Her cactus bed smelled like butter nectar. She swears that lying down on the thorns helps her back, yet all the red marks there on her skin, looks like she was nearly eaten alive by fire ants.
Fire ants. She remembers the hot summer day when she was maybe 12 and she was playing in a field in Colorado with the boy who lived next door. He was a year or two older and she liked him, so she didn’t mind playing in a hot, thorny field in Colorado.
The fire ants build great volcano looking mounds and they were streaming in and out of the top of them like an army. The boy thought it would be fine and fun to destroy their mounds. He gripped big stones and hurled them at the ants. The sand and dirt splattered like a bomb hit. The ants grew angry, and their movements sped up as if someone pressed a button… And then the bites came, all over her legs, his legs. The pain made her cry, and she was embarrassed, and she ran home.
Her mother was upset that she had gotten bit by the ants while playing with the cute boy next door. She made her stay inside and so she sat near the window and watched him play football with her brothers in the long yard between their houses. When she knew he saw her there, she smiled and made kissy faces at him.
Then her mother came up behind her with a thin stick cut from a lilac bush and in a threatening way she tapped the stick against her motherly palm, and she said, “I don’t want you around that boy. He has problems and will be nothing but trouble for you.”
The girl looked up at her mother. “What problems? He doesn’t have problems. He’s just a boy.”
“He’s not just a boy,” the mother sternly answered. “He’s a dweller in the darkness.”
And perhaps he was, for just the other day he had been out in his front yard wrestling with one of the neighbor boys who lived around the corner and up the hill that led to the foothills. It was supposed to just be a fun thing, but the troubled boy took it too personally and started punching the other in the ribs as hard as he could. When the meeker boy was breathless and writhing on the ground, the troubled boy cut a green spear from a Spanish bayonet plant growing at the edge of the yard and proceeded to stab him in the stomach with the sharp point.
The boy started crying out in pain and that’s when the troubled boy’s mother came bounding out of the house yelling at him to stop. She yanked him aside and berated him in front of the other kids gathered there in the yard. She shook him as she screamed at him, “What are you doing!? You’re hurting him! Stop it! Stop it you crazy child!”
He pulled away from her and grinned. He couldn’t help it. “We were just playing,” he said.
“Stabbing is not playing,” the mother corrected him. “Get in the house!”
As he walked away, he turned and saw that his mother had knelt near the boy he stabbed with the Spanish bayonet, and she was caring for him. She was caring for him, this weak boy, this new boy, this stranger boy. She was caring for him more than she had ever cared for him. Maybe that’s why he was crazy and reckless and dangerous and unstable.
The girl’s name was Linda, and she was Middle Eastern in a way and so her parents were strict. The boy’s name was Coal, but not the normal Cole, Coal like the earthly material. They decided to meet one day in the Netherlands, not the country but a place beyond the new neighborhood that was pressed up against the foothills of the green Rocky Mountains, a place undeveloped and open. There was a strip of forest that was dissected by a cold mountain creek, and there was a trail that ran along the creek and the trail meandered far and deep until it ran up against the very base of the mountains.
It was in these Netherlands that the outsiders would escape to. It was in these Netherlands that Linda and Coal decided to go to together. They walked side-by-side. She reached out to hold his hand. He held it loosely. She stopped and turned to look at him. “Do you want to kiss me?”
He moved quickly and did it. The he turned his attention back to the exploration. “That’s the reason for all life in the world, human life, I mean.”
“What is?” she asked.
“That kiss… A kiss like that is the start of everything for humanity and beyond. Just look around at the world and everyone you see walking or talking or falling down. It’s all because of a kiss.” He picked up a rock and tossed it. They heard it smack against the trunk of a tall pine.
Her heart smiled at the sound of his words. She thought he was everything. “But it takes more than a kiss,” she said.
He stopped and looked at her. “But not today. I want to remember that kiss just the way it happened. Nothing more and nothing less. So, leave it at that.”
“Okay,” she smiled. “I’ll leave it at that.”
“Until I say different… But let’s make a fire. I like to look into the flames. I like to look through the little Russian black doors.”
“What do you see on the other side of those doors?”
“Most of the time I see nothing but more flames. I think that it means that life means nothing to me.”
“How can life mean nothing to you?” she asked as she followed his lead and picked up twigs and set them in a pile. Then she helped him gather stones to make a fire ring.
Coal looked down at the gathering of stones once it was a complete circle. He assembled the sticks inside, laid out the kindling below, set fire to it with a yellow cigarette lighter. The flames attacked the dry wood. There was crackling and smoke and the smell of a campfire.
They sat down on the ground around it. Coal seemed mesmerized. Linda watched him. “What do you see now?”
“I see a future fraught with upheaval… You may want to do yourself a favor and step away from me.”
“My mom says you’re a ‘dweller in the darkness.’”
“She’s not wrong.” Coal turned away from looking at the flames and fixed his eyes on her. “That’s why my name is Coal,” and he spelled it out loud, “C-O-A-L. But that was my doing, not my mother or father’s. I mean, the name and the darkness… Is it true that your family are terrorists?”
“Because everyone at school says your family is from Iran and that you are all terrorists. Your brother, at least, seems like a terrorist to me.”
“He’s not a terrorist. None of us are. People are so stupid. We lived over there because of my dad’s job. That’s where he met my mom. So yeah, I’m part Iranian but I’m not a terrorist. Small minds…”
“Do you want to get high and go listen to Rush in my bedroom?”
“I’ve never gotten high. What’s it like?”
“It’s weird. Hard to explain. But everything changes. Perception changes, sound changes, time changes. I want to see what it’s like to kiss you when I’m high.”
She was intrigued by that idea. “Are you sure I won’t go crazy?”
“I can’t promise you that.”
“Are we ever going to be more than this?”
He ignored her question as he worked to douse the fire with dirt.
Years later, Linda sat on the edge of her cactus bed and blinked her eyes and took a breath. “What am I doing with my life? What are any of us doing with our lives?”