Fiction by Joel Van Noord • Photo by Jill Burhans

Could You Please Move Your Shadow

At the edge of a canyon he sat, solemn; feeling a great void. Faint gun clatter crept into his consciousness as the distant noise began to ricochet off the canyon wall behind him, becoming drastically less distant. Upon this cognizance the steady blasts dominated the empty landscape. Someone was shooting. No, it was a group of people. Shooting, with many guns, at the hills and into rocks. It was abstract until he heard an intimate whiiiiiiiz trail over his head and into the canyon below. He'd ridden his bike and everything on the landscape was still unnamed. Before yesterday he had never seen that corner of the country.
'What the fuck?' Another steady series, one after the other, exacting in their sound. 'Are they shooting over my head?' he thought and ducked as another series of shots wasted off. 'What the fuck?' he whined again, feeling futile; his heart begin to race. He wondered if they were fucking with him for some odd, sadistic reason, shooting over his head to terrify him. He scrambled up the incline of dark basalt and ducked behind an outcropping. He sat on a ledge, 400 feet above the shaded, winding stream below. He turned and looked down, not able to see anyone in the expansive, empty valley. The dark sage and scrub reached together toward the horizon and filled the gaps to form a uniform blanket, woven with species of pattern. He stood and looked over the small wall of rock and heard the rattling shots again.

'What the FUCK!' he ducked and waited, agitated, his face overheating. The sun was setting behind a dark 8,000 foot peak to his right toward where the shots originated. To his left was the capped silhouette of Zion. To the north: behind him, an intense row of jagged red cliffs with a dark foreboding mountain behind. In front of him was the continued gash of the canyon, opening and spreading into an emptiness backed by conical peaks. He was surrounded by an imposing and seemingly encroaching landscape.
This was his second day in town and he knew nothing. He was on BLM land and this he knew because of his fellow co-workers who'd led him there the night before. Four days on interstate 80, Pennsylvania into Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, a beautiful autumn Colorado – bright golden Aspen leaves huddled throughout the indifferent evergreen slopes. Then, to the southwest corner of Utah where he would start working in three days. Because of the distance he was starting later than the two others, who were now safely in their new beds. He had been counting on them, Wren had; instead he was now cowering under a scramble of rocks.

Around Denver they'd mentioned they had a place and Wren relaxed. In Nebraska they told him they had several other good options for places and wanted to know if they could count on him. Sure. They were cheap, too, only 200 apiece. His phone service gave out over the Rockies and into the desolation of Utah. Finally, coming out of the high plateaus into the Valley, he again received coverage and heard a message on how they'd both found rooms and he was on his own. But, they were camping on this bluff on BLM land just outside the city.

He was deflated after hearing the message; they were in no way responsible for him, some stranger, and he knew this. Still, the feeling was there. A worse than normal feeling after the elation he'd had driving through the majestic national parks: Arches, Capitol Reef, Escalante, Zion.

At a dark and busy crossroad with a Maverik gas station he met them. A kid with a scraggly beard shook his hand loosely and talked in a cool, casual drawl. They drove away from the lights and onto a series of dark dirt roads, Wren wondering how they'd managed to find the nameless roads. His Civic –hugging its axles with the weight of all his belongings, bike tire swinging into the bumper– dipped and moaned over the rivets of the road.

They came to a bluff, invisible because of the darkness, and stopped on a sandy round-about. He saw a tent on the ground as he shut off his engine. 'Why hadn't they waited for him to find a room?' he wanted to ask but didn't. Someone emerged from a dip in the earth and he shook the stranger's hand, speaking to him without seeing his face.

Wren made his tent in the darkness as the two sat on the cold sandstone looking out against the dark silhouette of a mountain, drinking tall cans of beer. The starry sky overhead held the racing stripe of the Milky Way and more stars than he'd seen in a long time.

It was beautiful then, and calm, comfortable with new friends on a bluff in southwest Utah. It was good but the next day offered a deep anxiety. He tried not to think about it but it was so close. The night offered a forgetful relief. It would be refreshing to sleep in the cool air. Waking from the tent to see what could not be seen in the darkness offered something to look forward to. It would be good to sleep but dreadful to wake.

He slept and woke. Rolled up his tent as Jeff, the one who'd met him at the gas station, stood by his truck. Wren watched him eat cereal out of a blue and white speckled tin bowl as they raised their eyes at each other. Wren opened his car and looked at the floor of the passenger seat, a few granola bars and an apple poked their way through trash and accumulated maps. He ate the granola and walked along the rim, chomping the apple to the core, which he threw it overhead into the canyon.

He was in Utah, very close to Nevada and only six miles from Arizona. It was the mesh between the Mojave Desert, the Colorado Plateau, and the Great Basin, he learned through Pennsylvanian internet searches. This land was empty, beautifully barren, it was yet hard to wrap his head around. There was still emptiness. Something he was positive was false while living under a kink of the Appalachians. With this new knowledge he began to doubt. It was easy to doubt when you were nothing but yourself and the things in your car –which was now, incidentally, a small dot obscured in the endless landscape.

Along the high canyon wall he spotted petroglyphs. To his surprise. White engravings on a dark slap of rock. One was a spiral and another a figure costume.

He spit his toothpaste out on the sandy ground and left. Drove back across the dirt road, seeing now in the desert sun the road he would not have taken if it'd been light. He went to a coffee shop and sat with the classifieds, ordered a coffee and perused the housing options, escaped to the bathroom, then went to his car and rummaged through a few bags until he found the charger to his dying cell phone. Back to the table and he sat waiting. People came in and out and looked at him. His hair greasy and on angles. Black edges on his fingernails from camping.

An NFL game was on a big screen in the corner of the coffee shop. It seemed strange. It was near 80 in an intense desert sun. No sign of a typical fall while New England played Chicago.

There was little in the paper and he couldn't afford what he wanted. After ten calls he was driving to see a place, a bedroom in a house. Wren walked in and the place was odd, there was a cluttered and eclectic bookshelf full of dragons and oriental keepsakes. The walls were full of what looked like a hodgepodge of hotel art. The owner was a late twenty-something with shaved head and a long, but sparse, beard. They shook hands and the owner, Jason, talked like he hadn't seen anyone in weeks. He told sprawling stories that had little to do with the room or the house. Finally they viewed the rooms, the first: almost too small to put in a queen-sized bed; the second: high ceilings with a queen. They went back downstairs.

They talked about guitars, having that in common. Then Jason mentioned that his brother, who actually owned the house, was in Iraq. Not fighting but working, rebuilding pipelines and engineering the infrastructure. "Yeah, his wife left him and he kind of had a crisis, then went over, he's making a couple hundred thousand a year, without a college education."
Wren sat while Jason kept talking. He didn't get up even though he wanted to. He sat and listened, far from fascinated, he wished the man would shut up. But he didn't. He went on and on and Wren stayed because he had no where else to go, his mind drifted while Jason talked about being in the downtown –he couldn't really figure out a point of the story besides that. Jason just talked and talked and Wren waited. If he left he would drive to the top of the bluff again, either that or find another coffee shop. But he had little money. He'd maxed out his credit cards.

Jason was nice, perhaps a little juvenile, near gigantic in stature. His feet looked to be at least size thirteen and he seemed well up to six-four. Wren looked around at the room again. They were horrible decorations. Almost a fetish, the amount of Japanese-type dragon / Samurai gear.

"I feel before we go any further I should tell you I'm a recovering addict," Jason said and Wren was taken aback. It was a conclusion he would have never reached on his own. Most of the previous conversation had been about not having a lot of 'traffic' in the house and no heavy drinking. If anything, Wren thought the house would be LDS standard. A slogan he was warned about and becoming familiar with. Latter Day Saints…

Wren asked him what he was addicted to and the owner went on and on about smoking and selling a lot of pot… pounds. Wren thought about his own past and was ready to tell him you can't be addicted to pot, but the owner went on to describe various forms of oxycodone along with a few other pharmaceutical-sounding names. "Three months ago I got off Methadone," The owner said.

Cutting it up and snorting it. The owner had no reservations, in fact he was eager, about telling the stranger his extensive knowledge of drugs. It was basically heroin, the owner said. Wren was dubious. The tall, gentle giant did not seem like an addict. He talked on and on.

About deciding to choose life instead of death. How he left the Mormon church for a southern Baptist congregation and how he was now, and had been for a long period, unemployed; because, Jason said, of back, knee, and a litany of other excuses. He was financed from the brother in Iraq.

Wren left at three, after two and a half hours. Jason was disorganized, the previous tenant still had a tv and random clothes and pieces of electronics in the room. "It would take a day or two to get the lease together," Wren was told. Jason didn't want him to move in before that.

In a restaurant Wren sat down by the window, there were vacationing couples inside and the building had a golf theme. Something the arid red desert was adorned with a superfluous amount of. The waitresses, too, seemed to only be passing through. He ordered, ate, then left, walked and found a hiking store and perused through books. Then left and drove and found a park and tried to read a 500 page book he was 400 pages through. It was useless as he couldn't concentrate, so he watched volleyball players and large Mexican families picnic. He would start work in two more days. This would make more sense then. After he met the people who lived there, or here. He should now call it since he ostensibly belonged. Even if it was at the top of a bluff in a tent, shitting on the ground and covering it with a stone.

Shadows began to grow on the surrounding mountains and he drove back to the BLM land and sat at the now empty site, void of the other tent and the truck of his new co-workers.

He needed to do something, he realized. Idleness leads to madness.  Especially when the basic needs of survival are not met. They were, but his body and mind were not used to what feeling comfortable in the wild would entail. In Pennsylvania he dreamed of being able to. But now that it was in his face he didn't know. He doubted. He lost convictions. How could he have any in the abandoned and marginal state he felt suffocated by?
So he unlatched his bike and headed up on a trail toward a high point on the bluff. That's when he first heard the faint gun clatter. A series of echoing blasts. As if a line of shooters stood shoulder to shoulder and let loose their clips. He heard the whiiiiiz over his head and ducked and scurried low to the rocks. To the summit of the rim. He waited. Watching the sun setting and casting dark purple hues on the desert landscape. He was a dot on the landscape like the sage. He looked back to his car and had trouble finding it. It blended in with the desert dots. When his eyes finally found it the car looked comically small. Everything was so large. No subdivisions to swallow the landscape. No roads or boulevards to divide and interpret it. There was only what had been there for the past thousands of years. There was only the work of the river. Until the river cut its permanent path deep into the canyon it continues to erode today, leaving the rest to the sun and wind. Another shot and he ducked behind the rocks.

He felt genuinely worried. He tried to peer over and there was another rapid succession of shots. They could be shooting over the canyon. They could be shooting into the hill. He was several hundred feet above the shooting. He waited, figuring they'd leave the valley as the sun set.

Waiting, watching the sun as it dipped behind the mountain range and turned the jagged line a dark red then purple. In the vestigial light he decided to head back to his car. He carefully walked down, his back arched, and couldn't find his bike. He left it on a large slab of black rock and couldn't find that, there were dozens of large black slabs. Everything was lost in the seemingly infinite swatch of black dots. Eventually he found it and rode down the steep gradient of stepping rocks. As he approached his car, a truck was tumbling down a connecting road that reached his cul-de-sac. Dust rose and hung in the empty air behind the vehicle. A child was in the bed of the truck holding the collar of a shaggy sheep-dog. Wren could seen the elbow of the passenger rise and jerk with the dips and cobbles in the road. They turned toward Wren and his car, and Wren waited. Watching.

The truck came to a stop and rolled back. A door opened and Wren watched as a white man with a white beard and a generic-mesh baseball cap walked out and stopped. A younger man, shirtless and hairy, came out of the passenger seat as the child ran around to the front, holding a sawed-off shotgun. To Wren it looked like three generations.

They stopped and stood shoulder to shoulder, several feet from him, who, confused, stoically watched. He wiped his nose with his hand. The dry desert was filling his nose with hard, crusty debris. The trio said nothing and the grandfather leaned forward to look at the child to nod. The middle-aged man stood and stared at Wren, unblinking. Paying no attention to his father or son. Neither of the three seemed to say anything with their blank facial expressions. Then the child raised his gun and Darren took a half step back but there was a blast that knocked him back the full step. He was shocked by the violent jerk to the ground. His back wrenched over a pointed rock and he moaned. His stomach felt warm and he reached his hand to it and it was wet. The three now stood above him. The grandfather had emotionless, crystal blue eyes. The child raised the gun again.

Or maybe that's not how it ended. Maybe that was only how it felt. Perhaps the truck simply passed by without turning an indifferent eye to the edge of the bluff where they'd laid out round after round of recreational shells, which now littered the desert like clam shells on a sandy Atlantic beach. Maybe he simply crunched a few of these spent shells against the rocks and watched the dust settle before he searched his car for rations: Ramen Noodles. Life was too simple, he thought. All the extravagations he'd established in Pennsylvania were gone for this animal simplicity. He was, after all, an animal. Why was it so strange? Living in cities with modified atmospheres and an overabundance of amenities... An arid desert with less than seven inches of rain… Adorned with neon green golf courses and swimming pools, bright lights and shopping malls.
Maybe nothing else happened that night outside his head. Maybe he sat in his car reading by the dome light, listening to the wind howling across the valley and to the edge of the bluff. Seeing distant lighting over what he'd learn to call the Beaver Dam Mountains. Maybe he read line after line and remembered nothing. Perhaps he sat there in his car, waiting to set up his tent with only the idea of two feelings in his head. That of being scared and alone. Overwhelmed and forgotten to everything else but feelings of fright and isolation.

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