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The Stranger I Left Behind In a Desert [Final Draft]

March 31 - Final Draft

“I can fix that up, easy.”

He spoke with the relaxed, confident swagger of a carpenter.

A wide, dangerous grin on his face. Crooked joint hanging from his lips. One eye perpetually squinting, both bloodshot.

“Just swing by my place, I can take you.”

A moment of hesitation.

I had met Mac only a week prior, surrounded by an endless stretch of desert.

He ended up here years ago, but wouldn’t tell me why. I didn’t press him. I’ve been in the Navajo Nation long enough to know that most outsiders who wash up here, who decide that they want to make this desert their home, have some unutterable story from their past that they will not reveal.

By the time Mac entered our lives, we had been living next to the only paved road for miles, used as the grand passageway to a meth den. Our host family told us to not worry about the occasional tweaker shambling by the house at night. But I never stopped worrying. I was from a suburb where I could leave a gold brick outside of the driveway at night and still find it there in the morning. I was not going to stop worrying.

Because I was from such an existence and possessed neither the skill nor inclination to navigate through the potential danger of people, my anxiety became justified on many occasions.

Here’s one example. When two young men started chatting us up at the gas station one day, I had no idea what they were about. They pushed us to hang out with them and to let them take pictures of us. I started to question their integrity only when their glazed eyes became fixated on my two friends; “We never see white girls around here,” they said. We got out of there, fast. That night, they came staggering to the porch, demanding to see my friends. It didn’t occur to any of us that they might be watching as we half-jogged back to our house. I don’t know what would have happened if our host family wasn’t there to drive them out.

Mac was a stranger and, shaken up by one disaster after another, strangeness only implied menace.

But we also needed him. On our last day in the reservation, the exhaust pipe of Minibeast, our affectionately nicknamed Jeep, became unhinged from the muffler, and driving out into the desert, alone, with a less than functional car was out of the question.

So, when Mac told us that he was a welder and offered to reattach the pipe, I could only hesitate for a few seconds before words tumbled out of my mouth:

“Alright, sounds good. Thanks.”

We agreed to meet at the same place, that night.

Clank

Clank-clank

Clank

Sitting in the passenger seat, I heard the exhaust pipe hitting the muffler as the Jeep dipped and bounced on the dirt road. We trailed behind Mac’s pickup truck.

Minibeast was mocking us, reminding us why we were following a stranger to an undetermined location in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by an eternity of darkness. We realized, too late of course, that we allowed our fate to become entwined with the promise of Mac’s word. We had no idea how to get back.

The drive was filled with silence.

Inside my mind, I found self-loathing.

Isn’t this what you were looking for - an adventure, something bigger? An escape from your sterilized college student existence? Well, stupid, here it is.

Eventually, we arrived to a place that belonged in a dream.

Two structures rose from the sand, bathed in dim silver moonlight: a garage made of rusted sheet metal, and a small shack, washed out and grey. A single bare tree. The black sky was split by the Milky Way galaxy. An ocean of stars spilled out and threatened to engulf the cover of darkness below.

For a moment, I was swept in the surreal beauty of what lay before me, but only for a moment. My brain quickly reminded me that this was the perfect place for people to disappear.

Mac got out of his truck.

It wasn’t until he had become a silhouette that I realized just how big he was, how easily he could overpower all three of us.

“I do my welding here,” he said, as he pulled up the sheet metal that covered the front side of his garage. In the darkness, I saw a generator and a rusted pickup truck. Mac poured some diesel in the generator and flipped the switch, filling the room with an explosive drone and a harsh glare from the single light bulb. With the sudden intrusion of radiance, I saw chains hanging from the ceiling like ivy, metal hooks attached to the end.

Over the buzzing noise, Mac shouted, “Wait here, I want to show you guys something,” and disappeared out of the garage into darkness.

I quickly scanned the room again, hoping to find welding equipment, but didn’t see any. I looked at my friends, silently asking them “Wanna get the hell out of here?”, while knowing, at the same time, that we were going to do nothing.

It was too late anyways. Mac emerged with a black duffel bag hanging from his shoulder.

“I got something real special in here.”

The grin was gone. An intense look in his eye.

As he unzipped the bag and reached inside, time crawled and I felt my heart beating furiously. I realized, in that moment, that I had let go of any possibility of escaping from this situation unscathed. There was no way, with the weight of guilt and dread hanging over me, that I could entertain any future in which I had avoided some kind of blowback from life. I felt, almost, that I deserved the punishment, and that Mac was my ultimate judge. Several things flashed in my mind: guns, saws, knives, heads, fingers.  

Then - gently and tenderly - he pulled out a book.

Webster’s New World Dictionary for Young Readers.

A dictionary.

A fucking dictionary.

“This is my prized possession!”

He stood there, cradling it in one arm. That dangerous lop-sided grin back on his face, eyes shining like stars, as if he was showing it off to the world.

Then the rest of the bag poured out: binders, reams of crumpled, yellowed paper, and a wrinkled handkerchief of the American flag.

“This is all my stuff from when I was in community college,” he told us.

We stared. The drone of the generator filled every crevice of silence that would have swallowed us otherwise.

I sensed that, for some reason, we expected something big to come out of his mouth. Something that would explain all of it. How he ended up here, why we were here, in the middle of the desert night, surrounded by nothing but sand and stars with a man and his dictionary.

Instead, Mac switched off the generator and silence sunk back in, filled everything, and stayed there. We walked out with Mac and laid down on the soft, cool sand and watched the stars. It felt like the only thing to do. The night breathed.

Eventually, Mac welded the exhaust pipe.  

He gave us some last words when it was time to leave, as if it was expected of him. He said that if he could have just one wish, he would wish that he had started a family and raised children.

“Then at least I would have someone to keep me company out here. It gets lonely.”

I felt a twinge of anxiety. An uninvited thought entered my mind - the possibility that Mac was going to force us to stay with him, to keep him company - and I hated it. I hated the anxiety and the worrying, but most of all, I hated the crippling insecurity that invaded and controlled every aspect of my reality.

He drove us back out, and we said our goodbye’s and thank you’s. I never saw him again.

It occurred to me, much later, that Mac had bared open his greatest source of pride and his greatest source of sorrow that night. Strangers from the beginning, and strangers until the end. Down in the sand, cradled by the desert and the endless dark, with nothing between us and our galaxy. A stranger I left in a desert in my mind.

 

March 26 - Second Draft

Thanks so much for all the feedback, they were all so helpful. I'm planning to go over it one more time, but I think I'm finished for the most part.

///

“I can fix that up, easy.”

Mac talked with the relaxed, confident swagger of a carpenter.

A wide, dangerous grin on his face. Crooked joint hanging from his lips. One eye perpetually squinting, both bloodshot.

“Just swing by my place, I can take you.”

A moment of hesitation; I had only met Mac a week prior, surrounded by an endless stretch of desert.

He ended up here a few years ago, but wouldn’t tell me why. I didn’t press him. I’ve been here long enough to know that most outsiders who wash up here, who decide that this is where they want to make their home, has secrets that they will not reveal. No outsider I’ve met simply ended up in the Navajo Nation without some unutterable story from their past.

Mac was a stranger, and by the time I encountered him, strangeness only implied menace.

Mac entered our lives after a month of living next to the only paved road for miles, used as the grand passageway to a meth den. Our host family told us not to worry about the occasional meth head shambling by the house like a twitchy zombie. But I never stopped worrying. I was from a suburb where I could leave a gold brick outside of the driveway at night and still find it there in the morning. I was not going to stop worrying.

At times, because I was from such an existence and possessed neither the skill nor inclination to assess the potential danger of people, my anxiety became justified on too many occasions.

One typical day, when two young men started chatting us up at the gas station, I had no idea if they were tweakers, or what they were about. Gradually, their glazed eyes became fixated on my friends. “We never see white girls around here,” they said. They kept pushing my friends to come hang out with them, to let them take their pictures. We got out of there, fast, half-jogging back to the house.

The unfamiliar feeling of constant danger permeated my reality and mercilessly filled in all the parts of Mac that were blank. But we also needed him: on our last day in the reservation, Minibeast, our Jeep, bestowed the final gift of the trip on us - an exhaust pipe unhinged from the muffler. Steeped in Murphy’s Law, there was no way we were going to drive out into the desert with a less than functional car.

So, when Mac told us that he was a welder and that he could reattach the pipe, I could only hesitate for a few seconds before the words tumbled out of my mouth:

“Alright ... sounds good. Thanks.”

He told us to meet him at the same place, that night.

...

Clank

Clank-clank

Clank

Sitting in the passenger seat, I could hear the exhaust pipe hitting the muffler as the Jeep dipped and bounced around in the rough dirt road. We trailed behind Mac’s pickup truck.

Minibeast was mocking us, reminding us why we were following a stranger into an undetermined location in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by an eternity of darkness. We realized, too late of course, that we allowed our fate to become entwined with the promise of Mac’s word. We had no idea how to get back.

The drive to his place was filled with tense silence. Inside my mind, I only found self-loathing.

Isn’t this what you were looking for - an adventure, something bigger? An escape from your sterilized college student existence? Well, stupid, here it is.

Looking for escape, I focused instead on the sinister, yet somehow comforting red glow of the backlight of Mac’s truck, and the license plate, which I read over and over for the rest of the ride:

054 PNX

054 PNX

054 PNX

Eventually, we arrived to a place that belonged in a dream.

The black sky was split in two by the milky way galaxy. An ocean of stars threatened to engulf the cover of darkness down below. Two structures were barely visible: a shack made of rusted metal, and another one, washed out and grey in the dark. A single bare tree. All bathed in the gentle silver moonlight.

For a moment, I was swept up in the peculiar, surreal beauty of what lay before me, but only for a moment. My mind quickly reminded me that this was the perfect place for people to disappear.

Mac got out of his truck.

It wasn’t until he had become a silhouette that I saw just how big he was, how easily he could overpower all three of us.

“This is it! What’d you guys think?”

I stammered, “it’s cool, I like it…”

My friend parked Minibeast, and we walked up to the metal shack. “I do my welding here,” Mac said, as he pulled up the sheet metal that covered the front side.

In the darkness, I could only see an orange generator and a rusted Ford pickup. Mac poured some diesel into the generator and flipped the switch, which simultaneously filled the room with a constant buzzing drone and a harsh glare from a light bulb. In the sudden intrusion of radiance, I noticed chains hanging from the ceiling like ivy, hooks attached to the end.

Over the droning generator, Mac shouted, “wait here, I want to show you guys something,” and disappeared out of the garage, back into the darkness.

I quickly scanned the room again, hoping to find some welding equipment, but I didn’t see any. I looked at my friends, asking them silently, “wanna get the hell out of here?”

But it was too late. Mac reemerged with a black duffel bag hanging from his shoulder.

“I got something real special in here.”

The grin was gone. An intense look in his eye.

As he unzipped the bag and reached inside, time slowed down, and several objects flashed into my mind: guns, saws, knives, heads, fingers.  

Then - gently and tenderly - he pulled out a book.

Webster’s New World Dictionary for Young Readers.

A dictionary.

A fucking dictionary.

“This is my prized possession!”

He stood there, cradling it, that dangerous lop-sided grin back on his face, his eyes shining like stars, as if he was showing it off to the world.

Then the rest of that bag poured out: binders, reams of crumpled, yellowed paper, and a wrinkled American flag handkerchief.

“This is all my stuff from when I was in community college,” he told us.

We all stared at him, the generator’s buzz filling every crevice of silence that would otherwise have swallowed us up.

I sensed that, for some reason, we all expected something big to come out of him next. Something that would explain all of it. How he ended up here, why we were here, in the middle of the desert night, surrounded by nothing but sand and stars with a man and his dictionary.

But it never came.

Instead, Mac turned off the generator and silence sunk back into reality, filling everything, and it stayed there. We walked back out with Mac and laid down on the soft, cool sand and watched the stars.

Eventually, Mac got around to welding that exhaust pipe back on the muffler.

Before we drove back out of his home, Mac gave us some last words, as if that was what was expected of him. He told us that if he could have just one wish, he would wish that he had started a family.

“Then at least I would have someone to keep me company out here. It gets lonely.”

I felt a twinge of familiar anxiety. An unwanted thought entered my mind - the possibility that Mac was going to force us to stay there with him, to keep him company - and I hated it. I hated the anxiety, the worrying, the insecurity, the judging, all of it.

He drove us back out, and we said our goodbye’s and thank you’s.

It occurred to me, much later, that Mac had revealed his greatest source of pride and his greatest source of sorrow that night. A stranger from the beginning, and a stranger until the end. Lying down in the sand, covered in the endless dark. Nothing between him and the Milky Way. A stranger I left in a desert in my mind.

March 20 - First Draft

Here's my first draft. I think I'm about 400 words over the limit right now :( Any feedback would be greatly appreciated!! 

//

“I can fix that up, easy.”

Mac talked with the relaxed, confident swagger of a carpenter.

A wide, dangerous grin on his face. Crooked joint hanging from his lips. One eye perpetually squinting, both bloodshot.

“Just come to my place, I can take you.”

I allowed myself a few seconds to come up with an excuse, but my mind wasn’t fast enough. Just a moment of hesitation, then the words tumbled out of my mouth:   

“Alright, sounds good. Thanks.”  

I met Mac only about a week prior, outside of a house we were staying at, next to the only paved road for miles, which connected it to a gas station and a meth den. All of it surrounded by an endless stretch of desert.

I didn’t learn much about him during that first encounter. He told me he was a friend of our host family. He told me that he was part mexican, part Navajo. He was a welder and fixed cars for a living. He ended up here a few years ago, but wouldn’t tell me why. I didn’t press him. I’ve been here long enough to know that any outsider who washes up here, who decides that this is where they want to make their home, has secrets they will not reveal. No outsider simply ends up in the Navajo reservation without some unutterable story from their past.

He seemed very interested in me. He wanted to know why I, some asian kid, an obvious outsider, was hanging around the Rez during the 100 degree heat of summer.

“So where you from?”

“Berkeley.”

“What d’you do there?”

“I’m a student at Cal.”

He laughed when I said that, for reasons that were unclear to me; a guttural sound that seemed to barely escape from his throat. It made me nervous.

“So what’re you doing here in the Rez?”

I didn’t tell him that my two friends and I planned this trip because we really didn’t want to spend another summer break watching TV in our parents’ houses, recovering from a semester of barely surviving endless waves of overschooling. I didn’t tell him that I was in the Rez because I was sick of my sterilized life in California and I wanted to escape.

I didn’t tell him because I myself was only vaguely aware of the reasons stated above back then, and because I was vaguely scared of him, too. I wasn’t used to meeting people outside of the homogenized bubble in which I existed for most of my life.  

Instead, I told him that I’ve planned a dozen of these trips to the Rez in the past two years through a campus club that organized service trips for college students, but I wanted a deeper experience. So we planned this month-long trip with a family who we met during a previous trip. We were working with a local non-profit on some community projects.

He just laughed again.

The next time we saw him, it was at the tail-end of the trip, which ended up being a series of small disasters.

First of all, we were living next to the grand passageway to a fucking meth den.

Our host family told us to not to worry, and that we would eventually get used to the occasional meth head shambling by the house like an old-school zombie. But I never stopped worrying. I was from a suburb where I could leave a gold brick outside of the driveway at night, and it would still be there in the morning. I was not going to stop worrying.

Unfortunately, at times, my worries were justified.

My friends and I were approached by two young men at the gas station one day. I had no idea if they were tweakers or not, or what they were about. I had no experience assessing the potential danger of strangers. Their eyes were fixed on my friends. “We never see white girls around here,” they said. They kept pushing my friends to come hang out with them, to let them take their pictures.

We got the hell out of there, fast, half-jogging back to our house. That night, they came stumbling toward the house, looking for us. They must have watched where we were running to. I didn’t know what I would have done if the host family didn’t scare them off, pulling up their pants and tightening their belt, displaying their willingness to fuck people up.    

Minibeast - the affectionate name for the Jeep we rented - was another curse on our trip. On more than a few occasions, Minibeast stalled and left us stranded in the middle of the desert, at times for hours, without food or water.

On the last day of our trip, Minibeast bestowed its final gift on us: an exhaust pipe unhinged from the muffler. There was no way that we were driving out of the desert with a detached exhaust pipe, and this was what led us back to Mac. He was the only person we could think of that could fix Minibeast.

***

Clank. Clank. Clank.

We trailed behind Mac’s pickup truck, and the exhaust pipe was hitting against the muffler as the Jeep dipped and bounced around in the rough dirt road

Minibeast was mocking us, reminding us why we were following a stranger into an undetermined location in the middle of the desert, surrounded by an eternity of darkness. We realized, too late of course, that we allowed our fate to become entwined with the promise of Mac’s word. We had no idea how to get back.

The drive to his place was filled with tense silence.

In the passenger seat, I tried to escape from the unbearable feeling of regret and stupidity by focusing on the only things I could see; the sinister red glow of Mac’s backlight, oddly comforting, and the license plate which I read over and over:

054 PNX

054 PNX

054 PNX

054 PNX

 ***

Eventually, we arrived to a place that belonged to a dream more than reality.

The night sky was split in two by the milky way galaxy, and an ocean of stars threatened to engulf the cover of darkness down below. Two structures were barely visible: a shack made of rusted metal, and another one, washed out and grey. A single bare tree. All bathed in the dim silver moonlight.  

It would have all been beautiful, in a certain surreal way, if it didn’t also look like a perfect place for some naive college students to mysteriously disappear.

Mac got out of his truck.

It wasn’t until he had become a silhouette that I saw just how big he was, how easily he would be able to overpower all three of us.

“This is it! What’d you guys think?”

I stammered, “it’s cool, I like it…”

My friend parked Minibeast, and we all headed toward the big metal shack. “I do my welding here,” Mac said, as he pulled up the sheet metal that covered the front side of the shack.

Inside, I could only see an orange generator and a rusted Ford pickup. Mac poured some diesel into the generator and flipped the switch, which simultaneously filled the room with a constant buzzing drone and turned on a single lightbulb in the ceiling above. The light revealed chains hanging from the ceiling like ivy,hooks attached to the end, and I heard the sound of flesh sinking into metal.

Over the droning generator, Mac shouted, “wait here, I want to show you guys something,” and disappeared out of the garage, back into the darkness.

I quickly scanned the room again, hoping to find some welding equipment, but I didn’t see any, and I looked at my friends, asking them silently, “wanna get the hell out of here?

But it was too late. Mac emerged again from the shadows with a big black duffel bag hanging from his shoulder.

“I got something real special in here.”

The grin was gone. An intense look in his eye.

As he unzipped the bag and reached inside, time slowed down, and several objects flashed into my mind: guns, saws, knives, heads, fingers, jars full of blood, etc.

What actually came out of that duffel bag, though, was beyond anything I could have imagined in that moment.

Gently, tenderly, he pulled out … a book.

Webster’s New World Dictionary for Young Readers.

A dictionary.

A fucking dictionary.

“This is my most prized possession!”

He stood there, cradling it, that dangerous lop-sided grin back on his face, his eyes shining like stars, as if he was showing it off to the entire world.

Then the rest of that bag poured out: several binders, reams of crumpled, discolored paper, a wrinkled handkerchief of the American flag.

“This is all my stuff from when I was a student at community college,” he told us. He handed me one of his essays. Hand-written. I tried to read it but I couldn’t decipher his hand-writing. I handed it back to him.

We all stared at him, the generator’s buzz still filling every crevice of silence that would otherwise have swallowed us up. I sensed that, for some reason, we all expected something … big to come out of his mouth next. Something that would explain all of it. How he ended up here, why we were here, in the middle of the desert night, surrounded by nothing but sand and stars with a man and his dictionary.

But it never came.

Instead, Mac turned off the generator and silence flooded back into reality, filling everything, and the silence stayed. We walked back out with Mac and laid down on the soft, cool sand and watched the stars. It felt like the only thing to do.

Eventually, Mac did get around to welding that exhaust pipe back on the muffler.

Before we drove back out of his home, Mac gave us some last words, as if that was what was expected of him. He told us that if he could have just one wish, he would wish that he had started a family.

“Then at least I would have someone to keep me company out here. It gets lonely.”

I felt a twinge of familiar anxiety. An unwanted thought entered my mind - the possibility that Mac was going to force us to stay there with him, to keep him company - and I hated it. I hated the anxiety, the worrying, the insecurity, the judging, and the sheltered self that couldn’t deal with it all.

Those were the last words I remember from Mac.

He drove us back out, and we said our goodbyes and thank yous. A stranger from the beginning, and kept a stranger until the very end. For the rest of my life, I will remember Mac, lying down in the sand in darkness. Nothing in between him and the Milky Way staring down at him. A stranger I left in a desert in my mind.

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March 17

One thing that really struck me from the videos was the idea that there are always stories within stories, a subtext. I want the subtext to this story to be my growth as a result of finally stepping out there in the real world, with no rules or structures or safety net, interacting with people who were in a completely different journey from my own. 

I tried free writing (continuously writing, not allowing the pen/cursor to stop moving) to try to get some of this stuff out: 

In 2013, I was ... 

studying physics at Cal and hating it. spending most of my time procrastinating. vaguely purusing personal growth. confused about who I was, who I wanted to be. incomplete. unwise. passionate about doing something meaningful, but not having the courage to do it head on. confused. living day to day. apathetic about the future. vaguely depressed. seeking excitement, escape from my world. desperately looking for human connection, genuine interactions. alienated - both from myself and from others. the funny guy, the class clown. the partier. the “fuck classes” guy. idealistic and cynical at the same time. stressed out. looking for something “real”. doing things I didn’t genuinely want to do. dying - soul. taking my life for granted. pretending to be someone I was not. suffering. under pressure. unaware. unaware. unaware. unaware. looking. seeking. lazy. scared. sheltered. lacking self-reflection. scared of human beings. a chameleon. emotionally stunted. overeducated, underlearned. optimistic and pessimistic. hateful. self-destructive. self-deprecating. full of shit. distancing myself from the rest of the world. didn’t know who I was. lonely. frustrated. scared. scared. in love with humanity but scared of humans. unaware of my own needs, wants, judgments. alienated by choice. looking for something more, something bigger. looking for something - maybe communion? community? something approaching genuine human connection? seeking love and acceptance from everyone I met, while not loving or accepting myself. sheltered. controlled by an artificial net that was placed over my perception of the world.

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March 15 

I decided to go with the second story. Thanks for the feedback :)

Currently working on the first draft. 

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March 8 

Just putting something down to get me started and make this thing real:

I have a bad memory, and tiny mistakes, by its nature, are things that I easily forget. The subsequent hauntings are what get lodged into my memory. So I worked backward from what I still remember and get haunted by, and traced it back to see if it started from a small mistake.

What I found so far:

  1. When I killed my pet hamster by accident. I was a dumb five year old who still didn't fully grasp animal consciousness - the fact that animals can experience and feel stuff, including pain. Also how easily living creatures can become dead. It was the first time death became something real instead of an abstract concept. I ache with guilt and regret every time I think about what I did to him.
  2. When I accepted help from a stranger who led us to his seemingly creepy-ass shack in the middle of nowhere in the Arizona desert at night. He told us that he was a welder and could reattach the exhaust pipe that got unhinged while we were offroading in our Jeep. I'm still haunted by my experience that night, but not in the way that I expected to be haunted.

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