He was aware of bright light and heat and something wet on the side of his face. Adam swam in and out of consciousness, battling to wake up. He opened his eyes only to squeeze them shut once more against the glaring brightness. He opened his eyes again, this time barely a squint, and looked around. Everything looked weird, and it took him a second to connect meaning to what he saw.
He was outside, lying face down with the desert sun burning his skin, and beside him, a few yards away, lay the car on its side. Its underbelly faced Adam. He remembered the coyote in the road and groaned. His throat was coated with sand, and he was pretty sure the hot liquid on his face was blood. He coughed, and that one action seemed to wake up every nerve ending in his body. Pain seared up his torso from his ribs, and his arms shook from stinging cuts. His left ankle throbbed mercilessly. He felt every labored beat of his heart and screwed his eyes shut against the pain. He lay there for another minute, knowing what he had to do but wishing to the stars he didn’t have to do it.
But after a moment, he lifted his head despite the sharp ache, put his hands under him, and pushed himself up. He bit his tongue against a stream of exclamations and held his breath, just sitting there. When he could take another tiny breath, he tried to stand. Getting up to his knees wasn’t much worse than sitting up, but when he had to rest his weight on one leg to stand, he almost toppled. His whole body shook, but he took a step anyway. He had to check on Jackson.
When he put weight on his left ankle, pain raced up his leg. He balled his hands into fists and took another step, and another, until he reached the car.
“Ja—Jackson,” he croaked. His voice was hoarse from all the sand down his throat and in his mouth. He hobbled around the car. The passenger side was the side on the ground, and from the looks of it, the front of that side must have hit the ground when they rolled. The front was crushed like a can of Coke in the garbage. Adam didn’t let himself think the worst. He couldn’t.
“Jackson?” He knelt, favoring his ankle, and looked in through what should have been the windshield but was nothing more than a few tiny pieces of shattered glass. Jackson’s dark-skinned forehead ran red with blood, and his eyes were closed. Fear gripped Adam’s chest, but he pushed it away and reached out to touch his friend. “Jackson, wake up.”
He held his breath, willing Jackson to open his eyes, to say something, anything. He couldn’t be gone. There was no way. He couldn’t just be…gone.
Jackson’s eyes fluttered, and his mouth opened.
“Jackson!” Adam cried, ignoring the pain in his ribs with every syllable.
Jackson’s lips moved, but it took him a moment to force any words out. “You look terrible,” he murmured.
Adam grinned, nearly crying with relief. “You don’t look too good yourself. How do you feel?”
Jackson’s eyebrows furrowed. “I don’t know,” he said. “Tired. Is that bad?”
Adam swallowed hard. “No, man, you’re gonna be fine. Just don’t give in. Don’t go to sleep on me, okay?”
Jackson nodded slowly and then grimaced. “My legs kinda hurt.”
Adam gave up on kneeling and sat on the ground with his throbbing ankle stretched out before him. He leaned over for a better view inside the car. The dashboard was crushed and shoved up into Jackson’s lap, wrapping partly around his waist. Adam couldn’t even see Jackson’s right leg because the dash was so warped.
“Can you move your toes?” Adam asked. He didn’t know what that would signify exactly, but he’d seen paramedics ask questions like that in movies.
Paramedics. Of course, why hadn’t he thought of them before? Instinctively, he reached for his pocket before remembering that his phone had been on the dash at the time of the crash.
“Yeah, I think I can,” Jackson responded. “I can move my legs, but I can’t move them, you know what I mean?”
Adam nodded. “Yeah, they’re pinned in there pretty good, buddy.” He squeezed his eyes shut for a second. If only that coyote hadn’t come out of nowhere, or if he had just paid better attention, or if they hadn’t been behind schedule…
But no, he couldn’t think of that now. He needed to focus, and he needed to find a way to get Jackson out of this car. “Can you reach your phone?” he asked. Jackson reached into his jacket pocket and—miraculously—withdrew his phone and handed it to Adam. The screen was cracked, but it turned on fine.
“Okay, I’m going to see if I can call 911, okay? Don’t go to sleep. Try saying the Pledge of Allegiance or something to stay awake.” Adam turned on the phone and dialed 911 as Jackson started a feeble recitation. He was surprised at his own calmness; he just hoped the emergency vehicles could find them.
The phone beeped but didn’t ring, and Adam took a look at it. Great, he thought. No service.
He looked down at Jackson, but his friend’s eyes had closed. Not good. He shook Jackson’s shoulder, ignoring the surge of pain that shot from his ribs. Jackson’s eyes fluttered. “Come on, man,” Adam pleaded, “stay with me.” Jackson’s eyes slipped shut. “No!” Adam slammed his fist against the side of the car, sending a shockwave of pain up his arm, and reached through the windshield again to slap Jackson across the face, as hard as he could manage. Jackson’s eyes snapped opened and he looked at Adam.
“Listen,” Adam said, trying to keep his voice calm, “I need to call 911, but there’s no service right here, so I have to go down the road a little bit. I might have to go out of earshot, but you have to stay awake, you understand?”
Jackson’s eyes widened. “You can’t leave me here,” he said, barely over a whisper.
“I know, but I have to, okay?” Even the thought of standing up made Adam wheeze, but he knew that he had to. He didn’t have a choice; there was no way he could get Jackson out of the car on his own, and they hadn’t seen another car for at least an hour before the accident. “I’m just going to go far enough to get a signal, and then I’ll come straight back for you. If I can’t get service just down the road, at least there’s some town only two miles away. It’s just two miles, so how bad could it be?” He tried to keep his tone light, to not let Jackson hear the fear and pain in his own voice. He put a hand on Jackson’s shoulder. “I’m not going to ditch you, I promise.”
Jackson didn’t say anything, but Adam knew what he was thinking: You better not.
Amazingly, Adam spotted a long, thick stick not too far from where he sat. It didn’t look like it was from the brush, but he couldn’t see what else it could have been from. When he grabbed it, he was surprised to find it was sturdy and tall, tall enough to be a good walking stick. He used it to hoist himself up, and when he’d tucked the phone safely in his pocket, he ventured his first few steps off into the desert alone.
The road was flat and hot, and every step on his left ankle made Adam wince and grit his teeth so hard he was sure they’d be nothing more than chalky stumps by the time the phone got any kind of service. He gripped his walking stick with both hands and tried not to put any weight at all on his bad ankle. The going was slow, and sweat beaded on his forehead and rolled down the sides of his face.
Now that he was moving, he was keenly aware of every injury he had sustained. Small shards of glass shone where they had embedded in his forearms, but as long as he didn’t twist his arms too much, he could forget about those; he could forget about the gash on his thigh and the aching of his temples, and sometimes he could even put away the discomfort of the sun burning down on his exposed neck and face. But what he couldn’t forget were the stabbing pains in his torso with every breath he took or the throbbing and noticeable swelling of his ankle with every pounding beat of his heart. He wasn’t sure how far down the road he could make it.
Adam leaned all his weight on the walking stick with every step he took. He tried not to think of how much his whole body hurt, or about how this was all his fault, or about Jackson fighting a concussion while trapped in that car. He couldn’t bear to think of any of that, so instead he tried to focus his thoughts on Rita. Beautiful Rita, with her sparkling eyes and easy laugh. She was the first girl he had ever really loved, the girl who wanted to get married. He set his mouth in a grim line as he hobbled down the road. He was still somewhat undecided on that point. Marriage was unpredictable and universally acknowledged to be difficult. Why did she have to want things to change? he wondered; weren’t they good enough? He noticed that thinking of Rita helped distract him from the pain, but of course, as soon as he thought that, his mind was right back on how much everything hurt. He prayed that he wasn’t doing any permanent damage by continuing to walk, but then again, he didn’t see another way. Jackson needed help. He needed help.
Adam paused his walking and pulled the phone out of his pocket, switching it on. A long, thin crack from the top corner spiderwebbed its way down the screen, but he checked the corner, and his heart jumped. For a second, he had one bar of service, but then it flickered off again. He chose to see this as a good sign instead of a bad one as he slipped the phone back into his pocket, gripped the stick, and took another step. He checked over his shoulder and was surprised to see that the car looked barely bigger than a can of soda from here. He had made it farther than he thought.
He must have been leaning too heavily on the walking stick, though, because with that step he heard a crack. His shoulder slammed onto the ground, and he winced, trying not to breathe or rattle his ribs or ankle. Beside him, the walking stick lay in two pieces.
Get up, he told himself. Get up and don’t worry about it. You’ll be fine. He tried to be convincing just as hard as he tried to be convinced, but neither worked. Slowly, he pushed himself up again and rose to his shaky feet. After a breath, he took a tiny step to test his ankle. When he put any pressure on it, needles and knives jabbed into his ankle and up to his hip. With a rising sense of dread, Adam pulled the phone from his pocket again. The cracks on the screen had doubled in size, and when he turned it on, the lights from behind the screen flickered and died. No, he thought, this cannot be happening. He tried again, but the phone didn’t even try to come to life this time. He wanted to fling it away from him, far off into the desert where the good-for-nothing piece of junk wouldn’t be seen again, but he resisted the urge. He looked back over his shoulder at the car again. It was even smaller now, and Adam was pretty sure that even if he yelled at the top of his lungs, Jackson wouldn’t be able to hear him.
This wasn’t supposed to have happened. This was just supposed to be a simple road trip from Raleigh to Phoenix, a quick little surprise visit, and now? Now it was just one mistake after another. It would have been better if they had just stayed in Raleigh at their boring internships and missed their families from afar. Now they might never see their families again.
No. He couldn’t let himself think like that. He just needed to figure out the next thing. Plan A with the phone, while it would have been great, hadn’t panned out, so what was Plan B? He weighed his options quickly. He could hobble back to the car and try to find his own cell phone among the scattered junk that had flown every which way. That ran the risk of him either not finding it and wasting precious time, or finding it dead or destroyed, which—again—would waste time. He could go back to the car and wait with Jackson, hoping and praying that someone would come down the road and find them, but they hadn’t seen another car in who knows how long, so that was a long shot. Or, finally, he could walk to the next town, that one he’d seen on his GPS just before the accident. It had been what, two miles away? Adam swallowed and squinted in the sunlight down the road.
Two miles. Under normal circumstances, that would be nothing, just the length of a morning run. But now, with Jackson in a perilous state and Adam’s own condition…two miles seemed impossibly far. But again, what choice did he have? The only choice he had was whether he would travel down the road. On the one hand, if he walked down the road, it would be smoother, and he’d be ready if a car came by. But if he went off the road, he might be able to cut off some time by bypassing the whole exit area. He could just walk slightly northwest, and he wouldn’t have to go as far. The shortest path between two points is a straight line, right? So, with one final look back toward Jackson, and without a walking stick, water, or a compass other than the sun in the sky, Adam stepped off the road and into the desert.
He made it only a couple hundred feet before he started to regret his decision. The scorched earth was brittle, crunching under each step. His ankle had swollen so much that he could feel the tightness around the edges of his sneakers, and the throbbing was a constant now. This might be the shortest way to get to the town, but rocks littered his path, and navigating them on an ankle that could barely limp along was exhausting. Each step farther into the desert wasteland made him feel like his ankle could crack at any second. He scanned the landscape before him, searching for something, anything he could use as a crutch or walking stick, but the only branches around were the short, broken brambles that he trampled.
Every step fought with him, and the sun tormented him by scorching all the skin it saw. He pushed his sleeves up as he walked, but even that minor action pulled and ripped at his skin from the bits of glass still lodged there. Mosquitoes and gnats plagued his sweat-ridden face. He swatted at them for a while, but it seemed to only make them furious and him frustrated. The rugged landscape stretched on and on forever, and when he turned back to see the road, he was surprised to see that it wasn’t there; he had somehow hobbled out of sight of it. He didn’t have a watch on, but, judging by how the light had changed from high noon to mid-afternoon, he guessed he’d left Jackson in the car at least an hour ago. Adam blew out his cheeks with air and slowly released it in a sigh. There was no turning back now.
The ground around him grew rockier. Jagged stones the size of grapefruit littered the desert floor, and he had to step carefully, weaving around the larger rocks. A headache was beginning to form behind his eyes from squinting into the sunlight for so long, but there was nothing he could do about it, so he tried to ignore it.
He wished Rita were here. She always knew what to say to encourage him. He loved that about her. He could almost hear her now, teasing him with a laugh, telling him she’d race him to the town. A smile stole across his face at the thought. Maybe, Adam mused, when he got out of this, he could reconsider the whole marriage thing. If he was going to spend the rest of his life with one person, he wanted that person to be her.
As he trudged on, he noticed the ground becoming a little softer between the rocks. It wasn’t as cracked and dry here, and the scraggly brush that grew throughout the desert was looking a little greener. A sound, subtle at first but growing steadily louder, touched his ears, and Adam paused. He tried to quiet his breathing so he could listen more closely. It wasn’t loud, almost like radio static. He strained his eyes, scanning the landscape ahead. A droplet of sweat stung his eye, making his vision blurry again, but he could see just far enough to make out what looked like some kind of long, narrow depression in the ground ahead. A creek? he wondered. Were creeks in the middle of the desert even a thing? He wasn’t sure, but his leg screamed with pain, and he knew he had to keep moving.
As he got closer, he saw that it was a creek after all. About six or seven feet wide and two feet deep, it was mostly filled with muddy sludge and rocks, but a little brown water trickled through it, making the sound he had heard. Adam bit his lip. He didn’t see a way around the creek, so the only way forward was through it. He swallowed his fear and approached it, looking down at the bed warily.
The sound of moving water, even just this scanty trickle, made him keenly aware of his thirst. He knew he couldn’t drink the water, but the thought of plunging in his face and taking several long gulps made him weak in the knees. He released a breath and refocused on getting through it instead. He’d have to take small steps into it, through it, and out of it; there was no other way but back. Adam glanced over his shoulder once more, then faced forward and stepped into the sludge-filled creek. The first step into it was easy; he had to kind of hop from the bank to the middle, squarely in the center of the creek, planting all his weight on his good foot. He teetered for a second, making his heart skip a beat, and then regained his balance. Heaving a sigh of relief, Adam closed his eyes for a second and then moved to take another step.
His foot landed on a rock in the mud, and his swollen ankle twisted with a crack, throwing him down. He slammed onto the creek floor, and his head hit the hard earth at the top of the bank. He struggled to suck in a breath as pain surged up his leg in relentless waves. He scrambled for breath, and as soon as he had it, he howled. Tears pushed out of his eyes as he bit down on his lip until the metallic taste of blood filled his mouth. The pain, which had already been bad, now fried every nerve in his body, bringing out the feeling of every scrape, every bruise, every broken bone. It was unbearable, and for the first time in his life, he thought he might actually want to die.
He squeezed his eyes shut and willed this all to be over as throbbing heat coursed through his body. Why had he insisted on driving so fast? And why had he tried to walk two miles to that stupid town? Was he so proud that he honestly thought he could make it on a fractured ankle? Well, his ankle wasn’t just fractured anymore, that much he knew; with this much pain, it had to be a nasty break. Adam ground his teeth just to distract himself from the pain radiating through his body and wracking his spirit. Maybe if he just lay here, he’d wake up and find himself in his crummy apartment in North Carolina; maybe all of this would turn out to be some kind of terrible nightmare.
But he knew that wasn’t the case. He was really here, in the middle of the Texan desert, well out of sight of the road, with no phone, map, or water, and with no way to go forward. He wanted to curl up and never move again. Tears rolled down his face and pooled in the sand at the top of the creek bank, and with them came the shame. Stupid, stupid, stupid, he thought. Here he was, this guy who thought that he was going to be able to propose to Rita, like he was some kind of catch, and instead he was just an idiot sniveling on the ground like a two-year-old. And the worst part? Because he had wanted everything to be so perfect when he finally would propose, he’d probably never get the chance now. She’d never know that he wanted to marry her.
He felt something crawling on his face, taunting him. It looked like a kind of tiny gecko, and he screwed his eyes up so he didn’t have to see it, not even bothering to jostle it off. How much lower could he go? He could just stay here and let nature claim him. It was too much to try to walk another mile, especially now, and there was no way that someone would discover him for a long time. The only person who would know that he had even been out this way would be Jackson.
Jackson. The name felt like a cold slap in the face. Adam turned his face, not bothering to keep the sand from scraping his forehead as his chest tightened. Jackson, who was always ready with a smart remark or advice, who took a job in Raleigh just so Adam wouldn’t have to move there alone. Adam couldn’t just wait here and die. Jackson needed him, and while Adam could still move, he had to.
So he did the only thing he knew to do—he put his hands underneath him, used all his strength to push himself up, and, ignoring the renewed bursts of pain with every movement, he crawled.
Every jolt of his ankle was new agony, and he had to force himself to breathe through the pain. His muscles ached, and his back cramped after just a few minutes of crawling, but he just locked his jaw harder, allowing shameful tears to fall. He craned his neck, but from this vantage point, he couldn’t see far. Rocks dug into his palms and knees, shredding them to bloody ribbons, and every movement of his hands caused sand to blow back into his face and down his throat. His eyes burned and watered to cleanse themselves of the rough sand. On and on he went, dragging his distended ankle along as the sun beat down its cruel heat. His lips cracked, and his throat felt shriveled and dry with every heaving breath. He didn’t even know if he was going in the right direction anymore, but he knew that if he stopped, he would never be able to keep moving, so he pushed on and on and on.
Spots filled his vision as the sunlight scalded his retinas, and for a while he had to put his head down and close his eyes as he crawled. How, after all this time, could he not be near the town he’d seen on his GPS so long ago? He tried not to think of what that might mean as he plodded on. His hands started leaving a trail of bloody palm prints, and soon the sand and dust caked them almost entirely. With every exhale, he felt the last bits of moisture he had leaving his body. His arms and legs went numb, which was both terrifying and a relief. For Jackson, he thought over and over, like a mantra in his brain, and for Rita.
He looked up again through narrowed eyes and froze at the flash of blue. There, not an acre away, stood a double-cabin silver pickup truck, and walking away from it, with their backs toward him, a man and a woman ambled along in matching cobalt hiking gear.
“Help,” he croaked, but his voice was barely above a whisper. They were getting farther away, so he tried to crawl faster, but his exhausted arms fought against him. He tried to clear his voice, but to no avail. He heard the two people talking and laughing, and his heart pounded. They were so close, but they couldn’t see or hear him behind them. His chest tightened as the realization hit him. They were probably his last hope, and unless he could somehow magic himself to safety and help, he had to get their attention. There was no other way.
So, summoning every bit of strength and willpower he had left, Adam cleared his throat again and called, “Help!”
This time his voice rang out, not very strong, but loud enough. The woman turned around first, her eyes scanning the desert. Adam raised one arm and waved wildly before his other arm gave out, and he collapsed in the dirt and closed his eyes.
Shade covered his face, and he was vaguely aware of a high-pitched voice speaking quickly over him. Strong hands turned him over to lay on his back, and when he opened his eyes a sliver, he saw two concerned faces looking at him. The woman pressed something to his lips, and Adam took a small sip of water, then another. The man had his phone out and was dialing a number, but Adam could speak only a few words.
“Help,” he said again, “Jackson…”
The man knelt down beside him and handed the phone to the woman. “It’s okay,” he said, “you’re going to be just fine.” Adam managed to tell him in a few words about Jackson and the car crash. The man and woman both carried him over to their truck and tucked him in the back as the truck roared to life. The air conditioning felt so cold and sharp that it almost burned his skin. As they got to the highway and raced toward the place where Adam had left his friend hours ago with promises of an ambulance, Adam laid his head back and asked the final request rolling around in his mind.
“Could I borrow your phone? I need to call a girl about a ring.”