Doug's car was where we had left it, pulled off the side of the road when the engine had finally died from whatever malaise it had picked up three hundred miles before. Doug had loved that '72 Chevy Nova, but his mechanical aptitude and finances had never lived up to his dreams and so it had remained dented and unreliable.
Three years on and it had lost what remained of its paint to windblown grit, the tires were deflated and part of the exhaust had finally won its battle against the piece of wire holding it on. Peering through the windows it looked like something had made its home inside, although that could have just been the detritus from our panic-stricken flight. A romantic part of me considered salvaging the vehicle, but that felt uncomfortably like stealing from a grave.
Doug had been very sick as I let the car roll itself off the highway with the last of its momentum; they had both reach their limits at the same time. Had I been less distracted by my own plight I might noticed Doug's pallor and the unhealthy sounds from under the hood before we were out in the desert, miles from everywhere. The results would have been the same, more public, messier, but the guilt was still there.
At the side of the road lay a rock the size of a house, a sun-beaten, uncaring monolith older than man and all his follies. As the air in the car became unbearable I had dragged Doug's unresponsive weight around into the scant shade, my desperation lending me strength. I retraced my steps as though in a dream, drawn towards the spot where I had left him by an invisible thread.
We had managed to escape the city before the worst erupted and the crackdown hit. Fleeing towards his parent's old cabin in the mountains, an isolated retreat where he had proposed to me in the spring, we had stuck mainly to the back roads, scared of attracting unwanted attention. We had got this far before our bad luck overtook us.
I had left Doug with a supply of water promising to bring help as soon as I could. Two days down the road, delirious and dehydrated I was picked up by a quarantine patrol. Two years trying to explain my strange immunity and then a year of my own guilt and fear had prevented me from coming back before.
Any tracks I had made had long faded away. I fanned the regret from my mind and replaced my hat. Trailing my hand on the rough stone, warming as the sun began to climb to its zenith, I reversed those steps that had taken me out of my old life. The desert, straggly shrubs, baked rocks, ceaseless wind and the wide, parched ground regarded me with disinterest, waiting for me to pay my respects and move on.
The blight tree growing in the spot I had last seen Doug was not a surprise. These plants had become increasingly common since the outbreak of the plague, they attracted hate and destruction as no-one understood their significance. This example was ten feet high, a fleshy, multicolored trunk topped with a spray of frond-like leaves. A cloud of tiny iridescent purple bees issued from a hole just above head level, but did not bother me, content to buzz around the tree.
I placed my hand against the smooth rainbow of the trunk, cool and vital under my fingers. Above my head a bud opened into a lily the color of the desert sky, it waved in the wind for a moment and then the stalk snapped. I caught it and smiled for the first time in years.
“Oh, Doug, you do remember me.”