"No one seems to talk much around here."
"It is the way of things. Have you recently flown in to town?"
Barnacles were forming on the north side of the Blackjack Saloon. I had noticed them before, but the radiance of this newcomer's hair brought them into a completely new light. They weren't just encrusted oddities anymore. They were living things that had no place in Rancho Nuevo. No living thing had a place here. Why would they desire to bear our pain?
"My name is Jessica."
"Mine is not."
"You seem more talkative than the others. Are you a spokesmodel?"
"They fixed me a plate of bacon and mushrooms with avocado dip this afternoon. It changed my perspective."
We walked the cold streets of Rancho Nuevo for nearly an hour before she said another word. I could not stop my own words from passing across my lips and into her waiting ears. She merely nodded, collecting my reflections like butterflies in a jar. We stopped alongside the endless line of burning fifty-five gallon drums of oil that stretched from the Blackjack Saloon into the infinite mists the prevented the horizon from existing. The heat from the drums was unbearable to most newcomers. Jessica, however, seemed unaffected. She even warmed her hands over the flames for a moment before turning back to me with a smile.
"Are you deliverance?"
"My name is Jessica."
Her tone of voice implied that my memory had failed me and disconnected my ability to recall the name by which she claimed to be known. I tried to argue the point. I failed. If she knew that we in this place were best known by our definitions, rather than by our names, she did not indicate that knowledge. She continued to smile and to look upon me with an undefined grace. There was light in her eyes. Many of us had the light, but for most of us that light was too dim to matter. Her light was very much alive. I wondered if she might, in fact, be alive as well.
She began her own dialogue, which I permitted myself to thrust random comments and tangents into without much success. There did not seem to be much cohesion to her dialogue. She invested most of her time accentuating the concept of "crimes against humanity" and linking that phrase to each and every topic she touched upon. I began to wonder about the codes of conduct in the places she had been before. Honking a car horn at seven in the morning to summon a friend for a ride to work and genocidal ethnic cleansing received equivalent treatment in her precise evaluations. I decided to offer her my company for lunch. She made even that as a point of argument.
"There is a place on the outskirts of town where pizza is made. It is the only place in Rancho Nuevo and it operates under a veil of secrecy."
"Secrets always betray you, for they betray those around you by their very existence."
I could not accept her point. Nor could I openly reject it. Secrets were the only thing that made life bearable in this place. Without them, everything would be the color and consistency of granite. If she could only have witnessed the beauty of the tree we grew behind Danny's barn she would have understood. I grew tired of her consistent righteousness.
Then I began to wonder if I might be able to fall in love with this Jessica. She was new to the landscape and was not yet accustomed to our way. She promoted the machinations of the way things were supposed to be. She was incapable of understanding the shading that existed in any environment that claimed an oath of loyalty to black and white. We fought to have color. It wasn't a fight we would ever surrender. Some theorized that fight was what kept us here. It was always possible that surrender would be the key to opening the gates that held us here. Others reminded us that if this theory did not hold up, we would lose everything that defined us as individuals. Such theories did not concern Jessica. She didn't see any reason for flowers to grow here.
I needed to watch her and to ignore all other impulses. Although it was against all codes, I needed to ask her for a gift. Whether she would bestow a gift upon me was uncertain. The only gift I could request was one she was willing to give. Otherwise I would be left playing blind man's bluff with a cloud. That presented me with a set of dangerous parameters. It also meant another firestorm was likely and that I would be at the center of the maelstrom.
More than anything I wanted to kiss her.
She represented a purity no longer found in Rancho Nuevo.
She represented the purity we all railed against.
The kiss came without much fanfare. She seemed to favor it as much as I, albeit for different reasons. As our lips closed in and melded into a singular apple of quivering flesh, I braced myself for the firestorm. It never came. In its place came a trickling of golden snow. The flakes would never reach the ground, even as the flurries gathered strength and built themselves into a blizzard of pure white. We could see nothing but each other, and it drove us to embrace more closely and more deeply. Still, the snow never made it to the ground. Even the power of this avalanche from the sky could not overcome the fire that burned in Rancho Nuevo. Gifts here were meant to be savored in the moment. There was no past just as surely as there was no future. Change existed only in our imaginations.
I found myself as unwilling to let her go as she was to remain.
The Rancho Nuevo Series: