Writing Contest Winner: The Desert Girl

Honorable Mention


March 1949

Las Cruces, New Mexico

The girl walked barefooted on the granulated rock and sand, and among the thickness of the mesquite and creosote brush that grew vastly wild in the desert. In the cool night, the full moon shone brightly and made it possible for the girl to negotiate her way around spiny cacti, over uneven terrain, and across dry arroyos. She heard a rustle in a nearby bush, but it didn’t frighten her. She wasn’t concerned about small creeping creatures with their painful bites and poisonous

stings, or the deadly fangs of rattlesnakes. Nor did she worry about the much larger nocturnal predators—the coyote, the bobcat, or the mountain lion—that stealthily stalk and attack their prey with relentless resolve and certain death. There was another type of predator, the worst kind, and at eighteen it was too late, the girl was already damaged.

She walked with the uncertainty of things once familiar and didn’t know why she was there, or where she was going, but she kept walking. Her feet ached terribly and she had no idea how she had lost her new pair of dress shoes. The only protection left on her feet were the silk nylon stockings she wore, now tattered and retracted up on her ankles. During moments of darkness when the moon hid behind thick, gray scudding clouds, the girl could not see and she walked into thorny flora that tore at her dress and legs and she stubbed her bare toes on protruding rocks and mesquite roots.

Her body steadily weakened. She went down to her knees many times from exhaustion and thirst, feeling she couldn’t go on, but she managed to raise herself each time and continue her unknown journey, it was necessary. The desert wanted her, she felt it. The girl understood its nature and its insatiable appetite that swallows all things which remain unmoved, like a motionless body of a young girl. Maybe I’m already dead, maybe this is hell, she thought.

Her subconscious was her only ally. It kept her senses alert and her body walking—numerous times—when her mind went dormant with dreams of crossing a desolate desert. Reality and dreams blended, and each time she awoke, the dreams were still there. She was still there, as if in a continuous sequence of threaded dreams from which she could not escape. Clarity and reason lacked, even in her state of consciousness. She pounded her right fist against her thigh. “I can’t wake up, and this feels too real!” she said, confused and frustrated. Her pain was real.

A cool northern breeze felt soothing against the swelling around her left eye and cut lip. Her left hip ached with every step she took, sending a burning sensation down to her thigh, and the left side of her head pounded with a throbbing ache. She rested and pressed her palm against her left temple and felt a warm viscous wetness on her face and in her dangling hair. She looked up at the bright stars and at the full moon as if searching for divine answers. How did all this happen? The girl noticed the silhouette of the Organ Mountains to her right, they looked familiar, and she continued.

Small flickering lights appeared before her in the distance, slightly above the horizon, and they danced about in the air—fireflies. She walked towards the lights, and she walked and walked, but couldn’t reach them. They seemed to keep moving ahead, as if beckoning her to follow them. Then, her mind went dark and the subconscious took over once again. Time pressed on. She returned to her dream-like state of consciousness, and the fireflies had stopped dancing, frozen in space, brighter than before, still flickering. She felt nauseous and fell to her knees with a heaving attack. Her stomach tightened, her upper body stiffened painfully, and her throat burned, but nothing came out. After a few wrenching moments, the heaving passed and she rolled down to one side, closed her eyes, and laid still on the cool sand. It felt good and she wanted to sleep, perhaps it was the only way to wake up.

The desert stood silent except for the chirping of crickets and her heavy breathing. Her mind spun with whirlwinds of confusing thoughts, but they slowly began to dissipate, and she soon started to envision exquisite women’s clothing, stylish shoes, négligés, and elegant fashion shows. Memory slowly began to fade in. The boutique! I design clothes . . . I’m going to be famous like Coco Chanel . . . open my own boutique . . . I remember! She smiled. That was her real dream in life. Her elation was only brief. In the reality of the moment, she understood her real dream and planned destiny were now quickly fading away. I’m going to die out here. The world will never know about me. I’ll be a nobody, a complete unknown, she thought. The girl cried and her tears fell from her face onto the sand and the desert swallowed them.

When the crying stopped, she pondered upon the notion of dying with an unfinished life, and her sadness turned into anger. “I can’t fall asleep! I’ll never wake up if I do,” she said. The girl pushed herself from the ground. Her arms trembled, barely sustaining the weight of her slender body. She stood and casted her eyes back to the sandy ground. “You can’t have me yet.” she uttered to the desert.

The flickering lights had not abandoned her. They were still there, waiting, brighter, and motionless. The girl travelled a distance before she realized they were not fireflies, but the property lights of ranch houses scattered about on the horizon, and beyond that, she saw the cluster of lights—the town.

For most students attending New Mexico A&M College, Friday night was a time to party at the fraternity houses, or out in the town. Las Cruces was small, yet offered many places for entertainment, the movie theaters, restaurants and cafés, and for those of drinking age, the nightclubs and bars. There was also a dark side to the town, a second city of decadence—dens of illegal gambling, strip joints, prostitution, loan sharking, and places to buy and sell contraband and drugs—none, which was of luring interest for two young men who preferred to remain on campus and study in their dorm.

Mike Harshman and Tom Cranson were recent veterans of the war in the Pacific, a war that had robbed them of their youth. They now attended college among the younger traditional students and were too old for the college party atmosphere. Their priorities were aimed at the more serious pursuit of academic achievement and the American way of life— an engineering degree, career, family, and prosperity—it’s what they fought for, and the GI Bill provided the means for that opportunity.

 They were quartered at the south end of the campus, a collection of plank wood cabins that resembled more of an internment camp than a traditional brick and mortar college dormitory. The cabins were connected by means of shower rooms, lavatories, and a community kitchen. Each cabin roomed two students. Mike and Tom’s room was small and rectangular with just enough space for a set of bunk beds, two dressers, and a large partner desk, located against the south wall below a metal, twelve-paned window.

The front door, centered on the eastside of the cabin, opened to the outside, and next to the door, a three by four foot, double-hung window provided a nice view of the Organ Mountains and Mike’s 1941, Buick, four door, Business Coupe, parked just a few feet away.

With mid-term exams coming up on Monday, they sat at the desk drinking coffee, quizzing each other from material out of their textbooks while listening to Ella Fitzgerald sing “Little White Lies” on the RCA radio. A light tapping on the front window broke the cadence of the music and drew the boy’s attention. They walked suspiciously to the window and saw the face of a young girl staring back at them. The room barely casted enough light on her face, but they saw her bloody lips, the swelling of her left eye, and her disheveled hair. The boys dashed out the front door. She was still looking directly into the window.

“Are you alright,” Mike asked.

The girl faced the boys. “Can you give me a ride to town?” She spoke slowly and showed no emotion.

“Why don’t you come in? It’s a bit chilly out here,” Mike said, risking certain expulsion from the college for violating the school’s strict code that prohibited girls in the men’s dormitory.

She entered their room and the boys immediately discovered her condition was much worse than they thought. Her grey waist coat and matching dress were soiled with sand, mud, and blood as well as the white blouse under her coat. Small dry twigs and leaves, and a few thorns where embedded in her dress, which was ripped in various places. Dried blades of wild grass and grains of sand fell from her brunette hair, and white salty stains marked her cuffs where she had perspired. The girl was a pitiful sight. Her Crimson Lilac lipstick smeared across her face and blended with the blood from her lips. Trickles of coagulated blood, mixed with sand, caked on the left side of her forehead and in her draping, shoulder length hair, and tracks of dirt lined her face where tears had shed below her hazel eyes. The boys noticed her shoeless feet, which were swollen, dirty, and bleeding, and the multiple abrasions and cuts on her knees and legs.

She was a couple of inches above five feet tall and she was a pretty girl under that battered face, Mike imagined. She had smooth light skin and he suspected she was somewhere around her mid-twenties. “Were you in an accident?” He asked.

“Did your boyfriend or husband do this to you?” Tom blurted out, concerned she may have been beaten by a lover.

The girl responded to both questions with a single answer, “I don’t know.” She spoke softly with a bit of gruffness from a dry throat. She glanced at the coffee cups on top of the desk. “Could I have water,” she asked.

Tom picked up the cups and dashed to the back door leading to a connecting shower room.

“We should call the police.” Mike suggested.

The word triggered an instant response. “No!” she said. Her voice softened again. “No, please. No police.” She wasn’t sure why she said that, but her instincts told her it was the right response.

Tom returned with a wet face towel and two cups filled with cool water. She’s not very coherent and seems to be in a daze, he thought. “You need to go to the doctor, we can take you there,” he said.

The girl took the cups, but not the towel. She sipped the water and found it difficult to swallow and coughed a few times.

“Where did you come from,” Mike asked.

The girl pointed to the south window as she drank her water.

“There’s nothing out there but desert!” Tom said.

She emptied both cups. “I need a ride . . . to town,” she stated.

“I think you need to go to the hospital first. You may also have a concussion. I saw plenty of that in the war,” Tom suggested.

“No hospital,” she responded.

The boys made several attempts to convince the girl she needed medical attention, but it proved to be futile. They helped her out to Mike’s car. Tom opened the right rear door and Mike helped her into the back seat. They left the campus and headed west for Las Cruces.

“Where exactly do want us to take you,” Mike asked.

“Bus station, Main Street,” she replied immediately. Her reply surprised her. Why the bus station? She wondered.

They drove under the moon shadows of tall trees that lined the pastures and farms houses along the narrow and quiet farm road. The girl slid her body against the right door and felt safe, the desert would not swallow her now. Her eyes weighed heavy. She closed them and instantly fell asleep and began to dream, troubling dreams.

A large skunk casually crossed the farm road and stopped in front of the approaching car. Mike swerved hard to the left and off the road onto the grassy shoulder. He avoided the smelly creature and swerved hard to the right back onto the road. The girl’s body shifted left and down on the back seat. She opened her eyes with a start and sat up confused and disoriented. Then, it came to her. She remembered jumping out of a moving car and waking up in the desert in the early evening during daylight.

Mike turned north onto highway 80. As they passed the Bruce Motel, the girl turned back in the seat and eyed the motel suspiciously through the rear window.

“We’re almost there. The bus depot is just ahead,” Tom said as they approached the downtown area.

“No. Keep going,” she said.

“You don’t want to go to the bus station?” Mike said, confused.

“Not yet,” she replied.

She seems a bit more alert now, Mike thought. He continued north, slowly, with uncertainty.

On the northeast corner of Main and Bowman Street, stood a large, single story, white stucco building with a tall mission arch and protruding vigas above a long sidewalk awning on the Main Street side. The recognizable blue and white Greyhound Bus logo rested and protruded from the top of the arch with a vertical neon “Coffee Shop” sign below. The building was a combination of a trading post, the Tortugas Café, and the bus depot. As they passed by, the girl looked curiously at the building and noticed a single bus parked on the south side.

Main Street was still alive, lit with bright lights of various types and colors from the businesses still opened at that hour. They were mostly bars, cafés, a liquor store, a pool hall, and the Rio Grande and the State movie theaters. A cacophony of vehicle traffic and people on the sidewalks, filled the air with the excitement of a Friday night out on the town. Most of the pedestrians were those leaving from the last picture shows, and bar hoppers looking for a place to drink, dance, or enjoy a late dinner at one of the eateries, the most popular was the all-night DeLuxe Café.

“Here,” the girl said, as they were in the center of the next block past the bus station.

Mike parked in front of the Electric Shoe Store. “It this where you want us to drop you off?” he said.

The girl didn’t reply. She studied the shoes on display at the window. This is where I bought them, she was certain. Things had begun to look familiar. She glanced to the opposite side of Main Street and slowly scooted herself toward the left door. The boys twisted in their seats and watched the girl as she stared at the businesses across the street—the OK Billiard Hall, the Penguin Bar and the DeLuxe Café. She focused mostly on the café and observed the movements of people inside. The girl watched intently as patrons went in and came out. Ten minutes passed before she scooted back to the right side of the car. A sudden sadness came over her, it was in her eyes and in her voice. “Bus station now,” she said, averting her eyes from the boys.

Mike drove north one block and turned right on Griggs Street, then right onto Church Street, and directly to the rear of the large, white stucco building. He parked closer to the depot where the single bus still waited on the south side with its engine idling, filling the air with diesel fumes. It was the last bus out of town for the night. The girl smiled, she was safe, but she wished it was all just a dream.  

“I guess we made it just in time. The bus is still here,” Mike said.

Tom opened the back door and Mike assisted the girl out of the back seat.

“Thank you,” she said, forcing a smile against her pain. She turned and slowly limped away, grimacing with every painful step.

A sudden sadness came over Mike. His burning throat tightened. There was an innocence and a kindness about that girl. He had sensed it in the short time they had spent together. She didn’t deserve this, he thought. He cleared his throat. “Wait!” He shouted. “What’s your name?”

The girl stopped, slowly turned, and locked her glistening eyes on the two boys. “My name?” She paused with lips drawn, as if she wanted to cry. She took a deep breath. Then, gave the boys a kind smile. “You will know soon,” she said in her soft voice. She gave them another smile, turned, and slowly limped away . . . directly to the back door of the Tortugas Café.

Mike and Tom watched as she entered the building. The door closed behind her, and she was gone. For a moment, they stood motionless, and bewildered and they stared at the back door in silence, almost reverently. Without a word, the boys returned to the car and drove away. They never saw that girl again.

Spring was in its third week when her picture began to appear nationally on the front page of the major newspapers, in magazines, and in the pages of foreign periodicals. The sad desert girl had made international news . . . she was no longer unknown to the world.