23rd Kenai Peninsula Writers Contest: Adult fiction winner – Low Point

After a seven-year hiatus, the Kenai Peninsula Writers Contest returns for its 23rd year. Coordinated by the Homer Council on the Arts, the contest was open to literary artists of all ages on the Kenai Peninsula. The judges were Kim Fine, De Patch, Lyn Mazlow, Melissa Cloud, Shellie Worsfold, Debi Poore, Mae Remme, Linda Martin, Ann Dixon, Justin Herrman, Nancy Lord, Mercedes Harness, Wendy Erd, Rich Chiappone and Tom Kizzia.

Winners received prizes by sponsors Tom Bodett & Co., Homer Bookstore, River City Books and the Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center. Winners represented communities throughout the borough, including Anchor Point, Homer, Ninilchik, Nikiski, Kasilof, Kenai, Soldotna and Tyonek.

The winning stories, including second- and third-place entries, are online at the Homer Council on the Arts website at www.homerart.org/wcwinners.

Of this story, judges Nancy Lord and Justin Herrman wrote, “Very strong in its evocation of place and character development, as well as solid writing mechanics and sensory details. It also tells an important story about family and addiction.”

This story includes a depiction of addiction and adult language, and may not be suitable for younger readers.

Corn chips, Gatorade, Ibuprofen, sour gummy worms, Imodium, Benadryl, chocolate bars. We are preparing for Armageddon, doomsday, the apocalypse. We are going on a road trip with my sister. She puts a bottle of lemonade into the basket and then some Dramamine, for the nausea. My boyfriend, Tom, and I have somehow fit her and all her belongings into our over- stuffed Subaru. She is folded next to the duffel bags and boxes containing everything she came with and more from her time living in Los Angeles. Piled almost on top of her is our camping gear, ski stuff, books, guitar, and jugs of water—all the essentials for a six-month road trip. Tom and I have spent a whole winter and spring car camping, ski bumming, and exploring public lands. This detour to Southern California is meant to be a weeklong trip with little sis to get her out of the city and into some beautiful desert landscapes—to see the sights, breathe some fresh air — and then we’ll ship her back to my parents. Tom hands Ruby an empty yogurt container in case she pukes, and I carefully shut the door.

As soon as we arrived at the apartment Ruby was crashing at it was evident that we had been strung along ever since she left the rehab facility two months ago. Her jittery eyes and gaunt features told us: there had been no clean living. In the parking lot of the drugstore while she cries, we call less-than-helpful hotlines for advice on how to deal with someone in opioid withdrawal. We call an old friend who has familiarity in this realm. We don’t call my parents, not yet. In spite of these developments, we are determined to not let this complication derail our rescue mission.

At first Ruby protests, screams, curses. There is pleading, a friend she has to say goodbye to, a stranger with medicine for the detox, a circling around the truth, a singular need. We resist her banshee wails and as we loop higher and higher into the mountains, she resigns herself to her fate. We are carrying her away from the big bad city with its needles and fixes and temptations. We are going where it’s just us and the desert to behold the glory of sand, rock, cactus. Now we cruise over flat grasslands between small flat cities and dried-up lake beds until we stop at a gas station. Ruby and I go inside for more snacks while Tom fills the tank.

“How are you feeling?”

“Like s—-.” Her skin looks gray. She accepts a milky coffee, sips, and adds two more sugar packets. I pat her head like a beagle.

“It’ll get better. I think.” I have no idea.

“Where are we going?” she asks, fitting herself back into her seat like a Tetris piece. I look at Tom and smile a little too gleefully. “Only the best place to experience hell.”

While not as hot as the peak summer months, the average high temperature for May in Death Valley National Park is still 100 degrees. Hot wind blasts us as we park at an overlook and step into the inhospitable landscape. Lines of red rock stripe the canyons below us like a slice of burnt layer cake. The crust of the earth, craggy and broken, crumbles towards the flat land in the distance.

“Is that the Valley of Death?” I ask Tom.

He looks at a map he found at the entrance of the park, shrugs. I walk back to the car. She’s sleeping, cheek pressed against the window, blankets despite the heat.

“Ruby, come see the view!” Her eyebrows knit together as she adjusts with a jerk, turning her face from me. I knock on the window and she flips me off. We get back in the car and begin our descent into the valley. “Buckle your damn seatbelt,” I tell her.

We make camp at the edge of a dusty parking lot. There’s a motorcycle parked near us and many motor homes. A family of seven unloads a minivan across the way. Tom and I set up our tent while Ruby sits on the picnic table and smokes a cigarette. She’s hunched and pale, face clenched in a perma-frown.

“It’s hot,” she says.

I had different expectations for someone in the throes of withdrawal — something akin to a scene in a movie, like “Trainspotting” or “The Exorcist.” So far, besides the initial drama of leaving L.A. and the general crabbiness, she just seems like she has the flu. Mostly she sleeps. We’ve noted lethargy, grimacing, and sudden fits of spastic movement like she’s trying to wiggle her skin off. I am realizing that I am already acquainted with these symptoms. It is this pattern of behavior that I had taken as the slow strange befouling of my sister’s personality rather than signs of addiction. It was not until Ruby was sent to rehab that the reality hit. All the clues were there that she was using drugs but somehow, it was easier to believe her assurances and excuses for the growing dysfunction. What we could not fathom before is now a truth of our lives. Now we are not so naïve.

Like our car, our tent is also meant for two people. Tom and I rationalize that with the heat that persists after the sun goes down and our bodies squished close, Ruby will benefit from the sauna-type experience of sleeping with us in our small tent. She will sweat the toxins out faster, feel normal faster. I create theories about addiction like I create theories about the geological phenomena that surround us. Maybe the valley was once an inland sea, the sand dunes we drove past were created by millennia of wind, she will feel better in the morning. For dinner we eat salami and cheese sandwiches and drink tepid cans of beer. The sky and the desert glow pink and there’s a warm breeze that feels gentle on my bare skin. I try to believe we can bring my sister back one starry night at a time.

Tom and I rise before the sun and prepare breakfast with headlamps. We want to get to the sand dunes for sunrise. When we leave the tent, Ruby spreads out like a starfish. All night she writhed and kicked restlessly; her blanket twisted around her and damp from sweat. Now she sleeps deeply. We boil water for coffee and chew our granola bars, watching the edge of the mountains begin to appear.

“It’s getting light,” Tom says. “Should I try to wake her up?”

“She’ll take too long. We’ll miss it.” I put a thermos of coffee inside the tent. Sleeping, she almost looks peaceful. I imagine her waking up, hitting the road with her thumb out, gone.

“We’ll be back before she’s up,” Tom says.

For a moment, everything is orange. Then, long blue shadows slither westward and the day is here. I’m lying on my belly, inspecting the ecosystem beneath a creosote bush. Tiny footprints with a line of a tail dragging between them pepper the sand—kangaroo mouse? Lizard? There’s the click, click, click of Tom snapping photos, the only sound for miles, it seems. I get up, brushing sand off my thighs.

“We should get back to the campsite,” I say.

“I bet she’s not even awake.” Tom watches a little brown bird flit along the ridge of a high dune but doesn’t lift his camera. He sighs.

She’s just where we left her, thermos untouched. It takes another hour of prodding, wheedling, arguing with her to please get up, to move her ass, to get the hell up or we are leaving her without water or coffee or BEER. Eventually, she shuffles out of the tent, stomps around in the bushes for a while, and flounces back to the car.

“It’s so hot,” she says.

“How are you feeling?” asks Tom.

“F—-ing hot.” I roll my eyes. I watch her light a cigarette and think feral creature.

The sun reaches its zenith as we step onto the crystalline flats of Badwater Basin. The ground is a carpet of minerals. Salt. We are 282 feet below sea level, the lowest point in North America, and we’re sweating as soon as we leave the car. The air is hot, dry, and saline. I imagine the weight of the atmosphere falling more solidly on our shoulders. A placard says that it was plate tectonics that dropped this piece of earth. There was never a body of water in this drainage but the flashes of rain and slower moisture trickle down here, leaving behind the salt deposits. Salt pan. I take a sip from my water bottle and close my eyes. Standing below sea level, I can’t help but imagine that we are on an ancient seabed. How refreshing it would be to stand here and look up through an atmosphere of water, a million years of rain. Other visitors mill along a swath of white ground where feet have crushed the delicate crystal patterns into flat white powder. A woman walks with a giant yellow umbrella. Couples all around us take selfies. The three of us don’t go as far as many other people seem to have gone because we forgot sunscreen and, as Ruby points out, what’s the point of walking any farther into a desolate salt flat that all looks the same? I take Ruby’s hand, lifting it to the hot white sky in a victory pose. Her arm is limp and heavy but she smiles for the camera.

Tom is driving, Ruby is dozing, and I am trying to match the constellations in the sky with the little glow-in-the-dark ones on the bandanna I bought at the visitor’s center. We’ve crossed the California border into Nevada and I check the map to make sure we are going the right way, towards Utah. We’re hoping to get far enough tonight that it will be a quick drive in the morning to the next park, Zion. The headlights catch an animal on the side of the road and I gasp for Tom to pull over. Ruby is awake. She moves faster than I’ve seen her move the entire trip and suddenly she’s sitting on the gravel shoulder with the thing in her lap. It’s smaller than a border collie but bigger than a house cat.

“Can we keep it? It’s hurt,” she says. I look at Tom who shrugs helplessly. I want to keep it too. Ruby wraps the animal in her oversize sweatshirt and makes a nest for it next to her seat. When she wipes at the crust of blood on its shoulder with a damp sock it emits a thin whine. “What’s a puppy doing out here,” she coos. I can tell that we both feel the thrill of having rescued an animal, that feeling same as when we were young and found broken birds to nurse back to health in a shoe box and once, a baby squirrel. I turn in my seat to look at the animal. I am transfixed by the slender snout, the golden eyes, and the big bat-like ears. What a beautiful dog. My sister opens a tin of smoked oysters. She cradles the animal like a baby. I watch her skinny fingers bring the oily morsels to its nose tenderly while Tom listens for music, news, anything, between stations of static.

In the morning we find a veterinarian in St. George for the animal’s wounds. She confirms, to Ruby’s and my shock, what Tom has been drumming on the steering wheel for so many miles — coyote, coyote, coyote.

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