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I must be out of my mind, Dex Edden thought.
The RV lurched as it bounced over another pothole in the rough desert surface, but his boss seemed oblivious of any damage he might be doing to the rented vehicle. Wade Jickling gripped the steering wheel tightly with one fist, a can of beer in the other. A huge grin stretched across his apelike face, making it only slightly less menacing than usual. "Almost there," he said gleefully. "Almost there, almost there..."
Dex sighed, and tried to concentrate on the laptop on the Winnebago's little fold-down table. It's not like I had a choice, he reminded himself. Not really. The last place in the world Dex wanted to be was in the middle of the Nevada desert at the end of August, but his employer had seen things differently -- and apparently so had a few other people.
Thirty thousand of them, in fact.
Dex could understand that many people going to Nevada to gamble, or see Wayne Newton, or even attend a plumber's convention -- but these people weren't going to Vegas or Reno. They were going to the Black Rock Desert, where the nearest town was a speck twelve miles away called Gerlach. Out here there was no water, no power, no stores, nothing except what you brought with you. Besides food, water, and booze, Wade had brought a huge plastic sack of fortune cookies and Dex. Dex still wasn't sure which was the more bizarre choice.
He wouldn't have gone at all if he hadn't needed the money so badly. Since the dot-com bubble had burst, things had been tough in the IT world; coders like Dex had to scramble to find even temporary contracts. Wade was one of the few who'dgotten out at the right time, selling his company while it was still worth a fortune and devoting himself to the serious pursuit of partying. He'd ridden out the crash on a wave of beer and smugness, laughing as everybody else's money swirled down the drain. Wade himself knew very little about software -- he'd owned a restaurant in Seattle when one of his waiters had convinced him to bankroll a dot-com start-up he was developing.
Now Wade was planning to reenter the business world as an online restaurant-supply wholesaler, and Dex was designing his Web site. Dex didn't really like him much...but he needed this job, and saying yes seemed the safest thing to do. Wade wasn't comfortable with the concept of "no."
Dex unfolded his lanky body from behind the cramped table and stood up carefully. He stretched, feeling the muscles in his neck cramp. They'd been driving for hours since picking up the RV in Reno; the last time Dex had glanced out the window, the sun had just been setting. It was full dark now, and he couldn't see much outside other than headlights and swirling white dust.
No, wait -- there was a sign up ahead. The upper half proclaimed burning man in large, neon-green and pink letters; below that, BLACK ROCK CITY was done in a red-and-yellow flame motif. There was a wide arrow pointing to the right.
"We are here," Wade exulted. "Burning Man. We're at fucking Burning Man!"
Dex started to sigh, and sneezed instead. The dust tickled his nose.
They were stopped by a balding man in a brown uniform, who stepped inside, took their tickets, and did a quick inspection of the inside of the RV, including the bathroom. "Just making sure you don't have any stowaways," he said. "Take the lane on the right, and keep it slow." He left.
Dex went back to his laptop. The RV continued to bump along. A few minutes later they stopped again; Dex assumed they were parking.
"Hey," Wade said. "Somebody wants to talk to you."
"Hmmm?" Dex got up and walked to the front. "Who?"
"Her," Wade said with a grin.
They were stopped at one of many entrances that led through a fence of bright orange industrial netting. The banner overhead proclaimed BURNING MAN 2003; beside the gate was a vaguely pyramidal ten-foot-high framework with a large brass bell suspended from the peak.
In front of that was a Catholic schoolgirl.
She was in her twenties, her hair in pink pigtails, and smiled at him in a way that would have made Britney Spears blush. When she crooked her finger, Dex swallowed and stepped outside.
He was shocked at how cold it was -- the wind poked through his T-shirt with frozen fingers, needled his face with dust. He sneezed again, took a lungful of dust on the inhale and started coughing. He had to duck his head and cover his mouth and nose with both hands before he could stop.
"Sorry," he croaked, looking up. Just great, my first moment here and I look like a total spaz in front of a gorgeous --
Six-foot-five, bearded, grinning --
For a second, his brain refused to process the incongruity; what he saw in front of him was a tall, hairy man wearing a plaid skirt and knee socks, with his hair in pigtails. Then his mind adjusted...and he realized he was looking at a tall, hairy man wearing a plaid skirt and knee socks. With his hair in pigtails.
"Aha!" the man bellowed triumphantly. "Abel, we have us a virgin!"
"I saw him first, Boytoy!" the girl yelled back. She was handing a sheaf of papers to Wade through the window of the RV. "I get to spank him!"
"Well, why don't we let him decide?" Boytoy shot back. "What's it gonna be?" he asked Dex.
"Um," Dex said.
"Me! Me! Me!" Abel yelled, sprinting around the front of the RV. She slid to a stop in front of Dex and produced a Ping-Pong paddle from thin air. She rubbed the stippled red rubber surface with the palm of one hand and raised an eyebrow. "I guarantee you'll remember it for a long, long time..."
He glanced from one to the other, considered trying to make it back into the RV and locking the door, and finally said, "Her?"
"Turn around and assume the position!" Abel said gleefully.
Hesitantly, Dex did so, leaning against the wall of the RV with both hands. "Not too hard," he said, looking back over his shoulder. She gave him a soft pat on the rear of his jeans and smiled reassuringly.
And then Boytoy pulled his pants down. His briefs went with them.
An icy gust of wind hit his privates at the same second the paddle cracked his buttocks. He yelped, and only the fact that his jeans were bunched around his ankles prevented him from bolting like a rabbit. She swung the paddle three more times, and he couldn't help making the same high-pitched cry every time. By the last one, Boytoy was making it with him.
"Done!" Abel said. "Welcome -- "
He was already back in the RV, pants half-on, not looking back.
" -- home," Abel said. "Hey! You have to ring the bell!"
Dex locked the door and refused to come out. Wade drove on, but he didn't stop laughing for another ten minutes.
"The thing you gotta understand about Burning Man," Wade said, opening another beer, "is that people come out here to screw, get wasted, dance naked and set shit on fire."
Dex took a sip of his own beer, shifted slightly in his seat and winced. "For a whole week?"
"Hell yes, for a whole week. Some of these guys are here for two weeks beforehand building stuff, and six weeks afterward cleaning up. I promise you, man -- you're gonna see shit here that will blow your mind." Wade paced up and down the narrow confines of the RV restlessly, gesturing with his can of beer. He was a short man, with a thick, barrel-chested body, muscular arms, and bandy little legs; with the millimeter of orange stubble on his thick-browed, flat-nosed head, he reminded Dex of a shaved orangutan. "Wild, crazy shit. Shit I can't even describe."
"Great," Dex said, trying to sound enthusiastic. "Uh -- what exactly are they building?"
"A whole goddamn city, Dex -- Black Rock City. Streets, businesses, radio stations, post office -- everything! Except..." He gave a snort of laughter and shook his head. "Except the businesses ain't businesses, the streets change every year, and the post office is more about performance art than anything else....I just can't put it into words and do it justice. You're gonna have to see it for yourself."
Dex ran a hand through his short brown hair. "Uh, yeah. Looking forward to it."
Loud techno music from outside had provided a soundtrack to their conversation ever since they'd arrived; Dex couldn't tell how far away the source was, but it was close enough that he had to raise his voice to be heard. "How late does the music go?"
Wade looked at his watch. "Well, it's almost eleven PM on Sunday night," he said. "So they'll turn it off sometime around...seven days from now."
He grinned and raised his beer. "Hope you brought earplugs..."
It's not as if I don't enjoy a good party, Dex thought as he lay in bed and tried to get to sleep. I just don't like chaos.
Wade had claimed the RV's bedroom, leaving Dex with the sleeping space over the vehicle's cab. Not that his boss was sleeping -- he'd gone to "check out the neighborhood," as he put it. Dex wondered if he'd be back before dawn.
He stared up at the off-white plastic ceiling, only two feet above his head. He'd thought it would be darker -- and quieter -- in the middle of the desert, but the people parked next to them were running a generator and lights while they set up camp; enough illumination spilled through the RV's windows to let him see little drifts of dust sway through the air.
I can handle this, he thought. Let Wade show me around a little, have a beer or two, make my excuses, and head back to the RV. Stay inside, run the air-conditioning, get a bunch of work done. Wade'll forget all about me once he gets into full party-mode.
That was the thing about Wade -- obnoxious and overbearing as he could be, he knew how to have a good time. It was a skill Dex had never really mastered himself, not in college or in the decade since; he always felt vaguely guilty at social functions, like there was something more important he should be doing.
He recognized this as a simple avoidance behavior, but so far the knowledge hadn't done him any good -- he still chose to keep to himself rather than going out. Fortunately, he was perfectly happy with his own company; it was other people he wasn't sure about. They tended to be so...unpredictable.
Maybe, he reflected, he should try to spend a little time observing Wade at the festival. Dex prided himself on his ability to analyze and solve problems; couldn't the same skills he used to learn new programs be used to learn new behaviors? Wade could be loud, crude, and tactless, but he still had a large circle of friends. Almost all of Dex's friends were online -- and he hadn't had a girlfriend in years.
Not that he hadn't had offers, he reminded himself. He was only thirty, in good shape, reasonably attractive -- as near as he could tell, anyway -- intelligent, and well-mannered; he drew his fair share of female attention. Somehow, though, it never went any further than that. He never felt comfortable making the first move, and he felt even more awkward around the women who did so themselves.
It was like juggling, he thought. It looked easy, even fun, but he just couldn't keep his balls in the air.
When he finally got to sleep, he dreamt about jungles: tribal drums pounded, while somewhere, deep in the undergrowth, a giant, redheaded ape crashed about with an entire keg of beer in one knuckly fist.
Dex woke up with a hangover.
It wasn't his hangover, he thought muzzily, sitting up and rubbing his eyes; he'd only had a single beer last night before turning in. But there was no mistaking the cottony taste in his mouth, the slight ache behind his eyes, the queasiness in his belly. Wade's hangover, Dex surmised, must be so epic he was broadcasting.
He hadn't slept well. He didn't know if it was the music, the RV's mattress or the overall strangeness of the situation, but he'd woken half a dozen times during the night. He got up, drank some water and took some Tylenol. He didn't know what time his boss had gotten in, but the snoring in the bedroom had to be him. Dex took a quick shower, grateful for even the minimal pressure of the RV, brushed his teeth and started to floss.
Wade pounded on the door when he was half done -- Dex traded places with him quickly, hoping he wouldn't have to listen to an extended bout of vomiting before his first cup of coffee. Wade was only in the bathroom for a minute though, and when he came out he seemed fine.
Dex made coffee while still in his robe. He'd get dressed once Wade returned to the bedroom, but for now his boss was apparently comfortable lounging around in only his underwear, a pair of baggy red boxers that had seen better days.
"How'd things go last night?" Dex asked. He took some eggs out of the small fridge.
"They went -- okay," Wade said. His voice suggested otherwise; it sounded more baffled than anything, like that of a man who'd taken a slug of whiskey that tasted like chicken noodle soup.
Dex hesitated. "Anything wrong?"
"No. Fuck no," Wade snapped. "Make me some of those eggs too, willya?"
"Sure," Dex said. That was more like the Wade he knew--and even a surly Wade was better than an uncertain one.
"Somebody's gonna be coming over later," Wade said. "Somebody I want you to meet. Gonna be here after dark -- make sure you're around, all right?"
"Of course," Dex said, cracking an egg into a frying pan.
Where would he go?
That first day, most of what Dex saw of the festival was from the windows of the RV.
That didn't mean what he saw wasn't bizarre. Every so often he'd look up from his laptop to observe, say, a nine-foot-tall electric tricycle driven by a woman dressed only in green paint, or a double-decker bus covered in elaborate white scrollwork with a full gospel choir riding on top. He assumed they were a gospel choir, anyway; despite the robes, he wouldn't have been surprised if they'd started belting out old Led Zeppelin numbers.
What did surprise him was the number of police vehicles he saw, slowly driving past. Their presence cheered him considerably; he realized one of the reasons he'd been reluctant to go out was the half-admitted fear that he'd be accosted by loud, drunken attendees who would demand to know why he wasn't enjoying himself -- loud, drunken, schoolgirl attendees, carrying Ping-Pong paddles.
He still wasn't sure how he felt about that, so he tried not to think about it. Much.
Wade had left right after breakfast and made only a halfhearted attempt to drag Dex along, accepting his excuse that he wasn't feeling well without an argument. Truth was, Dex wasn't feeling that great; along with the hungover feeling he'd started with, his sinuses had been plugged up all day and he felt exhausted. He hoped he wasn't getting sick.
He'd expected relentless sunshine and high temperatures, but the sky stayed a sullen, chilly gray all day. A few drops of rain even spattered against the window in midmorning, though it didn't last long. He had a sandwich for lunch, a can of beef stew for supper. He even tried to take a nap in the afternoon, but despite feeling overtired he couldn't get to sleep. He finally gave up and went back to work.
Wade didn't get back until after seven, and wolfed down a can of chili without even heating it up. Dex tried to show him how the website was shaping up, but Wade just grunted, "Yeah, yeah," and opened another Coors. He leaned against the counter and chugged back half the beer in one pull, paused, scowled, then polished off the other half. He crushed the can in one hand and tossed it onto the counter without looking.
"You get along with your folks?" he asked abruptly. The question was so unexpected that it took Dex a moment to formulate a reply.
"Uh, yeah, pretty much," he said. "They moved to Florida a few years ago, so I don't see them that much."
"Easier to get along with someone that ain't there, right?"
"That's not what I meant, actually -- "
"Whatever. Never did too well with my own. Scrapped with my mother all the time and never knew my dad -- he took off before I was even out the chute. Can't say I ever really gave a shit."
Wade paused, but Dex didn't know how to respond; he settled for just looking expectant.
"Know what I saw today? This old geezer, must have been in his sixties or seventies, wandering down the street buck-naked. His mouth was open and he was shaking like he was gonna have some kinda fit. Looked like a fuckin' zombie from an X-rated version of Night of the Living Dead." Wade shook his head. "Man, seeing all that wrinkled skin flappin' around was rude. Hope someone puts me out of my misery before I ever get that bad." He belched, loudly and unself-consciously. "He did have a helluva tan, though..."
"I gotta say, that's one of the things I like about this place -- you never know what the fuck is gonna pop up. People compare it to Woodstock all the time, but that's bullshit. It's more punk than hippie, you ask me."
Dex hadn't, but he wasn't about to disagree, either.
"I was a punker, you know?" Wade said. "Back in the late seventies, early eighties. Man, it was wild. Everybody tryin' to be crazier and more fucked-up than everybody else, stickin' safety pins and fishhooks and whatnot through their faces....I knew this one guy, he stuck fuckin' knitting needles through his ears. Skewered 'em top and bottom, just like shish kebabs."
Wade shook his head and chuckled. "But it gave the whole scene this charge, you know? Like anything could happen, anything was possible. None of us would admit it -- hell, we woulda stomped the crap outta anyone who suggested it -- but even though we had this whole fuck-the-world-everything-sucks-we're-all-gonna-die attitude, there was somethin' else there. A kind of -- braveness, maybe. I don't know."
"It must have been an -- interesting time to live in," Dex said.
Wade snorted. "Yeah, me and the fuckin' dinosaurs, right?"
Hastily, Dex said, "I didn't mean -- "
"Nah, that's okay. I know it was a long time ago -- it just doesn't seem like it."
Wade got two more beers from the fridge, handed one to Dex and opened the other himself. Dex didn't really feel like a beer, but he took it and said, "Thanks," anyway.
"Y'know, people get this idea of what somethin's like, especially if it's something outta the ordinary, and it's real hard to shake that idea outta their heads. It's like they're threatened by it, so they have to find some way to put a label on it they understand. But that's fucked-up, 'cause if it's weird enough to be scary, it's too weird to be just one thing. You know?"
Dex took a sip of beer. "Well...I guess things are always more complicated than they seem."
"Bullshit," Wade snapped. "Some things are really fucking simple. What I'm talkin' about is the stuff that looks simple and ain't. People, you know? I'm talkin' about people."
Dex had thought they were talking about punk rock, but he nodded anyway.
"Like the people here. You see a guy dressed in a cocktail gown and high heels, and you think you know what he's like. But then you talk to him, and you find out he's a Green Bay Packers fan and he works on a ranch and drives a Harley. See what I mean?"
"That's just how the punk scene was. Everybody thinks it was all about anger and despair and giving the world the finger, but we were just people. Just kids. We were having a good time. We partied and laughed and hung out. We listened to a lot of music, and we fuckin' danced. You like dancin', Dex?"
"I'm not much of a dancer," Dex said. He tried to imagine Wade on the dance floor and couldn't.
"Yeah, well, back then you didn't have to be. You just got out there and jumped up and down a lot. And maybe slammed into whoever was next to you." He pulled a booklet out of his back pocket and waved it at Dex. "They got all kinds of dancing here, lemme tellya. You got Celtic, swing, hip-hop, belly dancing...everything from goth raves to fucking roller disco." He took another long drink and stared out the window over the sink for a moment.
"Well," Dex said, "I really should get back to work -- "
"And then there were the girls," Wade continued, as if Dex hadn't spoken at all. "I tellya, for a group that liked to make itself ugly, there sure were some hot women. There was this one at a concert in Jersey -- man, was she somethin'. Bloodred Mohawk a foot high, black stripe across her eyes like that chick in Blade Runner, dressed in combat boots, ripped fishnets and cutoffs. Two perfect little breasts with nothing but X's of black electrical tape on 'em. And man, could she slam -- she bounced around in front of the stage like a fuckin' pinball, off guys must have weighed three times what she did. I swear, sometimes her feet never even touched the floor...."
He trailed off, staring into the distance, then snorted and shook his head. "Anyway, I asked her if she wanted to do some coke and we wound up fucking in the bathroom. Romantic, huh?"
Dex took a drink of beer and didn't reply.
Wade looked down at the booklet in his hand, started leafing through it. "Hey, you checked this out yet?"
"Uh, no. I've been concentrating on the website -- "
"I can't believe some of the shit they've got going on. The world's biggest game of Pong, the world's biggest game of Ski-ball. Naked croquet. Tricycle jousting. Something called the Turnilympics Turnip-Toss, for Christ's sake." He shook his head, but he had a wide smile on his face. "It's like nobody here ever fuckin' grew up."
"Everybody needs a place to blow off steam, I guess."
"Yeah? Even you?"
Too late, Dex saw the trap he'd stumbled into. "This isn't really my sort of thing -- "
"Bullshit. This place has somethin' for everybody, I'm tellin' you -- they got camps where you can catch anything from The Muppet Show to old episodes of Space: 1999. They got poetry slams, strip contests, and karaoke. They got a drive-in that shows cartoons, old kung-fu movies, and Rocky Horror. And let's not forget the porn -- Christ, Amsterdam's got nothin' on this place. The people that aren't fucking on-screen are probably doin' it on the couch right next to you."
"That's -- uh..."
Wade laughed. "Little too much, huh? Sorry, didn't mean to freak you out -- I know I get kinda carried away. But just 'cause something's new and scary doesn't mean it's bad, right?" Under the joking tone was something else -- a note of pleading.
"Of course not," Dex said. "I just like to take things a little slower, is all."
"Sure, sure. Look, I'm gonna go freshen up -- that visitor I mentioned should be here soon."
"All right," Dex said. He was tapping away at the laptop before Wade shut the bedroom door -- but stopped a few seconds later, a thoughtful look on his face. There was something distinctly odd about the conversation he and Wade had just had, but he couldn't quite put his finger on it.
Then he realized what it was. He'd never heard Wade use the word sorry before....
About half an hour after the sun had set, somebody knocked on the door. Wade was still in the bedroom, so Dex answered it.
It was Darth Vader.
The costume was perfect in every detail, except for two things: first, the helmet sported a pair of long bunny ears; and second, the entire outfit was a bright, shiny pink.
"Uh...yes?" Dex said.
"I'm -- uh, I'm looking for Wade?" Darth Bunny said. His voice sounded strange -- almost like someone trying to make his voice deeper than it actually was. He looked around, one hand on the pommel of the lightsaber stuck through his belt, as if expecting Day-Glo Rebel fighters to appear at any moment.
"I'll get him -- come on in," Dex said. He stepped back and rapped on the sliding panel that separated the bedroom from the rest of the camper. "Wade? You have company."
The weight of the camper shifted as the Sith Lord stepped aboard -- he wasn't quite as tall or broad as the cinematic version, but he was still a big man. Though the hot pink, thought Dex, suggested not so much Sith as Sithy.
The panel slid open. Wade, freshly shaved and dressed in khaki shorts and a Hawaiian shirt, looked almost presentable. He didn't say anything for a moment, though, just stood there with an expression on his face Dex had never seen before; somewhere between apprehension and elation, as if their visitor were delivering a subpoena engraved in solid gold.
There wasn't much room in the RV in the first place, and Dex was trapped between them in the narrow passage from the bedroom to the front door. He solved this by sliding behind the fold-out table and sitting down on the bench seat against the wall. "Hi. I'm Dex," he said, sticking out his hand across the table.
The stranger hesitated, then shook it with a pink-gloved hand. "Hello," he said. "I'm -- "
"This is Rafe," Wade said abruptly.
The hand in Dex's suddenly gripped it much tighter, then let it go and stepped back.
There was a moment of strained silence. "Great costume," Dex said. It was the first thing that leapt to mind; it was either that or I sense a disturbance in the Force -- a great big pink disturbance.
"Thanks," Rafe said. There was an edge of nervousness in his voice. "I thought you were going to come alone," he said to Wade, fidgeting with the handle of his lightsaber; the blade, Dex saw, was a short length of rebar painted the same shade as the rest of the costume.
"It's okay," Wade said. "Dex is the first person I've told, and I guarantee he hasn't told anyone else."
"Okay, sure, that's cool..." Abruptly, Rafe pulled the lightsaber from his belt. The rebar made little rippling noises as the ridges in the iron bumped over the leather. "Pretty cool, huh?" he asked Dex. "Here -- check it out." He proffered the weapon handle-first.
"Uh -- "
"Go ahead -- try the balance."
Dex took it by the handle and hefted it. The hilt was wrapped in black duct tape around foam, giving it a sure grip. It wasn't that heavy -- the blade was shorter than an actual lightsaber's would be. "Nice," he said, and handed it back.
"How about a beer?" Wade asked. He knelt down, opened the door of the half-size fridge and reached inside. "You want a can or a bottle?"
"Can," Rafe answered. "Shouldn't bring glass out to the desert -- it's easier to recycle aluminum." He took a firm, two-handed grip on the handle of his sword, and spread his legs ever so slightly.
"Wade?" Dex said.
He was suddenly terrified, but he wasn't sure why. He was about to either embarrass himself horribly...or witness something horrible.
"What?" Wade said, looking up.
And then Rafe brought the lightsaber around in a tight, deadly arc, and Dex knew.
The rebar connected with Wade's temple with a crunch that reminded Dex of a beer can being crumpled. There was no blood; Wade just suddenly slumped to the floor, his body blocking the fridge open. A bottle of Corona rolled from his limp left hand and stopped against Dex's bare big toe -- he hadn't even bothered putting on shoes that day.
After that, things happened very quickly.
Dex yelled, "CHRIST!" He threw as many of his limbs up in defence as he could, which meant both arms and one leg. His knee cracked into the folding table, flipping it up at the precise second Rafe took a swing at Dex's head. The rebar chunked! into the side of the cheap pressboard hard enough to embed itself, and Dex took the opportunity to dive, low and fast, past his attacker's pink leather boots and toward the front door.
There was a frozen instant while Dex was on his knees, fumbling with the latch, when he expected to be hauled back -- by telekinesis, maybe -- and be either beaten or throttled to death; but Rafe wasted it trying to get his weapon (apparently not as frictionless as your standard-model lightsaber) unstuck from where it was lodged.
The door opened and Dex spilled out into darkness. He scrambled to his feet and ran.
Copyright © 2005 by Don DeBrandt