Jack and Krista
Jack Berman wrapped his arms around his girlfriend, Krista Morales, and watched his breath fog in the cold desert air. Twenty minutes after midnight, fourteen miles south of Rancho Mirage in the otherwise impenetrable darkness of the Anza-Borrego Desert, Jack and Krista were lit in the harsh purple glare of the lights that blossomed from Danny Trehorn’s truck, Jack so much in love with this girl his heart beat with hers.
Trehorn gunned his engine.
“You guys comin’ or what?”
Krista snuggled deeper into Jack’s arms.
“Let’s stay a little longer. Just us. Not them. I want to tell you something.”
Jack called to his friend.
“Manana, dude. We’re gonna hang.”
“We roll early, bro. See you at nine.”
“See us at noon.”
“Pussy! We’ll wake your ass up!”
Trehorn dropped back into his truck, and spun a one-eighty back toward town, Ride of the Valkyries blaring on his sound system. Chuck Lautner and Deli Blake tucked Chuck’s ancient Land Cruiser in tight behind Trehorn, their headlamps flashing over Jack’s Mustang, which was parked up the old county road where the ground was more even. They had come out to show Krista a drug smuggler’s airplane that had crashed in 1972 because Krista wanted to see it.
Jack grew colder as their tail lights receded, and the desert grew darker. A thin crescent moon and cloudy star field gave them enough light to see, but little more.
Jack said, “Dark.”
She didn’t answer.
Jack said, “Cold.”
He snuggled closer, spooning into her back, both of them staring at nothing. Jack wondered what she was seeing.
Krista had been pensive all night even though she had pushed them to come, and now her wanting to tell him something felt ominous. Jack had the sick feeling she was pregnant or dumping him. Krista was two months from graduating summa cum laude at Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles, and had taken a job in D.C. Jack had dropped out of USC.
Jack nuzzled into her hair.
“Are we okay?”
She pushed away far enough to study him, then smiled.
“There have never been two people better than us. I am totally in love with you.”
“You had me worried.”
“Thanks for getting Danny to bring us out here. I don’t think he wanted to come.”
“It’s a long drive if you’ve seen it a million times. He stopped coming out here in high school.”
According to Trehorn, the twin-engine Cessna 310 had crashed while bringing in a load of coke at night during a sandstorm. A local drug dealer named Greek Cisneros cleared enough cactus and rocks to fashion a landing strip in the middle of the desert twenty miles outside Palm Springs, and used the airplane to bring cocaine and marijuana up from Mexico, almost always at night when the outline of the runway was marked by burning tubs of gasoline. On the night of the crash, the right wingtip hooked into the ground, the landing gear collapsed, and the left wing snapped off outside the left engine. Fuel pouring from the ruptured fuel tanks ignited, enveloping the airplane in flames. The engines and instruments had long ago been salvaged for parts, but the broken airframe remained where it died, rusting, corroded, and covered with generations of overlapping graffiti and spray-painted initials: LJ +DF, eat me, PSHS#1.
Krista took his hand, and tugged him toward the plane.
“Come with me. I want to show you something.”
“Can’t you tell me about it in the car? I’m cold.”
“No, not in the car. This is important.”
Jack followed her along the fuselage to the tail, wondering what she wanted to show him about this stupid airplane, but instead she led him onto the overgrown remains of the runway. She stared into the darkness that masked the desert. Her smart, black eyes shined like jewels filled with starlight. Jack touched her hair.
They had known each other for one year, two months, and sixteen days. They had been head-over-heels, crazy, there-and-back, inside-out, bottom-to-top in love for five months, three weeks, and eleven days. He hadn’t told her the truth about himself until after she declared her love. If he had secrets then, she had secrets now.
Krista took his hand in both of hers, giving him the serious, all-business eyes.
“This place is special to my family.”
Jack had no idea what she was talking about.
“A drug runner’s airstrip?”
“This place, right here between the mountains, it’s a place easily found by people coming from the south, for all the same reasons the drug dealers put their landing strip here. When my mother was seven, coyotes brought her up through the desert from the south. Mom and her sister and two cousins. A man with a hearse was waiting here at this airplane to drive them into town.”
Jack said, “No shit?”
Krista laughed, but her laugh was unsure.
“I never knew. She only told me a couple of weeks ago.”
“I don’t care.”
“Hey. I’m giving you momentous family history, and you don’t care?”
“I mean that she’s illegal-undocumented. Who gives a shit?”
Krista tipped back to look up at him, then suddenly grabbed his ears and kissed him.
“Undocumented, but you don’t have to go all PC.”
Krista’s mother had described a twelve-day trip on foot, in cars, and in a delivery truck where it got so hot that an old man died. The last leg of their journey had been in a covered pickup truck at night past the Salton Sea and across a sixteen-mile stretch of desert to the old crash site. The man with the hearse had driven them to a supermarket parking lot at the eastern edge of Coachella, where her uncle was waiting.
She looked south into the darkness as if she could see her mother’s footsteps.
“I wouldn’t be here if she hadn’t come through this place. She wouldn’t have met my dad. I wouldn’t have met you. I wouldn’t exist.”
Krista looked up, and her face was all summa-cum-laude focused.
“Can you imagine what her journey must have been like? I’m her kid, and I can’t even begin.”
She was starting to say more when Jack heard a far-off squeal. He stood taller, listening, but didn’t say anything until he heard it again.
“You hear it?”
Krista turned as the faint sound of a muffled engine reached them, and two lurching shapes appeared in the dim starlight. Jack studied them for a moment, and realized they were lightless trucks crawling toward them across the desert. Jack felt a stab of fear, and whispered frantically into her ear.
“This sucks, man. Let’s get out of here.”
“No, no, no-I want to see. Shh.”