The Empty Purse
Today I offer a scary story, to help you get into a Halloween mood. This is Story #7, entitled The Empty Purse, from my book, Go West or Go Weird.
I always carry a few gallons of water in my car. That way if my car ever breaks down in this convection oven I live in, that we call a desert, I can survive for a few hours before my brain boils like an egg, and my body turns into a slab of beef jerky.
I’m surprised at how few people take such lifesaving precautions. And it seems to happen a few times a year, in our neck of the Mojave, where a driver gets stuck in the middle of nowhere, and wanders away in search of cool, clear water.
It can take months for search and recovery to find their bodies, if they ever are found. So I wrote this modern Western as a warning.
But I also wrote it to win a prize. This is the only short story I have ever written for a contest. Contestants were required by Writer’s Indigestion magazine, to pen a story about a woman who empties out all the contents of her purse.
My submission did not win first place.
The winning entry was a parable about a woman who overturns her purse to find something helpful for some poor bastard in need. And I understand why it won. What a unique idea. Who would have thought about actually overturning a purse to empty it out?
My story came in 3,919th place. Which ain’t bad for a nationwide contest, don’t you think? So I thought its level of appeal would make it fit right into this book.
The Empty Purse
Her car bucked and banged over the dirt road. Rumbled over washboards. Swished through sand. Sank through sand. Slowed. Stopped.
Too much sand.
A back and forth. Wheels spinning. Sand spraying. Sinking deeper. No go.
Mojave desert all around . . . nearest paved road about seven miles away, as the raven flies. She wiped sweat from her forehead with a slightly trembling finger.
She had always heard that the best thing to do in a situation like this is to stay put. Sooner or later someone would come looking. Her best chance of being found was to remain with the car and not wander away.
But that highway back there. If only she could make it back. There were cars she could flag down. Out here . . . who knew how often any car made it this far. There were no tire tracks in the sand in front of her. And hers were the only tire tracks behind her.
That pavement would be more than 10 miles away if she walked back using the meandering dirt road. Just not enough water. Footwear was okay—her sneakers could do it. Legs had the strength. But the water probably would not hold out.
Now, cross-country—only maybe seven miles. But kind of rough country. She squinted her eyes northeast, using her hand as a visor. Looked walkable enough. Seemed like it was all downslope, and she could bypass around the boulder-stewn inselbergs. And no problem crossing those dry washes. After all, they were dry. Unfortunately.
She had a map. And she had a pretty good idea where she was, on the map. She had a half-drank one-liter bottle of water from the Circle K store. A Three Musketeers bar was melting in her purse.
And yes, her purse!
Lots of small items in the purse! The idea smoked in her head, then caught fire.
She left a note on the dash, and at ten o’clock in the morning, headed out. About a hundred feet away she stopped in a clearing where all the winter’s cheatgrass had wilted away. She took a shiny pair of fingernail clippers from her purse and placed them on top of a white quartz stone.
And on she hiked.
Every hundred feet or so she extracted another item from her purse and posed it on top of a rock, or on bare ground. Conspicuously. In open areas between the creosote bushes or cholla or bunched up galleta grass. Any clear spot where someone searching for her could notice it from a distance, and follow her trail.
A brown hiking boot came down beside a lipstick tube of brass. A man knelt and lifted it. Wiped the dusty surface off on his jeans and examined it. Clicked his radio and announced, “Found lipstick. Let’s keep heading northeast.”
The search party was arrayed like a comb. A turkey vulture wobbled its wings overhead and watched as the figures moved in one general direction, during the hottest part of the day.
But late in the afternoon they broke formation. Each of the figures seemed to take on independent movement. One ambled about here, while another headed straight out there, and another veered off in the opposite direction. It was as if they’d lost their direction, and didn’t know which way to travel next.
One of the figures stopped beside a yucca and lingered. Then one by one the other figures gravitated to the yucca.
They congregated and studied a black object hanging by a black strap on a green blade of the Spanish Dagger. They muttered among themselves, until one of the men slid the black object up and off the blade.
A mile away, a turkey vulture plunged its beak between two ribs, prying, twisting, widening the gap that barred access to the dead, but tasty internal organs within.
The man examined the black object. It was a purse. He pried the leather edges of the purse apart and peered inside.
It was empty.