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“I can’t believe you just sat on a cactus,” my seven year old cousin said. He and his twin attempted to stifle their giggles.
“Good thing I’m wearing jeans. I think the spines are stuck in them,” I said, assessing the damage. Kneeling down, I inspected the offending cactus. Light brown and stocky, it looked like an innocent tree stump from far away. Closer up, however, I could clearly see the tiny spines protruding from the plant, waiting to prick the unwary hiker.
“That totally looks like a stump,” I announced, taking a step back and again examining the cactus.
“No, it totally does not,” Avi, one of the seven year old boys I was babysitting for my aunt informed me. He and his identical twin’s sandy brown hair camouflaged them perfectly with the desert dunes. The sand was rough and hot, and it scorched feet through my thin plastic flip flops. Cactuses were scattered every few feet across the terrain, one of which still strongly resembled a stump. A heat haze was settling over the dunes and cacti.
“Can we run ahead?” Makai, Avi’s twin asked, blue doe eyes pleading.
“Ok, but make sure I can still see you,” I said slowly. Makai’s dimples became more pronounced as a mischievous grin flashed across his face. The grin disappeared, and was replaced with an angelic expression. I started to rethink my answer, but the endless expanse of blue sky and coarse sand reassured me. How could they possibly get lost?
I watched Avi and Makai scamper down the vaguely marked and badly maintained trail together. They were exactly the same height and had the same feathery hair. My aunt had cut Avi’s hair much shorter than Makai’s, which was more often than not the only way I could tell them apart. They both wore the same little purple sneakers.
For ten minutes, I followed Avi and Makai down the trail as they dashed off and back on the trail to show each other new discoveries with the excitement only children have. Walking around a sand dune, I spotted another person walking towards me. He was a middle aged man with small, suspicious eyes and a piggish nose. His mouth, encircled by an impressive black goatee, looked as if it had never formed a smile. His eyes darted up and down my body and he raised his bushy gray eyebrows in approval.
“Hey baby, what’s up?” he asked, winking at me as he passed. The scent of stale alcohol wafted toward me as he walked by. He sounded like he had been smoking a pack a day for years, and looked like it too. His sun browned skin drooped like stained curtains; the embodiment of ill health. I stared ahead, refusing to acknowledge him. Suddenly, I became aware of how vulnerable I was. I was completely alone except for two children in the middle of the desert. I walked faster, trying to get away from the man as quickly as possible, but my foot kicked something soft. A lone purple sneaker. Confused, I searched the arid horizon for two identical pairs of feathery hair. Nothing.
“Avi? Makai?” I shouted, my voice higher than usual. There was no response. Panic rising in my throat, I ran farther down the path in hopes of finding two mischievous boys hiding behind a prickly pear cactus. I stepped off the path to check behind an unusually large prickly pear. Unconsciously I placed my hand on one of the green, paddle-shaped leaves to look behind it, resulting in a pattern of neatly spaced wounds on my hand oozing blood. I cursed and quickly hurried down the path. I could deal with that later.
“Avi! Makai! This is not funny! Come out right now!” Again, there was no response. I stood on the path turning in a slow circle examining every dune and cactus, hoping to catch a glimpse of two little bodies. The sand seared my feet and I could feel the heat of the sun burning my face, but I ignored it.
“You’re both going to be in so much trouble when we get back! I’m giving you three seconds to come out. One… Two… Three!” Alternating picking each foot up from the blistering sand, I waited for a sign from them.
“S***,” I said quietly to myself, seeing nothing. I started off down the path again, desperation starting to make everything seem less real. My hand was starting to bleed in earnest now, and I could feel more and more blood pulsating toward it as I started to walk again. The sound of shoes grinding against sand abruptly shook me out of my state of panic. “About ti…” I began to say, turning around. Small malicious eyes and an upturned nose greeted me.
“Need help?” he asked suggestively, wagging his eyebrows. I took a step back and felt a different kind of fear start to brew in my stomach.
“Not at all,” I responded. I tried to make my voice sound forceful and final to get him to leave me alone, but it ended up sounding weak and desperate.
“Well I think…” he started to say, but I had already turned my back on him and started off down the trail again. I wished more than anything that I could sit down on the side of a hill in the hot sand and relax. That’s when I remembered I still had cactus spines lodged in the back of my jeans. A throaty laugh worked its way out of my stomach at the thought. I’m not quite sure why it is that people laugh when they see or think of something that they don’t like, but I am as guilty of this as anyone. My ears picked out the sound of shoes against sand again, and now when I turned around I was ready to unleash my bad day on the man who wouldn’t leave me alone. This time, however, instead of one middle aged man there were two seven year old boys, one of whom was only wearing one purple sneaker.
“Where have you been?” I asked, too relieved to be angry.
“Well, we were hiding, but then Makai got bored,” said Avi, rolling his eyes at his twin.
“I was so worried about you! You can’t just hide from people like that,” I said. Avi and Makai exchanged an exasperated look. I couldn’t help but smile with relief as I watched them pass me and continue down the trail. The two boys were safe, and this time, there was no way they were going ahead.
By the time we got home I had puncture wounds all over my hand, mildly burned feet and cactus spines stuck in my jeans, but that’s not what mattered. Avi and Makai had found me and I came out from a terrible hour and a half in a perfectly cheerful mood.
“Piggy back ride!” Avi demanded as my aunt’s quaint adobe house came into view. He climbed onto my back, his bony structure barely adding any weight. As Makai grabbed my hand to hold, we heard a car drive by on the nearby dirt road blasting the bass. I started to dance, attempting a moonwalk. Makai cackled at my attempt and began a chicken dance in response. His eyebrows lowered and he squinted at the ground in a face of utmost concentration as he kicked off his little purple sneakers and shook his tail feathers. Laughing, I joined in and we chicken danced long after the car had passed. The cactus spines started to work their way through the dark blue denim of my jeans, but I just smiled and kept flapping my arms like a chicken.