The man across the desk was handsome in the way that young men could be without actually being attractive. That was one of the things Melissa had started to appreciate when she passed fifty; she could recognize the beauty of younger men without desiring them. So yes, the man was handsome. But tired-looking; he needed to shave. He leaned forward across the desk and smiled weakly at her.
“Melissa—it’s Melissa right? Great. I’m here with my two kids and we’re visiting my mother. We’re looking for things to do that’ll get us out of the house.”
Behind him, Melissa could see his daughters. They were sitting together on a bench, watching a movie on some device, their blond heads pressed together in an effort to see more of the screen. It had the odd effect of making them look conjoined. Above them, a sign read The Land of Enchantment! Tourism Agency is Here to Help. Melissa often wondered who had been in charge of the capitalization of the letters, but in her twelve years’ working at The Land of Enchantment! she had never asked.
“Well, if you’re interested in nature, we’ve got Bosque National Park, Dripping Springs, and, of course, White Sands National Monument.” As she spoke, Melissa pointed to the sign that hung above her desk that listed The Land of Enchantment! travel deals. “We can do a triple pass for all three, or—”
One of the girls had come up behind her father and was pulling on his arm, trying to get his attention. Unsure if she should continue, Melissa put on her best sales face and waited.
“No, I don’t think that’s quite what we’re looking for. My girls aren’t big nature lovers these days. What is it, honey?”
The girl leaned in close to her father’s ear and whispered something, her eyes glued to Melissa’s face. The self-consciousness Melissa always experienced around children was taking hold—that need to make them happy, to make them like her. She smiled and tried to look sympathetic, trustworthy even, but the girl turned away. She was probably six or seven, five years younger than Evan would have been.
“Okay, then tell her I said she needs to let you hold the iPad for half the time.” The man turned back to Melissa. “Sorry,” he said. “What were you saying?”
“I was just going to suggest some museums. The Farm and Ranch Museum is very popular.” The girl was still staring at Melissa. She wore much the same expression of thinly veiled impatience as her father.
“We’re really looking for something fun. You know, for the kids?”
Melissa smiled again, her cheeks burning. Did kids not enjoy museums?
She pulled a brochure from her desk drawer and slid it across the countertop. The Land of Enchantment! wasn’t thrilled about directing their clients toward the Indian reservations because they received no share of the profits from the attractions, but Melissa didn’t see what else she could offer this family.
“Here’s some information about the Apache Indian Reservation, there’s a casino resort there, it’s called Land of the Water Spirit. You can book a room, there’s a restaurant, a pool, TVs.”
The girl shrieked and ran off to tell her sister the good news.
“Cute kids,” Melissa said.
“Yeah. They’re a piece of work. You have any of your own?”
He glanced at her with what was almost curiosity, then looked away.
“Well, have a good day.”
Through the blinds of her window, Melissa watched as the family walked toward their car, the younger girl holding onto the man’s forearm, the older girl trailing behind. The man said something that made them both laugh.
It took Melissa a moment to realize that her manager, George, had walked past the other three information desks that lined the back wall of the room and had parked himself directly in front of her.
“Oh, hi, George.”
“How’d that go?”
“Land of the Water Spirit, they didn’t want the parks pass.”
George frowned. “Melissa. You’ve really got to start pushing the parks. They’re talking about taking down our billboard outside Dripping Springs if we don’t start selling more passes. ”
George sighed. He was the kind of man who would never feel comfortable reprimanding someone almost twenty years older than himself. He probably didn’t even care if the Land of Enchantment! billboard was removed from the Dripping Springs property. Like the rest of his employees, he harbored a hidden resentment toward the Land of Enchantment! advertisements that demonstrated exactly how happy one should look when visiting New Mexico for two days.
“Look, Melissa, today’s almost done. Why don’t you cut out a few minutes early? Get some rest, because tomorrow you’re really going to have to push the parks pass, and I’m going to hold you to that.” Melissa nodded and began to pack up her things.
“It’ll be fine,” George said.
“The parks. It’ll be fine. I don’t want to stress you out.”
“Oh,” Melissa said. “Thanks, George.”
Charlie was watching TV when she got home.
“Hey, hun!” he called when he heard the door open. “Did you grab us dinner?”
“Yeah, tacos from the food court.” Melissa put her bags down on the kitchen table. She could hear the muffled voices of the newscasters in the other room, comparing weather forecasts to statistics from the previous year. It was only the beginning of June, but temperatures were already consistently over one hundred degrees. The voices sounded close by, and Melissa shut her eyes, imagining for a moment that her house was filled with people all talking about the weather. The thought made her lips curve upward in what was almost a smile.
She walked into the living room and kissed the top of Charlie’s head. Gray peppered his temples, which, combined with the fact that he was always reading architecture magazines, had earned him the name of “the professor” at his construction company. He looked up at Melissa as she turned to walk back into the kitchen.
“Hey!” he said. “Get back here.” He patted the couch next to him. “I need time with my girl. Don’t go running away just yet.” He waved her over, and she wondered, not for the first time, what deep well he pulled his happiness from every day.
Melissa sat down, and Charlie dragged her legs across his lap. She tried to ignore the blue veins that pulsed up her legs as he massaged her calves.
“How was work?” he asked.
In the time that it took Melissa to decide if she had had any clients today worth telling him about, an ad break ended, and the newscasters reappeared on the screen. Images of helicopters kicking up clouds of white dust appeared in little boxes by their heads. Melissa motioned for Charlie to raise the volume.
“White Sands National Monument is a popular destination for tourists from around the globe. However, these great sand dunes can be extremely dangerous in the summer heat.” The camera zoomed in on a large sign on the wall of the visitors center instructing people to carry at least one gallon of water per person on hikes in the area.
“Late last night, the Otero County Sheriff issued an AMBER Alert in response to the disappearance of eleven-year-old Jackie Marshall, who was last seen on a class field trip at three p.m. that same day, half a mile from the visitors center. When the child was not recovered within the hour by park personnel, a search and rescue team was deployed to find the missing child. Her body was found at seven this morning, over a mile and a half from the visitors center. Officials say the cause of death was dehydration.”
Melissa muted the television.
“God, that’s awful.” Charlie said. “Do you think they’ll close the park?”
Melissa shrugged. She felt very suddenly that she wanted to be alone. She got up from the couch and busied herself in the kitchen. Tears burned behind her eyes. She listened and could still hear Charlie in the other room, the television volume turned up again. She dabbed at her eyes with a corner of her shirt. She had to pull herself together. She was crying over a child in a news story; what was wrong with her?
Charlie had come up behind her and was washing his hands in the sink. He reached around Melissa for a kitchen towel, and she turned to meet his body, sliding her arms under his and pressing her face into his chest. For a moment, she felt that same urge that she remembered from before their marriage, the feeling of needing him to be a part of her, needing him to fill up all the cracks that she saw in herself.
“I love you,” she whispered into his chest.
He chuckled at her sudden affection and pinched her butt before grabbing the towel behind her and sitting down at the table. He left Melissa standing alone, two empty plates in her hands and a profound sadness lodged in her chest that felt very much like heartbreak.
At work the next day, Melissa found a memo from George on her desk. Big energy today for Friday and the weekend crowd. White Sands open & running normally. Push the parks!!
Melissa sat down at her desk. The first customers were already trickling in, thumbing through postcards on the wire stand near the doorway.
The morning passed uneventfully. Melissa sold three park passes and one family pass and gave out only two fliers for Land of the Water Spirit. She took her lunch break at noon and walked next door to the food court. She eased off her shoes under the table and rolled her ankles, listening to her voice mailbox as she ate. There was one message; it was from her sister in Albuquerque asking if she had seen the news of the little girl’s death at White Sands.
“So terrible,” her sister said, her voice coming through the phone tinny and foreign. “What kind of teacher lets that happen? The mother should have seen it coming. It’s just terrible.” Melissa’s sister had three boys whom she was always driving to and from football practice. Her schedule was color-coded for each child, and Melissa had once heard her sister call one of her children by their color instead of their name.
Maybe the mother couldn’t control what happened, Melissa wanted to say into the phone. Maybe it wasn’t her fault.
Toward the end of the day, a woman with short gray hair walked into the office. She was wearing hiking boots and khaki shorts, and her skin was glowing with a new tan. Turquoise dangled from her ears. She looked around the room and made her way over to Melissa’s desk. She sat down in the client chair, and Melissa noticed that her eyes were startlingly green. The woman was beautiful.
“Hi, I’m Nancy,” the woman said, extending her hand. “Can you help me figure out where the best place is around here to go hiking?”
“Yes, well, I hope so.” Melissa shook the woman’s hand. She was suddenly aware of how drab she must look in her collared shirt, her thin hair pulled back into a bun and a Land of Enchantment! pin glinting on her breast pocket.
“How long are you in town for?”
“Well, that depends.” Nancy seemed to be counting in her head. “As few days as one and as many as forever.” She laughed at herself, the creases around her eyes folding in familiar lines. Seeing Melissa’s confusion, Nancy pointed out the window to her car. A dusty blue Subaru with Arizona plates sat in the lot outside, the trunk stuffed full of belongings.
“I’m on the road,” she said, clearly thrilled at the sound of her own words. “I mean, haven’t you ever just wanted to get up and go? My youngest kid moved out, and I didn’t want to wait a second longer. There are just so many beautiful places that I haven’t seen. But you know that, you’re the one who gets to talk about them all day. Sorry, I’m rambling, I’m just excited. What’ve you got for me?”
Melissa smiled politely, feeling like she had missed some key part of the story. She looked down at the map spread out on the desk between them and traced the sprawling lines with a finger, repeating the phrases that she had read in guidebooks. When she pointed to the section of the map that marked White Sands National Park, Nancy stopped her.
“I was just reading this morning about what happened to the girl. It’s so sad.” Her voice had dropped to a whisper, as if news of the child’s death were a secret known only to the two of them. “Do you know what happened?”
“No, I don’t.”
“I just keep imagining how that poor mother must feel, don’t you? The girl was on a school field trip.”
Melissa swallowed. The hollow feeling from the day before was expanding in her chest and rising toward her neck. She knew she had to respond, that it was her turn to say something, that if she didn’t, Nancy would notice her silence. Then she would leave without buying anything, which would disappoint George. Or worse, she would stay, and she would need an explanation from Melissa that Melissa didn’t have.
Melissa took a breath and tried to force words past the emptiness in her throat. But nothing happened. She was stuck.
“So which is your favorite place?” Nancy asked. She was looking down at the map and hadn’t noticed Melissa’s abrupt quiet. Melissa’s panic melted back into her rib cage. She had never actually been on the trails; Charlie didn’t understand the point of hiking, and Melissa never wanted to go alone. She pointed to a different part of the map.
“It’s on the Indian reservation, right behind the casino, actually. It’s this path here. Really more of a walk than a hike but it leads to this beautiful lake, here, Oculto Lake. It’s very quiet, very peaceful. Not many people know about it.”
“That sounds lovely,” Nancy said, and smiled. She bought two of the maps that Melissa recommended to her and was just about to get up and leave when she turned.
“You didn’t tell me your name.”
“Melissa. Thank you for your help.” Nancy looked at her, as if she were considering saying something else. Then she was gone.
Minutes after Nancy left, Melissa realized that she had forgotten to tell her which direction to turn out of the parking lot. And so she pressed her face to the window, searching for the trail of dust that would identify Nancy’s car as it raced off toward the mountains.
That night, Melissa went home and made love to Charlie. He held her like he was afraid she might come apart, pressing his palms into her lower back and burying his face in her neck. She let him pull at her body, closing her eyes and remembering the still surface of Oculto Lake, imagining the water sliding over them both in a cool sheet.
She hadn’t been to the lake in twelve years. The last time she was there, the day was hot. Melissa remembered that she and Charlie had stopped every few minutes for water, so Melissa could rest against the boulders on the side of the path. She had been released from the hospital a week before, where she was recovering from the birth of their son, Evan. Melissa remembered thinking how strange it was that her body had taken so long to recover from the delivery, as if her womb were mourning the departure of her child before it could return to its usual state.
Besides the walk, though, Melissa remembered little from the day except the numbers. She was forty-four. Charlie was forty-seven. Evan had come seven weeks early, and he had been five days old when he died, cocooned in the bed of tubes that were supposed to keep him alive. The jar that held his ashes was only a few pounds. Shaking his ashes out onto the water had taken six seconds. That last number stuck in her mind more densely than the others. Six seconds and he was gone.
She remembered wanting to quantify her grief, too, to point to a number and say, here, I loved you this much, I tried this hard, I did every single thing I could to save you. But she couldn’t. She could only say I love you, I tried, I’m sorry. Over and over, hoping that he could hear her, praying that he would believe her if he did. I love you, I tried, I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I love you, I tried.
So she drifted into sleep, into wakefulness, into sleep. In the weeks after Evan’s death, Charlie wandered around the house, banging on pots and turning the TV up too loud to make up for Melissa’s silence. Before Evan, he had always said that he couldn’t believe he was going to be a father. In a strange way, Evan’s death must have confirmed his expectations, and he was able to retreat back into the person he had been nine months earlier.
It wasn’t long before people stopped calling, and everyone, including Charlie, stopped saying Evan’s name. Continuing to grieve didn’t seem sanitary; the requisite time had passed.
When Charlie at last rolled off her and into sleep, Melissa lay still on her back, tears sliding silently down her cheeks and into her ears. The memory of the lake pressed down on her, heavy on her chest. She closed her eyes and dreamed of a little girl sleeping in the top of an hourglass. The white sand was shifting under her, falling in a steady stream into the chamber below, and the girl slept on, sinking lower and lower under the sand. Melissa wanted to call out to her, to shatter the glass and scoop her up before it was too late. But before she could move, the girl was falling, twirling in a layer of fine white crystals, and it was morning.
The next afternoon, Melissa packed a bag and told Charlie that she was going to visit her sister in Albuquerque. He offered to join her, but Melissa reminded him how much he hated long drives, and he agreed to let her go alone, content to spend a day reading about other people’s houses.
Melissa drove out of town, watching the landscape grow greener and more mountainous. Soon, the harsh reds and yellows of the land were replaced by darker, richer earth, and cacti grew into stunted spruce trees and cottonwoods.
Because it was a Saturday, the one-lane highway that stretched out to the east was busy, and Melissa could feel the traffic pick up when she crossed stretches of open land and slow when she drove through the towns that clustered along the road. She found herself peering into these tiny towns, which were all somehow the same: the single traffic light blinking a steady yellow, children kicking a soccer ball on a plot of land, a graying diner with teenagers smoking on the porch.
Melissa followed the voice of her GPS off the highway and onto a smaller side road. When she saw the wooden sign for Land of the Water Spirit strung out above a huge iron gate, she swung her car around and pulled into the nearest motel. The woman at the front desk looked at her suspiciously.
“Yes, just a single bed.”
“You know you have to pay if another person stays in the room.”
“There won’t be another person.”
“I’m just saying, if there is, you have to pay. Most people don’t gamble alone.”
“I’m not here to gamble.”
“Whatever you say.”
The room was small and sparsely furnished, but it had a bathroom and seemed clean enough. Melissa unpacked her bag, pulling on the shorts and sneakers and repacking the water bottle, the flashlight, the whistle. She sat on the edge of the bed and ate the sandwich she had made earlier in the day. She waited for it to get dark, listening as she did to the rhythm of conversation next door.
The trail to Oculto Lake had become more popular with tourists in the past few years, and Melissa knew that if she were going to have the courage to make this pilgrimage, she couldn’t risk seeing other people. She would have to do it at night, alone.
The sun had set. Melissa swung on her backpack and left the motel. She shivered as she walked past a series of tourist shops. Their windows displayed twirling dreamcatchers and plastic bows and arrows. Inside one of the shops, Melissa could see a little girl stroking the feathers of a pink headdress with her fingertips. Melissa crossed the street, thankful for the cover of darkness.
The gate of Land of the Water Spirit was a few hundred feet away from the tourist shops, and unlit. Melissa switched on her flashlight as she approached. Her heart sank when she came level with the sign. In the time that she had sat in the motel room, someone had barred the entrance to the resort. A young man in a dark uniform sat in a booth next to the gate. He came out when he saw Melissa’s light. Melissa felt her resolve drain away with his approach. She knew she would have to make a case for herself, and the thought made her nervous. What was she really doing here after all?
“Can I help you, ma’am?” he asked.
“Yes. I want to get through.”
“Can I ask why?”
“There’s a hike that I wanted to do. To Oculto Lake.”
“You know it’s dark out, right?”
“Yes, I wanted to go at night.”
“I like hiking at night.” The man looked more closely at her. He took in her sneakers and shorts. Melissa stood stiffly.
“Could be dangerous. I mean, it’s one thing for a guy to go running around the woods at night, but—”
“I know. Can I get through?” The impatience in her voice surprised her. The man snapped back to attention.
“Gates are closed for tonight, ma’am. Unless you have a visitor’s pass, but I’m assuming you don’t.” Melissa shook her head. She missed Charlie. He always knew what to say in these situations. The man walked back toward his booth.
“What time do the gates open in the morning?” Melissa called out after him.
“Seven,” he said over his shoulder. He put in a pair of headphones and sat in the booth, waiting for Melissa to leave. She stood there for a moment, gauging the size of the bars. She could probably slip through, but what would be the point? The security guard would catch her; she would just make a fool of herself. She could wait until the morning.
Melissa walked back toward the motel. She stopped at the window of one of the tourist shops. Her reflection swam among undulating layers of beads. She looked, even to herself, like a ghost.
As she stood there, a young woman appeared in the reflection next to her. Melissa turned, surprised. The young woman was wearing traditional Apache Indian dress; her body was draped in a fringed buckskin tunic, and her hair was parted down the middle in two long braids. Turquoise hung from her ears and was looped around her neck. She had picked the dark nail polish off her fingers until only jagged crescents remained.
“Have you ever gone on a spirit journey? No? Come with me. It’s only twenty bucks.” She walked away without smiling or waiting for Melissa to respond. Not wanting to be rude, Melissa followed her, jogging a little to catch up. Ahead, Melissa could see a teepee erected on a plot of land next to her motel. It had a raven printed on the canvas, and a sign leaned against the entrance that read:
Mescalero Apache Teepee
Pictures in Traditional Garb…………….$10
Spirit Journey Experience………….……$20
The woman was standing by the entrance, waiting. Embarrassed, Melissa approached her.
“Hi, thank you for the offer but I don’t think I’m interested in the spirit experience, I’m sorry. I’m just staying at the motel.”
The woman ignored her. “It’s only twenty bucks. Come.” She disappeared inside. Melissa considered, for a moment, the irony of her succumbing to a tourist trap. Then, she ducked her head and followed the woman into the tent.
The inside of the teepee was much larger than Melissa had expected. Beaded trinkets and wooden instruments littered the floor. A lamp hung from the open hole at the top of the teepee, and it swung when Melissa entered, giving the impression that everything inside was in motion.
The young woman sat on the far side of the teepee, on a bed of what looked like real fur. Melissa crouched near the door, not sure if she was supposed to take off her shoes.
“Sit down,” the woman said, motioning that Melissa should imitate her position. Melissa closed the tent flap and sat, her legs crossed, hands in her lap. Her knee cracked, and Melissa gave a nervous laugh. The woman hit play on an old boombox, and an echoey flute track filled the space.
The woman poured water from an electric tea kettle into a mug, which had a faded Land of the Water Spirit logo on the side. She handed it to Melissa.
“You’re not going to drink?” Melissa asked. The woman shook her head. “What is it?”
“Jungle tea, it’s the Spirit Journey Experience.” Melissa peered into her cup. It was a milky white color, and there were a few leaves floating at the surface. Realizing that the woman was watching her closely, she drank the whole thing, gagging slightly. It tasted like burnt, sour wine.
She put the mug back down between them and waited for the woman to begin the Experience. Her shadow loomed big on the back wall of the tent, and she busied herself arranging the instruments around her body, not looking at Melissa. Melissa watched her. She thought she recognized the woman’s features from the images of smiling Indians on the Land of the Water Spirit brochure, but it could’ve been a trick of the light or of her imagination.
The flute music seemed to be getting louder, swelling, and Melissa felt lightheaded. She wondered if she could lie down.
“Close your eyes.” The woman’s command surprised Melissa in its abruptness, and she obeyed, swaying in the sudden dark.
“Breathe deeply,” she said. “You have to let yourself come out of your body.”
Melissa tried to relax. Her whole body felt like it was filling up. The woman turned a rain stick, and Melissa shivered involuntarily.
“Now tell me,” the woman said, “what you are doing here.”
Melissa considered telling the woman that she hadn’t wanted to come into the tent, that the woman had practically forced her to enter, but she felt that would be rude.
“I’m trying to get to Oculto Lake, behind the casino.” She wondered if that was an acceptable answer. “But there was a security guard who wouldn’t let me through the gate. It’s okay though, I’ll probably just try again tomorrow.”
The woman didn’t say anything, but she turned the rain stick again. There was a fog settling in Melissa’s head. It made her thoughts slower, or maybe they were just lasting longer. It was hard to tell what the difference between those two things was. She had a sense that things were twisted and not where they were usually. She touched her feet to make sure they hadn’t disappeared.
“Tell me,” the woman said again, “what you are doing here.”
“I don’t…I was going to the lake.” The words sounded strange to Melissa, and she laughed out loud, and then quieted, afraid of the sound of her own voice. A distant thought was forming in her mind.
“It was my child. On the news. She was at the park, and she died, I saw it.”
The woman breathed in, sharply. Melissa opened her eyes. Everything was fuzzy and bright, like headlights in the rain. The woman was paying attention to her now, looking at her more closely.
It didn’t matter that Melissa had lied. It made her smile, feeling this woman’s sympathy wash over her. Here, at last, was someone who realized Melissa’s pain, understood how real, how fresh it all was. Charlie, her sister, they couldn’t understand. But this woman was different. This must be the Experience. Melissa closed her eyes again.
“I heard the news of your child, and I mourn for your loss. You are very wise to come to such a spiritual place. This land has an energy that most people don’t understand. The lake,” the woman’s voice sounded far away, “is special. It can heal you. Now, rise up. Rise up.” She began to chant, words or sounds that Melissa had never heard before. The rhythm made Melissa dizzier, but not entirely uncomfortable. A feeling of bright white was racing through her veins, making her heart beat faster. It was like she was swimming in the air above her body. She had never felt so light.
Melissa realized, then, that she was falling into the sky, air rushing past her and the earth receding away. For a moment, she panicked, tried to open her eyes, and saw the woman squinting at her from across the tent, then she was past it all, above the teepee, the tourist shops, the gate of the resort, flying on a great mass of undulating colors. She saw the lake below her, gray and hard-looking, and then she fell deep into it. She felt her heart beating too fast, and that scared her, but then it slowed, and everything around her was cool and dark and quiet.
She sat cross-legged under the water, her hair splayed out around her like a fan. She watched little fish swim up at the surface, lit from above and leaving little trails of silver behind them.
And then silver started reaching toward her, pulling her up like a magnet, and she was rising again, this time to the surface of the water, and then she broke free from it, and breathed, finally, the fresh air.
Floating in the center of the lake, Melissa watched herself fling the ashes into the wind. She counted the six seconds, again and again, as the ashes piled up on the shore and melted into the water, and the numbers became confused, and backwards. Eventually, the water became thick with it, and she felt herself being pulled underwater, again her arms pinned to her sides, her movements sluggish. In a panic she looked up at the sky and realized she was seated by the shore, Charlie next to her, a young girl on her other side. Melissa recognized the girl from her dream. They looked out over the water together.
“It’s okay,” her son said.
“What?” she asked. She hadn’t heard him.
“It’s fine. I’m fine.”
“Oh,” she said. Charlie pulled her legs across his lap, and she leaned into his chest. “I’m glad.”
Melissa awoke on top of the covers in her motel bed. Her head throbbed, and she rolled over, realizing immediately that she was going to be sick. She stumbled into the bathroom and vomited in the toilet. Tears welled in her eyes. She pulled herself up and hunched over the sink, breathing heavily, waiting for the nausea to pass.
She looked at herself in the mirror. The light was harsh, and the lines on her face were more pronounced than she remembered. Somehow, the time had passed without her noticing.
She washed out her mouth in the sink and stood. Charlie was waiting. It was time to go home.
Kea Edwards is a recent graduate from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in creative writing and gender, sexuality & women’s studies. While at Penn, she received recognition for her poetry and creative nonfiction. “Enchantment!” is her first fiction publication and is the title story for her thesis, a short story collection set in the area where her grandfather lives in New Mexico.
Read more from Cleaver Magazine’s Issue #14.