I sat on the ground, tears running down my face, clothes torn and dirty, and head spinning.
"Why me?" I screamed and pounded my fist into the sandy soil. On its impact, a small covey of quail burst into flight. A few seconds later, they hit the ground and scurried away in their strange fast-walking style. Where the hell are the police when you need them?
"Not here where they’re needed!" I shouted, wanting someone to come along and help. Through my swollen and watery eyes, the lengthening shadow of a wispy acacia looked like fingers creeping toward me.
"What? You want a turn now?" I picked up a stone and threw it at the tree. Totally illogical but it felt good.
I’d been on my own for the past six months, having run away from the last of my many foster care homes. Actually, more like refugee camps for kids. We were provided two meager meals a day, slept crammed three or four in small rooms, and wore ragged old hand-me-down clothes. My many foster parents drove new cars, wore expensive clothes, and ate out regularly. I escaped a few months short of my seventeenth birthday with one hundred seventy dollars of their hard-earned money.
Not wanting to stay in Los Angeles, I’d planned to hitchhike to Las Vegas, where I’d hoped to find full-time employment at one of the casinos and disappear in the transient nature of the city. When I reached Barstow, I found that the Holiday Inn was advertising for a part-time maid and decided I should take every opportunity to earn money whenever I could. Vegas would not be cheap, and I would need money until I could find work. They let me go three months later when their regular maid, who had been on maternity leave, returned.
I left Barstow early in the morning and caught a ride with a middle-aged couple heading toward Vegas. They dropped me near a two-lane road that led to the town of Sloan, where they lived. An hour passed, and I still hadn’t caught a ride. At the rate I was going, I would be in Vegas before I caught a ride. Everyone seemed in a hurry and flew by with near supersonic speeds. My hitchhiking smile faded when a black four-door sedan heading toward Barstow made a U-turn and pulled along side me. A man rolled down the passenger-side window. His face had a five-day stubble, a sneer, and narrow mean-looking eyes. No one I cared to share a car with.
"This is the last bus to Vegas today. You’re going to miss it if you don’t run," the man said and smiled. The car... Why had I thought it was a car? It was clearly a bus, and it kept moving so I began to run, waving my hands for it to stop. I didn’t want to miss the last bus to Vegas. But it didn’t stop; it continued at a speed that kept it just out of my reach. I was breathing hard, my legs aching, when it finally turned onto a dirt road and stopped. I staggered to it and grabbed the door. I stood there gasping for breath, as a man opened the door. He smiled and pointed off into the distance.
"There’s a small lake over there," he said, leaning toward me. His breath stank of tobacco and alcohol. When I turned to look where he was pointing, I saw the lake, the water glimmering in the middle of all that sand. "You’re hot, sweaty, and dirty. Hurry, the water is cool and refreshing; run and dive into it."
I ran a few yards and dove. I screamed. My exposed arms burned as they scrapped along the rough caliche ground. A million needles pierced my skin as I slid into a cholla cactus. I lay burning with pain. It wasn’t a lake. It was desert. The man had lied and I believed him. Again, I realized. Why? When I looked up, a gorgeous hunk of a man stood looking down at me.
"Let me help you up. My name is Marc. You’re hurt. Come along with me, and I’ll get you fixed up." He lifted me easily and supported me as we walked toward the car. Why did I think it was a bus? I shook my head, trying to clear it. Pain shot through my back, causing my knees to buckle. The man holding my hand changed into a very average-looking young man with a broad square face, flat nose, and scraggly brown hair. Before I could think, I heard something hit the ground and whirled around. A knobby two-foot tree branch lay on the ground. Nothing moved. Did someone throw that stick at me? When I turned back the young man had disappeared, and the golden-haired man again stood in his place. He had a beautiful face and muscular body. I couldn’t see any sign of the other man. He had disappeared. My head ached.
"Come, we’ll get you fixed up."
Hot pain seared the backs of my thighs. My legs gave way and I fell onto one knee. The young man again stood beside me smiling. When I looked behind me, no one was there. The same stick lay on the ground, almost at my feet. It should have been yards away. In frustration, I picked it up and swung it back and forth, wishing my attacker was standing there.
"Damn you, come out here and fight, you bastard!" I screamed. Still swinging the stick, I scanned the area, hoping to see something, and took a few steps back in the direction I had come. I hit something hard, and the air in front of me blurred for a second. Encouraged, I continued walking and swinging. I heard a thump and saw a small thin man with narrow eyes, tight thin lips, and a hawk-like nose lying up against a barrel cactus. His face twisted in pain. Slowly it turned into a smile so evil I stumbled backward and fell into a prickly shrub.
"Damn the bitch. Russ, her mother should punish her for attacking me," he shouted, looking toward the unshaven man next to the car.
"Your mother’s here and she’s going to have to punish you for hurting that nice man. You deserve it," Russ said as someone grabbed me. When I turned my head to look, an elderly woman had me by the arm. My mother? The woman who had abandoned me to people who didn’t care. I hated her. I swung the stick and hit her... him... Marc in the face.
"Russ!" he shouted as his hand went to his face. Blood dripped from his nose.
"You are feeling safe and know we are here to help you. We’re your friends." It was Russ’s voice, clear but soft and reassuring. I felt safe, surrounded by friends.
"What’s your name, girl?"
"How much money do you have, Lynn?"
"I have over three hundred dollars inside my shoe." I had managed to save an additional two hundred dollars while working in Barstow.
"Give it to the priest. He’s collecting money for the homeless people, who need food and shelter." A man stood there in a black suit and white collar. The very spot where my mother... the young man... Marc had stood.
I hated priests. Well, one in particular. He was a regular visitor at one of my earlier foster homes and friendly with my foster parents-jail keepers. Coincidently-like the sun rising each day-he was always present when the state child-protection woman showed for her quarterly visits. He made a point of telling her how well we were being treated. He visited often, at least two or three times a month. When he did, he’d take one of the younger boys back to his church for alter boy training. When the boy returned, it was obvious it wasn’t religious instruction he’d received. The boy would be quiet and withdrawn for days afterward and frequently cried all night. Priests didn’t give-they took. In my rage, I saw all three men clearly. Although they looked amused, there was something vile about them.
My nightmare went on for hours. Russ’s voice made his words seem like reality-a cactus became a leather chair, desert sand became water. Marc morphed into other people as Russ’s words changed my perceptions of what was happening to me. And Karl’s evil twisted face was always close by after my countless unseen attacks.
With my body racked with pain and my head spinning in chaos, I finally collapsed.
"Well, Karl, I guess the game is over. It was, however, a very interesting exercise. It’s one thing learning theory but another seeing it in practice. There are some results that couldn’t be easily demonstrated at school," the unshaven man said, while looking down at me.
"You’re right, Russ. I knew when I was invisible, I couldn’t do anything physical, like hit her with a stick. I had to become visible to do that; however, I didn’t know I could be hurt when I was in that state," Karl replied.
"You did look funny in that cactus bush. It was a good example of how pain causes us to lose control of our magic. It also appears that if a lie or illusion strikes an emotional cord, it fails to work. I don’t know what it was about her mother or the priest, but clearly it caused an emotional response that broke the spell."
"This was a very interesting and fun afternoon, but we need to get going. Our boss expects us in Los Angles in a few hours. I for one am looking forward to our first contract."
Now that I was bruised, bleeding, and exhausted, I was no longer needed and could be discarded. When two of the men turned to go back to the car, Karl remained. He stood looking down his hawk-like nose at me. I had seen that look many times before. He dropped down on his knees and grabbed me by my throat and began striking me across the face. I attempted to fight him off but he was stronger and had me pinned to the ground with his body. During the beating and rape, I blacked out.
When I woke, I lay there with my knees tucked into my chest, trembling. My clothes were wet, so it must have rained while I lay there. I heard a soft growling. When I looked up, a coyote stood some twenty yards away with fangs bared. Judging from the outline of his ribs, the growling might have been his stomach rumbling. I picked up a rock and threw it. I almost felt sorry for him as he trotted away.
Deciding I had to get moving, I staggered to a small puddle left by the rain and washed myself off as best I could. Then I retrieved my traveling bags, changed out of the torn clothes I was wearing, and headed for the highway. I had little choice but to continue on to Vegas, which I thought couldn’t be more than five miles away.