There was no answer, and that sucked. It was time to go, leave the Valley behind and head up the mountain, start a new life amid the pines bristling from an island in the sky. Little bro had our money, and we wanted our dope so we could float up the Rim on a cloud of bliss.
My uncle didn’t panic as he put the receiver back in its chrome cradle. He was of the desert, although he wasn’t born there like me. He had grown up in the Valley when it was still wild around the edges, and the big burbs hadn’t yet bled into each other. Fishing in the canals and camping beneath mammoth Tamarisk trees. Running coon up the Verde. Roofing houses and drinking Budweiser with the kids of Okies who’d fled the Dust Bowl.
He knew about scorpions, calmly bent and plucked a paper cup out of the trash barrel and scooped the little arachnid into it just as I emerged from the restroom. Around us, darkness fell on South Mountain Park. He showed me the scorpion, circling the bottom of the cup, tail curled, looking for something to sting.
I decided to keep it.
The road down out of the park offered glimpses of city lights like scattered jewels. The thick sheets of Styrofoam insulation beneath the cheap paneling we’d spent the day lining the old van with squeaked as we trundled along. Long spiny fingers of ocotillo reached for us from the shoulders, waving in the breeze. Thick pads of prickly pear glowed in the headlights, furred with micro-thorns. Everything had flower buds growing on it, waiting for winter rains to nourish them into fattening and opening into an explosion of color.
Once we hit the grid, I watched strip-malls slide past the windows, seeing the deaths of orange groves. I wondered where my mom had gone, and missed my girlfriend, and hoped her parents didn’t hook her on the coke they freebased by the ounce each week.
But I knew it was too late.
Time to get the fuck out of Dodge.
Bud came through with the bud and we hit the road, heading for the high country and the acres of ground my uncle owned. I imagined myself riding into a cabin yard at sunset on the back of a palomino. A Zane Grey dream.
That night we camped in the van on my uncle's land. It was late and we were tired. The wind was blowing hard and had been since Payson. There was a dusty-wet smell in the air I didn’t recognize but liked. We parked next to a burn barrel and shut it down, squat junipers waving bluish fronds in the headlights. Rolled in multiple blankets we slept, the platform bunk we’d built from scrap lumber a sturdy perch, me trying to forget the way he sometimes touched me, the way I sometimes let him.
It occurred to me that I was the scorpion. Born in November and seeking the warmth of contact. The wind fell dead silent in the hours before dawn. The witching hours.
I woke to seven inches of fresh snow, fat flakes spinning out of a white sky like down, making a hard world soft. We built a fire in the barrel and roasted cheap hot dogs and heated cans of chili. The last of the money we’d earned doing day labor alongside homeless guys and winos.
It was Christmas Eve. I had just turned sixteen.
The scorpion died in the night, curled at the bottom of the cup. It couldn’t live in this new world, had fled the cold and the thin air a mile and a half above the sea. The warmth it had found was a lie.