Joey wanders among the cacti, clutching a glass pipe with swirly designs, a lumpy black camera bag slung over his shoulder. Last week, he got a shot of a Gila monster eating a bird egg. If he wins the National Geographic photo contest, maybe he’ll be able to move out of his mother’s house. Usually, Joey’s the only one out in the desert in the middle of the day, but now, from the distance, a man walks toward him in dark clothing. Joey zips his pipe in its little crocheted pouch next to the Visine and stows it in his pocket.
The man gets closer. It’s Apache in a police suit.
“Joey? What the hell are you doing out here?” The two of them haven’t spoken in six years.
“Apache? Jeez. I’m doing what I do. How ‘bout you.”
“It’s Dan now. Apache is incorrect politically. My boss said.”
“I got a call that some weirdo was vandalizing cacti out here.”
“I got nothing against cacti.”
“What’s with the camera?”
“I take photos of desert stuff.”
Apache nods. “Check it out,” he says, flashing a badge. “I’m an officer now.”
“I couldn’t tell,” says Joey, looking at Apache’s uniform. “That’s dangerous.”
“Wearing a cop suit in the desert. The vultures will think you’re bacon.”
“Shut up, man.”
“And the ravens might snatch your shiny badge.”
“I’m technically supposed to arrest you,” Apache says. “You’re smoking marijuana.”
“No, I’m not.”
“You fucked with those cacti, didn’t you?”
“It made a good photo.”
“This is a nature preserve. Tell me why I shouldn’t arrest you. Marijuana is illegal. I’m bored. I gotta fill quota.”
Joey and Apache don’t know this, but they’re standing in a spot in the desert where once every three hundred and fifty years, a solar eclipse sends all the scorpions in the desert from their holes. Dark, for scorpions, is like morning light.
“You shouldn’t arrest me cause I fuck your mom.”
“Perfect.” Apache pulls out a clipboard. “Harassing…an…officer,” he says as he writes. “Illegal…substances.”
“Where’s your car?”
“Couple miles that way. I was hunting geckos for a while.”
Joey knows his Swiss Army Knife is no match for Apache’s gun, so he grabs his bike and they walk towards Apache’s cop car.
When they were little, Rhino, Apache, and Joey were best friends, and would climb the boulders that divided their town from the desert. These massive stones formed a kind of wall, and had just enough foot-holes to let kids clamor to the tops and stand surveying their territory or beating their chests. Rhino was the leader of this band of three. They’d pretend to be Huns, or princes, or Indian warriors. That’s how Apache got his nickname. (His real name was Dan.) Joey had tried to make his nickname be The Prince, but it didn’t stick. Rhino’s real name was Roberto. He had a big nose like a Rhinoceros horn and he was fierce as shit.
In third grade, Rhino and Apache and Joey built a cave in the space between two boulders. They duct-taped tarps to the boulders’ sides as walls. They’d sit in the cave and light ants on fire, make bottle rockets, and whittle dead sticks. Rhino had an older brother, so he knew all kinds of secrets. “Marybeth has tight thighs.” “If you shave, you get a thicker beard.” “Guys. There is a C word.”
Rhino lived in the center of the small Arizona town. His dad owned the Mexican restaurant, Lola’s, and his mom was head chef there. “When Rhino was little,” Rhino’s mom told Apache and Joey, “his laugh was so loud it set off the burglar alarm.” Apache and Joey voted that Rhino’s house had the best food and the nicest mom, so it became their headquarters. Rhino had a pet tarantula and a pet squirrel, kept in cages in the living room. He’d caught the squirrel himself. It had black fur. Apache impressed Rhino with his fast running; Joey impressed Rhino with facts about desert reptiles, planets, and rocket ships. “You could seriously be a quarterback,” Rhino would tell Apache. “You could seriously be an astronaut,” he’d tell Joey.
The summer they were fifteen, Rhino and Apache and Joey found a horse skeleton. It was on an old abandoned ranch, in some brambles, under a spindly white-barked tree. They’d been trudging around the ranch, looking for a place to shoot the potato launcher they’d built. They’d brought a whole burlap sack full of potatoes. The launcher could shoot a potato three hundred feet, and they needed a place where nobody would see them. There was fire and hairspray involved.
Rhino was the one who found the skeleton, of course. “Holy crap. Guys, c’mere. Horse bones.” With two hands, he plucked a yellowing rib off the giant spine. The ribcage reminded Joey of a shipyard he’d visited with his father, where hulls of ships were propped on blocks, stripped down to their wood beams. “Joey, you could fit in there,” said Apache. Joey was the shortest of the three, but he didn’t want to crawl into the horse ribcage.
“Dude no I couldn’t.”
“You could fit in a horse’s stomach whole. Ha!” said Apache.
“I’m not that short,” said Joey. “I grew two inches.”
“Now you’re three feet tall!” Apache laughed at his own joke. Joey kicked the horse’s skull with his black Adidas. A new crack formed between the eyeholes. Apache shut up.
“Let’s take it home,” said Rhino.
“In the potato sack.”
So they launched every potato they’d lugged to be launched. Apache sprayed the hairspray into the canister, Joey shoved the potato into the tube, and Rhino angled the launcher like a cannon toward the heavens.
“UNO, DOS, TRES, FUEGO!” Rhino lit the lighter.
“Sweet Jesus. They go far.”
The potatoes soared, dark flecks in the sky, arcing over the dry grass and cacti. They gave each one a name.
“This one’s for the Denver Nuggets.”
“This potato is for my great aunt Moira with the voice box thing she presses to talk ‘cause she smoked. Launch! Moira!” said Rhino.
“Hallelujah, we’re setting ‘em free.”
When there were no potatoes left in the sack, Rhino, Apache, and Joey picked up the horse’s ribcage and slid the large burlap bag around it.
“The rest of the bones aren’t gonna fit.”
“We can carry ‘em,” said Rhino.
“What about the launcher?”
“Put it in with the ribcage,” said Rhino.
Joey carried the horse skull. Rhino carried the potato sack with the ribcage and the launcher. Apache took the leg bones. They were full of bugs and dirt.
When they got home from the ranch, Rhino’s mom said, “Dios mio! Que asco!”
“It’s not disgusting. You cook pigs for dinner, mom.”
“Roberto cuantos veces he dicho que you can’t play in the desert. There are escorpions.”
“I’ve never seen a scorpion in my life. They’re not even deadly.”
“Sorry, Mrs. Ramirez,” said Apache.
“Sorry,” said Joey. They put the horse skeleton in the grassy backyard to wash off with the hose. Mrs. Ramirez fed them grilled chicken with lemon from Lola’s Restaurant.
“You boys have too much free time.” She kissed Rhino on the head and he winced. Then she rushed to take a policeman’s order.
One year later, Rhino died. It was an accident. The three boys had driven Mrs. Ramirez’s car into the desert to build a fire and catch lizards and drink beer. The moon swayed like a pendulum once they were drunk. The ground seethed dust. At the edge of the desert, white stucco houses with bat guano covering their doormats had running water, but everywhere else was parched from the worst drought in two decades. It hadn’t rained for six months. The Arizona government had called for mandatory water meters and timed showers.
They’d brought a bowling ball to bowl their beer bottles, using two cacti as the lane markers. “Strike!” Apache went to right the nine tipped bottles. Rhino picked a cactus spike and said, “Who wants a prison tattoo?” but he poked one dot on his own leg and said, “Nah, I’m too lazy.”
The raindrops started slow. They all turned their palms up. “Alien spit?” said Rhino.
“The dryspell has ended.”
“All hail the rain gods.”
“Good,” said Joey. “My mom was pissed about short showers.”
The silhouettes of the three boys against the blue-lit sand became blurry, streaked with rain. “Let’s get in the car, man,” said Rhino. They left the bottles piled up. As Rhino drove, the streaks on the car windshield made it hard for him to see, and the beer blurred his vision more. For the first time in six months, it started to pour. Rhino said, “Zeus is pissed!”
“It’s Poseidon, retard,” said Apache.
“What? No. Zeus controls everything. He’s the boss-man.”
“Poseidon’s the god of water.”
Pebbles sprayed up behind their wheels. The desert cacti seemed to turn their faces upward and drink. In the back seat, Joey hummed Led Zeppelin.
“Cruisin’,” said Rhino, when they reached the road.
The dry desert had puddles like swimming pools for days afterwards.
“What happened?” The school hallways echoed.
“I heard he poured poison on a cactus than pierced himself with the poisoned spikes. Then he drove the car and it flipped.”
“I heard they were wasted on absinthe and mustardseed, a Mexican plant that makes you see goblins.”
“Those are just rumors. I don’t really know.”
“It was an accident. Some trucker, an all night driver, probably asleep at the wheel, swerved his furniture truck in a puddle and like, hydro-planed, and the kids just crashed.”
“A coyote ate him.”
“A rattlesnake bit him.”
“A scorpion sprang up and stung him on the nose.”
What really happened? The moon was full. The car had flipped. It was midnight. They were drunk. The rumors layered themselves over the gaps in Joey and Apache’s memories. They wanted to believe Reverend Taylor’s rumor, the one he’d bellowed at the funeral:
“They needed him as an angel, right now. Too many angels are retiring. His soul was ripe for angel-hood. The heavens are desperate. Understaffed. So they took him, by flipping his car off that ditch.” Because it did flip. “He’s serving us now. The angel.”
Apache and Joey secretly prayed it was true, in their beds, on the school bus, in the lunch line, in the Ramirez’s Mexican restaurant that shut down one month later, which they knew that Rhino haunted. When it shut down, Joey tried to tell Rhino through ghost ESP to haunt somewhere else they could actually visit.
After Rhino died, his mother shot smoke signals into the sky from the desert, next to the road. Then every Sunday evening, she went and lit a rice paper lantern on the dry ground, watching it rise into the air like a little moon burning. Bugs shimmered around in its orb of light. Lit matches dropped to the ground made a little bonfire, which Roberto’s mother would then douse with water. A small pool formed, where the lantern’s ashes would land and float, then fade and settle into the ground.
Over the next year, Apache and Joey stopped hanging out after school, and then stopped talking altogether. The adventures had always been Rhino’s ideas. Rhino had looked up “how to build a potato launcher” and bought the tube and the hairspray and the potatoes at Walmart. Rhino was the one whose older brother’s ID got them beer from the shady deli. He knew about Huns, and the names of Indian tribes. He told Joey girls dug short guys. He laughed when Apache did his Rambo impression. Joey thought his Rambo was annoying.
After Rhino died, Joey refused to go to school. He stayed home to smoke pot and practice kick-flips in the driveway. He bought a used white Shredder guitar but never played it. He watched a lot of Internet porn in his room, which his mom never went into, because she said it smelled like diapers. “Here’s some Febreze. You just spray it,” she told him. Apache joined the lacrosse team and ran for ninety minutes every day around the high school track until his ears rang. Then he would go home and drink protein shakes and lift weights until he couldn’t stand up. When he wasn’t exercising, he felt like he was wilting. On weekend nights, he’d sleep for sixteen hours.
Neither Joey nor Apache could remember the car crash at all. The counselor who interviewed them afterward at the police station hadn’t tried that hard to make them remember it, either. He’d had a mercifully busy schedule.
Their mothers did try to make Apache and Joey talk, though. “Let’s have a dinner party. Seat them next to each other.” “Let’s run into each other at the mall. Foot Locker? Joe needs sneakers.” But it seemed nothing could get them to talk again. Each mother privately blamed the other’s kid for abandoning her son. At Foot Locker, Apache and Joey just nodded and said, “Hey what’s up.” At the dinner party, with Rhino’s parents, they pushed creamed corn around on their plates and sipped soda. Apache talked only to Joey’s mom, saying his timed mile was getting better. The mothers gave up.
Joey can’t believe Apache is arresting him. They’re twenty-two now, and haven’t spoken in six years. Stoned in the desert, Joey wears flip-flops. Apache wears the hard black boots policemen wear in Arizona. Apache is big like an Indian warrior. His shoulders are like the boulders at the edge of town. Joey is thin like the horse’s skeleton. As they walk to the cop car, their shadows grow long.
“So you like all this cop power, huh?” says Joey.
“Nah. I mean sure, I get a kick out of it. But I’d rather be a pilot or a ski racer or something. Even being like a mime would be better. All meditative.”
“The little power a cop does have, I mean. You don’t actually have that much power.”
“You could’ve tazed me.”
“Tazing’s not all it’s cracked up to be.”
“So what’ve you been up to?”
“I’m a checkout clerk at Office Depot. I sell post-its.”
They’re one mile away from Apache’s cop car, parked on the long road that runs through the desert, the road where their car crashed when they were sixteen. They walk for a while without saying anything. Then the desert starts to darken.
“Yo,” says Joey. His voice is deep and cracked. “Look at the sun.” Apache looks up, shielding his eyes. The sun is starting to slip into eclipse. It’s like a manhole cover is sliding closed and trapping the earth in darkness. They stop walking.
“My god. A partial eclipse.”
“Since when is there an eclipse today? It wasn’t on the news.”
“I don’t watch the news,” says Joey. “Don’t look at it. It’ll kill your eyes.” There are splotches of white light in their vision every time they blink. The sun goes black very fast, with only a red rim of light glowing around it. A kind of crackling noise crescendos around them.
“Holy shit. Are those scorpions?” says Joey. They are scorpions, climbing out of their holes, excited for an early night. It’s pitch black in the desert now, like a giant octopus has descended and swallowed the sun in a burst of ink.
“Man,” says Apache. “You’re wearing flip-flops. And shorts. The scorpions’ll get you.”
“I’m fine. Let’s just walk fast.”
“Alright,” says Apache. “Whatever you say.”
They walk faster. In the faint light the rim of sun emits, they see a shimmering carpet of scorpions spread across the desert ground. The air itself feels thick and dark, and there are no stars at all, and cacti loom with their arms pointing up.
Joey feels the stinger first, on his left ankle, and then the venom crawling through his capillaries. He wants to muffle his yelp and keep walking so Apache won’t be proven right, but he can’t.
“On my ankle.”
“Motherfucker. What kind was it? You okay? How do you feel?”
“I can’t see.” Joey moans and starts to sit down on the desert ground.
“No no no stand up man stand up. Come on buddy. S’okay.” Apache holds Joey up by his armpits. Joey is sweating and moaning. Apache mutters something into his cop radio that Joey can’t make out.
“No scorpions are fatal in Arizona. It’ll just suck for two days. Shh.” He wipes Joey’s forehead with his palm. Joey’s ankle is bleeding in a thick stream that soaks his brown flip-flop red. “Uh. I’m gonna pick you up,” says Apache.
“Hup!” Apache scoops Joey up in his arms and starts to carry him. “Almost at the car,” he says. The moon has started to move away from the sun, and the clicking of the scorpions has died down, as if they’re waiting for something.
In fifteen minutes, they reach the car.
“My leg is numb.” Apache opens the door and lays Joey down on the back seat. He wraps Joey’s ankle in gauze from a kit after cleaning the sting with peroxide and wipes, and buckles Joey in.
Apache drives fast. There’s no response on the radio.
“You feeling better?” Joey’s sitting up now.
“My leg is twitching a little. But I don’t need a hospital,” says Joey.
“If you’re sure. Where’s home.”
“I guess I know where that is.”
Daylight has resumed completely. They whiz by the red dry desert and pass a truck that says “Wonderbread.”
Joey says, “This is the road where it happened.”
“I know. The six year anniversary’s coming up.”
“That cross Mrs. Ramirez put there is gone now.”
“Who would take that down?”
“I dunno. Probably just got old and fell down.” Apache nods.
They reach Joey’s mother’s house, red brick with an overgrown footpath leading up to the door. Joey limps out of the car.
“Thanks for cleaning my sting, man,” says Joey.
“I’m not gonna arrest you.” says Apache. “I was really never gonna. It’s just my job.” Joey nods. “Wanna get a beer?” says Apache.
“Right now? My tongue feels like a pickle. It’s all numb. Tomorrow?”
“Sure. Cracked Molly’s? I bartended there for a while. They’ll give us cheap drinks.”
“I’ll be there,” says Joey.
Apache starts the car, but Joey turns and says, “Wait. You gotta see what I have.”
“You gotta see it. Hold up.” Joey limps into his house and Apache waits in the cop car, looking in the rearview mirror at his eyes, blinky from the eclipse. In two minutes, Joey limps back out, holding a big yellow-white thing. He shoves it through the car’s open window. Its eyeholes gape at Apache.
“The horse skull.”
Apache is silent.
The next evening, Apache and Joey return to the desert after beers at Cracked Molly’s. There are shovels in the pickup’s trunk. The ground is hard, but Apache is still strong, and soon they’ve dug a big enough hole. They place the horse skull in the hole and cover it with red dirt.
“Long live Rhino.”
They get back in the pickup truck and drive, the weight of the horse’s skull lifted, past the beckoning cacti, toward the sun dim and low.