Nope -- Alex had a motorcycle. A real, honest-to-goodness motorcycle.
Granted, it didn't always run that well... gasoline was tough to find in the villages they passed through, at least gasoline that hadn't been adulterated with water... and spare parts appeared to be nonexistant... but still! A motorcycle! With his waist-length hair, leather jacket and sunglasses, he looked the perfect part of the biker rebel sweeping into town to carry the rebellious young heroine away from a life of drudgery washing dishes in a roadside inn ... Well, okay, Alex was a bit old to actually play the part, but he sure did look it.
He called the motorcycle Angelina VI.
Sand loved to clasp her arms around his waist and lean forward as they raced down one lonely desert road after another.
Just the two of them. Self-sufficient.
She had to be careful not to lean forward too far, though, or he might feel the shape of the gun under her clothing.
Her favorite time of the day was evening, when the red light of the setting suns slanted across the desert, when the blistering heat had begun to fade just enough that the cool wind felt delicious, whipping back Alex's hair into her face as they rode down the winding desert roads. On long straight stretches, Alex liked to open up the throttle and they raced their own shadow, veering around crawling delivery trucks and lone travelers plodding beside the road.
When dusk fell over the desert, they would make camp beside the road, building a tiny fire that Sand fed with handfuls of scraggly desert grass. Alex told dirty jokes and made her laugh, but never spoke about himself. Sand realized that after several days on the road, she knew no more about Alex than she had when they left March City -- nor did he about her. The only time Alex ever mentioned his past was one evening when Sand's thoughts had turned to the little girl, Ellie.
"I wonder whatever happened to her," Sand said, folding her arms behind her head and staring up at the stars. "I wonder if her parents ever found her."
"Probably. She wasn't skinny or wearing rags; her folks took good care of her. They probably showed up right after we left."
Sand giggled. "I loved the look on her face when she saw you!"
"You know -- the look like she thought she was being abducted by a madman."
"Have you thought about shaving?" Sand said. "You don't seem to be a bad-looking guy under all that scruff, and you might be a little more ... approachable if you didn't look like you were coming off a two-week bender."
"Well, thanks so much. I feel really good about myself now. I was kinda proud of the beard, too. Guys in my family have trouble growing facial hair."
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean it like it came out. You were pretty good with Ellie, in spite of all that."
"Thanks. You too."
"I mean it. You're really good with kids," Sand said wistfully. "Do you have any of your own?"
Alex glanced at her, but she couldn't see his eyes. "No. In a way, I once did," he said. "They weren't my own children, but they were good little kids. I think the only time in my life I was ever truly happy... was with them. I lost them through my own conceit and stupidity. I can never go back."
"Maybe you could someday," Sand said, and then for no reason that she could figure out, she added, "Your ticket to the future is always blank."
Alex's head snapped up and he stared at her for a moment.
"You make that up?" he asked.
"I think I heard it somewhere," Sand mumbled.
What one of us knows, we all know...
Alex stared at her for a moment more, then shook his head with a laugh, dismissing her words. "That's very deep. You should write greeting cards, T-- Dammit!"
"What?" Sand asked, startled out of her own dark thoughts.
"Nothing. I just started to call you by the name of someone I once knew, a long time ago. I can't believe how much you remind me of... never mind."
Sand gazed at him, his face hidden in the fire's dancing shadows. What pain is concealed in your past, Alex Daniels?
But she had enough pain of her own to deal with. Guilt haunted her -- an odd, nagging guilt about an incident she could not remember. Something had destroyed the town where she grew up, and killed two old women who were the only people, besides Alex, who'd ever been nice to her. She knew that she had been involved somehow, but she did not know how.
The Voice knew. The Voice had all the answers, and it whispered them to her, as she lay awake through the long desert nights, with the silver gun strangely hot against her side. It murmured seductively into her ear, spinning fantasies of power and death. You never need fear anything again, it whispered against a background of crackling blue light.
Sand gritted her teeth and drove it away, while a low headache throbbed in her temples. Shut up. I won't listen to you.
"You sleeping all right, kid?" Alex said to her in the morning. "You look tired."
"I'm all right. Everything's fine."
Alex looked at her a moment longer, then stared up at the suns. "Well, we're making good time. Not too much farther to where we're going."
But early that afternoon, the motorcycle died, expiring by the side of the road with a dusty cough.
"Sooo...." Sand said, slipping off the machine and staring at it speculatively. "Is that what happened to the other five Angelinas?"
"Piece of junk," Alex muttered, kicking one of the tires.
"Oh, don't be so hard on the poor thing." Sand knelt beside the machine. "From the sound of the engine the last few miles, something might have come a little bit loose..." She stared at the unfamiliar internal combusion engine for a few moments.
"You don't know a damn thing about engines, do you?" Alex said, behind her.
"I've seen a couple cars in the village," Sand answered absently. "From a distance. And the bus to March City, of course."
"Oh, great. You've seen a couple cars. Look, just get out of the way and let me handle it before you break something, okay?"
"But it's so simple-looking," Sand protested, tracing wires with her fingers. "I mean, you can easily see that this goes here... and this of course goes here ... and this must ... yeah, I bet if you just wipe the sand out of this..."
The motorcycle sputtered to life immediately when she turned the key.
"What the hell...?"
"I think it just had some sand in the thingie," Sand explained solemnly, "and that other thingie was a little loose, so I tightened it."
"You've worked on engines before."
"No, never. Well, I've watched you work on this one," she admitted. "There wasn't anything else to do."
"And you can tell what's wrong just by looking at it? Damn, what are you, some kind of genious?"
Sand's eyes dropped. She could hear the voices of the kids in the village, whenever she'd quote from a book she read last year, or show them how to fix something totally self-evident to her: What are you, some kind of freak?
"It's just luck," she mumbled. Bad luck. "I don't know anything. I just guess and got lucky, that's all. Next time I won't be lucky."
"No, I appreciate your help. Really."
Sand glanced up at him. He didn't have that look, the one she'd come to dread -- the look that said You are different from us, and we hate you for it.
Why don't you hate me for being different, Alex? she wondered.
Sand's fixit job on the motorcycle enabled them to limp it along, but they were not making much forward progress. At the next small town they came to, Alex left the main road and bumped the motorcycle along the town's single dusty street. The rumble of the engine was the only sound, except for a radio playing somewhere distantly. A faded sign swinging from a leaning signpost read, Welcome to Dodge City.
"City, huh?" Alex murmured, looking at the one-story adobe houses lined crookedly along the street. "We're definitely in the sticks here, eh kid?"
Sand smiled a little and leaned against his back, her arms clasped around his waist. Her headache was back, throbbing agonizingly behind her eyes. Each jolt of the motorcycle sent a sharp burst of pain exploding at the base of her skull.
The only people in sight were a man and a woman on the shaded porch of the sheriff's office. Alex pulled the motorcycle into the nearest patch of shade and dismounted. "Hey, keep an eye on Angelina VI, kid. I'll ask these folks if anybody in town might be able to sell me a carburetor."
Sand nodded and slid off, sitting down beside the machine. She watched Alex approach the two people on the porch. The woman stood up. She was tall and lanky, but surprisingly young to be wearing the sheriff's star pinned to her faded work shirt. She looked Alex up and down, and her lips compressed to a thin line.
"Howdy, ma'am," Alex said at last, when the woman didn't speak. He held out his hand. "Alex Daniels."
The woman studied his hand. "Are you really," she said, a slight smile touching her homely face. "Well, I'm Sheriff Dodd."
"Pleasure to meet you, ma'am."
"The pleasure's all mine."
Alex waved a hand at the motorcycle. "Listen, we've been having some mechanical trouble. Is there anywhere around here that I can get parts?"
The woman hesitated for a moment. "Might try Eddie's place. Down a ways, past the saloon. He does some mechanical work for the folks around here. Fixing mining equipment. That kind of thing. I assume you've got money."
"Of course we do," Alex said, sounding wounded. They were still using Sand's dwindling supply of doubledollars.
"Good. Just do your business here, don't cause trouble, and be out of town by sundown."
Alex gave her a little salute and walked back to the motorcycle and Sand. "Man," he said to her, under his breath. "They don't exactly roll out the welcome wagon for strangers in this town, do they? At least nobody's shooting at us."
He walked the bike down the street, followed by Sand, who gave the lanky woman sheriff a little smile as she went by. The woman watched them grimly, never smiling, her eyes never moving from their backs as they walked down the street.
Sand shivered. She'd seen hate in that woman's eyes, hate and pain. Perhaps outsiders had hurt her in the past. She would be glad to be gone from this place.
They found Eddie's without trouble -- there was a sign hanging over the door that read Eddie's Garage. Alex tapped on the weathered wood. "Hey, anybody home?"
After a moment the door was opened by a barefoot girl of nine or ten. She stared up at him with unabashed curiousity. "Hey, who're you?"
Alex squatted down to bring himself onto her eye level. Sand, watching, thought with an inward grin, He really does like kids.
"Hey there, squirt. Is your dad home?" He pointed at the bike. "I've heard he can fix things."
"You mean my uncle," the girl said, and hollered over her shoulder, "Hey, Uncle Eddie! Customers!"
She opened the door wider. Sand -- blinking sunspots out of her eyes -- could see behind her into a large open room strewn with half-dissassembled pieces of equipment. The floor was strewn with spare parts. Long benches ran down each wall, with more tools and pieces of machinery piled in apparently haphazard fashion.
"C'mon," the girl said.
A man appeared from behind the bulk of what looked like some kind of tractor, wiping his hands on a greasy rag. "What've we got here, Tommie?"
"Customers," the girl said, and scuttled off shyly.
Eddie shook hands with them. Alex introduced them and sketched out their problem.
"Carburetor, huh? Could be, from what you've said. Could be dirt in the fuel line, hell, any of a hundred things. Here, bring it over here."
Alex wheeled the bike as indicated. "Who's the kid?"
"Oh, Tommie? My assistant. Her folks died in a bandit raid a few years ago. Her dad was my cousin."
"I'm sorry to hear it."
Eddie shrugged. "Shit happens, don't it?" He fumbled among the junk on the bench near his hand, found a half-empty bottle of heavy brown glass and took a swig. He offered the bottle to Alex, who accepted a drink.
"We don't get many people come through here," Eddie said, taking another swallow. "Hell, it's been years since anybody knocked on my door that didn't live around here. How'd you folks find my place?"
"The sheriff pointed it out to us."
Eddie laughed. "She's a peach, ain't she? That woman's the best thing to happen to this town in years. Hell, when she got here, year and a half ago, a law-abiding man couldn't walk down the street without carrying a gun. If you've traveled around, you know how bad it can get. We lived in fear of raids from the bandit gangs."
"And she cleaned it up?" Alex said.
"Yeah, and how! Took out two gangs of bandits all by herself, and now here's the crazy part -- she didn't kill a one of 'em. Says she doesn't believe in taking a life. I tell you, when she first got here, she was about laughed out of town. Nobody's laughing now. Around the time she got here, I'd half decided to pack up and take Tommie somewhere else, but she took this place and turned it into somewhere worth living. She don't look like much, but she's tough as nails. Hell, and she can't be more than twenty-one, twenty-two."
"More like nineteen, I think," Alex said, and then looked startled and hastily changed the subject. "Anyway, how long do you think it might take to repair my bike? We've got a schedule to keep."
"Won't know 'til I get it open. Could be a few minutes, could be the rest of the day."
Sand had stopped paying attention to their conversation. Her head was hurting again, and she pressed her palms against her eyes. Alex noticed and made a shushing gesture at Eddie.
"Hey, kid, you okay?"
"Tired," Sand said. "Is there anywhere around here I could sleep for a while?"
Eddie pointed behind him. "You're welcome to find a place in the shop. Don't mind if you folks hang out around here. Hell, nowhere else to go in this town."
"Thanks," Alex said, and added, "We'll pay you well for this, don't worry."
Eddie shrugged. "Wasn't going to mention it. So few people come through here, heck, it's worth it just for the gossip. So what's going on out in the real world?"
While Alex talked about the explosion of the March City Plant -- carefully skirting any involvement the two of them might have had in the incident -- Sand wandered off into the shadowy depths of the shop. It was almost cool in here. She found a rough, oil-stained blanket and made it into a little nest, curling up in a tight ball.
It was getting harder and harder to hold the Voice at bay. Its tactics had grown more varied, and ranged from wheedling and cajoling, to vicious abuse. And under that was a babble of other voices, some crying, some afraid. Ignoring all of them was getting to be a constant effort, and it made her so tired, especially since she hardly ever slept anymore.
You are a fool, the Voice ranted. You are part of Me. You have no independent existance. You delude yourself by thinking of yourself as an individual...
Oh shut up, Sand thought wearily, and managed to force herself into an uneasy semi-doze, compelled by the exhaustion of her body.
While Sand slept, Alex chatted with Eddie until the older man's exhuberance grew too wearing, and then he begged off, saying that he wanted to take a walk and explore the town. After passing the bottle back and forth for half the afternoon, he was starting to get slightly dizzy, and he still wanted to be capable of driving by the time they left.
Evening was coming on, and the two suns sank towards the rim of the world. Alex smoked a crumpled cigarette as he slouched down the dusty street, hoping to spot the sheriff. He wasn't disappointed. She was sitting on the edge of her office's porch, long legs dangling towards the ground. The man she'd been talking to had long since gone.
"Evening," Alex said.
Sheriff Dodd looked up. "Still here, I see. It's getting damn near sunset."
"My bike's getting fixed."
"Eddie took the job?"
"He seemed happy to do it," Alex said, and added, "We talked about you."
"Oh, did you now."
"He admires you a lot," Alex said. "He says you've done some good things for this town."
She straightened up, pressing her hands on her knees. "There's still a lot to be done."
"He says you never take a life."
"Is that right."
"I wanted to talk to you about that."
Sheriff Dodd stared at him for a moment, then slid down from the porch. Standing, she was a little taller than him. "So, Alex Daniels... want to take a walk?"
"I'd like that."
They strolled down the street in the lengthening shadows, past Eddie's place, and onto a winding path leading out of town. Alex let Sheriff Dodd lead the way. He didn't know what to say to her. He felt that there were things that had to be said, but didn't know what they were.
Finally Sheriff Dodd stopped walking. She turned around, and raised one hand to her chest. Slowly, deliberately, she tore the star loose from her shirt, and dropped it on the ground.
"What are you doing?"
"Resigning," Sheriff Dodd said quietly. She drew her pistol.
"Woah. Woah, lady. What are you planning to do with that?"
"Guess," she said, pointing it at him.
Instinctively he raised his hand towards his shoulder -- and it closed on empty air, and he lowered it. Dodd's eyes narrowed.
"Cornered, you reach for a weapon, even yet," she said. "You are the man I thought you were. But you looked different... and I couldn't do this until I was sure."
Alex spread his hands. "Look, lady, I'm not carrying any weapons. I'm unarmed. What happened to not shooting people, anyway? For that matter, what kind of sheriff goes around shooting innocent, unarmed travelers?"
"But you're far from innocent... aren't you?"
"How do you know so much about me, lady?"
"You know who I am," Sheriff Dodd said. "You recognized me the moment you saw me, just as I recognized you. But you wanted to play some kind of game, so I played along as well. It doesn't matter what you call yourself. I've waited years for this, and when I saw you walk into my town, alone except for that girl ... I knew that my heart had not lied to me, all those years ago. I knew you weren't to be trusted the moment I saw you, but I merely stepped aside and let the person I loved most walk out of my life ... into your murderous hands."
Alex's mouth dropped open. "Hold it, hold it, hold it! You think I killed -- oh, man. You been walking around in the sun without a hat again, L--?"
"Shut up!" She gripped the pistol in both hands, firm and unwavering. "I don't intend to talk to you. I can tell you're a sweet talker; I saw that, all those years ago, when you talked a gentle person into becoming a killer like yourself."
"Is that what you think I did?"
"I saw it. And I've looked up your record, in the years since. You were supposed to be dead, but I knew better. It couldn't be that easy. I know what you were, what you are. Do you deny that you deserve to die a thousand times over for the things you've done?"
Alex stared into her hard, accusing eyes, and there he saw the reflection of his past, of all the betrayals, the murders, the blood... the things Sand had seen in him, the things he'd tried so hard to escape.
"No," he whispered. "But you must believe me when I tell you that the man whose crimes you've studied is gone--"
He saw the slight motion of her finger on the trigger because he'd survived most of his life by watching for things like that. He flung himself down as the crack of the pistol echoed down the canyon. Pain blazed down his side. He hit the ground hard and started to roll behind a boulder, but a boot on his chest stopped him, knocked all the air out of his lungs.
"You won't escape me again!" the sheriff cried, staring at him down the barrel of her gun.
Alex lay flat on his back, his long hair spread out in the sand around his head. He felt blood trickling down his side and wondered how badly he was injured. There wasn't any pain, just a dull stinging ... but he'd been shot enough times to know that the painless wounds could sometimes be the most dangerous.
"And what will you do then? What will you do after you kill me? Will you become one of the outlaws you used to hunt, Sheriff?" he asked, looking up the gun into her unforgiving eyes. Those eyes looked straight into the darkness of his soul, and he wanted to flee from their withering, pitiless light.
"Stop calling me that!"
"No, I won't. That's what you are. The people in this town admire you. There are so few sources of hope in our world, and too many people like me -- don't give it up, Sheriff Dodd. Not for me. Don't give it up just to kill me. Don't desecrate the memory of that man you hold so dear--"
"The man you killed!"
"No! God, no. Never in a million years, Sheriff. I'd rather die myself than hurt him."
"Then where is he? I knew, when I saw you walk away from me forever -- that you'd walk that bloody road together until death itself separated you."
"And it did," Alex said. He felt so sick he could barely speak -- maybe from the wound in his side, maybe from the pain of those long-ago memories of friendship and betrayal.
"You admit it!"
"No! Not his death! Mine!"
"Yours?" she repeated, confused.
"The man you've hunted, the man you think I am -- is gone. Dead. Perhaps I'm really making a fresh start... or maybe it's just easier to run than try to heal the wounds I've created in the past ... but I walk a different road now, Sheriff. That's why I don't carry a gun. The last time I had a man in my gun sights, he was the last surviving member of my family... well, almost the last surviving member, anyway. The last one who meant anything to me. And I could have killed him, and he deserved to die... but I didn't kill him. That day I laid down my gun and I swear I will never pick up another."
"Coward," the sheriff spit through her teeth. "You are running, just like you said. Sometimes everyone has to pick up a gun to protect those who can't protect themselves."
Alex closed his eyes, unable to bear her accusing gaze, throwing back into his face the philosophy he used to live by. "I used to believe that, too, until I met someone who made me believe that it might be possible to live as I live now... doing no harm."
"Yes! All right, is that what you wanted to hear? Yes, I am running. I can't save the world, Sheriff. It's people like you who have to do that. Strong people. Brave people. You're right, I am a coward... it's all I can do to save myself. I can't take on the salvation of an entire planet. I made that decision and I hate myself every day for doing it, but it's far too late to go back now."
The gun's muzzle was warm against his throat, quavering with the shaking of the sheriff's hands. Alex didn't open his eyes. "Shoot me, then. I'm not afraid of dying; I lost that fear a long time ago. But know this -- if you do this, if you turn your back on your responsibilities as a lawman, then you're making the same choice that I did. You're abdicating your responsibility just as I did mine. And I can't fault you for it... after all, I did the same thing. It takes a lot more courage to be strong."
The gun trembled against his neck.
"There's just one thing I want you to do. If you do this, Sheriff, if you kill me and walk the path of destruction... then see that the girl is safe, would you? She needs someone to look after her. She's going down a dangerous road herself--"
The butt of the gun smashed against his cheekbone. Alex rolled over, clutching his face in agony. When he could finally see again through the red haze of pain, the sheriff was standing over him, pinning her star back on her chest.
"You talk too goddamn much," she snarled. "I knew if I let you talk, you'd talk me out of killing you. Bastard."
"Ow. You didn't have to hit me."
"I had to do that much, at least." She looked down at him. "That bit about the girl at the end... for crying out loud, don't you think it was a bit much? What is she to you, anyway? Your kid or something?"
"No. I don't have kids. She just reminds of someone I used to know... someone you knew, as well."
The sheriff's mouth quirked, softened.
"You know, she does, at that. I thought it was just my own wishful thinking... So now you're protecting this one because you couldn't protect the other one, is that it?"
"Something like that, perhaps." Alex picked himself up and felt at his side. The bullet wound was only a scratch, but it was starting to sting mightily, almost enough to drown out the throbbing in his jaw.
"Need to get that looked at?"
"No. If it leaves a scar, it won't be my first."
"Nor the first one I've given somebody, I'm afraid," Sheriff Dodd murmured. "How did the two of us fall so far from our ideals, I wonder."
"I've fallen much farther than you ever will." Alex looked up at her, and smiled, though it hurt his jaw. "It seems to me that you're doing well... living by his ideals."
The momentary softness in her face vanished.
"I don't need or want to be congratulated by you. I'll let you live... but I still don't like you much. You make me think of too many things I don't like about myself .... Just get out of my town by sundown, and don't come back. And protect that girl."
She turned and started to walk away, down the hill.
The young sheriff looked over her shoulder, startled at the use of her given name.
"Lina. If I ever see him again... I'll tell him that you're doing fine. That you're making him proud."
Lina looked back at him, silhouetted against the sun, and in the tall, capable woman, he saw the echo of the scrawny girl he'd met so long ago. Suddenly she raised her hand, the first two fingers crossed over each other in a heartbreakingly familiar salute.
"Love and peace!" she called. "Tell him that, too. Tell him I haven't forgotten the things he said to me. If you see him."
She turned and walked back toward the town with a smooth, confident stride.
"Yeah." Alex stared down at the sand, spotted with his blood. "Love and peace. You too, Lina."
The bleeding from his side had slowed and he withdrew his hand cautiously. The fingers were covered with blood. Alex smiled faintly; what an appropriate metaphor for his life. He fumbled in his pocket for a cigarette. His hands were shaking so badly that he dropped two matches trying to light it.
Ah Lina. You were right about me. You should have tried harder to keep him from leaving with me, all those years ago.
He was doubly damned. He'd betrayed his closest friend in the world, not once but twice. He'd abandoned the woman who loved him. Sand wasn't safer traveling with a man like him. She might as well be alone...
Alex's hand closed on the lit cigarette, crushing it. He didn't even feel the pain of the lit end burning his fingers.
I swore to put down the guns! Why do I still feel this way? Why can't I let it go... even after all these years?
Where is my paradise?