The woman in the diner’s backroom sat in a chair–but no, she wasn’t just sitting. She had become the chair, or the chair was eating her, consuming her like a wicker tumor. Half her teeth were gone and white willow strands had forced through the empty spots in her gums. Wicker strips curved from her hands instead of fingernails. Beneath her faded peony-pattered skirt, curls of wicker cleaved to her legs instead of varicose veins.
“Girl.” The Wicker Woman reached out a veined hand, tried to stroke Maddy’s face, and her wicker fingernails clattered against Maddy’s cheek.
“How long have you been here? What are you–do you need to go to a hospital?” said Maddy.
“Not the hospital. The camp.”
The woman nodded at a dusty book at her feet, a withered piece of newsprint sticking out the top. The book was called Strange but True: Mystical Phenomena of the American Southwest. Maddy pulled the newsprint out of the water-warped pages.
A picture of a beaming man, his hair curled in a 1940s pompadour, his face superimposed over a palm tree. The Desert Cold Oasis and Spa, Offering Electroshock, Hypnosis and the Occasional Healing Boat Ride. Exit 6 off I-15.
“You get healed there,” said the woman, lisping around the wicker protruding from her mouth. “I want to go.”
Maddy stared at the soft newsprint in her hand and imagined this spa, sand blowing through its deserted buildings, or a chain restaurant erected where it had once stood. But then she saw the Wicker Woman looking at her with brows knitted over cloudy eyes.
“I can take you,” said Maddy. “I’ll take you with me.”
Maddy dragged the chair through the gloaming of the diner, past the turquoise Formica counter and the tintype of a boy holding a glass Coke bottle. She banged out the broken screen door and pulled the chair over the sparse grass between the diner and the pitted road.
Maddy threw open her U-Haul truck, which overflowed with furniture, books, lamps and an old mannequin Maddy had bought at Goodwill freshman year.
“There’s no room,” said the Wicker Woman. “Are you going to leave me here?”
“Leave some of these things, girlie. You don’t need them. What’re you going to do with that thing?” She gestured at the mannequin.
Maddy hesitated, but she shook her head, hauled out her aqua desk chair and plunked it by the side of the road. Dust eddys jumped around the chair wheels.
One less thing to move in when I get to Los Angeles, thought Maddy. And truly, she liked the look of her chair on the grass, about to pass from Maddy’s concern, about to be far behind her on the road.
Maddy had always been an explorer. In the past week, she’d interrogated a tour guide about the South’s memories of the Civil War at Harper’s Ferry in Virginia; she’d spent a day in New Orleans trying to figure out whether the Onion Man of Lake Pontchartrain, who she’d read about in a magazine, was real or fictional; and she’d spent an afternoon trying to ascertain whether the woman who owned a turquoise jewelry shop in Santa Fe truly believed in the healing power of the crystals she sold there. She’d bought postcards along the way, too, and filled them out for Mom.
Los Angeles waited for her at the end of her journey, a sprawling mess of steaming freeway and Santa Ana and responsibility, and as she traveled west Jenna the Nurse became increasingly prickly on her daily phone calls, but when would Maddy have another chance to see the country?
So when Maddy saw the sign for Old Route 66 sprouting out of the endless clean-aired prairie west of the Grand Canyon, she swung her U-Haul onto the exit, and when she saw the deserted diner looming up between the skeletons of road signs and an ox-skull-covered wooden fence, she pulled over, and poked inside, and found the Wicker Woman crouched in her back room prison.
That night, with the Wicker Woman in back, Maddy pulled the U-Haul off the road at the edge of the cold and luminous desert. She’d tried to sleep in the truck as much as possible on this trip, to save money.
She ate a granola bar for dinner, then walked around the truck and pulled open the back and settled down on one of the boxes. The Wicker Woman studied her with unfocused eyes.
“Are you an athlete, girlie?”
“No, I mean, I go on a lot of runs. Why?”
The Wicker Woman pointed at Maddy’s shoes: toothpaste-colored sneakers that Maddy had bought the week before she’d left for college.
“Oh. No, I just like them. I’ve had them for eight years.”
“Girlie, what brought you into my diner? I had been waiting there a long time,” said the Wicker Woman.
Maddy shrugged. “New places, new people. You know.”
“That’s why you’re traveling, to see new places and new people, like one of those beatniks?”
“No,” said Maddy. “How long had you been waiting there?”
“Who knows? Could have been a year, could have been forever.”
Maddy plied the Wicker Woman with questions, and the Wicker Woman’s tongue curled around the wicker growing from her chapped mouth and she told Maddy she was married once, to a man who herded cattle on the acres behind her diner, and she served sandwiches and coffee to the travelers heading west in big-finned teal Chevys, to find work in the Californian almond groves or become movie stars.
Those were the best days of her life, she said, but then her husband left with one of the to-be movie stars. The Wicker Woman’s children had died in her womb, and soon the cattle died too, and then I-40 came through and the Chevys stopped coming and she sat down in her chair and never got up.
“I can’t imagine getting stuck in the same chair forever” said Maddy quietly. “That…it makes me nervous just to think about it.”
“Well, girlie, there’s a place that will heal me,” said Wicker Woman.
“I’ll get you there,” said Maddy.
Are you listless and depressed? Is your wife making you blue? Did your boss refuse to give you that raise? Then visit the Desert Cold Oasis and Spa, located in the heart of the picturesque Mojave Desert. Dr. Listman and his team of professionals will administer electroshock, hypnosis and other treatments, while you relax in our mud baths, take a boat ride on Lake Placid or stroll down the Boulevard of Dreams. We guarantee by the end of the visit, you’ll be cured of what ails you.
Maddy drove all the next day on interstates cut out of red shale rock, with mountains beyond mountains in the distance, ringing in houses, trailers, evil-looking electric plants. Mom would have hated the landscape, with its lack of flowers and its arid breath. But Maddy thought it was beautiful: so wide open, such a big sky. You could get lost and no one would ever find you.
She drove until she saw signs for a town called Black Wash, and she took an exit to get a burger for herself and water to wet the Wicker Woman’s lips.
When she stopped at the one fast food restaurant in town, Maddy looked west and saw a line of white lights against the sunset. It looked like a Ferris wheel.
Again, the thought of Los Angeles waiting for her at the end of the road loomed, and she clicked her phone to check for calls from Jenna. Finding nothing, she defiantly walked out of town towards the Ferris Wheel lights, dust coating her sneakers. Vinyl-sided trailers and a low-slung school became coarse sand and bramble, and soon, Maddy saw she wasn’t just approaching a Ferris wheel, but a whole amusement park.
A wooden roller coaster, a Merry-Go-Round, arcades, hot dog stands, all in crisp crimson and white. As she walked down the cobbled path, she saw the machines were freshly painted, toys just out of the box. Tiny gold lights limned the tops of the arcades, the edges of the path, the rides.
She turned a corner, and saw a cluster of those lights quivering in a ball in the path.
Maddy ran forward. The bundle of lights was a man, his back spiked like a porcupine’s with tiny lightbulbs. He softly beat his fists against the ground, muttering “Only a dime. Only a dime. Step right up.”
As he unfolded himself, Maddy saw the lightbulbs covered him, protruding from his arms, chest, face, his balding head, some glistening with blood as if the bulbs had worked their way through his skin.
“Did you want to ride the Ferris wheel?” he asked her sadly.
“No, I—what happened to you? Here, come with me.” Maddy gestured in the direction of Black Wash.
He had been a carnival barker, he told her as they walked back towards town. He had traveled through the southwest offering kettlecorn and burlesque to circus patrons.
He dreamed of his own place, and as Las Vegas sprouted from the sand 60 miles north, the Barker decided Black Wash was just the site for a similar haven, but a purer one, the kind that haunts childhood memories of summer.
So he built it. But no one came.
As the years passed, the Barker began to take on the qualities of his virgin park. Some days he’d wake covered in tiny lights like his rides. Or, his feet would stretch and swell and his hair would stripe rainbow, and he’d know he had become the clown he’d once hired. One day he awoke with the head of a tired old giraffe he’d bought for the park, back at the beginning.
“You know, we’re going to a place that heals,” Maddy said as she opened the truck. The Wicker Woman was snoring, her wicker teeth fluttering.
Hope lit up the Barker’s dark eyes. One tiny light had affixed to his eyelid.
But then he peered into the truck. “There’s no room for me in there,” he said.
“No, it’s fine, look,” said Maddy.
Maddy pulled out some boxes, and her bedside table, and she dropped them into the cigarette-flicked grass around the parking lot.
That night, Maddy sat in a motel flipping through Strange but True: Mystical Phenomena of the American Southwest while the Barker and the Wicker Woman slept in the truck. Then her phone lit up with Jenna’s name.
“How is she?” asked Maddy.
“Where are you?”
“How is she?”
“It’s taking you awhile to drive across the country. She asks for you sometimes, but by the time you get here she might not anymore.”
Maddy watched a pickup truck pull into the lot outside the window “How is she otherwise?”
“She’s incontinent. She has her good days and bad.”
“Give her some marigolds,” said Maddy quietly. “She loves them.”
She hung up the phone and watched the pickup truck. Its flatbed was full with the detritus of a family, as though it were a turtle unable to escape his house no matter where he went. Houses drag you down, stuff drags you down—so do chairs, amusement parks, student loans and sick mothers, dreams of what you thought your life would be, thought Maddy. She supposed the older you became, the harder it was to just ditch stuff by the road.
From Strange but True: Mystical Phenomena of the American Southwest
The Desert Cold Oasis and Spa: a patch of the Mojave Desert just across the eastern border of California. The site has been associated with the supernatural since Native American times, but it first received popular attention in 1946 when radio announcer-turned-spiritualist Leo Listman founded a healing spa there. Christened the Desert Cold Oasis and Spa, Listman’s creation was frequented by movie stars and Easterners searching for an escape from life in hectic cities of the Atlantic seaboard. But scandal soon beset the spa. One winter night, a Miss Betty Dustin disappeared. Search parties combed the desert, but their efforts were futile. Miss Dustin had vanished.
When Maddy stopped to buy water the next day, a text message lit up her phone. It was Suzanne, her college roommate, texting her a picture from a wedding dress shopping trip.
Maddy rolled her eyes. If she could do anything right now, if she were unfettered and free, she wouldn’t waste it on marriage. What would she do? Go back to Budapest, maybe, where she had studied abroad. Use her German, try to learn more Hungarian, and become a foreign correspondent. Send postcards back to Mom, take pictures for Mom and buy souvenirs for Mom for when Maddy came home at the end of it all.
Maddy climbed into the U-Haul and merged onto the highway. The Wicker Woman was sleeping in back, but the Barker had climbed into the passenger seat that morning.
“Where are you going?” said the Barker as desert flashed by the window.
“Los Angeles.” Maddy curled one green-Conversed foot under her.
“And why don’t you want to get there?”
“You’ve stopped five times today, for food or water, or just to take a picture. You stopped at my park, and you must have stopped to pick up the Wicker Woman as well. And you’re taking us to the spa.”
“I take pictures so I can show them to my mother,” said Maddy. “She likes them.”
“Ah. And she lives in Los Angeles?”
“You have been away from home for a long time?”
“I lived in Boston for eight years.”
“She’ll be happy to see you, then.”
“Maybe,” said Maddy. The Barker’s question had brought the specter of LA at the end of the road into sharp focus: Mom, and the job at the community newspaper in the suburb where Maddy had grown up, and a lease on an apartment and bills and unpacking.
“You have a difficult relationship?”
The Barker nodded. “I’m sorry.”
“She has early onset dementia.”
The Barker didn’t answer. Maddy stared at the road. Joshua trees flashed by and tumbleweeds caught in their spokes.
“I’m taking you to the camp because my mother raised me to help people,” she said. “I’m helping you.”
“What happens at the camp? Do you know?”
“I…I’ve been reading this book that the Wicker Woman had, that mentions the camp. There’s a story about disappearances, affairs. But no, I don’t know what will happen.”
Maddy glanced at the Barker. His head was bowed and the lights on his skin glowed faintly against the golden light of the desert.
“The day I decided to open my park, I felt like the whole world was open to me. Like I could do anything. Did you ever feel like that?”
“Yes,” said Maddy quietly.
Her phone buzzed and lit up with Jenna the nurse’s name.
Maddy glanced at the Barker, and he watched her sadly as she shoved the phone back into her bag. She turned up the music and drove on towards the spa and LA.
From Strange but True: Mystical Phenomena of the American Southwest
Betty Dustin was dogged by rumors that her marriage was loveless and that she had had an affair with another woman. And rumors dogged the story of her disappearance too: they said Betty had walked through the saw palmetto palms that surround the camp and into the night holding the hand of a woman whose dress swished against the sand.
Over the next decade, more and more patrons of Listman’s camp vanished into the desert, until the authorities shut it down, both because of the disappearances and Listman’s forgetfulness when it came to taxes. No one knows what happened to Listman after the camp shut down, but they say he stayed in the camp until one day, he disappeared in the desert too.
Maddy pulled over that night at a gas station and motel just over the border into California. Thirty-foot high crimson letters advertising GAS loomed out of the desert. A set of gaudy pink flamingos ringed a fountain.
Maddy slept badly, and she woke up when sunlight touched her face. She dressed and walked past the U-Haul and went to stand by the flamingos.
Behind the heat waves already shimmering over the desert, Maddy saw a low-slung concrete building, perhaps a quarter mile out.
Maddy walked out of the parking lot into the bramble. She thought she heard a distant moan, or a cry, emanating across the desert from the building, and she wondered if someone else who needed her help, who needed to be healed, lived in there. She began to jog, dodging a tortoise, and a murder of ravens startled her as they floated into the air, squawking.
Maddy slowed down as she neared the building. A placard on the side read St. Josephine’s. A mission, maybe, or an old school. Maddy pushed her way inside.
Dim light fell on metal skeletons of beds, on a pile of linens in the corner and the bones of voles. The building was deserted.
Maddy sank into a squat on the floor and ran her hands over her forehead.
In the absence of another traveler, another person she could take to the camp, she felt Los Angeles squeeze her gut. She would be there soon–the day after tomorrow, probably–and yes, the Barker was right, she could admit it to herself, here, at dawn in the desert: the last thing she wanted was to ever reach LA.
As Maddy pushed back outside, her phone vibrated in her pocket.
“Are you in California yet?” asked Jenna, her voice staccato.
“Because we need you to get here.”
“Wait—is it…urgent? Is she…going to—“
“No, it’s nothing like that. This disease can drag on for five, seven years. You know that. We need you get here to sign papers. Make decisions. Pay bills. That sort of thing.”
“I’m coming as fast as I can,” said Maddy.
When she hung up, she saw she’d gotten two texts overnight: one from Suzanne, with a picture of some kind of garland, and one from her new boss at the newspaper, reminding her to bring two forms of identification on the first day of work.
Maddy dropped the phone onto the sand. She bent down and pawed at the sand until she had a little hole. She kicked the phone into it and piled sand back on top of it. She stomped on it for good measure, hoping she broke the screen, then walked towards the truck.
The Barker was waiting for her outside.
“Maddy, Maddy, Maddy,” he said. “Maddy, we need your help. Help us.”
He flung open the back of the truck. The Wicker Woman was bent over moaning. She straightened up and Maddy saw a stout wicker curl had burst through her right eye. Around the curl was blood and some other liquid Maddy didn’t like to think about.
Maddy leapt into the truck and ripped open a box and pulled out one of her old t-shirts.
“Shh. You’re going to be all right,” said Maddy, as she daubed at the Wicker Woman’s face.
“What’s taking so long?” cried the Wicker Woman. “Why aren’t we at the camp yet? You’re slow, girlie. I want to get there. I’m tired of this.” She gestured at the chair, at her punctured eye.
“We’re going as fast as we can,” said Maddy coldly. She tied a strip of the t-shirt around the Wicker Woman’s head, then glanced around her, at her neatly boxed and stacked mementoes.
I don’t need any of this, she thought savagely, and she dragged a box out of the truck and dropped it by the side of the road. She dragged out two more boxes and one of them tumbled off so its contents spilled onto the sand.
“Girlie, let’s go,” howled the Wicker Woman.
Maddy ignored her. She imagined herself becoming her desk chair, becoming the woolen sweaters in that box she’d packed so carefully in Boston. Becoming her job, becoming Mom. She pulled out her desk and kicked it over on its side. One of its legs snapped and dangled, hanging on by only a few wood fibers. She began to haul her mattress out of the truck and the plastic snapped in the rising wind.
“Maybe you’ll get healed at the camp too,” said the Barker sadly.
Maddy glared at him, then looked at her feet. I hate these shoes, she thought. She pulled one dusty toothpaste-colored Converse off, then the other, then flung then one by one into the desert.
The truck bounced first over potholed pavement, then over a rutted dirt road, then they rounded a bend and–passing a sign that welcomed them to Desert Cold Oasis and Spa–came out on the camp.
It floated before them: pastel-pink and eggshell ranches, all stucco and sheltering under furry-barked palms. In the center, a pool where algae floated and bubbles popped the surface, and beyond that the desert shone like ice.
Maddy jumped out of the truck and opened the back. The Wicker Woman and the Barker looked up as sunlight touched their faces.
Dried blood coated the cloth Maddy had tied over the Wicker Woman’s eye. The Barker helped Maddy haul the Wicker Woman’s chair out of the back of the truck.
Then Maddy glanced around, taking in the raven-bones around their feet, the susurrus of a tiny breeze in the palms, and the flaking sign, advertising Dr. Listman’s amazing hypnosis, but in letters so faint you could barely read them.
“Is there anyone here?” The Barker looked as though he might cry.
The Wicker Woman let out a squawk, as though the deserted camp were Maddy’s fault.
“Come on,” said Maddy. “Let’s look around.”
The Barker followed Maddy as she walked past the pool, where a weatherbeaten rowboat lay on its side, waiting for a lake no longer there.
“We’re not going to be healed, are we?” said the Barker sadly.
Maddy was about to assure him when a low whine trailed over the desert, seizing her at the base of her spine. She thought it was just in her ears, but the Barker looked startled, and she turned around.
Figures moved through the pink-tinged desert. They were perhaps a half a mile off, a blur of shapes and shadows processing towards the camp.
As they drew closer, the shapes began to resolve: leading the procession was a line of oxen skeletons, horns glinting, strips of flesh clinging to the odd ribcage. They trundled forward bellowing and towing behind them a Model T, riding only on its rims, rusty chrome showing beneath peeling black paint.
In the car rode clothes devoid of people: brocade dresses and leather vests and trousers stood upright, the fabric quivering as though invisible people breathed inside it.
And the car towed two flatbeds, like parade floats, one holding a small Ferris wheel made of shiny white bone.
“My park.” The Barker had fallen to his knees in the sand. “My park! It’s here at last! Maddy, we’ve been saved!”
The procession stopped next to the Wicker Woman. She shrieked with glee and pointed. “Home at last!” she yelled. “Home at last!”
The Model T doors opened and one of the calico dresses slid out. It raised its blue-sprigged arms and ensconced the Wicker Woman, smoothing her hair.
Then a pair of trousers paired with a white blouse lifted the Wicker Woman out of her chair and set her sidesaddle on the back of an ox-skeleton. She shrieked with delight as her atrophied legs creaked straight.
The oxen moved across the desert towards Maddy, and the Barker ran forward towards the Ferris wheel and leapt onto the platform.
As Maddy stood transfixed in the fading light, something flickered and on the third platform bloomed another set of clothes: a UCLA sweatshirt, gardening gloves and clogs, then a flicker and a light-haired woman appeared in the clothes. Maddy knew it was a mirage, but seeing Mom, smiling, sane–Maddy felt light, free, and she started to walk forward, the sand cold against her bare feet.
She knew she shouldn’t, but she wanted to remember what it was like to see all your dreams ahead of you, and the clothes-people beckoned and the oxen rolled their heads and the Barker waved and the Wicker Woman cried for Maddy to come, come, come.
Dusk descended as Maddy reached the last platform. The garden gloves slipped into her hands, and Maddy looked into Mom’s face and Mom smelled of cinnamon and Mom smiled.
And all Maddy wanted to do, all she ever wanted, was to climb onto that platform and float into the desert, surrounded by dreams, unfettered by boxes or sickness, but then she thought of what real-Mom would have said, and she knew it would sound something like, “Madeleine. You are too young to disappear in the desert in the arms of your dreams.”
Maddy yanked her hands out of the garden gloves and fell hard onto the sand, and Maddy’s face was pressed into the ground when the caravan disappeared back into the Mojave and night fell, hard and absolute.
Come back, she wanted to scream.
The scary thing about the Desert Cold Oasis and Spa, she thought as she lay in the sand, watching the bowl of stars shift overhead, was not the fact that the desert tried to swallow you. It was that you wanted it to.
When the sun peeked over the horizon, Maddy dragged herself up, shaking sand out of her clothes, and arched her back. Her bare feet were stiff, and she wriggled her purple toes.
Maddy imagined her traveling companions floating into the desert, settling into the sand and watching the sun rise and fall and set again, content in the arms of their mirages as they slid towards death. She hoped they had gotten what they wanted.
But they’re not coming back for me, she thought, nausea bubbling in her stomach. She only had the slender spine of California to cross today, and then her journey would be over.
Then something shifted in the air, and a red mailbox, paint chipping and post weathered, sprouted from the sand. Maddy shuffled forward.
The box read, in curling script, Oceanside Care Facility, Los Angeles, California.
Maddy reached into her bag and took out the stack of battered postcards. Washington, D.C. New Orleans. Atlanta. Hi Mom. You would have loved the garden–Someday I’m going to take you to—did you know there are four different world’s largest balls of twine in Kansas?
Maddy rifled through the postcards, and she opened the mailbox as the sun crested the horizon and lit up the sand around her.
Mom can’t read these postcards.
The thought hit her like a collapsing amusement park, or a diner whose roof caved in after one too many hard winters.
Mom can’t ever read these postcards, and nothing that comes out of the desert will change that.
The postcards dangled from her shaking hand.
Then she laughed, and a raven took flight next to her as she ripped the postcards in half and flung them into the air like confetti and watched as the jagged pieces flopped into the sand around her. She realized she was crying, too, for the first time since she could remember.
Maddy knew what awaited her later that day. She would pull into the Oceanside parking lot, walk between the hydrangea that lined the path, sign her name in the book in the sterile lobby, and take the long walk down the hallway to Mom.
But that morning, as she stood barefoot among torn postcards, taking deep shaky breaths of the dry desert air, she could have sworn the coral-colored desert around her looked just a little lighter, airier. She looked down at her bare feet, her shaking hands, and she thought that she looked lighter too. It wouldn’t have been so difficult for a tiny breath of wind to catch her and float her away.
Emily B. Cataneo is a freelance reporter at the Watertown TAB and the Cambridge Chronicle. She is a lifelong New Englander and journalist (just ask her opinion about lax zoning laws and their effect on every aspect of life in upper middle class Massachusetts suburbia! Or, better yet, don’t ask…) as well as a history book critic. She spends most of her spare time crafting fiction stories, or crocheting and watching Parks and Recreation if she’s feeling lazy. She also blogs regularly at emilycataneo.wordpress.com.