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She turned from him and ran. Her shoulders itched and burned, rubbing against the fabric of her shirt. She didn’t turn back to see if the refugee was chasing her.
Her legs ached from running and she could feel the blisters throbbing on her scalp. She was slowly getting closer to the tree; it was hard to get a good stride going against the loose ground and around the brittle little bushes that grew here and there. Her breathing became steady and deep and she didn’t stop to rest once, not even when the sky paled and the stars faded. She saw the sun rising in the distance, distorting the horizon and making the landscape look somehow gelatinous.
Black birds covered the branches of the tree. Virginia stood at its base, momentarily stunned by their sheer number; hundreds it seemed, all oily black with beaks hooked like crows, but cooing at each other like doves. Their eyes, rolling in their sockets, looked like gray pearls.
Dangling from one of the branches was the frayed red strap from Karl’s camera. It looked like the birds had been pulling threads from it for their nests. She checked around the tree for the camera itself, but didn’t find it.
She climbed. The birds didn’t fly away, only inched over enough for her to grab hold of branches and plant her feet. On the highest, thinnest branch that would hold her weight, she turned on her cell phone. The blue bars that gauged satellite reception lit up. She dialed Scott’s number. She had no idea what time it was in California, whether he would answer the phone as it rang in the car on his way to the office, or if he would wake to it as it rang on his nightstand. Either way, she knew he would answer.
His voice made her sane. She was real.
“What happened to you? I told you to call me when you got there.”
“What’s been going on with you?”
“Oh, man, everything. Everybody in the state’s got a respiratory infection. Forest fires. I’m working sixty-hour weeks here.”
“You have to come and get me.”
“What do you mean? Where are you?”
Virginia heard a rustling and looked down. The refugee stood at the foot of the tree.
“I don’t know.”
“I can’t come get you if I don’t know where you are.”
“I love you.”
“Ginny, how the hell do you not know where you are?”
“They never told me. They didn’t send any translators, either. Which is just great, because now I don’t have anyone to feed to the refugees.”
“What do I do, then?”
“Call the embassy in Kenya. When I left Madrid, I remember they said Kenya. If you don’t have any luck there, try calling Karl Ratterman.” She paused to scroll through her saved contacts, then gave him Karl’s number.
“This is scaring me to death,” her brother sighed.
“You’ll find me.”
She heard Miles in the background, asking for something, but she couldn’t make out exactly what. The birds were moving toward her, cautiously, their little claws scratching lightly on the bark as they stepped in her direction.
“Okay, Ginny, I love you. We’ll be coming for you. Hang in there.”
“I’ll see you soon,” she said, but her phone dropped the call before she could get the words out of her mouth.
She took a long drink from her water jug. The refugee was staring up at her, so she stayed in the tree. The sun was already hot, making her clothes stick to her raw skin. Her blisters were getting tighter, the yellow liquid beneath their surface beginning to seep as her body warmed. Scott made her feel real, but she did not feel better—the real Virginia was in a tree, far from home, sun-poisoned, dehydrated, and surrounded by scavenger birds. Scott’s voice had not affirmed that she would be delivered by talking to the right people; it only forced her to consider the fact that the desert might kill her before she even knew why she was here.
She felt the branch beneath her tremble and looked down to see the refugee as he began to climb. With steady motions, he gripped one knot with his hand, another with his curled foot. His eyes were fixed on her. As he ascended, she could hear his soft exhalations. The sound surprised and relieved her, and she found herself smiling.
He climbed until he shared the limb with her and the birds. Virginia wondered how long he had been at the camp, and it suddenly occurred to her that the other refugees might not be his relations, but just the bodies that surrounded him. His family might be somewhere else, alone, wishing he would return. Or maybe they were dead, and had spent their last seconds of life remembering him and a moment when they were all together, playing a game or passing warm plates from hand to hand.
“Where do you come from?” she asked.
He made a noise. She wasn’t sure if it was a word. Then his fingers were touching her hand. He pulled her, insisting she move, come with him. His skin was rough, his fingers heavy and intrusive, but she was glad to have him there. Tears stung the corners of her eyes.
One of the birds hopped up on her foot, turning his pearly eye toward her. The refugee waved the bird away, but Virginia was not afraid of it. It had warmth, a benevolent quality usually only associated with mammals. The birds were becoming brave, climbing on their legs and shoulders. The refugee brushed them away, his strokes becoming increasingly more desperate and violent. He put his long arms around her and tried to pick her up, but he was too weak. She felt the thin ropes of his muscles flexing and releasing, but his body had been nourishing itself with the meat of these muscles for many months, and her body was too heavy and cumbersome for him to lift.
When he gave up, Virginia squeezed his hand. The translator had never come, and she had no words that he could comprehend. She could not tell him that she wasn’t able to move, that she was too hot and tired and in too much pain. She could not tell him that she understood that he wanted to take her back to the camp to keep her safe, and that she was grateful for his help. She could not tell him what she really wanted to tell him, which was what her father smelled like, and what the arc of her mother’s back looked like, and how it felt to camp with her brother and peel charred shells off toasted marshmallows.
He let her touch his hand, though, and stared at her with a sad frustration—perhaps he knew the things she wished to say. He stayed with her for a long time, until the birds became restless between them, shifting and pecking, and she had to release his hand. The sound of his feet hitting the sand as he ran back to camp was nearly buried beneath the rustling of the birds, cooing curiously and softly flapping their wings.