Into the Desolation
by Catherine Wells
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I know when I see her that she's headed into the Desolation. I mean, why else would a middle-aged woman carry a single, huge backpack and check into a run-down motel on the edge of the
Event? Probably put all her money into a fancy dunerunner with all kinds of equipment that
won't do her much good once she crosses the boundary. I glance out the front window, but I
don't see any dunerunner.
Her look says I'm right, though: that unwavering, even look of someone with their mind made
up. Someone whose family tried to talk her out of this. I watch her come up to the desk, make
one sweep of the lobby with her eyes, then fasten them on me. "I'd like a room, please."
A low, strong voice. Polite, but not deferential. Lines around her eyes, a couple from her nose
to her mouth , all soft. Mousy brown hair with strands of gray. "One night?" I ask.
"Fifty-three dollars, cash only."
She sheds her backpack and looks down at the index card I slide across the desk. One eyebrow
goes up. "No computers?"
"Not this close to the boundary." The Desolation screws with magnetism and makes computers
unreliable. At least, the kind of computer we can afford.
"Ah." She fills out the card, hands it back. Imogene Glass, someplace in Nebraska, phone
number that probably doesn't work here. But my mom insists we get one. Then she fishes in her
backpack for the cash.
"Second floor okay?" I ask.
"Fine." She's looking me over now, and I know what she sees: a raw kind of kid, mostly bone
and gristle. Messy black hair, a couple of zits, didn't bother shaving this morning. Why should
I? I'm stuck behind this stupid desk all day while Mom cleans the rooms, does the laundry. She
hands over the cash. "So, when am I?" she asks.
"Plus Seven," I say. "Most of the time. We get brown-outs, but we always come back. If you
stay in town, you'll go back to the world you remember." She doesn't plan to stay here, though.
Why else would she come? I slide her a key -- brass, because magnetic key cards get wonky,
too. "Out the door, right, first staircase. Room 214."
"Thanks." She picks up the key, hesitates. "Is there a grocery store close by?"
"Couple of miles." I look at the backpack resting against her thigh and see it's one of those
internal frame packs. I wonder how far she plans to carry it. "The military surplus just down the
street carries a lot of camping supplies. Dried food, MREs, if that's what you're looking for."
Her lips twitch, almost a smile. "I suppose you get a lot of folks here headed into the Time
Now I know she's not local. No one near the boundary calls it that. We call it the Desolation.
Sure, the terrain is mostly desert and there wasn't a whole lot there before the Event, but all
those jokes about the "sands of time" and people who cross into it being "Time Wasters" -- not
funny, not here. Not when you've seen the people who do come back. If they come back. I kept
track for a school project once: 37 percent. That's how many don't.
But I won't tell her that, because I'm sure someone else has, and it's not my problem anyway. I
just tell her, "Not as many as we used to." Even the scientists don't come as much.
Her eyes are a pale blue, and they look at me as if they can see through to my brain. "You know
anyone?" she asks. Wondering if it's personal for me.
I look right back. "Everybody knows someone."
She lets it go and I like her better for that. I hope she's one of the 63 percent. She hoists her
pack with one hand, then hesitates. "What's your name?"
"How old are you, Abel?"
"So you were . . . twelve, when the Event hit?"
When time shattered like a stoneware plate hitting a tile floor. When chunks of the world
lurched back ten years, or fifty, or maybe just a couple of months. When it became dangerous to
cross the boundary, because out there it was still happening. Is still happening. "Yeah," I say.
"I was twelve."
She's looking at me like she wants to ask a question but isn't sure she should. I keep staring
back, and she takes that as permission. "Did you lose anyone?"
"Grandparents." That's partly how they figured out the boundary, by finding the places no one
came out of, places you could no longer reach by telephone or satellite. Places that, if you drove
to them, they were somewhen else. "They lived about twenty miles in. My dad tried to find
them, but . . ." I shrug. "The whole town was gone. Who knows when it landed." What my dad
found looked like something from before Columbus.
"And your dad, he . . ."
"Went over on a Thursday, came back four hours later on a Sunday." She lets out a breath, like
she's relieved he made it, until I add, "That was the first time. The second time . . . we're still
And like that, the lines on her face deepen and her eyes dull, and she hasn't even crossed the
boundary. But she doesn't say "I'm sorry," and I like her better for that, too. Instead she
straightens up, hoists the backpack onto a chair this time and shrugs into it. "Which way is the
I nod to the left. "I can sell you bottled water, too, if you need more. Wholesale." Mom will
laugh at that -- I'm the one always gives her a hard time for selling supplies at wholesale.
Imogene hesitates, and I can see she wants to ask me something else. I think she wants to ask if
I'm interested in coming along when she crosses. But she just says, "Thanks," and goes out the
I sit there for a while, tapping her index card on the desk and wondering who she thinks she's
going to find. If you don't count the scientists, most crossers are looking for someone, a relative
or something. Sure, some just want to see what's out there, for the hell of it, because why
wouldn't you want to bounce around in time if you could? Mostly young guys, mostly on foot
with a buddy or two, egging each other on. Funny thing is, those guys come back more often
than not. I didn't write that up for my school project, it's just something I noticed. Why you
cross into the Desolation shouldn't have anything to do with whether or not you come back, so I
didn't collect data on it. It was just a school project, but it had to look scientific.
But I did notice. And the ones who come back . . . Is there a scientific term for "screwed up"?
Never mind, I don't need one. Everyone around here knows how people are when they come
There's all different ideas about what caused the Event. The scientists talk about exotic matter
and quantum mechanics and string theory. One suggested our sun went supernova in the future
and created a rotating black hole with ripple effects back through time. I doubt they'll ever
figure it out. Around here, folks like to talk about meteorites and alien technology and a secret
supercolider built under the Four Corners area. Right. Tell me why you'd try to build anything
underground in that rock.
I hear my mother back in the office, on the phone, so I quickly start writing Imogene Glass in the
log and make it look like I'm working. In a few minutes she comes out front. "We get a
customer?" she asks, looking over my shoulder.
"Yeah," I say. "Some lady with a backpack. I put her in 214."
My mom's shoulders droop, like they always do when she hears someone else is going into the
Desolation. But she never tries to talk anyone out of it. To do that, she'd have to talk about my
dad, and she still can't, not without crying. It's been four years. Sometimes I'll catch her staring
toward the Desolation, and when she sees me watching she just gives a little shrug and says,
"Maybe tomorrow, huh?" And I say, "Yeah, maybe tomorrow." But I haven't believed that for
There's a pattern, see, and I can't quite put my finger on it. It has to do with things that
shouldn't matter, things like why you're going, and how big a smart-ass you are, and maybe if
you know what you're doing or not. I'm not sure. Some people cross over two or three times
and they still seem mostly normal. Like the scientists. And others . . . My dad was gone three
days the first time -- four hours for him -- and he was never the same. His eyes kept drifting in
that direction, like the magnetized needle you float in a cork in that dopey school experiment.
And he kept telling us what he found, over and over again, like he was stuck in a loop. "The
river had water in it," he kept saying, like that baffled him. For all his life -- for all his dad's
life, I guess -- the river has been dry most of the year.
"Gus Patel called," my mom says. "He still wants to buy this place, I don't know why."
He wants to buy my mom, is what he really wants. Thinks buying this motel is the way to get
her, and she'll work for him for free after that. Probably thinks I will, too. "So sell it," I say,
"and move to Dallas." My sister went to Dallas as soon as she finished high school. She lives
with my aunt.
Mom turns to look at me, surprised. "You want that?" she asks. "You want to go to Dallas?"
I shrug. "Not particularly." If I wanted that, I'd have gone a while ago. Enrolled in junior
college. Of course, that would leave no one to help my mom run the motel. Which wouldn't
matter, I guess, if she sold the place to Gus Patel. "But I would if you wanted to."
She shakes her head like I know she will. "Not yet," she says. She still believes. Then she
straightens up and smiles. "Listen, I'm going to work in the office for a while, I can keep an eye
on the desk if you want to go out for a bit."
She doesn't have to ask me twice. I'm out the door before she can change her mind.
I meet Imogene Glass coming down the stairs, no backpack. "Headed out?" she asks me.
"On my break," I say, like I was a paid employee entitled to a break.
She smiles. "Yeah, I had a family business. Farming. My kids used to harass me about
wanting their coffee break."
"How many kids?" I ask.
Her smile dribbles away like rain down a gutter. "Three."
"They try to talk you out of this?"
"Two of them did."
I almost ask about the third but decide not to. Instead I say, "I'm going over to the surplus store
to see my friend Ronnie, if you want me to show you where it is."
The smile almost comes back, not quite. "Sure."
I forget my legs are longer than hers, but she keeps up without any problem. She must be used
to walking. "Where's your car?" I ask.
"Back in Nebraska. I came by bus."
The bus station is three miles from here, at least. "So you're going to walk in."
"That's the plan."
I nod, glad. "People who walk in have a better chance of walking back out."
She turns and lifts an eyebrow like I just spoke in Mandarin.
"I did a project in school," I say. "Who goes in and who comes back. When you leave out the
scientists, people who walk in are more likely to come back than those who drive."
"Are they." She's watching me and I pretend not to notice. I still think she wants to ask me to
come along. "Maybe they run out of gas," she says. I don't mention all the extra fuel cans I've
seen packed in with their gear. Then she shakes her head and grins. "Speculation. We can't
exactly ask them why they didn't come back, can we?"
I laugh. I like Imogene.
"Why did you factor out the scientists?" she asks.
"They all drive, and they mostly all come back." At the beginning, lots of them went in, loaded
with equipment. Measuring this and that, mapping, making notes. The first ones came back
with screwy stories and screwier readings. I guess time doesn't like to be measured. They drew
up a chronograph with wavy lines and arcs showing where it was 1943 and where it was 1552
and where that blended into 1911 or roughly 1200. But then others came back and said no, no,
that was all wrong, it was 1873 in this spot, not 1911, or it was just after the volcanic eruption of
eleven-something. And that's when they decided the area was still unstable.
Where I am, when we first got tossed around by the Event, cable went out because the satellites
disappeared for a while, and then it came back, and then the stars shifted like God hit the fast-forward button, and when Mom tried to phone her sister in Dallas there were no cell towers east
of El Paso. We found out later the whole world was like that, but different in different places.
Maybe we were in the 1800s for a while, but Kentucky was shifted into the Bronze Age, and
California had Japanese balloons from World War II show up -- it was just all mixed up,
everywhere. After a couple of days, though, that passed and in most places things settled back to
normal, if you don't count the World Clock reading 21:15 when the sun was at high noon over
Greenwich, and some cities being a day or two off compared to others. By the end of the week,
nothing was jumping around anymore.
Except in the Desolation.
"Did you know more scientific missions went out of here than out of any other point along the
boundary?" she asks. "I wonder why that is."
"We're close to the Interstate."
"Oh. I suppose." We're at the surplus store then. "The study you did -- was your father in it?"
I glance sideways at her. "It was just a school project," I say. I don't tell her I've been keeping
it up for the past three years.
Inside the surplus store, two guys are arguing and Ronnie is watching them. One wears blue-jeans and a flannel shirt, the other wears desert camouflage. Blue-jeans has a frame backpack
he's trying to sell to Ronnie. "Come on, it's brand new," he says.
Camo Dude is in his face. "Dustin, what the hell are you doing?"
Jeans -- Dustin -- turns to Camo Dude, face red. "I said I'm not going!"
"We made a pact, man --"
"And I'm breaking it!" He turns back to Ronnie. "I paid two and a quarter for it last week."
"You got robbed," says Ronnie. He likes to pick fights. It makes him a lousy salesman.
Camo Dude grabs Dustin by the arm. "I thought you wanted to see for yourself! I thought you
wanted to see if it's all a hoax. Or jump back in time and see if everything they taught us is a
Dustin yanks his arm away. "I don't care if they lied. I don't care if all of history is a hoax.
You saw that guy. You want to end up like that? Not me."
Camo Dude is sweating, and the store is air conditioned. He tries again. "That guy? He was
probably nuts to begin with."
"Yeah, well, you're nuts to begin with, so what do you think is going to happen to you?"
Camo Dude pulls back like he's been slapped. Then he ices over. "You want everyone to know
you haven't got the balls to go through with it?"
Dustin nails him with his baby blues. "Think of it as a gift. You're off the hook, and you can
tell everybody I was the one who didn't have the balls." He turns back to Ronnie. "I'll take a
hundred and a half for it."
Ronnie says, "I don't buy used stuff."
"Dustin, come on, man." Camo Dude is pleading now. "Don't hang me out like this."
"A hundred and a quarter," says Dustin. "And you can keep all the stuff in it."
"I'll give you fifty bucks," says Ronnie.
"There's more than fifty bucks in supplies in there!"
Ronnie shrugs and turns to Imogene. "Can I help you, ma'am?"
"I'll help her," I say, steering Imogene over to the dried food aisle.
She starts looking at the different packages, but I don't think she's all that interested. "Your
father drove in, didn't he," she says.
"Who's the crazy guy?"
I glance toward the front where Dustin is walking out with his backpack, Camo Dude still
shouting as he follows. "Never saw him before," I say.
She laughs. "No, not him. The guy they met. The guy who scared them."
I shrug. "Could be anyone. They're all a little different when they come back. Some more than
"Even the scientists?"
"Who can tell?"
She laughs again. "My husband was a scientist. An agribotanist."
Was. I shouldn't even ask. "He know you're going?"
"He hasn't cared in a long time." She's holding a package of tuna hotdish, just add water and
heat over a campfire. "We lost a child. Our son."
"In the Event?" I ask.
"No, he drowned. In a swimming pool." She puts the tuna hotdish back. "I had sent him out to
stay with my brother for a week, play with his cousins. I was taking a cruise with some
girlfriends. He was six." She blinks rapidly, brushes at her face. "Something in my eye." Then
she straightens up. "You know, I probably have enough supplies. I was really hoping for a little
fresh fruit to eat in my room. I don't know what I expected to find, really, but --" She waves a
hand at the display. "It's not here." She turns and starts out of the store.
I follow her, forgetting I said I had come to see Ronnie. I don't really like Ronnie all that much,
but he's still around. Not a lot of options in this town. "Wait," I say. "You said you sent him
out to your brother -- out where?"
We're outside the store now, walking past Dustin and Camo Dude, who are standing by a jeep,
still arguing. She's walking fast, and it's several steps before she answers. "Albuquerque."
That's well into the Desolation. I get cold, like maybe the sun just went behind a cloud. "You
think you're going to find him."
"It's a million to one shot, I know. But if I stay here, it's a million to zero."
I feel like Camo Dude, and I don't know why. I don't want her to do this. "You think you can
save him?" I ask. "Because you can't change anything, you know. The people who come back
-- they say it's like being a ghost, when you're there. All they can do is --"
"Watch," she says. "I know, I read the accounts."
"You want to watch?"
"No!" She's still walking fast. "No, I just want to see him once more. Before."
"That's what you say now. But when you see him -- when you're there --" I try again. "You
can't change anything. It's that whole Grandfather Paradox, and you can't --"
She stops short and I almost run into her. "How do you know I can't?" she says. "How do you
know I can't save him? We know the people who came back couldn't change anything, but what
about the people who stayed?"
And then, click. It all comes together for me, all the non-scientific data I wasn't really
collecting, and I realize: That's why they don't come back. They go over to do something. To
see someone, to change something, and either they don't find it -- or they don't come back. I
grab Imogene's arm and pull her around to face me. "You won't come back," I say.
Her face is hard at first, angry, but then it changes. Softens. Her eyes search mine and she says,
"What makes you think I want to come back?"
It hits me like a punch in the gut. She doesn't care. She doesn't care if she comes back. And
it's like she just stuck a key in my chest and unlocked something deep inside me. What's the
worst that could happen? I mean, really -- what's the worst? I get stuck in some other time?
I'm already stuck in this time. Wherever I wind up -- whenever I wind up -- that's where I'll
be. And what I do there, that's up to me. See, I don't have any agenda. I'm not locked in.
I turn and run back to where Camo Dude is driving away, leaving Dustin on the sidewalk with
his backpack. I pull out my wallet and point to the pack. "I'll give you a hundred bucks," I say.
"That'll get you a bus to somewhere." It'll get me somewhen.
Imogene is waiting for me, and I can see from her face that she doesn't get it. I realize she never
actually asked me that question. Maybe it wasn't her question. Maybe it was mine. So I
shoulder the backpack. "Could you use some company?" I ask.
She blinks, but then her face relaxes. She even smiles a little. "Sure."
I'll tell my mom I'm going to El Paso. Or Gainesville. Or South America -- just so she won't
wait around for me. I'll tell her she should sell the damn motel and get on with her life, because
Dad's not coming back, and that's okay. Not everyone you love has to come back.
Maybe I'll come home someday. I'm not going to find my dad, or my grandparents, or anything
like that. I guess I'm going to find me. We head back to the motel together and I feel light, like
I could float out of town and into the Time Wastes. And then I laugh. Time Wastes. I'll be a
Time Waster. Maybe it is funny.