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Corin Cummings

Escape from an Arid Dreamland

The desert is in my dreams. How could it not be? The hollow screaming wind, the endless orange skies, I can't escape with my eyes open or shut. And now I'm riding with the others, zombie-like in the back of this truck. Iím just another POV. That's what the Marines call the people of this country, the impoverished. Povs for short.

I eat the dust. It clogs my nose and stings my eyes. We all have rags tied over our faces, but it doesn't help. My sinuses feel like vacuum cleaner bags full of fine sand. We close our eyes and hang our heads.

When the landscape turns rocky, the tires change pitch. We look up and groan in relief. We shake ourselves off and take turns spitting out the back. We have run out of things on which to blow our poor noses, and they are as raw and red and caked with dust as the dead body we saw at the side of the road. We had all seen bodies. That is why we are leaving.

The girl Josie cries, "Auntie when is this going to be over? I hate it." Josie is wearing a huge sun hat tied on with a scarf. With all the dust, she looks like a mushroom.

Her aunt says, "Darling don't cry, you'll turn yourself into a mud pie."

A man next to me chuckles and is shot a piercing glare by aunt and niece.

More quietly the old woman says, "You're going to have to cope like the rest of us, sweetheart. I'm sure we're almost there."

Sniffling, the girl smears dust and tears on her cheeks with a soiled handkerchief.

"Stop honey," says the aunt, smiling weakly and taking her relation's frail hand. "You look like a Marine putting on war paint."

Our truck rolls on. The thing is gigantic. I have no idea who built it or even who could have. For those lucky enough to be inside, it has not only rows and rows of seats, but different rooms, and hundreds of compartments and appliances and multi-functional, satellite-orchestrated gizmos. But weíre in the back, the place for povs, packed in with the luggage and sheltered only by a ragged canvas top. Endlessly, we're blasted by sand whipped up in the slipstream. Itís as if weíre in a covered wagon hitched to a jet.

Suddenly, our megaton horse downshifts, bucking as it slows. The hydraulics whine and gasp, and eventually it comes to a stop.

"Is this it?" shouts Josie.

"I don't think so, dear," says her aunt.

I lean out the back to have a look. We're parked in front of a two-story concrete bunker, maybe a bus station or a rest stop. I watch the privileged passengers disembark.

"Itís a bathroom break," I tell the others. "There seems to be a cafe on the second floor."

The man next to me, the chuckler, nudges my elbow and jerks his head to indicate a sweaty fat man standing off to the side of the truck. He says, "That man Aziz is a thief. Pass it on." We all know Aziz. He wears clothes meant to look like a uniform, even a ridiculous beret at times, but he has no apparent connection to the truck staff or anyone else. He's a pathetic joke of a man, but a dog you have to watch nonetheless. I have every reason to believe that his immorality is limitless.

I lean over to the aunt. "This gentleman next to me says the man Aziz is a thief."

"They're all thieves," she snaps.

"If you're going to get out," I advise, "you might want to take your things."

"We can't take everything," she says indignantly. "Honey," she tells her niece, "take your passport with you. Do you have your money belt on?"

"It itches," protests the girl.

"That's fine. That's how you know it's still there." She turns to me. "Can't someone stay here? Canít we take turns at the washrooms?"

I consent to stay. I know I won't be able to go anyway. Itís just another discomfort lost among many.

I watch my comrades in the dirt class climb down, stretch, and brush off. Once they go, I do the same.

Aziz, I see, is kicking the dust, making no secret that he's waiting for me to leave. I make myself comfortable against a massive tire and glare with what little energy I have. Aziz comes toward me. He takes something out of a bag slung over his shoulder. A gun, I think at first, and straighten up, but it's only a canteen and ball of something he keeps hidden in his pudgy fist.

"You want to buy alcohol?" he says to me.

"No," I tell him as I would to a beggar on the street.

"Courvosier," he says raising his eyebrows and sloshing the battered canteen.

I sputter a laugh. "I'm sure it is."

The frowning, thick-browed Aziz then unfurls his stubby fingers revealing a dark putty-ish lump wrapped in plastic. "Hashish," he offers.

Both substances might tempt me if they were real. Even the fantasy of getting numb impels me to purchase, but I don't want anything to do with this pig, and I'm sure neither is authentic in the least. I shake my head at him. He shrugs as if the loss is mine and shuffles toward the front of the truck.

Momentarily, I see our ladies emerge from the bathrooms waving their hands before their faces, horrified by the stink. I have a chuckled at their prissiness and watch them climb the stairs to the cafe. When I stop making noise myself, I hear something around the back of the truck and rush to it. I find Aziz has climbed into our cargo hold and is already picking through luggage --mine, in fact-- like an overjoyed lizard in a nest full of eggs.

He spots me and throws himself out the back. He flies past me and lands with a thud. I tackle him and try to pat him down, but he grunts and flails like a captured animal. He's so desperate and wide-eyed, I half expect him to piss. He manages throw an elbow into my face and scuttles shitpants off as I'm picking myself up out of the dirt. Iíd chase him but I can't leave the luggage.

I spit some blood. It clears out the dust at least.

As I check through my belongings, the Chuckler returns. "That pigfucker," I tell him, "is riding inside with air conditioning and cocktails while we're out here, and he's trying to steal from us!" My man shakes his head. "Heh-heh," he laughs sympathetically. I climb out the back and kick a tire before heading off to the toilet.

When I return, Josie is begging her aunt and the other passengers to let her keep a tiny dog she has found. "Theyíll cook her up for their nasty cutlets," she implores. "She can't belong to any of them. Her owners must have lost her when they were leaving, too. Poor doggie. I'm going to call her Forgea. Did you see that story about the dog that was rescued?" Josie holds the dog up to her face and says, "Do you like peanut butter, Forgi?"

Who has peanut butter, I wonder?

I hold out my hand for the dog to sniff. She licks my fingers. I can't help feeling warmly toward her. I like dogs. I wish I could hold her, just for a little comfort, but I don't ask.

"She was wandering about in that filthy cafeteria looking lost," says the aunt, who holds a plastic bag of food she has bought. She turns to me and tells me "I hope you didn't waste your time going up there." She shakes her gray old head. "I honestly don't know what they eat here or how they survive. I swear they must fill up on sand, chew the scrub, I don't know," she titters. "All they had were gray little meat cutlets and hardboiled eggs. I asked the woman sitting there if the cutlets were fresh and without even looking up at me, she shook her head. Can you imagine?"

"I'm tired of boiled eggs," says Josie.

"I know dear."

The truck's engine roars to life, and we clamber aboard. As we get underway, Josie's aunt sets a table on top of a suitcase for their eggs. First she lays a newly cleaned handkerchief, damp from being rinsed out at the rest stop. Then she surprises us by setting out a crystal saltshaker.

"Salt," I say admiringly.

"This is the last of it," she says with a smile. "You're welcome to an egg." With dignity beyond any person eating boiled eggs in the back of a truck, she taps the shell against the hard corner of the suitcase. Before going further, she sniffs it. "Augh!" she roars and hurls the egg out the back, nearly pelting a man. The dog whimpers. She wipes her hands on the handkerchief and curses, "That sow! I didn't ask about the eggs, now did I? She looked me right in the face and sold me rotten eggs." Seeing her niece's distress, she eases her tone. "I wish I could go back there and throw them right back in her face. Weíre tired of eggs anyway, arenít we sweetheart?"

Josie pouts and nods. Her eyes are teary. She clutches the struggling dog.

The sound of the truck's tires drops an octave and the dust returns. We in the back moan and settle in to concentrate on taking slow, careful breaths. Eventually, I fall asleep. It would seem like a rare talent except for the dreams. I pray when I leave this place these dreams dry up.

I wake to find the dust gone and Josie clapping. At last, we have arrived at the port. She waves her hands and sings at the turquoise sea.

The truck stops and everyone rushes off. There is no hint of kindness between the passengers who have spent so much hard time together. Each of us knows that if we don't get on this boat, we could be abandoned. We could be killed.

The old aunt takes on the ferocity of a bull and shoves me aside to get at her bags. She shouts at her niece to put down the dog and pick up her things.

By the time I get in line, the old woman and the child are already many brown heads in front of me. The ship hasn't even begun loading, but each speck in the crowd pushes viciously to secure its place. Several fights break out. I see thieves lurking at the edges of the throng waiting to grab and flee.

Faced with travel again, I take inventory. I pat my money belt and then the keys in my pocket. I will likely never need them again, but I feel better that they are there. I reach into my bag for my passport and find it missing. Panic is immediate. I search my other bags knowing it can be in none of them.

Aziz has my passport, the only thing that makes any difference. Gone. I always knew it was tenuous. It's such a flimsy way of telling people apart. Now I'm truly one of them.

I've always tried to be an understanding person, an internationalist. I sympathize. I am here, aren't I? People think I'm from a do-gooder nation, Canadian or Irish, but I'm so American. I hate it here. I hate the desert and the food and the way people smell. I grew up on TV and wandering in malls, and I wouldn't have it any other way. I'd unzip you like a fish for a little air conditioning.

And that passport was my escape pod. It was magic. I could always, and always would, return home to prosperity and comfort and calm and order. That's what it was for. I could never be one of them. Look at me. I don't belong here. My house will never be blown up or bulldozed. My family will never be refugees or huddled in basements as bombs drop. I object to the way things are, of course, but I'm protected. I'm the lucky one, and there is no greater power. People here can look at me and say they know an understanding American, but I'll never let them in my house, not the way they do for me. They want me to see how poor they are, but also how proud, how close. I don't want them to see what I have. We need to help them build it for themselves. That's what I understand.

But I've had enough now! I've pulled the safety catch, but it isn't working. How could I be so stupid? How could I have left it? Now Aziz has my passport. He can't make it work, but he's withholding it from me. I will kill him for it if I can.

Stop! Can it really be that important? "Yes, yes, yes," I hiss at myself. "They won't let you leave!"

I know if I step out of line, I'll never get back in, and passport or not, I'll never get on that ship. I shout up to the girl, "Josie! Josie!" I think she hears, but she doesnít turn around.

I have no choice. I turn back. I see the truck rising out of the scrubby crowd like a mountain. It's easy to get out of line, even with my bags. The crowd parts for me, ushering me to the mount. They all want my place in line. One after the other, they use my wake to gain ground.

A little dark boy in a long shirt flings open the sliding side doors of the truck after I pound on them for several minutes. He quickly turns around and hurries back inside. My eyes have to adjust as I step up into the mobile cathedral. I find the kid playing video games on a built-in consul. Otherwise, the place seems empty. It looks like a gutted whale fitted with stadium seating. "Where does Aziz sit?" I say as I drop my heavy bags. Without looking up he waves me away. Furiously, I snatch his controls and raise them threateningly. The boy cowers and points to stairs I hadn't seen. There's more truck. I want to crack the brat with his plastic fetish, for which now he imploringly reaches out. I slam it down. I hope it breaks. I wish I could explode this truck. I don't even care if I were in it. If I had that power, I would use it indiscriminately. If I sprayed the wasps and killed the ants, I wouldn't mind.

On the second level I rummage through dozens of compartments built into the seats. What am I looking for? I find sticky little cocktail cups. It's not like he'd steal my passport and then leave it somewhere, I think. This is frantic. It's not going to help.

I stand up to try to pull myself together, and Thank God in Maryland, I spot Aziz out the window. Without taking a breath, I bolt for the door. I jump over my baggage. I'm going to tear right through him, but he looks up. He's in tune to things, the bug. He takes off through the crowd. I see people pushed aside as he runs past them like a rat in tall grass.

Aziz is headed for the market, above which hangs a haze from cooking fires and flocks of gulls scavenging as over a dump. I expect to catch him right away, but he's faster than you'd think. There are people in my way, women and children. He runs them down, but it's holding me up.

I'm running and gritting my teeth when, out of all the noise of the crowd, I hear something familiar. It's like an alarm clock in a dream. Someone is screaming, and just faintly, I know who it is. It's Josie. I turn my head, though my legs donít stop, and I catch a glimpse of the old aunt at the edge of the dock. They've nearly pushed their way up to the gangplank, but the stupid girl has fallen in. The woman is stricken. She holds her hands up to her face. She's crying, begging for help. She's so close to the edge, she could fall in herself.

I'm doomed. I stop. I hear the girl splash and choke as I fight my way to the harbor wall. In the filthy sewer water below, Josie is struggling to tread. The little dog helps its savior by scrabbling up onto her head like a crab onto a rock. It scratches her face and pushes her under. People laugh. Already some local boys are throwing stones.

"Josie," I call to her. "Josie!" The aunt is at the gangplank holding her heart. She's pinned by the crowd. Even if I jump in, I think, I won't be able to get her back up the wall. I decide to hang myself over the edge like a ladder. Not at all sure that I can keep my grip, I lower myself, thinking that I'm almost sure to fall in. I call back to her. "Josie, come hold onto me. See if you can climb up."

I hear her squeal as she fights off the dog. The audience laughs. Someone steps on my hand. But momentarily I feel her grabbing at my pant cuffs, trying to get a grip on my boots.

"I can't," she wails.

"Put my feet under your arms. I'll pull you up." I feel her weight as she hooks one foot under her arm. I'm not going to be able to do this. I hook my fingers and hold on desperately as she yanks at my legs. "Hold on." I work my elbows up to the top of the wall. I'm getting scraped up, but we're moving. I see peoples' shoes. I'm at chin level with the top of the wall. I get my shoulders up and I feel people actually helping me, pulling at my shirt. When I'm able to hoist up my hips, I reach back and grab the girl by the hair. "Climb up," I scream at her.

I look over to the aunt. She is overjoyed but still holds her heart. Josie is crying but is on the ground. Her hair is tangled in my fingers. "I'm sorry," I tell her, "I had to grab something."

She coughs and cries "Forgea!" The little dog still paddles frantically, it's claws scraping the stone wall. The local boys are throwing stones, which plunk around her and thump against her. I try chasing them away, but am shown a knife. Josie bawls. Her aunt is calling for her.

Maybe I can scoop it up somehow, snag it with something. Maybe the dog will bite onto my pant leg, I think, but before I can begin to lower myself again, I hear a stone squarely pelt her and the piteous yelp she emits as she disappears.

"Josie, you have to calm down," I tell the hysterical girl. "If you don't listen to what I say, you will never leave here. You have to get back in line." I turn her around and force her into the mob. "I can't stay with you. Go to your aunt. Don't let them push you. Push back!"

As I again head off to find Aziz, they begin loading the boat.

The market is a maze of cinder-block shops, tents, and converted shipping containers. It smells like fish and whatever it is they burn for fuel, camel shit, sea weed, crude oil. People are agitated. They hustle as if time is running out. There are armed men in robes. I hate these places. Even now vendors mob me. Someone hangs a boogery squid in my face and shouts a price. I push and shout at them. I've learned some choice curse words.

Then, bearing through the shouldering sheets, I hear Aziz before I see him.

"American passport. You can get on the ship, no problem. Five hundred dollars."

I burst through and attack him just as he claims to all around him, "You can sell it for more."

We go down in the dust and I go for his eyes. As before, he freaks like a creature and kicks and scratches and pants with his eyes bulging out. Then there is shooting. I almost let him go. I think I must have holes through my back. But instead the crowd rushes over us like a landslide. Stomped upon, I loose my grip. I loose Aziz. I can't see my passport. And the machine guns are roaring. I hear bullets punching glass, crashing through cinder-block walls and thumping into the dirt around me.

I run for cover like everyone else. So this thing has begun, I think. They have arrived in their amphibious vehicles. But wait until they get a load of our truck.

I hear the Marines yelling, "Move out the povs. Go through the shops, through the shops." I hear explosions and debris scattering like handfuls of dried beans. I don't know why I think of beans.

Aziz ducks into an abandoned vendor's stall, but I can't go after him. People are shooting back at the Marines. In the dust I catch glimpses of fluttering robes and blazing Kalishnikovs.

The Marines, I realize, aren't going to come down the lanes. They're blasting through the shops, coming through the walls, making a sheltered tunnel for themselves into the heart of the market.

I'll be mowed down with bullets I paid taxes to produce, I think, and I go for Aziz. There are shots close by, people being hit, picked off as if by whizzing lethal insects. As I abscond into Aziz's booth, I fantasize for an instant in the sudden dark that this is the entrance to a secret tunnel that will lead me away, that I'll actually escape from this nightmare. But then I hear him breathing.

"You think you found a good hiding place, eh" I growl as I reach for him. I grab hold of his face, his slippery bald head. I can smell the Corvosier he's been sampling. I work my way down to his neck. He kicks and throws us both against one wall then another. I finally get an adequate grip and begin to strangle him in earnest when the Marines blast through our wall. We're thrown. Aziz gets something through his head. Just like that. He's dead, I think, although I hear him gurgle. I notice my hand is wet.

Big green army men with goggles and guns stand before me. I am at their feet. Light cuts in rays through the dust of righteous destruction. Their guns are lowered at me.

"Wait!" I scream, holding out my bloody hands. "My passport."


This is the second time Corin Cummings has appeared in the Blip Magazine Archive. He is from Vermont and lives in Toronto. His novella Night Support is available online from Wind River Press (www.windriverpress.com). He was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2003.

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