Desert

“I think I was a snake in my past life”.

His skin peeled. One layer after another, each more burnt than the last. The follicles fell to the ground like snowflakes. The only snowflakes he would ever see out in the reserve. Cathy sat on the edge of the bathtub, unamused, and now even more unsympathetic to his whelps of pain. When she began studying to become a nurse she had dreams of saving lives. Not skinning neglectful teenage boys.

“The thing about snakes is that they can sit in the sun for twelve hours without wearing sunscreen”.

“Snakes don’t even have hands. They wouldn’t be able to put sunscreen on in the first place. But thanks for reminding me and my ancestors of our hardships”.

Cathy rolled her eyes, glancing at the clock. She wondered how much longer she needed to do this before she could complain to her boss about having to get back home. She lived on the other side of the reserve and it wasn’t a short drive. Especially after this. He winced as she began to scrub his skin with lotion. His name was Jerry. Or Jeremy. Or Jacob. Everyone knew him but a lot of people didn’t like him. He was known for talking a lot, but about nothing in particular. He always had sand in his socks, which he flung around his house whenever he took them off inside. And he always wore a NASA jacket and a red baseball cap that had grown old with him. He was found, collapsed, on the floor of his bedroom, writhing in pain. No one had ever seen a body so badly burnt by the sun alone. It was comparable to a house fire victim. Doctors swarmed, curiously taking notes and asking questions as he soaked in lotion, but when they realised they weren’t going to get a straight answer they left. And she was stuck with the dirty work.

“How old are you?”

“Twenty-four.”

“No way. I wouldn’t have pegged you for a day over twenty-three. That makes you seven years older than me. You’re a doctor though so I bet you can work out how old I am.”

“I’m just an intern.”

Whilst the lotion soaked into his burns, she picked at her nails. Some of his skin was wedged underneath them and this thought made her feel a little queasy. Her name was Katherine with a ‘K’ but she got called Cathy with a ‘C’. It had been a while since anyone from the opposite sex had paid any attention to her. Or the same sex. Anyone really. Other than her forty-something year old boss who had a wife and a questionable attitude towards interns. She only owned one nice outfit, which she was yet to wear since she moved, and pyjamas. She moved to the reserve a year ago, running away from debt and family members. The only thing that was really keeping her there was her stubborn need to prove that she could survive on her own. But she missed home. She missed the little things. She missed the feeling of being surrounded by a bustling city. She missed getting goose bumps from a cold breeze. And she missed the feeling of not being sticky from sweat.

“I’m not just like any other sunburn case, you know. I may be an idiot but I know how to put on sunscreen”.

“Clearly.”

“I was out hunting the beast.”

“I should’ve pegged you for a Leichhardt fan.”

“You know Leichhardt?”

He winced as he watched her soak the bandages in the lotion, fearing the pain he would soon face. Freddie Leichhardt came to the reserve nearly a year ago, around about the same time as Cathy did. His pilot misread the directions and landed in the sandy plains. Quite literally. It disturbed all of the wildlife for months. Most of the details were lost, due to the pride of the township, as Leichhardt spoke of how glad he was to be here and to see such great people. Leichhardt was an explorer by trade, who had made many famous B-grade documentaries, the only kind that you could get out in the reserve. He lived in Hawaii with his wife and three children, but liked to say he was born in the wild, like the animals. He gave a speech to the township about how everything they do will be a challenge, but overcoming each challenge will make them the people they want to be. The challenge for the townsfolk of the reserve was to find the mythical beast that wandered its sandy plains. Since then, the hospital had an overwhelming number of sunburn and heat stroke victims busying the staff. They were usually men, between the age of eighteen and forty-five, who wanted to find this beast and gain the rest of the town and of Freddie Leichhardt. Cathy had a poster of Leichhardt hanging on her wall. One of his ‘lady orientated’ shots. He was wearing aviator glasses and a white shirt, just a size too small so you could see his muscles, and a charming faded smile. However, she would never admit it to anyone.

“You don’t think I’m that lame, do you?”

“Well, I’m going to find that beast. I can promise you that.”

“What makes you so sure about that?”

“It’s in my blood.”

“Well maybe you should worry more about what’s affecting your skin and less about your blood.”

Cathy, carefully, began to wrap the bandages around his body, his skin turning a vicious red when she did so. She saw his fingers cling for life on the edge of the bath. She heard his breathing become shallow, as he tried to fight through the pain. She had gone through this many times. Some men cried. Others swore at her and the lord and the sun and pretty much anything they could see or think of. Others pushed her away and smashed things in the room. She didn’t mind that though, because she knew that pain could make people do crazy things. But when she watched Jerry. Or Jeremy. Or Jacob. When she saw his darting, wide eyes. His bubbling skin. His need to be brave. The words came tumbling out of her mouth, in attempt to distract him from his pain.

“When I was younger all I wanted to do was move out to the reserve. The heat, the idea of being able to actually see the horizon, the isolation. Everything about it was attractive to me. I dreamed about owning a little white house with a balcony and deck chairs, which I could sit on and read a book and look out over the desert and imagine that it stretches on for miles.”

“What happened?”

“There were no white houses for sale.”

He snorted, followed by a sharp intake of air. The expanding of his skin when he laughed was a pain he was not quite ready for. Cathy tried to help as he gingerly stood himself up, now wrapped nearly from head to toe in bandages, and help him back onto the hospital bed. He stared forward in silence, with a pensive look on his face that she hadn’t seen before, but she assumed it was only mildly because of pain. She filled in the regulation form at the end of the bed, watching him out of the corner of her eye. It was only when she looked away for a moment that he spoke, catching her off guard.

“When I was ten or maybe twelve, my father drove me out to the middle of the reserve. He handed me a pair of binoculars, two water canisters and a map. With a beer in one hand he told me that everything I do would be a challenge, but overcoming each challenge will make me the person I want to be. He got back into the car and with a charming smile said, ‘See you back at home’ and left me there. ”

Cathy could imagine, a young skinny boy standing in the middle of the desert alone, wearing a NASA jacket and a red baseball cap. She could imagine him, watching, as his father, wearing aviator sunglasses and a white shirt, just tight enough so you could see muscles, waved goodbye from the window of his car. She finally began to understand why he was acting brave. She wondered if he had been acting brave since he was ten.

“What happened?”

“I somehow found my way back home. My mother was scared and confused and I never saw my father again. Ironically, the person I wanted to be was him. But I overcame that challenge. And I promise you I will overcome this one. I will find the beast. Skin or no skin.”

Cathy laughed. Not in the way that adults laugh when children tell them that they’re going to save the world one day. In the way that a friend laughs when you tell them you’re going to save the world some day. A laugh that can only mean, I know that, of course I know that, I’m just amazed that it took you this long to figure that out. His mother came running into the room, Cathy’s boss chasing after her. Mother embraced son and Cathy’s boss motioned for her to follow him out of the room, probably to ask if she needed a lift home and definitely not to congratulate her on her hard work today. His mother asked her all kinds of questions as she finished packing up the old dressings that he had worn previously to this event and swept up the skin follicles that had fallen onto the ground. Cathy was able to answer them in autopilot, nodding in all the right places until his mother was satisfied and she was able to sneak out of the room. She almost had both of her feet out of the door when she heard a voice calling her back. He sat up for a moment, in such a way that all she could see of him was his head and the beginnings of bandages.

“When I eventually find the beast and become rich and famous, I promise I’ll buy you that little white house. And the deck chairs too.”

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