The low whine of a single locust tittered through the midday heat before abruptly and percussively ending with a crunch of the Botanist’s sandal into the Mojave ground, kicking up a somber cloud of desert dust. The Botanist set down her pack and shaded her eyes with a hand to her forehead as she surveyed the horizon for her next subject. She spotted the spined and clubby hands of the yucca brevifolia waving hello to her from behind a nearby boulder.
After collecting samples and taking down notes and measurements, having scientific conversations with the Joshua Tree she had traveled here to study, she looked towards the dying light in the sky. The sun had gotten low as her conversations with the trees rambled away from her. She had meant to head back to camp hours ago; the Geologist would be waiting with dinner ready over the fire by sundown. The Botanist grabbed her pack and started making her way back in the direction of their shared research camp.
The walkie-talkie on her hip crackled with static air as the Botanist’s shadow loomed behind her, elongated and alien. The rocks and boulders and Joshua Trees of the Mojave were traced with golden yellow light against the yawning sky. The walk was long. As the sun died beneath its desert coffin and the stars started to show themselves, the Botanist clicked off her walkie-talkie. And breathed deep. Dry air. In, out. Sandpaper breaths. She looked upwards.
Back at their camp, the Geologist was stewing. Pacing. Idly scratching his stubble. Walking in an equilateral triangle around their campsite, over and over. Retracing, the same measurements. She should’ve been back by now. He wasn’t worried. He was angry. Feeling slighted, and left standing in the now cold sand, with just the rocks and the dust. He shoved one of those rocks with his foot within the interior of the triangle.
“Hello? Where are you?” he said, flatly, into the walkie-talkie.
Only static air. Sandpapery.
The viscous darkness continued to thicken as the Botanist edged closer to the camp through the cold desert. There was a part of her mind that tugged at her body like it was attached to a string; it slowed her pace. She continued her gaze upwards, to the now bright, bright stars. There was that gnawing feeling in her bones, it inched towards fear, but settled more into the canyon that echoes with lonesomeness. She thought of the Geologist. And then she didn’t. The walkie-talkie stayed dormant, purposefully off. She looked down for a beat, brows furrowed, but her subconscious brought her gaze back upwards. The lonesomeness slurred into longing. Cold wishes. She waved hello to the vacant stars.
She glimpsed a light in the distance, maybe less than a couple miles further southeast of their camp. It looked like… a streetlight? Shining in this desolate scape? How had she not noticed it before? Maybe she was seeing things, maybe the stars burned light ghosts in her eyes. Maybe she was hoping. But the coals of their campfire were defined now, surely a different light–closer, quiet and red, and the Geologist was probably asleep in their tent.
“Nice of you to join me,” a voice rattled from the darkness, settled on the triangle the Geologist had worked so hard to draw for them.
She jumped at his voice, breath caught, and then, “I’m sorry. I got carried away. It’s beautiful out there, you know.”
“It’s desert. Rocks and dust.”
“And the Joshua Trees. And the sky.”
He stood up from the ground shadow in which he was sitting. In which he held his vigil, cold and cross-armed.
She sighed. She kicked some sand and a rock or two onto the dying firelight, and followed him into the tent.
Morning came and she woke early. The Botanist stoked the nearly dead embers, starting the fire again and ground beans for coffee. She left a thermos and a hot breakfast near the fire for the Geologist and started out on her data hike before he woke up.
She was curious. Well, always curious about the shrubs and the moss and the Joshua Trees, but her feet walked her in the direction of the ghost light she had seen the night before. She felt that string again, attached to her ribcage, pulling her, forward this time. She smiled an earnest smile, glad for the contact of shoe to dirt and the sun on her shoulders and the ache in her heart. She kicked rocks as she went.
She headed southeast, in the direction she had seen the light or seen its ghost. She waved to several Joshua Trees, trying to keep the small talk to a minimum and promising she’d catch up with them later, after she’d quelled the adrenaline butterflies that were driving her curiosity. The plants were chatty today. She passed by several rock formations she’d remembered. She held her backpack straps. She stepped in dust. No locusts tittered.
After over an hour of walking, her sight slinked across a change in the pigment of desert sand. A road?
Back at the camp, the Geologist woke to an empty tent. Bleary. The Mojave sunlight was already baking the tent like a brick oven. He hung his head with a hand covering his face in the enveloping heat.
The Botanist marched on, following the desert road. Her shadow pooled around her as the sun rose in the sky. And then, all at once, her bodily string tugging her along was an astral projection. Telephone wires rose from the horizon.
She pointed, for no one, for herself.
Who lived out here among the dust and the rocks and the Joshua Trees?
She followed the physical manifestation of her string, strides accelerating and her smile widening, despite of herself.
The Geologist hiked his pack as he started out to collect his data, reluctantly gripping the thermos that the Botanist had left for him, knuckles paling as he stewed and stewed. He knelt near a metamorphic structural composition. He didn’t have any conversations. He took his data and continued on his way.
The Botanist followed the wires and the road until she finally saw the streetlight from the night before stretching up out of the ground. No buildings arose near the lonesome post; there was nothing for miles beyond the surrounding mountains. No signs of civilization except an odd structure accompanying the streetlight: a telephone booth. In the middle of the desert–a stark void apart from human contact and interaction. And yet, here it stood, like a portal. The Botanist squinted and furrowed her brow, smiling with intrigue.
Dumbfounded, she continued to look around as if a building would melt out of the mirage, some glimpse of humanity to explain the anomaly. But nothing melted. She finally stepped forward to investigate, and placed her hand on the hot metal of the outside of the phone booth. It was simple and small, a rectangular prism with a metal framework and an opening on one side, glass encasing the other sides. Just as she began to warily lean in, suddenly she leapt back, startled, and nearly tripped over herself as the phone rang.
The sunbeams were relentless that day in the Mojave and the Geologist squatted down to rest beneath them, wiping the sweat from his forehead, cheeks red, eyes shut. He thought about the Botanist. Sighing, he let his arm rest over his face mid-wipe. After a moment he let it drop, opened his eyes, and looked at the rock he knelt by, sight lingering over mineral layers and counting them one-by-one. A memory echoed in his mind like a voice in the distance. He could see the excitement in her eyes, in the memory. She was showing him the “moon rock” her father had given her as a kid, cupping it into his hands, all smiling, like a child again. “It’s not a moon rock. It’s igneous, just made of cold lava,” he’d told her. She furrowed her brow, and looked into his eyes, serious. “Maybe it was once. But now it has a story, a relationship. Cold lava, moon rock. It doesn’t really matter, does it?”
As he sighed in the heat, he felt a strange lonesome sickness–an aching in the pit of his stomach.
The Botanist hesitated a moment, almost believing the ring was a fluke. A product of the heat and her tenseness, or a malfunction in the electronics. She jumped slightly again when it rang, loud and metallic, a second time. She took a step into the booth and lifted the phone off the receiver.
–[static and white noise, interwoven with shards of what sound like a human voice]
–[the static subsides enough for the Botanist to hear:] Hi? Hello! Wait! [more static]
–[the Botanist waits]
–Are you there?
–Yeah, I’m here. Who am I talking to? Who is this?
–Why did you pick up [static] …phone?
–I, well–I found this phone booth, um, in the middle of the Mojave.
–I know. I’m the one who called it.
–Ah, right. [there’s something familiar about the voice on the other end. There’s also something off with it, the sound of it. Like it’s being played back through a glass jar, or with the whine of a bow string hanging on the vowels.]
–Look, I don’t think I can talk for very long. [static] …can feel myself deteriorating. I don’t know who you are but you picked up the phone and I’d like to talk to someone, to you. I have to strengthen the connection first. It’s hot out here. [static] …come back tomorrow, if you can. Please. I can feel myself deteriorating. It’s hot out here. I have to strengthen the [static] Please. [static, for a long beat, followed by dial tone]
The Botanist held the phone to her ear for a moment as the dial tone moaned on, looking forward out of the glass to the mountains ahead. A crackle from the walkie-talkie on her hip pulled her out of the trance.
The Geologist stood up abruptly. Walked forward, breath short. He stopped and turned around on the spot, pacing for a moment before grabbing the walkie-talkie on his hip. He pulled it up to his mouth.
“Where are you?”
Static air, for a moment.
“You there?” he said into the receiver.
“…Uh, yeah, I’m here,” the Botanist replied.
He paused, not sure what to say.
“What is it?” she said, quietly.
“Nothing, just–just checking in.”
“Okay. I’m fine, everything’s going… well. I’ll see you later?”
“Yeah,” he muttered, and lowered the walkie-talkie, gripping it tightly.
The Botanist lingered in the strange phone booth for a while, after replacing the walkie-talkie onto her hip. She looked at the black phone she’d returned to the hook, hoping (perhaps naively) that it would ring again. Once the trapped heat in the structure caused a large bead of sweat to roll slowly down her cheek, she finally stepped out of it, and back through the portal’s threshold into the physical world. The plants seemed less chatty now. The boulders that had appeared as unmoving entities before looked fragile, unsure, and she was in a pause. Processing. In lieu of direction and state of mind, she let her body walk her towards the first Joshua Tree she saw.
She ambled back later in the evening before the Geologist returned to the campsite. She mechanically started a fire and went about preparing food. On the edge of her vision, a black figure approached against the dusted pink light that hovered right above the horizon. The Geologist tossed down his pack with a dry thump, and disappeared into the tent for a while. He emerged, and they talked in measured phrases about their days over the food she prepared. The Botanist said nothing about the phone booth.
The next day began much the same as the last, but instead of giddy curiosity, the Botanist was enveloped by a simple determination as she hiked towards that light ghost from the night, towards the Voice from Beyond the Desert. When she arrived at the phone booth, as lonesome a structure as ever, she half expected it to ring as soon as she came into its periphery. Instead, the phone stood idly by in a vacant silence, accompanied only by the wind blowing dust and the locusts, tittering. She stood outside of it for a moment before kneeling down and dragging out her book of field notes from her pack. She clicked off her walkie-talkie.
After waiting, somewhat impatiently, tapping her pencil and standing up every so often to pace distractedly around the booth, the phone rang roughly an hour after she first arrived. She still jumped at the noise. She darted into the booth, trembling slightly as she picked up the receiver.
–Look, [the voice is clearer this time, though still hazed with static and echoing through glass jars or violin strings] I need to be straightforward with you. I’m standing where you are, right now. In the exact spot. The heat is rising in this glass box, this hellish void, this goddamn cell in the middle of the desert. Do you feel it? Never mind. Look, [static, for a moment] look,
–[The Botanist waits, grips the phone, listening through the spattering static, sounding like rain on a windshield]
–[The Voice from Beyond the Desert sighs, pauses for a moment, and then:] You came back.
–I did, I’m here. Can you tell me what this is? Why there’s a phone booth out here in the middle of nowhere?
–I’m not sure. I found it much like you did, stumbling across the landscape looking at light ghosts in the night. [static] …feeling untethered. How sure are you about your physical state in the place you’re standing right in this moment? A shaking of ground. A loosening of dust. Wait, don’t answer that. Reality is wavering. The floor of this box is lifting from beneath our feet and rattling as your dimension and mine interact. [static] You
–[The Botanist squeezes her eyes shut, for a moment, feeling a sense of vertigo wash over. She looks down at her one empty hand and has trouble focusing her eyes, hands multiplying] …Goddamn.
–Don’t think on it too much. Or we’ll start unraveling. I don’t want to start deteriorating. I can feel it. The connection [static] …the connection [static] …the connection is stronger this time. Look, [static]
–[The Botanist shuts her eyes again and grips her forehead, slippery, sweat beading in this hellish void] Okay, I’m trying to stay grounded. Keep talking. I want to know what’s happening.
–Look, [static] look,
–[The Botanist opens her eyes and sees the distant mountains through the desert dust and the phone booth’s glass]
–I thought the connection was stronger this time but I [static] …feel myself deteriorating. Goddamnit. It’s hot out here. Look, I’ve walked the same steps you have, only in unfathomable strides, alien dust indistinguishable from yours. Look, I [static] …it’s so hot out here. Our dimensions are flanking each other, I think, rifting into one another. It’s like being dead, or being everything. [static] …more to yourself than your own two hands, your one brain. Don’t count out the light ghosts, the apparitions, they may have more footing in the physical world than you think, towing the line between my dimension and yours. Look, it’s hot out here, you have to come back [static] …can feel myself deteriorating. Please. Separate is not really separate, one and one and one in the same. It’s hot out here. Come back tomorrow. I can show you what I mean. [static] …can feel myself
–[static, for a moment, and then dial tone. Moaning onwards.]
The Botanist stepped slowly out of the phone booth, letting the receiver drop from her hand, hanging. The Joshua Trees and their chatter seemed muffled, now incoherent, under the weight of the Voice from Beyond the Desert. She put a hand to her forehead so its shadow covered her face. Her mind drew a blank as she tried to comprehend what she’d just heard. Her reality was shifting. Crumbling under the words and the detachment from the dust beneath her feet and the time in which she stood. She reeled in the desert heat, vertigo winning and the sky gaping above.
The sun had already sunk behind the brown desert mountains once the Botanist came to. She jerked up from where she was laying in the dust, disoriented and panicked, for a breath. It had felt like she’d just heard the Voice from Beyond the Desert minutes ago, but the day had rushed on and it was sundown. There was a rift. Time echoed and cut short. She glanced blearily towards the phone booth and saw the receiver hanging from its cord toward the ground. She pushed herself up and went to replace it onto its hook. Placing it steadily, she thought back on her earlier conversation, hoping she would come to some thread of certainty about any of the things she’d experienced here. She didn’t. Finally, as the faded light in the sky turned grayer, darker, the Botanist ambled out from the phone booth and towards the vague direction of her campsite, of the Geologist. The Geologist, who would surely be pacing, pacing, stewing. Her walkie-talkie was still clicked off. She squeezed her eyes shut and touched her temple, sighed, looked up. She pleaded silently to the vacant stars.
The Geologist knelt hunched over near the fire, arms crossed over his knees, staring into the flames, eyes narrowed, tired. The triangle he paced out on the periphery of their campsite sat defined in the sand. A light from a flashlight waved in the dark distance, approaching. Light ghosts. He continued staring into the flickering red, anger sitting sickly like tar in his stomach. He stood up and busied himself before the Botanist arrived.
The footsteps came, descending softly on the campsite from behind where he stood moving equipment around with his back towards her approaching figure.
A crash. The Geologist slammed a pan onto the fold-up table, shattering a ceramic mug in the process.
The Botanist went quiet, stood still. After an aching stretch of silence the Geologist sighed and seethed–“You haven’t answered me all day. You can’t do that.”
The Botanist was still standing on the other side of the campsite, right on the precipice of the Geologist’s triangle. After a few heartbeats she said, measuredly, “I’m sorry if I worried you, I didn’t realize my walkie-talkie was off.”
“I wasn’t worried. You just can’t leave me in the fucking dark. If you can’t figure out how to keep your goddamn walkie-talkie on then we’re going to have to start collecting data together like I said we should in the beginning. Or is it that you’d rather be around plants and nothingness in this hellish void than bare giving a thought to me, your partner?”
The Botanist was silent, heart in her throat, blocking words that weren’t there. She thought of the phone booth, the Voice from Beyond the Desert, the excitement and the mystery of those few interactions. The cutting contrast of the sadness that lived at the bottom of her stomach, and the fear she felt right now. The Geologist was staring at her, waiting for a response. Still she didn’t speak, frozen.
“Jesus Christ. Fuck this. I’m going on a walk and this time you can feel alone in the darkness.”
He turned and sauntered into the thick, cold night. He kicked rocks as he went. He did not wave to the vacant stars. Later, he returned to find the Botanist curled asleep on the far side of their tent, pillow wet near her face.
In the morning they did not speak as they readied themselves and moved around the campsite, apart from the Botanist saying “I’m off” when she left the triangle’s perimeter with her pack. The Geologist did not look up or reply, but her departing words flooded his stomach with the anger from the night before and it only grew as she walked away. The heat of the day rose. The air was dry. Sandpapery. Suddenly the Geologist grabbed his pack and turned to follow in the path of the figure in the distance, making sure to keep large rocks and Joshua Trees between them to obstruct her view, should she look back.
The Geologist followed his partner for more than an hour. Not once did she stop to collect data. Not once did she look back. When he reached the road in the sand, his surprise was eclipsed by suspicion. When he saw the telephone wires rise from the desert-scape, that sickly, angry tar in his stomach bubbled up again.
And then, the phone booth appeared, shimmering in the mirage of rising heat in the mid-Mojave sun. The Geologist stepped in dust. No locusts tittered. He watched, crouched from behind a gathering of rocks, as the Botanist paused outside of the structure. After a few minutes, a metallic ring echoed around the boulders and the Joshua Trees and the nothingness. The Geologist, startled, sunk beneath the rock structure.
Peering, he watched as the Botanist stepped quickly into the phone booth. Something started to wash over him. She picked up the phone. The heat rose. His vision started to blur over the desert landscape, melting in anger like the phone booth from the mirage. The tar in his stomach filled his veins and he’d seen enough. He turned and started walking back towards the campsite, clutching his head and trying not to stumble.
It was later and the desert sky was dusted haze as the sun sunk. A muttering of stars began to show themselves in the yawning sky. The Botanist arrived back at the campsite, resolute, stoic, thoughtful. The Geologist was sitting, unmoving as a statue until the Botanist approached. He stood up and without looking at her said, “I’m off,” and walked towards the mountains, towards the haze in the sky. Towards the light ghosts.
“Another walk?” the Botanist asked as the distance between them grew. He did not respond. The Botanist watched him go for a while, then ducked into the tent before she could see his dark and distant figure pick up a large rock.
She went to sleep before the Geologist returned that night and intended to slip out in the early morning light before he woke. The multitude of thoughts and futures and fears that swelled in her head kept her from a sound sleep and she was roused while it was still dark in the desert. It was that shadowed hour, the time of night where lonesome souls can hear their heart echoing against the quiet dark of a familiar void. Wrapping a blanket around herself, she stepped out of the tent and paused, glancing back for a moment at the Geologist’s sleeping figure. But her subconscious inevitably brought her gaze upwards. The stars seemed less vacant now, and she smiled at them, softly.
When the first light stretched from beyond the tips of mountains, she readied herself to leave, as quietly as she could. She grabbed her pack and departed from the Geologist’s triangle, blurring the lines of its perimeter in the sand with her feet, walking steadily and tiredly towards the light ghosts for the last time. The string in her chest was a rope, and she found herself smiling an earnest smile, despite the ache in her heart.
The Voice from Beyond the Desert rattled in her mind with the daze of the rising heat. Today she wouldn’t need to wait for the phone to ring. The Botanist would be the one calling. She walked in unfathomable strides.
The familiar structure dripped into her vision from the brown desert landscape, but something was less familiar today. She lingered, shading her eyes with a hand to her forehead. Something wasn’t right. The Botanist quickened her pace. The phone booth came steadily into focus, and the reality of what she was seeing hit her like the pan crashing down on the fold-up table. She continued toward it, more quickly now, dreaded, alarmed, heart heaving. She ran the last few yards as the tears began to run down her face. The phone booth stood terrorized. Broken, shattered, assailed, with debris lying strewn around its periphery. Glass shards littered the sand and the booth was open on all sides now, instead of one. The phone mechanism itself had been kicked, smashed with some blunt object, and was hanging at an odd angle from several wires, not sure whether to fall to its death or grasp on a little longer. The receiver had been ripped from its home, nowhere in sight; what remained of the cord was frayed wires. The Botanist looked on, frozen and in disbelief for a long while until she forced the last few steps across the threshold into the booth. Defeated, she dropped to her knees.
She succumbed to the sadness draining her body cold, her head dropping into her hands as she let out a pained sob. Where have the light ghosts gone?
A shaking of ground. A loosening of dust.
Suddenly, a reality was shifting. She looked down into her hands and they were multiplying. Amongst her broken state her vision unfocused and everything around her began to double. At that moment a pang hit her stomach apart from the devastation–a different liquid filled her veins. Fear settled in her. Bolting up from her spot in the dilapidated booth, she wheeled around, sure the source of this malice was looming. But before she could comprehend the depth of what she felt, the floor lifted from beneath her feet. Rattling. The desert mountains in the distance multiplied, like her hands, unfocused. The landscape superimposed onto itself. A reflection of her current reality pitted against a different one, familiar. Every rock, every Joshua Tree, each grain of sand doubled. Two locusts tittered, crossing themselves in a cannon of cries. Realities were converging, dimensions careening. She stumbled backwards, out of the booth, consciousness floating in a Venn diagram between perceptions.
The Botanist shook her head, touched her temple with eyes closed, but when she opened them again the visuals of the shifting realities persisted. Mountains upon mountains reflected on one another. The desert, the sun and the sky a temporal shift, mirrored transparent, identical images of each other. One and one and one in the same. And then her sight fell back on the phone booth, and the division between worlds was distinct. One booth lay broken, failing, crestfallen, a portal closed. Layered over in the mirror image was the booth as she knew it, standing and intact, ready to ring at any moment.
It’s like being dead, or being everything.
The Botanist stood reeling outside of the booth, the visuals exhausting her mind from the doubled world she was attempting to process. She stood amongst the broken glass both there and not there. Turning around slowly, looking to the mirrored landscape behind her, she saw a single figure on the horizon, standing, watching. From behind a gathering of rocks. She locked eyes with the Geologist, his facade dark and looming. Her eyes stung with salt but she stared steadily at his figure for a long while–the one singular thing in this crashing, doubled, cross-eyed world. Eventually, the fear she had felt before subsided, the burn in her eyes let up, and the sadness in her stomach dissolved. For a moment, she pitied him, broken as the glass in the sand. Finally, she felt nothing, except the heat of the day and the hope in her chest. And then she turned away.
The apparition of the intact booth stood before her, deepening in opacity. The Botanist didn’t have to make the call after all. The string attached to her rib cage was a knot. Around her, the Joshua Trees waved goodbye with their spined and clubby hands and the second layer of landscape faded transparent. Stepping once more across the threshold of the phone booth, towards the Voice from Beyond the Desert, the Botanist entered through the portal and into obscurity.
The Geologist stood unmoving as a statue. His hands were bruised, eyes tired, cheeks red. He watched as the Botanist crumpled to the floor of the broken structure. He watched her bolt upright, stumble back. He watched her turn, slowly, slowly. He looked into her face for the last time. He felt nothing but the heat of the day and the ache in his heart. For a long while he stood frozen, time moaning on. She wasn’t coming back. He stifled the urge to slam his bruised fist into the rock before him, knowing the futility of it and scoffing at his sadness. He finally turned to walk towards the dying light in the sky. Cold lava, moon rock, it didn’t really matter. As the night grew darker, emptier, and the vacant stars began to show themselves, the Geologist pitied himself. Deteriorated–unraveled–stewing and stewing alone in the darkness.