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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

The Desert
by Reuven Hayat

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"Look out the window, Maria. The desert is unforgiving. Generations ago people would have to transport their goods across the desert by camel. It would take weeks and many would perish along the way. Now a couple of hours by plane is all it takes and few even bother to notice the wasteland below or appreciate how much easier things have become."

Eduardo had been flying this route for nearly twenty years now. Transporting produce from Spain to Sub-Saharan African nations was how he'd made his fortune. Wars in some regions had devastated much of the produce yield in those countries and certain fruits could command a high price. He had friends in Morocco who were old enough to remember the camel caravans and had told him stories. Even though he and Maria had been engaged for nearly a year this was the first time she had come along. Unrest in the countries he frequented had caused him to fear for her safety. Citrus fruits weren't the only thing that commanded a high price - a white woman was worth even more. Now things were starting to settle down and he felt it safe enough to take her along.

Maria was more than a little nervous about flying over these parts. "Eduardo, did you read about that plane that crashed in this desert a couple of months ago?"

"I try not to bother myself with other peoples' news. I've got enough to keep track of myself. Besides, a good pilot takes care of his plane and especially of precious cargo." With that he planted a kiss on Maria's cheek.

They busied themselves with word games for the remaining hour of flight. They arrived safe and sound in Nairobi as scheduled. Only several minutes had elapsed and a crew was already unloading the plane. From their haste you'd think they were starving.

"They get paid per job, not per hour - if you're wondering why they work so fast." Eduardo's was not the only plane unloading crates at the airport. There were many others bearing everything from VCR's to condoms.

There were places to see in Nairobi and it was a nice place to visit if you stayed away from the bad parts of town - just like any other major city. Eduardo and Maria allowed themselves two days to roam the city and take in the sights. They visited museums and cultural centers, where they enjoyed native song and dance. They bought exotic cloths for Maria and Eduardo got some souvenirs for himself. There was an interesting nude figurine that was supposed to be made of ivory, but instead was made of some sort of plastic since there was no more ivory. It was supposed to bring good luck to its bearer when he was truthful but bad luck if he lied. The vendor wanted a high price for it, saying it had been consecrated according to ritual. Eduardo haggled him down to a fraction of the asking price reminding the vendor that though it may be consecrated, it was still only plastic. They laughed all the way back to the hotel. Maria was up until late trying on her new cloths. She was tempted to paint her face as well but instead settled for a late night romantic supper with her beloved. They didn't get much sleep that night.

Maria was studying to be a doctor and she very much wanted to check out some of the hospitals to see what kind of equipment they had and what kind of diseases they treated. That's what they did for the last half of their second day even though Eduardo didn't much enjoy it. In fact he found it downright disgusting. But it did make Maria happy and if she was happy, he was happy.

Since Eduardo owned the plane, there was no exact time they had to take off. Still they wanted it to be fairly early in the day so that it would still be daytime when they arrived back in Spain. Eduardo preferred it that way, even though he was qualified to fly the plane by night. They turned in early that night.

In the morning they wasted no time getting their things in order and paying the hotel whatever bills they had accrued. Eduardo did all the routine tests he always did on the plane and made sure they had plenty of fuel. It was about 9:00 by the time they took off.

Once in the plane, and once they got tired of talking about the particulars of their trip, they fell back to the usual word games. After a little while, and out of the blue, Maria asked, "Eduardo, you've been traveling to all these places for several months now. There are lots of women in these places. You have been faithful to me, haven't you Eduardo?"

"What a silly question you ask, Maria. Of course I've been faithful to you. You know you're the only woman for me." The words had barely left his lips and a strange sound emanated from the engine below. It was a sort of sputtering.

"What was that? It is normal, isn't it Eduardo? Tell me it is normal." Maria had a frightened look on her face.

But it wasn't normal and Eduardo had a hard time hiding his own concerns. "Everything's fine, my dear." He lied. Instantly the sputtering became louder. By then he was freely sweating.

Maria was getting hysterical and muttering, "we're going to crash. We're going to crash!"

Together they prayed the plane would hold up and they trembled together. It was to no avail and the plane started an uncontrolled descent to the desert below. Somehow Eduardo was able to stabilize it enough for a crash landing. His better judgement told him they would both be better off dying instantly from the crash than slowly wasting away in the desert. There was nothing but sand in sight for miles around and they hadn't brought much in the way of emergency provisions.

The useless plane landed intact atop the sand. For the plane, if not for the crew, it was a perfect place to crash land. The hottest part of the day was just before them and they realized that it would be foolish to venture out at that time. They decided to radio for help and stay inside the plane until help arrived.

The radio worked fine but, for some odd reason, all they could reach was somebody in a nearby hostile country who didn't even speak Spanish or English. They thought it must be Sudan. Meanwhile the plane got hotter and hotter. It became like an oven.

"Maria, nobody is coming to help us. I think our only hope is to take what food and water we have and head East, toward the Nile. That is the direction we're most likely to find settlements in."

"Well, the heat has started to subside. We might as well get started because the longer we wait, the less chance we'll have of making it." Maria agreed.

Eduardo and Maria tried, as much as possible, to avoid the high dunes because it took too much energy to traverse the deep sand. Using the sun as a compass they zigzagged around the dunes in an Easterly direction. Every so often one of them would take a small gulp of water. They had three canteens of water and some sandwiches. When it got too dark to see where they were going they huddled in the sand. It was amazing how cold the night could be after such a hot day and they kept themselves warm in each other's embrace.

As soon as it started to get light they set off again, but with a quicker pace. They didn't want to get caught in the heat of the desert with no shelter save the cloths on their backs. They walked and walked but all they saw was sand, sand and more sand. It got hotter and hotter and they kept on walking until the heat became unbearable.

"It's best to dig a hole and wait out the heat for an hour or two until we can continue" suggested Maria. Eduardo agreed and they started digging. It took a lot of energy to dig because the sand just kept filling in the hole each time. It was the most miserable afternoon they'd ever had. By the time they were ready to continue they had each drunk a full canteen and eaten a sandwich each.

"Eduardo, I see water! Oh my god, it's a lake. Can't you see it?!" cried Maria. She started running toward it.

"Maria, it's only a mirage." She had almost started drinking sand. Eduardo did his utmost to keep her from crying; it would waste valuable moisture.

Night arrived with no change in the scenery. They huddled together as before. They next day was Eduardo's turn to run toward a mirage and Maria stopped him. It was apparent they were both becoming delirious.

It was now their third day in the desert and the water was finished. So were their sandwiches. They still had a couple of candy bars which they nibbled on periodically. The thirst in their throats was becoming worse and worse. That night they slept feeling sure they would die the next day.

On the fourth day the started off early as usual. The relief offered by the coolness of the night wore off all too soon. By noon their tongues were swollen and desperation had forced them to sip their own blood out of their arms. After the afternoon rest, they could barely even walk, instead stumbling along or crawling on all fours. They had long since ceased talking - it hurt too much.

It's amazing how long the human body can continue against all odds. For hours they kept on going, hoping in vain that somebody might still rescue them. Miraculously they had survived to see the next night but they couldn't sleep. Like living zombies they lie there silently, eyes glued to the starry sky, waiting for death to come. Somehow they forced themselves up the next morning and crawled along ever Eastward.

Eduardo though he saw something out of the corner of his eye. Probably just a mirage or one of the countless hallucinations that had plagued them and wasted their precious energy. Still he forced up his head and squinted. There, on the horizon was a plane. It was larger than his plane and a different color. He nudged Maria in that direction and would have explained to her were he able to talk.

Slowly, painfully they pulled themselves toward the wreckage. It was still a long way off and, if not for the glitter in the sunlight, Eduardo would never have seen it at all. Inch by inch they worked their way closer and closer. It took them about two hours to get close enough so that it loomed in front of them in all its glory. It was now the heat of the day and the only thing, at this point, that kept them alive was the hope that salvation was at hand.

Reaching the opening to the interior wasn't too difficult since it was level with the sand. With all his might Eduardo forced the door open. The first thing to hit his senses was the sound of thousands of flies and the sight of several dried out corpses.

The plane was packed with cargo. Upon further inspection the two discovered, to their horror, that the plane was full of salty peanut butter. Clutched in the hand of one of the bodies was a figurine just like the one Eduardo had bought in Nairobi.

Months later, their mummified remains were discovered - peanut butter still stuck to the roofs of their mouths.

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