“I’m gonna check it out,” I told the others walking at the head of the caravan, first in English, then again in Spanish. They could make whatever reasons, whatever excuses, they pleased — I thought there might be food, scrap metal, batteries — I didn’t care. I trudged up the dune and took a seat at the base of the giant metal ribcage, one of those gargantuan revenants that scarred the landscape of the Atacama, and pulled off my boots. Some enterprising soul had once tried to make a shelter of the place, rigging up tarpaulin between two ‘bones’. The wind-torn scraps that remained granted me some shade. Even as I basked in the relative cool, as I tested the darkened sand with the bare soles of my feet, I thought whoever had tried to live here to be a fool.
The children whisper to each other, when they think we won’t hear, that these bones are the weatherworn skeletons of the mountains. We debate over whether or not to correct them, when we have the strength. Either way they know the score: all that’s left of the world is bones.
The barren wind licked sand across the toes of my boots and I sighed. The caravan stood off a ways, baking in the South American sun. I knew what I looked like to those waiting by the wagons and cars. I knew what they were waiting for. I’d seen it too many times to count. The old ones walking off into the desert, sitting for a while to think and then…
A small figure broke away from the caravan, its small legs churning against the soft dunes. I couldn’t fathom the obvious for what seemed like a minute, so great was this break in unspoken protocol. This child, this boy, was coming towards me. His whole body and everything on it had turned the color of the desert floor. Even his black hair had faded in the sun. He clambered over the curved bones and into the belly of the beast.
“Quittin’ time?” He asked me in an impetuous voice. I recognized him, a thin black mustache in advent of puberty. He was probably twelve, though his size would have you think him nine. The others called him Vixer.
I followed his eyes from the silver clip of my pocketknife to where my boots rested beside the half-buried bone.
“They say old lady done.” He squinted up at me, his face outside the scant shade. “Need new boss.”
“That boss you?” I asked.
He grinned rotten-teeth at the notion.
“My boots won’t fit you,” I said.
“I don’t need no girl shoes.” He played at arrogance like a yo-yo, pulling back and dropping his head after the brash words.
“Mining town up ahead,” I jerked my head east. “Ever heard of lithium?”
“I get lost easy,” Vixer said, shrugging and tilting his head to scratch his ear with his shoulder. Then he seemed to remember something. “You got compass in dous pants?”
I kicked sand at him.
“Better get on wid it before your foot get bit by scorpion, make you look dumb,” he retorted before running off, hopping over the bones like the playground equipment he’d never known. If it weren’t for all the clothes, it’d be plain as death he had as much skin on his bones as this old ogre did.
Better get on with it. His parting words replayed in my head. My stomach growled some encouragement, but I remained still, frozen in the suffocating heat. It was just another day to Vixer, whether I emerged from this brief sojourn or not. Nine, twelve, whatever he was, he’d seen it too many times. This was life for the boy: beginning, middle and end.
When at last I moved, my sunburned skin stretched slowly, taut and unyielding as leather. I put my hand into a pocket just above the knee of my pants and retrieved my compass. With a deft flick the lid sprang open. The needle buoyed back and forth for an instant before settling, the red end a finger stabbing at my solar plexus. It wasn’t the half-boxy, forest green military ones you saw most people carry around.
I’d pulled it off a quitter years and years ago, up near the Amazon. The underside of the lid was dark blue with line-connected dots in the shape of constellations surrounding the North Star, itself a tiny, glimmering diamond. I looked into that diamond, allowing my wrist to wiggle so its facets caught and played with the sunlight. It winked at me and I felt sleepy.
Vixer could have it. What else did I have to give the boy?
The stone winked at me again. Such a small wonderful thing, a tiny secret in the overpowering truth. I lifted my head and suddenly snapped awake at the sight of the robotic skeleton that engulfed me, the giant terrible thing.
Something occurred to me just then. I didn’t much like the idea of someone finding my bones in here, in this beast, like a prehistoric afternoon snack.
It was just an excuse after all, but that’s all you need, something to tell yourself. The hollow Pacific wind whistled a lonely baritone in my ears. I stood, snapped the compass closed, and looked east.
John Eric Vona is a graduate of Florida State University’s undergraduate creative writing program where he studied with fiction writers like Charles Henley, Mark Winegardner, and Elizabeth Stuckey-French. His work has been featured in Tallahassee Magazine, Emerald Coast Magazine, and 365 Tomorrows. He lives in Tampa with his amazing wife, Mary.