by Elena Santangelo



West Texas — Friday, December 21

We were both mega-cranky by the end of the first week.
    Vacationing with my twin sister before I moved back in with her, after six years of being estranged, had seemed like a great idea. As psychologists, both of us saw the benefits: time spent together, getting reacquainted before having to decide how we'd split up household chores and expenses. Time spent away from any geography, person, or object that either of us could label "territory." No work, no deadlines, no responsibilities other than keeping the car gassed up and finding our pre-reserved motels each night. The perfect therapy for a dysfunctional relationship, especially since, after our last visit two months earlier, we both needed a vacation.
    Suffice to say that our October encounter began with Sara finding a corpse in the Psychology Lab of Landis College where she taught, and didn't end until both of us had at least one near-death experience. At age twenty-seven, neither of us yet had the life skills to handle that kind of stress gracefully.
    What we needed was your basic restful winter vacation: sea, sand, buff guys in Speedos.   That was out of the budget, with both of us still paying off car and school loans.
    Instead, Sara had flown out to Tucson and helped me pack my few possessions (mostly books) into a small U-Haul trailer. We were now towing it cross-country back to Pennsylvania, sightseeing en route. In the first four days, we'd clocked over a thousand miles, stopping at more than a dozen attractions, hiking miles of National Park and Forest trails.
    At this pace, we'd probably collapse before crossing the Mississippi, yet every time the possibility arose of skipping a site—like the Space Center in Alamogordo, New Mexico after we'd spent more time than expected in White Sands—we talked each other out of it. Who knew when we'd get out West again?
    Still, I'd been mindful of Sara's health. Her aforementioned brush with death had involved carbon monoxide. She'd assured me her lungs were totally recovered, but I figured she couldn't be back in top form yet, so I picked fairly level trails, discouraged her yen to climb every mesa in sight, and paused to rest often.
    Not that I ever let on we were resting. "Get a photo of that view," I'd say, or "Look at this cactus." If I was too obvious, Sara would stubbornly overexert herself to prove she was all right. Even if she'd just come from Olympic marathon training, I'd have gone easy. I knew firsthand the pitfalls desert hiking held for the novice.
    So physical exhaustion could account for some of our ill temper that morning. Another chunk I chalked up to the sheer strain of trying to be nice to each other. Sara and I kept tiptoeing around disagreements, each of us politely yielding travel decisions to the other. I thought I'd scream if I heard either of us say some version of "Whatever you want is fine" one more time.
    The bulk of our crankiness, I was certain, came from a lack of uninterrupted sleep. During our first night sharing a motel room, I found out about my sister's nightmares.
    She had at least one a night, more often two. Sometimes she'd cry out, but mostly she pleaded "no" or "please" or "don't" over and over, pathetic enough that my gut would tie up in knots simply from feeling helpless. Twice I came close to waking her out of the dreams, but I didn't. Didn't even tell her I'd heard them. I could spare her that embarrassment. So when the terrors at last woke her, which they always did, I'd pretend to be sleeping.
    "Hey, look at the windmills," Sara said, startling me out of my thoughts. I got the feeling she meant to.
    We were two hours east of El Paso. She was driving—good thing, because my mind sure wasn't on the road. "Delaware Mountain Wind Farm," I said, having read up on our destinations and other stuff along the way before we left. "Thirty-eight turbines."
    "They look like giant seagulls. How could anyone object to anything that graceful?"
I agreed, but stated the other side of the argument. "People don't like the noise."
    "So? No one lives near them out here," Sara argued back at me. "Or is that what these empty buildings are? Did everyone leave because of the windmills?"
    "Town of Salt Flat." As we passed the stone and adobe ruins, I absently recited what I knew about the place. "Boom town when mining mineral salts was big. Most of the residents left in the 1980s or 90s. Cafe's the only thing open, I think."
    "You won't be quizzed on it." Her tone was definitely grumpy as she breezed by said cafe. Too late, I found myself wishing for a cup of tea.
    We were crossing the stark white plain that gave the town its name when Sara snarled,    
    "You've been staring at me for the last ten miles. Could you please stop?"
I hadn't realized I was doing it. I'd been mulling over my sister's nightmares, wondering what kind of inner conflict made her subconscious generate them. Leftover trauma from October? That was the easy answer. Yet here I was, moving back home after five years of total silence between us. Before that, during our last semester of college and the summer that followed, we'd made life absolute hell for each other. At the end of this road trip, we'd live under the same roof again and teach in the same college psych department. If Sara was half as apprehensive about the future as I was, no wonder she was having nightmares.
Time for a non-threatening subject. "I was noticing how much you like driving my car."
    A noncommittal shrug on one shoulder. "Never drove a Jeep before. New experience."
    "You can have it. The MPG stinks." Used Wrangler hardtop, not the worst of the SUVs, but I'd never gotten over eighteen miles per gallon.
    Sara's tight brow relaxed. "Now you sound like Genuveffa Ziegler, the environmental fanatic I grew up with. I thought you'd be driving a hybrid. Or an old VW with a solar panel on top."
    I felt my stomach muscles unwind. Her use of my full first name (which she knew I loathed) meant she was teasing. Conflict averted. "I intend to buy a hybrid or an electric car as soon as I pay off my grad school loan. This was the cheapest thing I could find in a four-wheel-drive, which I needed for backpacking. Some of the access roads are all dirt."
    She sped up to pass a panel truck. "That's another thing I can't picture: you backpacking. The camping part, I mean. You used to be a total wuss about the dark. Who'd you go with? A group from the university?"
    "No. Just by myself."
    "Alone? Out in the desert?" Sara sounded horrified.
    I felt my face redden as I recalled my naivete in taking up the hobby. Like I said, I learned the pitfalls of desert hiking firsthand. But I'd worked out a lot of demons on those weekends under the stars. To my sister, I said, "Don't be silly. You're never alone in the desert, what with rattlesnakes, lizards, mountain lions—"
    "This feels weird, you being such a stranger. Two months back, I find out you're a forensic psychologist, of all things—"
    I didn't want to be reminded of that at the moment. Until eight days ago, I'd been a part time criminal profiler with the Tucson Police, a job I loved. I'd only helped them with a handful of cases so far, but with each case I felt more sure of myself.
    Now I was headed for Mount Ebal, Pennsylvania, in rural Ekron Township, with a full staff of ten on their police payroll. Consultants weren't in the budget. Career suicide.
You're going home, I told myself. As much as I'd loved that job, I'd hated Tucson, simply because it wasn't home. I'd made the right choice. Right?
    "—then you tell me you're an avid backpacker," Sara was saying. "What's next? Do you practice witchcraft? Sell car insurance?"
    "You've come up with a few surprises yourself, sis. Like your research. You must be one of the only psychologists in the world still trying to make sense of dream content—"
    "So you think it's a waste of time, like everyone else?" she snapped.
    "I didn't say that." Truth was, I thought it took guts to go against the scientific establishment. Maybe I should have voiced the opinion, but her grumps brought out my own and, as usual, made me clam up.
    After a long, awkward silence, Sara changed the subject. "Are they the Guadalupe Mountains up ahead? Look how white they are."
    "That's them. The big promontory is called El Capitan. The tallest one is Guadalupe Peak." Because of her earlier snide remark about not being quizzed, I said no more aloud, but from my pre-trip reading, I knew these mountains were part of an ancient tropical reef. The skeletons of teensy marine animals made up its straight white cliffs. A contrasting layer of black limestone at their base was created by organic matter sinking through the ocean that covered Texas hundreds of millions of years ago.
    Yet none of what I'd read explained what chance of nature had set this ridge just so, to create such beauty, that the sight of them now could make me feel...What? Not analytic, that was for sure. But here and on my backpacking trips, that undefinable feeling was something spiritual I'd never found elsewhere.
    "Sara, you believe in God, don't you? I mean, you still go to church, so....I guess what I'm asking is, how do you believe in God? What do you think God is?"
    She was quiet so long, I turned toward her. Her frown was back and now her reply was downright irritable. "Can we talk about something else?"
    "What's wrong now?"
    "I just don't feel like having my most private thoughts doused with cold logic today."
    "But that's not—"
    "How much farther do we go on this road?"
    I made a mental note to avoid conversations about religion for the rest of the trip. Maybe for the rest of our lives. Though, she probably simply resented having to spend Christmas with me on the road, instead of back home, with a tree and decorations, holiday movies every night on TV, and caroling at the local hospital with folks from church.
    The map was open on my lap. I did a quick estimate. "Fifteen, twenty miles, I think. Want me to drive for awhile?"
    More silent minutes ticked by as the mountains grew before us. Then, miraculously, I spied a "Food and Fuel" sign. Next right, two miles in. She needed a break, whether she'd admit it or not. "Mind if we stop, Sara? I could use some caffeine."
    "If you want." Back to polite surrender.
    The turnoff road, which had been paved at one time, was now a convincing argument for obstacle courses on driver training tests. Sara did her best to dodge the potholes, though the trailer caught two of them, jerking the Jeep each time. She negotiated the grid of a cattle gate and crossed a rickety-looking bridge over a gully.
    "Looks like a little hamlet up there." I pointed to the mesa of red rock ahead. The roof and belfry of a Spanish style church was visible on top of the plateau. Houses were nestled into the hillside.
    "If this road's any indication," Sara said, "it must be another ghost town."
    We came to a weather-worn sign sporting a dozen bullet holes. "'Espera'," I read aloud.    
    ""Population: 53. Speed Limit: 25.'"
    "Twenty-five? They must be joking. I've been going fifteen." She stopped the car. "Get a picture of the sign."
    The camera bag was open at my feet for just such a photo-op. Sara got off the plane last Saturday with the bag on her shoulder. I figured a gadget-guru like her would own the latest in high-tech cameras. Instead, she'd brought along our father's old Canon single lens reflex. Something about it made me feel like he was on this trip with us. As I lifted his camera, my foul mood melted.
    Lowering the window, a stiff gust of cold, brisk air blew right in my face. "Ooh. Chilly up here in the mountains."
    My twin agreed. "We were spoiled by that seventy degree high in El Paso yesterday."
I clicked the shutter and rolled the window back up. "Can't be more than fifty here."
    "Get used to it. Back home we had a high of forty-two the day I left."
I put the camera back in the bag. "Want to get it on your cell, too? You could post it on Facebook."
    She shook her head. "I'm on vacation. No email or social networks 'til I get home."
This wasn't the Sara I knew. Back in college, she was the life of the online party. She could text three, four people at a time, sending photos in between. Yet, so far on this trip, I'd only seen her take her phone out to look up directions or check the weather forecast.
My sister drove on, repeating, "Espera," this time rolling the "R" in reckless enjoyment. "I like the way it feels on my tongue."
    "Your accent's not bad for someone who took French in high school and German in college."
    "You had Spanish. What's it mean?"
    "Espera? It's a verb. 'To hope' or 'expect,' I think."
    We passed a campground on our right, separated from the road by a four-foot-high adobe wall, with a backdrop of steep terra cotta hills behind it. Sara read the hand painted sign at the entrance. "'Campground closed until December 26th.'"
    "Maybe all fifty-three residents leave town for Christmas."
    "No, I saw people in there."
    The road curved around towards the mountains, until it ran parallel to the cliff, now perhaps forty yards away. A gas station with two antique pumps and a modern Coke machine was cradled in the curve and beyond that was a larger building. The only car in the dirt lot was a white SUV, the biggest model GMC makes. On its door a circular emblem with a picture of El Capitan in the middle. In front of the building was a sign boasting the same emblem and

Public Restrooms in Rear
Obtain Key Inside

    Sara pulled in beside the GMC. "Another photo. Center El Capitan behind the sign."
    I laughed as I got out, then snapped the picture. "That picture will make a statement. I'm just not sure what it is."
    The restrooms sounded like a good idea, so we went inside. A modern Formica counter ran almost the whole width of the room in front of us, but everything beyond that counter could easily have been a Hollywood set for a John Wayne movie. An empty jail cell took up one corner and, in the other, a gun cabinet on the wall made a backdrop for an old wooden desk. Only two things seemed out of place: a rusty file cabinet and a bulletin board which, though it did exhibit two wanted posters, held mostly lost-and-found notices and warnings to tourists about snakes.
    Instead of John Wayne sitting behind the desk, lazily polishing a pearl-handled six-shooter, a single uniformed cop was tapping a pen against her chin while she diligently read some kind of report. Of course, windows on all four sides of the room meant she would have seen our Jeep coming up the road. I wondered if she hadn't been working a crossword puzzle a moment earlier.
    The nameplate in front of her said, "H. Veleta, Chief of Police." She was intent on looking busy, probably fully prepared to ask us to wait until she finished what she was doing. One glance at us was too much for her, though, because she leaned back in her chair and gawked.
    "You're not seeing double," Sara said, irritated again.
The woman pushed back her chair and stood. She was only an inch or two taller than my own five-foot-two. Short dark hair framed a face clear of makeup. The face had character, etched not from prettiness, but from resolve. I put her in her mid-thirties. As she walked over to the counter, I detected a hint of a swagger.
    "I'm Chief Veleta. Howdy."
Of course, I thought, biting back a laugh. What else would a Texas law officer say?
Chief Veleta returned my grin, looking from Sara to me and back again. "Sorry I stared, but I never saw two people look so much alike before."
    Sara and I are identical, mirror-image twins. Even given that set of genetics, we've always looked more like clones than most twins. The eerie thing is, after six years apart, we've come to resemble each other all the more. Same haircut, for instance. And when I met Sara at the Tucson airport last week, we were wearing matching faux leather bomber jackets.
    Our main difference has to do with our hands. Sara's a southpaw, I'm a rightie. She has ten fingers, I have nine, the result of us sharing a pinkie finger and some soft tissue up to the elbow at birth. Most people don't pick up on those details until they've known us a while.
The chief rocked back on her heels. "Betcha hear that a lot."
    "Doesn't mean we're used to it," Sara said flatly.
    I quickly broke in. "We'd like the key to the restroom."
    "Figured as much." The chief reached under the counter. "Hardly anybody comes in to report a crime. Anyone does come in, they're usually lost."
    "We saw the food and fuel sign out on the highway," I continued. "I saw 'fuel' next door, but—"
    "Cafe's up on the hill. If you want breakfast, they'll only be serving it another quarter hour. Go left out here, then follow the paved road uphill to the right and around the first switchback. Isn't as tight as it looks, but feel free to leave your trailer down here if you want." Chief Veleta handed me a key attached to a long block of wood.
    We were barely outside and around the building when Sara said, "Don't you hate it when people treat us like mutants?"
    "Never bothered me."
    "You like being stared at?"
    "There are worse ways to get attention." I unlocked the restroom door. "Wonder why she keeps it locked. It's such a small town."
    "So she can check out strangers." A "duh" was implied in her tone. No doubt she was right.
    Less than fifteen minutes later, we were back in the car, sans U-Haul. I drove this time. The village was built on levels connected by a series of switchbacks, the road resembling a snake as it wound its way up the mountainside. A footpath of stone steps and gravel went straight up the center, but was so steep, I couldn't believe anyone used it.
    The second level was the business district. A large log structure came first, Espera Trading Post in faded letters on a sign perched on the porch roof. Smaller letters below it read: "Grocery, Pharmacy, Pawn Shop." The next building was a stainless steel diner called The El Capitan Cafe. I pulled into a space out front between two pickup trucks. Up the road, I spied a hardware store, leather shop, a store with outdoor clothes and equipment called Camper's Cavern, and a bar named The Empty Canteen.
    The police department and gas station had faced in toward the cliff, but all the structures on this level faced the valley to the northwest. All had a perfect view of El Capitan and the Guadalupe Mountains beyond. Maybe the view was the incentive for living in such a dry, inhospitable place.
    Sara slung the camera bag onto her shoulder and shut the car door. "Can't get much business way out here."
    I agreed. "That's why they only serve breakfast 'til ten."
We were wrong. Only two booths were vacant, the rest filled by mostly older men. Locals, I decided, because they all seemed to know each other. One very harried waitress served the lot of them and everyone called her Kate. She mumbled a hasty "Be right with you," as she flew by our table.
    As usual, Sara and I attracted interest. Removing my sunglasses, I met the stares with a candid grin. Most of the faces broke into warm smiles. I glanced back at my sister. Eyes closed, she was rubbing her forehead, looking so much in pain, I was alarmed.
    "Headache?" I asked, already knowing the answer.
    Sara opened her eyes and lowered her hand. "I'm okay. Cold air on my sinuses, I guess."
    I picked up her sunglasses from the table where she'd set them, holding them up toward the window. "Maybe it's from the glare. Your shades aren't as dark as mine."
    "Whatever." Her gaze roamed around the diner as if trying to escape the conversation. She focused on something behind my back, above the counter. "Look at that clock."
I swung around. A metal clock on the wall read two minutes to eleven.
    The waitress abruptly appeared at our table. Now that she was standing still, I could see she was fortyish. Her straight black hair was tied back in a bun with a silver and turquoise clasp, but one lock had worked free. She brushed it away from her black eyes and flipped to a new page of her tablet. "What can I get you? The pancake batter's all gone, but we've still got eggs."
    "Coffee," Sara replied tersely.
    "Hot tea," I said, "and one of those chocolate muffins under the cover on the counter. Are you on Central Time here?"
    The woman scribbled our order as she spoke, "Line's just outside of town. If you're taking Route 54 south, reset your watches. Otherwise, heading west to El Paso or north toward New Mexico, you'll stay on Mountain Time." She hurried back behind the counter.
    The door opened and a boyish-looking young man with a thick crop of brown hair entered. "So this is where you're all hiding." He unzipped his jacket, revealing a clerical collar that seemed out of place with his black jeans and work boots.
    "Keep your shirt on, Padre," said an older man seated at the next booth. "If you work us today like you did last year, we'll need all the strength we can get."
    "Yeah," another agreed good-naturedly. "We're building up our reserves so we'll have energy left for the procession."
    The priest chuckled. "I haven't come to bully you, just to get refreshments for those of us who've been hard at work all morning. Eight coffees, Kate, and a large root beer for Eddie."
    "Let's go, Fred," the first man said to his companion. "The padre's shamed me into repentance again." They stood up, tossed some money on the counter by the cash register and left. A few of the other patrons followed suit.
    "Coming to give us a hand this year, Ted?" the priest asked a fit-looking, middle-aged blond man in a Park Service uniform who was sitting at the counter. "We could use your strong back."
    "Maybe later this afternoon, Father. Need to put in a few hours at the park first."
The waitress spilled the coffee she was pouring, crying out as the hot liquid splashed on her fingers.
    "Here, Kate, let me do that." The priest went behind the counter and took the coffee pot.    
"Take care of your other customers."
    Kate brought our order, apologizing for the delay. "It's not usually like this." She quickly tallied our bill and returned to the counter.
    I pushed my plate to mid-table, cut the muffin in half, and gestured to Sara to help herself. She ignored me, opting to watch the people at the counter as she sipped her coffee. In the time it took us to finish, all the remaining customers except the man called Ted left, the last two helping the clergyman carry his drinks outside.
    "I'll save the other half muffin for you for later," I said after downing my final mouthful of tea.
    "Save it for yourself." She took out her wallet, reaching for the bill.
    "You didn't finish your coffee. That bad?"
    "No...I'm anxious to get going. We have a lot to see today."
    I wrapped the half muffin in my napkin and shoved it into my jacket pocket. "Let's check that camping store first. Get you a hat that'll keep your head warm and shade your eyes." I threw some bills on the table as we stood.
    "That's a pretty big tip."
    "The waitress is having a bad day."
    We walked to Camper's Cavern from the diner. The store had a limited selection, warm knit caps and big cowboy hats. The woman behind the counter suggested the trading post.
The trading post had almost everything anyone could want. While primarily a grocery store, it obviously catered to tourists. The shelves and displays at the front of the store were covered with postcards, T-shirts, and camping necessities like sunblock and batteries. Three piles of hats were stacked by the front counter. An older woman sat behind it, engrossed in a tattered Barbara Michaels paperback. She looked up from the book long enough to smile and say "Good morning."
    Two boys had entered the store behind us. One was very small and dark, the other a husky adolescent with blond hair. The tot ran off to explore as the older boy sauntered up to the counter.
    "Hi, Craig." The woman replaced her bookmark. "No school?"
    "I have off so I can help with the fiesta," said the boy sullenly, "except I have to babysit Felipe instead. Mom told me to pick up her order."
    "I put some lean pork loins aside for her. Come on." The woman slid off her stool and made her way toward the back of the store, the boy in her wake.
    I surveyed the mounds of hats. "What do you think, Sara?"
    "I hate hats," she said obstinately.
    "At least try on a few. Here." I plopped a white denim model on her head. "Now you look like a riverboat gambler."
    Sara adjusted it indifferently with two fingers, gazing into the low mirror on the counter.  "No. Pass me that brown one." She set the camera bag on the floor to free both her hands.
She tried on three more, her impatience growing, seeming out of proportion to the task.
    "Do you still have a headache?" I asked.
    "I'm fine." She snatched a tan straw hat from the counter. "I'll get this one."
    "No, the straw's too loose a weave to block the sun." I took it from her head. "Tell me what's wrong."
    The woman returned, the boy behind her, carrying a shopping bag with "Burton" written in bold letters on the side. I knew, with them there, Sara wouldn't tell me anything.
She selected a navy baseball cap, saying "This'll do," reaching into her jeans pocket for her wallet.
    The blond-haired boy finished paying for his order. "Felipe," he called loudly. "Get your backside up here in the next five seconds or I'm leaving without you."
    "Gen," Sara said, looking around her feet, puzzled. "Dad's's gone."
I looked at the empty spot on the floor where the camera bag had rested a moment before, my gut constricting, feeling a little like I'd lost my father all over again.
    "Felipe!" the boy called angrily.
    My brain registered what my subconscious had seen two minutes earlier—the tot coming up the aisle toward us before I turned to take the straw hat from Sara's head. And now his brother couldn't find him. I bolted out of the store.
    Outside I saw no sign of the little boy. I glanced up at the stone stairs. Sure enough, Felipe had almost reached the next level, dragging the camera bag behind him as he used his other hand to help climb. I ran between the buildings, vaulting up the steep, uneven steps two at a time.
    "Gen!" I heard Sara calling from below, followed almost immediately by a "Felipe!" closer at hand. Behind me, Craig had also started up the stairs.
    I was winded when I reached the next level, knowing I couldn't do another flight like that. Felipe was now a mere thirty yards ahead, across the road. He led me between two houses, but I caught him around his waist as he reached the fifth step in the next flight. As I lifted him down, he kicked wildly, connecting with my thighs more than once.
    "Let go of him!" Craig yelled, grabbing me by the arm. "Don't hurt him!"
    "I'm not—" I froze, another voice startling me—the voice of Sara calling my name, inside my head. In my mind, I suddenly, clearly, saw my sister on her knees, clutching her chest.
    "Let go of him!" Craig repeated, trying to pry my arms off the boy.
I spun around, still holding Felipe, oblivious to his kicks. Sara's head appeared above the stairs, then the rest of her. But before she reached the road, she stumbled, desperately trying to get her breath. Sinking to her knees, her left hand rose to her chest, and her face contorted in bewilderment and fear.


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