A man and his 10-year-old son are driving across the American desert in the summer. The rental car struggles to cool the air, which renders the horizon molten. The son gazes out the window. Breaking the endless, flat sand is an unlikely tree. The tree is larger than it seems possible for it to be, alone in the dry wasteland.
“Look, Dad, a tree,” the kid says.
The dad always looks when the boy points things out, even when it’s, “Look, Dad, a rock,” or “Look, Dad, a dead bug,” he always looks. And so he sees the tree.
“That’s weird,” Dad says. “I don’t see how that tree could grow there.”
“Look, there is a man sitting under the tree, Dad,” the boy jabs his little finger on the glass.
Dad leans and squints. “It does kinda look like a man, doesn’t it?” he says. He grabs the boys shoulder.
“No, it’s a man, Dad. I can see his hat.”
Dad leans and squints again. He sees it too, that’s for sure. But it isn’t possible. “If that’s a man, he’s not going to make it very long out here,” Dad says. He pats the boy.
“We have to stop then, Dad!” the boy says. He crawls to the back seat. “We have drinks and food!”
“We can’t just stop out here.”
“We have to stop! Nobody else will see him!”
Dad glances at the spot between the console and the seat where he has stuck his gun. He pulls over, only a little past the tree now. “Ok, I’ll go check on this guy. I’ll see if it really is a man and if he needs anything. You stay here. Do not get out. Leave the windows rolled down so it doesn’t get too hot.” He jams the gun in the back of his pants. “Don’t move!” he says.
The boy watches his father approach the tree, gun sticking out of his pants.
The man under the tree does not disintegrate into any illusion of sticks and rocks. His silhouette remains and clarifies as Dad approaches. His heart is pounding.
“Hey! What are you doing out here, sir?” Dad shouts.
“Just getting out of the sun, Buddy,” the man says, his voice low and intimate, even though he is sitting 20 feet away. Dad’s heart drops at the mention of his name, Buddy. It’s just a general term, he reminds himself. A coincidence.
“My son saw you from the road,” Buddy says. “I didn’t believe what I was seeing — you or the tree — but here you are. We stopped at the gas station 50 miles back and there isn’t another one for another 50 miles. Do you need a ride somewhere?”
“No, sir,” the man says. He shifts his weight.
Buddy puts his hand on his gun. “I don’t see many cars on this road. You must need some way out of here.” Up and down the strip of the road no cars can be seen. It wavers in the heat.
“No, sir, not many cars.”
“You been left for dead? You owe somebody money or something? What’s going on?”
The man laughs and it carries, even though it only sounds like a chuckle. “No, I don’t owe anybody any money.”
“Well, let us give you some food or water at least. It must be 120 degrees out here.”
“I’m more worried about that gun in your pants than the elements, at this moment. You gonna shoot me, Buddy?”
Buddy swallows, hard. “It’s just a strange situation, you understand?”
“You always approach the unknown with violence in mind? No way to raise a boy,” he says, gesturing toward their car.
Buddy turns to see that the boy is standing outside the car now, a liter of Diet Coke in his hand. “Get back in the car!” Buddy shouts over his shoulder.
“Don’t be scared, Buddy. I can’t hurt you. Only you can do that, right?”
“How do you know my name?” Buddy says. He’s gripping the pistol tight.
“I know your name. I know why she left. I know why you’re out here with him. Whatever the boy says, as long as he doesn’t abandon you like she did, right? Who do you think that makes me?”
Buddy pulls out the pistol and points it at the man. “Who the fuck are you?”
He laughs. “You can’t get rid of me. I’m not as scary as you’re making me out to be, you know?” He stands and lifts his hat to reveal his face.
“You were in my dream,” Buddy says, gripping the pistol to make sure he doesn’t drop it with all the sweat.
“Yes,” the man says. “Are you ready?”
“No,” Buddy says without a moment of hesitation. “I’m not and I want you to go away forever.”
The man is very serious. “Buddy… You know that’s not possible.” He steps toward him, his forehead only feet away from the barrel.
Buddy bites his lip and jams the barrel toward him. “Don’t.”
“Let me help you,” he says. After a pause, he calls to the boy. “Trevor!” He says. Trevor is ready with a handful of food and drinks. He starts to run toward them. The man glances at Buddy, as if to say, “sweet kid.” The man calls again. “Your dad is — ”
Buddy fires the gun. The man drops. The boy drops, and all the things in his arms scatter.
Buddy turns, in shock. On the mostly abandoned road happens to be one car. It pulls over. A man and his wife get out. She is dialing on the phone. Buddy can’t hear what they are screaming at him over the ringing in his ears.
Originally published at https://www.tumblr.com on January 16, 2020.