(From Chicken Coop and Other Stories, previously featured on The Penmen Review)
The water was cool as it sloshed between Gilbert’s toes.
“Okay, I’m ready”, Maria shouted as she smoothed the hem of her San Dimas High School Drama Club t-shirt over her jeans. A nearby mallard tried to eat a floating grocery bag, what El Pasoans called a “Texas Jellyfish”, despite Gilbert’s attempts to lure it closer with popcorn. Gilbert sat on a rock and put his blue and orange sneakers back on.
“Thanks for turning around like a gentleman so I could pee, Gilbert”, Maria said. His shoes smacked and slurped on the muddy bank as he plodded back toward her.
“Of course, M’Lady,” he said with a flourish and a half bow.
“Ew, don’t do that. I ain’t no one’s lady, and that’s what creepy internet dudes do.”
“Heh heh, I know, I was just playing,” Gilbert mumbled, blushing. Gilbert was not playing. He thought “M’lady” was muy suavecito.
Gilbert was glad to have soaked his feet, blistered by his running regimen undertaken three weeks prior, as part of a semi-secret self-improvement course he set himself to for the summer before Senior year at San Dimas.
“Like another mile, then I guess we’ll turn back,” Gilbert said.
“We should have ridden our bikes,” Maria said.
“Totally. If we come back, we will.”
The path glinted in the noonday sun, and they kicked up a trailing plume of dust as they trundled toward the cave to which Gilbert’s Abuela had sent them. Maria walked light but sure, like an antelope, often called Speed Goats in regional vernacular. Gilbert slouched and stomped, like something that scared away antelope. Maria retrieved her phone from the pocket of her Cowgirl Up! brocaded jeans, and shaded the screen with her hand to check the battery level. She smiled and nodded.
“I’m at 67%, so I’m going to save the location in my phone when we get to the cave,” Maria said.
“Good idea. Oh dang! Check it out!” Gilbert exclaimed, pointing at a shopping cart nestled against a pecan tree. Certain he had stumbled upon a deus ex machina boon to help his hero’s journey, he adjusted his glasses with his thumb and forefinger on the side of the lens. He thought the maneuver was more sophisticated than using one finger to shove the glasses up the bridge of his nose.
“It’s a H.E.B. buggy, they got the best buggies,” Maria said.
“Yeah, they’re real good. Do you want me to push you in it?”
“Um, no, but maybe let’s, like, put our backpacks in it.”
Maria was ever practical, which developed early for her as the oldest of three, born of a mother who functioned as if she were single since Maria was small. She had put herself through nursing school while Maria helped with her sisters, both still in diapers.
Gilbert placed his backpack in the cart, then held his hand out for Maria’s. She passed it to him with a “Thank you,” and he put it on top of his backpack with great care. Gilbert pushed the cart. Invisible cicada roared as the cart clattered down the path. Maria giggled.
“What? What is it?” Gilbert asked, familiar with being the object of ridicule.
“Heh, it’s nothing”, Maria said.
“Come on, forreals, what is it?” Gilbert pleaded. He was unable to conceal the anxiety in his voice, which cracked through “is”, rendering it a two-syllable word.
“Your backpack sweat stain looks like the Spiderman logo. It’s kind of cool”.
“Aw, man!” Gilbert huffed, pulling the shoulder of this t-shirt around to see it. “Huh. I guess that is kind of cool.”
“So, San Pedro cactus. I think Mr. Ballinger told us about those in botany. Did you have him last year?” Maria asked.
“Nah, I heard he was alright, but I had Ag instead of botany. I liked it ok. I couldn’t decide between 4H and FFA, and anime club disbanded, so I didn’t do either, so I could focus on being a mustache farmer” Gilbert explained with a smirk.
“I’d hardly call that a mustache,” Maria said, her words pricking with the barb of truth.
“Man, whatever, by the time summer is over, it’s gonna be muy macho, you gonna see it like DAMN,” Gilbert offered as a rejoinder.
“So this stuff from the cave will help your…quest?”
Gilbert stopped, and the shopping cart rattled and squeaked to a stop with him. “It’s not a quest. It’s a plan. Quests are lame. Quests involve wizards and shit. Please don’t make fun of me.”
“No, I’m not, Gilbert. I’m proud of you. You’ve lost weight, and you’re taking me on a real life adventure to get a psychedelic cactus your grandmother-who is a real-life witch-told you about. It’s kind of awesome, but it’s a bit much to take in.” Maria said.
“It does sound kinda crazy when you put it like that. And awesome. And Abuela’s not a witch, she’s a curandera.” Gilbert resumed pushing, a supermarket Sisyphus.
“Whatever, it’s still witchy,” shrugged Maria.
Gilbert’s stomach rumbled loud. “Shut up, you stay out of this! You ain’t the boss of me no more,” Gilbert scolded his belly.
“You’re funny, Gilbert, how come you’re not funny in school?” asked Maria.
“Most of what I think is funny is just weird to most people”, Gilbert said.
“Oh yeah, like what?”
“Batman with a Hitler mustache. Song parodies. Elaborate puns.”
“Yeah, most people don’t really like puns. At least you don’t make stupid dirty jokes all the time and call everyone gay like the other guys.”
“You’re funny, too. I remember in you wrote that sketch for theatre showcase about the guy who got both his thumbs stuck in mousetraps at the same time” Gilbert guffawed.
“Heh-oh yeah! That happened to my Tio Beto.”
“My Tio Yunior calls me Beto, sometimes, but mostly he calls me ‘fucker’”.
“Well, I think we’re almost there, fucker”, Maria said.
“Hah, yeah, gotta be getting close” Gilbert said.
“Remember when Colton Bostick called Idalou Maddox “Mama” in health class?” Maria asked.
“Yup, everyone called her ‘Mama Maddox’ forever. She liked it. Colton tried to make his perro bite me cuz I told everyone he got cut from Pop Warner for having lice, pero he got stung on the nose by a wasp.”
“Aww, poor puppy,” Maria pouted.
“No, not the dog, Colton.”
“What? No way!”
“Yeah, it got all big, and he was crying. Were you there when Seymour Nguyen, Brooks Calhoun, and Darius-“
“Hey! That’s my shopping cart, you little shits!” a voice bellowed behind them.
“Oh my God, Gilbert, there’s like a crazy old cabron! Let’s get out of here!” Maria huffed, breaking into a run.
Gilbert whiteknuckled the cart and ran, bent at the waist. Gravel and dust pinged off his glasses, but soon found its way into his eyes. Gilbert looked behind him. A middle-aged Caucasian man in an unbuttoned mossy oak camouflage jacket and tawny work pants stood in the path. He was carrying two orange hardware store buckets with marijuana plants growing out of them, each standing about four feet tall. He set them down and pulled out a machete from a holster at his side.
“I need my shopping cart, little dude!” the man snarled. “I’ll gut you like a catfish!”
Gilbert started to run again. The shopping cart swung side to side in loosely oscillating arcs as a crazy wheel lodged itself sideways, digging a furrow like a plow’s blade.
“Ditch the buggy!” Maria yelled.
“Imma get y’all! Making me run like this! This is some bullshit! Imma get y’all!” the man bellowed.
Gilbert stopped the cart, snagged his backpack, and threw it on. He put Maria’s on in front of his torso. His hands moved quickly as he squeezed the crisscrossed straps at his clavicles and began to run. He looked like a frantic, chubby turtle oozing out of its nylon shell.
“Dude! We didn’t know! I’m sorry, Mister! Leave us alone, please, Sir, we’re honor students!” Gilbert bleated during exhalations, remembering from his running lessons (a component to his training as a boxer with Tio Yunior) to breathe in and out as his left foot struck the ground to stabilize his organs and avoid getting side pains. He stood up straight and lean forward a little at the ankles, to spring of the balls of his feet instead of clip-clopping with flat feet like a Clydesdale. Gilbert could almost hear Tio Yunior’s barbed encouragements “Pick up the pace, chubs, ey! If you don’t give up, you can have chorizo at breakfast.” Gilbert was also not too afraid to forget his manners, having searched for the appropriate term of address for the crazed man with the machete chasing him toward a secret cave filled with magic drug cacti.
“C’mon Gilbert! I know a safe spot!” Maria shouted, from 50 feet ahead.
Gilbert’s packs rollicked and rustled as he ran through the red dirt. He couldn’t help but notice Maria’s bottom as she ran. He didn’t know what he liked about it, but he had a suspicion it was something special he’d soon better understand, probably by this time next year. Gilbert leaned forward as if a deckhand lashing sails in response to an unexpected Nor’easter. He lengthened his stride, closing the distance between himself and Maria. He was soon in speaking distance.
“Just around the bend. Follow me,” Maria said in a harsh whisper, so as not to apprise their pursuer of their plans. Rounding the corner, Gilbert saw still more dirt path, bordered by brush and mesquite. “This is it,” Maria said as she stopped and gestured at a stand of Carrizo cane.
“Forreal?” Gilbert panted.
“Yup. No time. Be quiet.”
She parted the cane and stepped through, the stalks resembling a mating of bamboo and corn- tall and thin, but with large leaves which pointed straight down. Maria was careful to not crunch the dried undergrowth. Gilbert followed.
They emerged on the other side, once again on the banks of the Shackleford reservoir. Maria peered at Gilbert, and raised a finger to her lips. Her hair smuggled hulls from the golden feathers of the seed pods. He plucked one out and presented it to her. She smiled.
“How do you know this place?” Gilbert asked, between deep but slower breaths. Running sucked, but had paid off.
“I used to fish here with my dad before he deployed.”
“Oh, Dang. I’m sorry.”
“Vámonos!” Maria commanded, grabbing Gilbert’s hand.
“Your dad left when we were in 2nd grade, right?”
“He brought you to my birthday party one time. He got blown up, but, like, he looks the same, right?”
“Yeah, but he’s not the same. He just watches Fox News and yells at the TV a lot. Can we talk about something else?” Maria’s voice was firm, and Gilbert knew this was non-negotiable.
“We ain’t gotta talk.”
Muted footfalls broke in over the wind rustling the cane and the lapping undulations of the water. A crane, primal and dinosaurlike, paused from stalking mosquito larvae to regard them. It turned its head so slow as to be almost unobservable. Gilbert had never mustered the patience the bird demonstrated in that moment.
“Hey! Little dudes!” rose a shout. The crane took flight. “I just needed my cart. No hard feelins, alright? I left y’all some weed! I’m taking my cart and leaving now.”
“Let’s keep going this way a little bit, then cut back to the path,” Gilbert said. Maria squeezed his hand.
“We shouldn’t get the weed, should we?” Maria asked. They stared at each other for a moment, and erupted into a peal of laughter.
“You are crazy. Okay. What would you have done if that guy was still coming for us, Gilbert?”, Maria asked, her clear eyes reflecting the shimmer of the sun on the water.
“I would have liberated his teeth from the tyranny of his gums.”
Maria laughed, snorting. Gilbert laughed. Somewhere a crane watched a battalion of ants march up an Acacia from a high bough. The Acacia tree is a plant found around the world, with approximately 20 subspecies native to Texas, and prized by the curanderas for its dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, a powerful psychoactive substance. Giraffes love the Acacia’s leaves. A large flock of Starlings approached, and in an instant reversed direction in one smooth movement, as if sharing a common, unquarrelsome mind. A quarter mile away, a man guided a shopping cart down a red path impregnated with stones, smiling at having a convenient means to transport his illicit cargo, orbited by dragonflies flying at right angles. Here with Gilbert and Maria, turtles sunned themselves on logs and silver-blue fish sploshed in the reservoir as a lifelong friendship was born.