VOICES FROM THE FIRE: Ari Whipple

Blue Mountain Fear

When Sandra began her run, she always felt slow and tired like an unoiled machine, drudging her way into the desert trail, but by the time the bushes opened up into the blue mountains, she felt refreshed and lithe, awakened by sights and sounds, little as they were: the sound of the wind blowing through the desert flowers and dust of early March, the sight of light and shade passing over the valley because clouds moved through the distance. 

She wondered how far she could see. One time she heard a fact that the human eye could only see seven miles into the horizon, but that might be water, she thought. What about the desert? 

At the end of her running loop, in which she turned around in the desert and headed home, almost six and a half god forsaken miles into what people would say is fool’s territory, lay the mouth of yellow canyon. Sometimes, if she packed in water and food, she’d go all the way and take off down the canyon, taking the twists and turns to see which new path it lead to. But, today was not that day, so she turned away from it, and headed back, her hair whipping in the wind behind her.

The town, if you can call it that, held a total of 458 residents, all employees of the Trans-Pacific Food and Entertainment company who were there to make tourists feel welcome on their travels. The bartender was also the part time postmaster. And they had no official police department: only security guards. If something got serious enough for the police, one had to call down a hundred miles away to Lone Pine. 

But it was an otherwise normal town. Sandra came back sweaty and satisfied from her run, checked her mail and went by her apartment. Outside, though it was 9 am, several people sat there drinking from a bottle of whiskey. 

“Hey Sandra!” It was Ricky, the town’s maintenance man. “Wanna party?”

“Sorry Ricky,” said Sandra, shrugging at him. “I gotta work today.”

“C’mon girl you never wanna hang out,” he responded. 

Sandra walked past the crowd, trying to maintain a smile while internally screaming. “I’m just tired after work most days Ricky. You know how it is.”

The playfulness left his face now, and Ricky stood up from the bench. “No, girl. I don’t know how it is. You playing. You never come hang out cause you think you better than us.” he tilted his head back, eyes clouded over but still fiery and dead at the same time. “Are you, huh? Better?”

Not answering, Sandra just turned away and continued up the stairs and walked up to the hallway leading to her apartment. In the hall, she bumped into her neighbor and coworker, Kimber. 

“Hey, Sandra, are you ok?”

Sandra looked up. “Yeah, fucking Ricky is just being a creep right now cause he’s drunk is all.”

Kimber rolled her eyes and put a hand on her hip decidedly. “I hate that guy. He’s always drunk. And he’s always trying to get the girls half his age to sleep with him. I fucking hate it. I barely want to party anymore because the guys are getting too scary when they’re with him.”

Crossing her arms, Sandra nodded. “That’s what I think too. I don’t want to be around them even because it’s like they’re just so awful. It’s like, who knows what they’re going to do? And the guys outnumber us here. And” she scoffed. “good fucking luck with security.”

“Yeah. What’s security going to do? Tell them to go to bed? Write ‘em up and tell their boss? Martin barely wants to get his ass out of bed after 10:30 he’s so fucking lazy, and those guys are out there at midnight, two am causing a ruckus, doing shit.”

“I have to tell you a secret.”

Kimber paused and looked at her expectantly, picking at her lip. 

“The lock on my room broke last week when Danny and David were running through the halls. And I’m too scared to put a maintenance request in because Ricky is the one that has to fix it. I think they have to order the lock, and I think it’s going to take up to a week for it to get here. So, I’m just scared of people knowing about my room being unsecured and stuff and going in there when I’m not home, and maybe hiding and waiting for me when I get back and stuff.”

“Sandra, that’s really scary.” Kimber shook her head. “You have to do something about this.” 

“Maybe if I order the part myself and just fix it myself, I won’t have to ask anybody. But I can’t ask them.”

Just then, four of the Thai cooks: Bong, Bing, Bang, and Bao walked out of their apartment in their fresh uniforms looking and the two girls and all smiling and waving. The two women smiled and waved back. 

After they left, Kimber changed the subject. “Did you head that Bao has a boyfriend now?”

Sandra snapped her head. “Who is it?”

“It’s the head of shipping. You know Mike? He’s got that house by the golf course? He said he liked her. I have a bad feeling about it because he makes her stay over every night after work and cook for him because he doesn’t feel like cooking.”

“She cooks all day at work! Give her a break man!” replied Sandra. “God damn. I hate the guys around here. So desperate for a girlfriend that they’ll do anything.”

“But you know maybe she’s not thinking it’s such a bad idea.”

“Bao is like half his age and like half his height. He’s like 6 foot! She can’t be more than like 5’0. She’s so tiny!” Sandra put her hands on her hips and puffed out her cheeks. “A card or not, I feel like it’s weird. Besides, she has to go home for two years before they can get married anyway. So, she has to wait anyway.”

“I mean, if they do it legally.”

“People are doing shady shit in Vegas all the time, forging papers and shit, but like, you shouldn’t be doing that, and the company has looked the other way before.” Sandra looked at the ceiling and closed her eyes.

“Forge the papers, and she works in Ridgeline for a year or two, and then reapplies under her married name cause god knows HR keeps shit records, and bam, she’s back living with him in their love nest cooking his ass dinner every night earning double income.” Kimber crossed her arms and wore a sour look.

“It’s not a big deal if they get married, honestly. It’s really none of our business. Do you think he means to keep her in the house all day, though? What a life to live out here, though. Ugh. There isn’t even a grocery store to escape to.”

“I know, right? Poor Bao. I just know this is going to end badly.” Kimber uncrossed her arms and said, “anyway girl, I gotta go run some errands, you take care of that door before it gets out of control. You do not want that to bite you in the ass!”

Sandra sighed. “You’re totally right. Thanks. I’ll talk to you later.”

Pretending to unlock her door, and then fiddling with the lock like she placed the lock back in place, and at least putting the chain lock on, she undressed and took a shower and changed into her work clothes: black slacks, a denim shirt with a pocket and a black apron with pockets. 

She sat down at her desk and wrote in her journal not thinking this setup looked weird, but nobody was around to see her. She made a pot of coffee, even though it was extremely hot outside, and poured it over ice. The bitterness felt good on her lips, and the caffeine woke her up even more. Sandra wasn’t sure she was ready for this shift; she felt like she just wanted to go back to sleep after her run, but another day is another day. 

After failing to read her book and opting instead to look at music videos on YouTube, time wore thin, and it was almost noon. So, she walked out of her apartment, again, pretending to lock the door and walking away. Also walking out of their apartment at the same time and sidling up next to her was her coworker, Frank, another server in the Goldrush café. 

“Hi Frank.”

“Sandra!” he said, putting an arm around her and jiggling it. “How are you today?”

“I’m fucking tired, Frank. How are you?”

“I feel great. You’re probably tired from all that running you do. How is it that you go into the desert every day. You do too much stuff, lady. You need to chillll.” he laughed. 

Sandra laughed, too. For better or worse, she kinda liked Frank. He wasn’t a bad dude, though he had the disposition of a frog and the intelligence of a child. 

“You smoke too much pot, Frank.”

“I think you’re wrong. This is the great state of California, where it is legal, and I have my card, and I smoke just the right amount of weed which is as much as I can, thank you very much young lady.”

Sandra giggled at this. “What’s your medical condition?”

They walked outside and down the stairs. Ricky was gone, but other people had gathered and were afternoon drinking in the dry heat under the dead tree. The two walked past towards the road. 

“Can’tputupwiththisshititis. It’s a very serious condition. A doctor said it may be terminal.”

“Where’d you find this doctor?”

“Ridgeline’s finest strip mall. Of course. It cost me fifty whole dollars for my card and an appointment which was billed to my insurance. Thank you, insurance.”

“Well, I mean, you seem pretty chill, so it must be working.”

“See? You need more weed in your life. We should smoooooke.”

Sandra laughed and shook her head. “I think I’ll pass for now man, but thanks for the offer.”

When they opened up into the open air, they were surrounded by the open desert again, the clouds had cleared away, the mountains, bright blue, except for the rock closest to them, which was tan and brown, carved stone, fit for climbing and at least a story high behind the restaurant. They walked across the parking lot around the majesty not really paying attention to it. 

“So, when’s our date, Sandra? You’re a pretty girl.”

Sandra rolled her eyes. “Why’s it gotta be like that, Frank? Why can’t you just be my boy. Are you going to heckle me for a desert date to the cafeteria, too?”

He stopped and looked her up and down. “You’re just, so fine, and I dunno. You’re so cute.”

“Frank, come on, can’t I just be single? I’m here to make money and live my life and go for runs in the desert to keep my ass curvy.”

There was a pause as they kept walking. “It is a nice ass.”

They both started laughing. And that was that.

When they got to the restaurant, the kitchen was bustling with the Thai kids as well as Native Americans guys, Johnnie and George and Sid and Lyle, and the transfers, Marco and Ferdi. The manager was running around, and her boss was in the office doing inventory and ordering, she thinks, but she couldn’t tell. They passed the schedule which showed her working six days a week, which was normal for the last five weeks.

When you were there, you were there. Besides, there was a lot to do. She busied herself with customers, running back and forth, remembering orders and forgetting sauces and laughing with her coworkers. She felt alive and happy and, in the moment, and just happy to be and present at her job being a waitress. It was a simple life, but it was a good life, even as the customers swelled and then slowly the rush filed out one by one into the evening, like a faucet that trickled to a stop in a full bathtub. 

“I made bank today, what about you?” asked Sandra to her coworker Johnny.

“I did pretty good for myself,” Johnny said, leaning against the counter, taking a drink of his soda. Margie passed through the server station carrying dirty dishes from the day, and Sandra handed her the cut of the day, and Margie smiled. “Thanks Sandra.”

William walked through the server station grumbling, holding a sparkling grapefruit. “Man, that guy on 34 was being such an asshole tonight!” 

The two of them turned to William and listened to him complain about his woes.

He set down the drink and held out his hand, cutting through the air like a knife. “you know we aren’t doing steaks here. It isn’t that kind of restaurant. We’re in the middle of nowhere, a thousand goddamn miles from anywhere. Like, we’re basically on mars here, you have to believe we have every fucking thing trucked in. Like cut us some goddamn slack buddy. But, no, he just goes on and on about how the god damn thing is terrible and rubbery and how he isn’t going to pay for it and how it’s all my fault and how I need to make him something else right now, but at the same time I have to take a fucking ear beating from him about the whole thing.” he took a breath. Sandra and Johnny took a breath after looking at each other too. “I’m just tired of being the whipping boy to entitled pricks.”

Sandra just nodded, but Johnny said, “I get it man. But we’re here, and you can’t control him. You can only do what you can about how you react to him. Did you get him new food?”

William sputtered. “Well yeah.” 

Johnny said, “and did he eat that?”

“Yeah.” he looked down at his feet. 

“And did the night go on?”

“I mean-”

Johnny held up his hand. “Did it?”

“Yes.”

“Then dude, what’s the problem? You’re just working yourself up. Like, this dude doesn’t matter in the long run of your life. Enjoy your soda, count your money, and like let’s chill out a little.”

“Yeah,” said Sandra.

William sighed. “You’re right.”

“Anyway, guys, I gotta go count down my drawer since my side work is done.” she paused and winked at Johnny. “I even helped Claudia do her side work.”

“You mean you did her side work. Why are you always doing her side work for her? You only make it worse for the rest of us.”

Sandra shrugged. “I’m a sucker for a pretty face, what can I say?”

After dropping her money earned, she counted out $200 for the day which wasn’t bad on top of a $15 an hour pay. It paid off a new car and her credit cards within a year and built up a savings she wouldn’t have had before. 

Walking back to her dorm was always a little creepy because it was through the dark trees, and it took a winding path. To help herself feel better on the walk, she would sing, which often took the tune of old Billie Holiday tunes, or sometimes Janis Joplin.

It was always of this belting extreme that would get lost in the noise of the partying outside her dorm, which had loud music playing almost every night as soon as she walked up. The lights would greet her, and she would breathe a sigh of relief that she had made it back ok for another night. Nothing had ever happened because it was safe here, but she didn’t like how everybody drank then stumbled around in the dark afterward, into the parts unknown. The whole thing felt like a recipe for disaster.

When she came upon the partiers, they were in full bloom, drinking and dancing, their sweating bodies moving and swaying to the music, drunk on the night, the smell of weed hanging in the dusty air. 

Kimber stumbled over to her, dressed down, her cleavage hanging out, looking amazing. “Hey girl, are you going to come dance with us?” she reached out a hand, the other holding a colt 40. 

Sandra leaned over. “Kimber, I’m exhausted. I just worked all day and staying up another 4 hours to drink and party is the last thing on my mind. Literally all I want to do is eat some food, watch some tv, and sleep.”

“That’s allll you do. Comeeee onnnn Stay with usssss.” she whispered drunkenly. “Please?”

Standing back up straight, she grabbed Kimber’s outstretched hand. “Ok girl, you got me. I’ll stay out with you for a couple hours. Just a couple. Then, I have to go to bed because my ass is beat.”

Kimber squealed with joy while they swung around for a while and danced to the beat box on the dirty picnic table. Some guys came along and gave her a beer, which she accepted and drank gingerly over the course of the party, slowly warming in the night’s heat and dust. 

Finally, two hours had passed, and the party started to thin out. 

Sandra pulled on Kimber’s hand. “Come on, Kimber, I have to go to bed.”

“Oooook, girl,” Kimber said, mock disappointed. “At least you finally got out and did something for once.”

“I’m dead tired, and I’m going to feel it tomorrow, too. I’m fugging exhausted.”

“Oh, whatever. It’ll be fine.”

By this point Sandra had pulled herself up towards the stairs of her building and was almost at the door of the dorm. “Goodnight, Kimber. I’ll see you tomorrow. You want to work out tomorrow?”

Kimber just laughed. “You crazy.”

Getting to her room, she didn’t even bother faking to open the lock because of exhaustion. Upon entering, however, the air was different, and she felt it. She turned on a light, but there was still an impending darkness on her. She walked in was surprised when someone jumped out of her closet and held her down. It was Ricky.

“Peekaboo bitch,” he whispered in her ear. 

She screamed, but he covered her mouth. 

“You don’t want to party with ole Ricky, but Ricky came over to party with you. And you are going to party tonight.”

Tears were forming on the edges of her eyes, coming down them as he was pulling at her work uniform with his ghostly pale hand, but then something inside of Sandra tore open. She wasn’t going to let this creep get to her. 

It was time to pull herself together, she decided. Sandra bit him and when he was distracted with that, she was able to wriggle a bit free and start swinging her arms and start punching him. So, she did. He wasn’t as strong as he seemed, and soon he was sprouting red knots on his face, trying to regain control. 

Finally, she reeled up and head butted him back, knocking him off her onto the floor. It hurt her head, but it knocked him out cold. 

She stood up, looking over his limp body, and felt herself exhausted over what happened. She took a picture of him, laying on the floor. She wasn’t sure if she should call security or not, but instead, she stepped out into the night, everyone settling down into their beds for sleep, the stars out and dust settling in the valley. She walked out into the darkness for what was to come next, uncertain about the future. 

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