arrived in their midst.

Brother Michael pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. “No,” he said. “I’m a monk. We’re supposed to let go of all that. We just thank God for the beauty we see and go our way.”

She huffed. “Yeah, sure. I’m not getting critical vibes from you at all.”

“Please,” the kid said. “Can we go back to deciding where to take Ray?”

“Oh, I’ve got that all figured out,” she said. “I’m driving us to Lamoille Canyon.”

“What? Where?” Brother Michael said, dropping his hand and straightening in his seat. “Why? I thought we were headed to an urgent care.”

“The urgent care Ray needs is a suitable place to put his wife to rest,” Eva said. “He needs to finish his journey and bring her home. The canyon’s the most beautiful place around. If I were being laid to rest in Elko, that’s where I’d want them to take me.”

Ray drew a long breath. His bruised ribs protested as they expanded. Whenever he visited the canyon with Lorraine, she’d say how it reminded her of their first meeting. He’d point out that they met on Pismo Beach, not in the high Nevada desert. She’d shrug. Yeah, but the rippling water, the blue sky—it was the same somehow. He’d watch her as she insisted: her face a little lined then, the first gray streaks through her hair. Later, her skin had softened to crushed velvet; her hair turned to solid silver. To his eyes, her changing appearance had floated like a reflection on water. Whenever he wanted, he could see past that reflection to her face on the first day.

He’d been traveling the California coast, earning each day’s wages on farms, working alongside Mexican migrants, picking grapes and strawberries and lettuce. In the evenings he’d sit with friends, playing bluegrass, smoking weed, listening to them toss around theories to explain the meaning of life. Then he’d seen her with his own eyes: long-limbed, mid-twenties girl in a cotton dress, brown hair under a straw hat, strolling the beach during a soft sunset, a little ahead of her friends. A magnet. He went right up and asked her to come to dinner with him. Strange thing was: she said yes.

“But he’s got a dislocated shoulder,” Brother Michael protested. “Maybe cracked ribs and a concussion. This is not the time.”

“It is the time,” Eva said. Her certainty was so perfect that Ray knew she’d win. The kid just didn’t know how to recognize when he’d walked into someone else’s victory parade.

Not that Brother Michael had much of a chance even before the girl showed up and staked her claim. The kid had been losing from the beginning, from the moment when Ray opened his eyes and saw the blue sky towering over him. The sight had seemed wrong. Hadn’t he just been driving toward the Ruby Mountains, an hour out from Elko? Was he now driving straight into heaven? He could envision Lorraine rigging up such an arrangement. Some deal with God. My recalcitrant husband, she would say. Gotcha covered, God would answer.

Gravel dug into his back. His right side hurt like hell. Except for his right arm, which he couldn’t feel at all. He gulped, afraid to look in case it turned up missing. Instead, he shifted his head and squinted. A long, gray ribbon of crumbling highway shoulder unfurled from under his cheek, narrowing into the distance. Where was his bike? More importantly, where was his rucksack? He couldn’t afford to lose that. The whole trip would be a waste.

He scrabbled with his good hand against the crumbling pavement, pulling himself around until he could see the embankment. A sign announcing a junction with US-80 stood twenty yards downwind. His motorcycle appeared to be embracing the sign pole. It emitted an asthmatic coughing sound. Had he high-sided? If so, shouldn’t he be dead right now? Was he dead?

He dropped his head and stared into the pit of the sky. This was not a good question to be asking.

He closed his eyes, and everything came back. Cruising south from Twin Falls, gunning his engine when the speed limit jumped to ninety and oncoming cars melted into streaks of color. He hardly felt the speed, flying through the sagebrush flats, unmarked except for a wavering line of tattered fence. A rattle-trap of a Chevy Suburban passed—a big monster from the ’80s, badly rusted, giving a hellish sound of screaming belts. He was so surprised it could even drive that his eyes drifted after it. His bike swerved, wobbled. He glanced at the speedometer: 110 mph.

Air rushed past his clenched teeth too fast to suck in. He should have worn his helmet, not strapped it to the back of his bike. On reflex, he slammed his heel into the rear brake, felt the back wheel lock and begin to drift. His mouth gaped for breath. Black walls zoomed in from the edges of his vision; sound rushed out from his ears and left him floating.

The sun beat on his face. He needed water. He opened his eyes. Five heads hovered over him. Weird-looking. Shaved bald as cue balls, except for one with a ring of hair circling back from his temples. “Sons-a-bitches,” he shouted, startled by their silent appearance. He swiped at them with his left arm. “I got nothing! Leave an old man in peace.”

It was the kid who dropped to his knees beside Ray. A dark-skinned, mid-twenties guy. The sort who could shave at eight in the morning and have a five o’clock shadow by noon. “Sir,” he said, “you’re hurt. We’re here to help.” He waved a hand in front of Ray’s nose. “How many fingers am I holding up?”

“Three,” Ray said, taking another swipe at him. He was terrified the kid would shortly inform him that he had lost his arm in the crash. He needed an escape route. “I don’t have time for this. My bag’s disappeared. I’ve got to find it. Got to pull my bike out of the ditch.”

He struggled onto his left elbow. He glanced at his right arm, felt a rush of relief to see it dangling at his side. The kid leaned in, helped pull him into a sitting position. Ray realized the situation was even weirder than he thought. All five of the guys around him wore black dresses. Long, loose things, belted at the waist. Big, pointed hoods down their backs. He tried to place where he’d seen something similar. Lorraine’s church, maybe. Not that he went—he’d made it clear to her from the start that he had no use for praying in churches—but sometimes he’d drop her off in the winter when she was too nervous to drive. Her priest was always swanning around, greeting people in a white nightgown-looking thing. Priests—they sure had balls to dress like that in public. “Who are you?” he asked.

“I’m Brother Michael,” the kid said. “Brothers Francis and Maurice are down in the ditch getting your bike. This is Brother Daniel.” He pointed at the one with the ring of hair. “And that’s our boss, Father Gregory.”

“A priest?” Ray asked. “I don’t have much use for priests. Don’t go trying to save my soul.”

Brother Michael’s lip twitched. “I’m impressed you can worry about your soul at all,” he said. “Let’s focus on your arm first. That’s got to be incredibly painful. It looks like the humerus is completely dislocated from the shoulder socket.” He reached toward Ray’s right side. “If you provide resistance, I can pop it back into place. That’ll give you some relief.”

Ray frowned, jerked his shoulder back. His arm still felt like it had disappeared. Knotted his belly up with fear. “Don’t touch me,” he said. “Not letting any dress-wearing priest mess around with my arm.”

“We’re monks actually,” the kid said, his hands still hovering. “You sure I can’t fix your arm? You’d be in a lot less pain.”

“Who said I was in pain.” Ray thrust out his jaw. “You got any water? I’m parched.”

Brother Michael’s eyes darted toward Father Gregory. “We need to get him to a hospital,” he said.

The priest scratched the back of his head. “I’m not sure how to go about that without a phone to make calls. If we take him with us toward Twin Falls, he’ll end up stranded, since we don’t have room to bring along a new passenger and a bike.”

One of the other monks jogged up from the ditch. “This yours?” he asked. Ray’s rucksack hung from his fist.

“Give that here,” Ray snapped. He fumbled with the string holding the leather mouth shut. It was double-knotted. He couldn’t untangle it with one hand. The kid’s fingers appeared, teased the knot loose.

“You sure I can’t fix your arm?”

“You touch it, I’ll pull your arm out of its socket,” Ray said. “Can I get a little space here?”

Brother Michael scooted back, crouched on the broken edge of the asphalt. Ray peered at the other men to make sure they weren’t spying, then reached inside. His water bottle had broken. Everything was wet. He cursed under his breath and felt around. Socks, an orange, some weed in a plastic bag, his wadded sweatshirt, his drowned cellphone.

The urn, cold and slippery at the bottom. Dinged up pretty good, it felt like, but intact. Lorraine didn’t have to be mad at him.

He squinted at Brother Michael. “You never told me if you have water.”

The kid’s eyes widened, and he opened his mouth. Ray knew he was going to say no. Useless.

A car flew past while they stared each other down. Its brakes screeched. It juddered to a stop, reversed and veered onto the shoulder a few yards past Ray’s wrecked bike. VW Samba bus, light blue. Great condition. Someone really loved that thing. Not like the junker Suburban he’d passed earlier.

He and the monks stared at the bus, wondering what came next. Nothing happened for several minutes. Maybe the driver was crazy, reversing down the freeway like that. Hadn’t stopped to help—just wanted the perfect shot of the mountains for Instagram or some nonsense.

The front door swung open. Miles of golden leg slid out. The men froze. A girl sauntered toward them. Long blond hair. The magazines he’d read over Lorraine’s shoulder in dentist waiting rooms would say she had ‘beachy waves.’ Long blond body, barely covered by a white crop top and Daisy Dukes. Those sexy sandals girls wore these days with just a couple of white straps on elegant feet. She drew closer, smiling like she was happy to see them all, her face even better than her figure. Not that such things mattered to Ray. He glanced sidelong at Brother Michael. The kid’s mouth had dropped open. Sweat stood on his forehead. Monk my ass, Ray thought.

“Hey, Fathers,” she said. “I’m Eva. Can I help?”

Brother Michael stood up, brushing off his knees. Trying to think of something to say, most likely. Still useless. “You got any water?” Ray growled.

She blinked at him. “Why yes,” she said. “Yes, I do. Hang on a sec.”

She loped back to her bus—everyone still watching her like an apparition. Hopped in. Several beats went by. The hot breeze stirred the sagebrush into a dry whisper. Far away a hawk screamed.

She emerged, walked toward them, a procession of one. In her hands she held a tall glass. Ice cubes clinked. Water dribbled over the rim. She knelt on one knee at Ray’s side. He stared at her offering. Water he could explain. Ice cubes, too; coolers were a thing. But who, he wondered, drove through Nevada with a supply of real glass glasses in the back of their car?

He took the glass in his good hand. Drank it down in one continuous swallow. God, it was good. Nothing better than water in a desert. Probably tasted better in the proper vessel, too.

He handed it back and wiped his mouth with his good hand. “Thanks,” he said. “Just what a body needs.”

“No worries,” she said. “I try to stop whenever I see people on the side of the road. You never know who might be in trouble. Did your car break down? That Suburban looks like it’s seen better days.” Ray blinked, twisted his head to see. Of course the monks had been driving that piece of junk.

“His bike spun out of control,” the kid said. “We watched him fly off the side of the road and turned around to help. We’re figuring out where to take him.”

Eva smiled. “I could drive—.” She looked down at Ray. “What’s your name, sir?”

“Raymond Decker,” he said. “But my friends call me Ray.”

She winked at him. “Why don’t I drive Ray where he needs to go? You all can get on your way.”

“That won’t work,” Brother Michael said. He frowned.

Eva blinked. “Oh, it won’t?” she said.

“Not really. See, there’s the bike. We can fit it into the back of our SUV and follow you wherever we decide to take Ray.” He squinted at Eva. “But I don’t think all us monks will fit in the Suburban with the bike in there. What could work is if we put Ray in your car and I come along to keep an eye on him. The others can follow with the bike.”

“And why do you personally need to come?” she asked. Her hands were on her hips.

“Oh, right.” The kid nodded. “I’m a licensed EMT. I’m qualified to give medical help if needed.” He frowned again. “You sure you don’t want me to fix your arm, Ray?”

Ray looked down at his limp arm. Maybe it was a good thing it didn’t hurt. Meant he could get on his way. Avoid all this fuss. He raised an eyebrow at the monk. “Son, when I need your help, I’ll ask for it.” He tried to pull in his legs so he could stand. “But I don’t need anything from anybody. That water did the trick.”

Eva and Brother Michael simultaneously pushed him back to the ground. “Don’t be ridiculous,” they chorused. Ray looked at their fierce faces, forbidding him from escaping. Beyond them the other monks hauled the crumpled motorcycle toward their Suburban. Lorraine’s ashes sat in his lap. His dislocated arm hung like a dead weight from his shoulder. He realized everything was out of his hands.

And really it had been ever since the priest at Lorraine’s Mass had climbed into the pulpit and started yammering about Lorraine’s life. She’d been a great lady, he’d said. Dedicated her life to helping other people and their children. You would never have known that every day she carried a cross of sadness that she couldn’t have her own kids. True generosity.

Ray sat in the first pew with the coffin in the aisle beside him. Did he feel irked that the priest hadn’t mention him at all? Lorraine sounded like a kindly old maid based on this eulogy. Maybe he should stand and protest.

He didn’t have the energy. He thought of the morning five days before when he woke and rolled over toward Lorraine. A motionless heap under the blankets. He knew before he touched her that something was wrong.

He wondered if the air in the church had become hard to breathe. Probably the clouds of incense the servers were wafting around. Probably the reason his eyes were stinging, too. He closed them.

The priest finished, climbed down, went on with the Mass. Ray sat through it all. The congregation rose and sank and advanced on the altar and fell back, like a wave. When they came past for communion, some of them squeezed his shoulder. Kids he’d seen in his house with Lorraine, years before.

What came next? He’d intended to die before Lorraine. That had always been the plan. He used to ask her what she would do when he went. “Pray for you all the time,” she’d answer. But now she was the one gone. He had to do something with her ashes after the cremation, something with his life after that.

A few weeks before, she’d curled up alongside him one night in bed. “You know, Ray,” she said, “you’ve been neglecting me.”

He lifted his head. “Not true,” he said.

“Yes,” she said. “You promised we’d visit all fifty states before we died. We went to Hawaii for our honeymoon. You took me to Alaska when you retired. We’ve driven almost everywhere else.” She poked his side. “We’re getting old, Ray. I want to see my last three states.”

He scrunched the muscles in his neck so he could peer down at her. “This very instant?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I mean in the next couple of weeks. Next month at latest. Soon. I want to cross them off my bucket list so I can say I’m home for good when you bring me back.”

Ray nodded. “How do you feel about taking the motorcycle?”

She laughed. “If you want to massage my legs back to life every time we stop. You know how I stiffen up on that thing.” She rested her hand on his chest, tapped one finger on his sternum. “I’m envisioning the truck. We can throw all our stuff in the bed, get comfy in the cab. I’ll make sandwiches every morning, so it won’t get too pricey. I’ve got it all figured out. You just need to drive.”

He grinned. Typical. “All right, all right,” he said. “You’ve twisted my arm.”

She giggled like a girl, pleased with herself. “And as soon as we come back, before we even stop at the house, we should head up to Lamoille Canyon,” she said. She closed her eyes; so did Ray.

“I can see it,” she whispered. “The perfect end for our trip.”

Ray could see it too. The freezing spring water rinsed over their feet. At their elevation of ten thousand feet, the hot blue sky embraced them, lifted them into itself. Lorraine stood, tendrils of her hair teased out by the breeze. They streamed across Ray’s vision like snow in August. Her hand reached out to take his.

“I’ll go wherever you want,” he said and opened his eyes.

‡‡‡

Clare Wilson is a 2019 graduate in fiction from the MFA at Eastern Washington University, where she was also fiction editor for Willow Springs Magazine and assistant director of Writers in the Community. Her fiction has appeared in New Limestone Review and her poetry in Whale Road Review and The Well-Rounded List. She lives and works in Spokane, WA. You can find her on Facebook, and on Instagram as @clarebellw.

This photograph, Marine Drive, was taken in Mumbai, India in 2007 by Adeet Deshmukh. Adeet sees the world through the relationship between light and shadow, emotion and composition. His photography captures this interplay in the streets of New York City and Mumbai, in the faces of family and strangers, in the fields of Iceland and the Midwest. Looking through a viewfinder or at a smartphone screen brings life into focus, wherever he is. You can find more of his work on his website.

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