In the heart of the summer the heat draws out moisture from your lungs and blisters your bare feet. It burns your scalp, makes the shade of scrawny mesquite trees feel like an oasis. Waves ripple off of asphalt, shimmer on the road before you, like pockets of water that disappear as soon as you get close. Every day, the sun sets and suddenly the desert becomes more forgiving. The sun and the clouds and the mountains in the distance begin to blend together and steal the breath from your lungs. It’s blink and you miss it beautiful, it’s look away for a second and it’s gone forever. You can only watch as the sunset melts into a dusky purple, warm against the foreground of the cacti and miles of nothing and miles of everything. At night, coyotes howl with their faces turned into the wind, looking for prey. Their eyes glow and glint in car headlights along the highway, their pups darting behind mothers, waiting for signs of human life to leave.
There are roads in the desert that lead to nothing, some roads that go and go for hundreds of miles. Some start with a warning: no rest stop for next 100 miles, no gas station for the next 200 miles. Some roads aren't that kind, and suddenly it feels like you've been driving and driving forever, and your hands never leave the steering wheel, you can’t remember how you got there and you start to forget where you’re going all together. And then: something. A town in the middle of this ocean of nothing. It doesn’t matter who lives there, how many billboards upon billboards shouting of sin and hell and damnation surround you like teeth. You’re finally somewhere, and that’s something. That’s salvation.
In the middle of all of this nothing, there are places that are forgotten, places where things can hide in plain sight, where they can be still and quiet and let eyes pass over them without a second thought.
Some number of miles north of Sin City, out of reach of the casinos and the spending and the excess is a town that’s barely a town. 100 residents, no gas station, no police department, no grocery store. A cluster of mobile homes in the desert, centered around a tiny diner, sometimes full of tourists, but most of the time not. No matter the day or time, the diner glows with fluorescent lights. A beacon in the night. Every day, a blue range rover sits out front of the restaurant, caked in mud even though it hasn’t rained in months.
Inside, there is always a woman behind the bar and a man in the kitchen. The woman stands with her back to the dining room, either talking to the man or not talking. When there are no tourists, the woman and the man play cards, a deck spread out on the counter between them. They know the names of every resident, but sometimes they pretend to forget.
The first child to live in the town was named Rachel. The woman and the man both like to believe that Rachel would have liked their name game, if they had ever met. The woman wonders what power is in a name. What it means to choose a name, and to have a name chosen for you. What a strange ritual, what a hopeful thing, to name something. Sometimes it seems like a name is a promise.
It was July or August, one of the hotter months- one where days blend together and nights are clear and the heat feels unbearable, unbelievably hot.
The door of the Little A’Le’Inn opened and the woman behind the bar barely looked up.
“Who would ever live in a place this small.” An older woman muttered to the teenage boy who followed her close behind. She wasn’t asking a question, the tourists rarely ever were. The boy was wide eyed, looking hungrily at the interior of the restaurant. He didn’t answer, clearly too enamored with his surroundings to consider her cynicism.
The woman behind the bar eyed the man in the kitchen, squinting at him before sliding her cards into her apron pocket.
“Welcome to the Little A’Le’Inn- where our food is out of this world” years ago, her pause might have been theatrical, she might have waited for a smile, but now she was tired. “Go ahead and seat yourself once you’re done looking around, and I’ll bring you a menu.”
The older woman sighed, immediately finding a table as far away from the bar as possible. The boy wandered the restaurant, staring at every cliche, every doctored UFO photograph, every mug and shot glass and t-shirt.
The woman behind the bar turned back to the man in the kitchen.
“His name is Joseph, her name is Rosa. She doesn’t want to be here, but she loves him and she wants him to be happy. She’s worried about him, but she can’t put her finger on why. She feels like they should have stayed home but it’s much too late to turn back now. She doesn’t have enough gas in her tank to leave, and she’s hoping that by the end of the week someone will be nice enough to sell her a gallon or two.”
“I still don’t know how you do that, kid.” The man behind the bar shook his head.
“Research.” The woman laughed. They both knew it was a lie, but the man didn’t like to dwell on things he didn’t understand. That was reserved for the tourists and fanatics and conspiracy theorists. Most of the time, life in Rachel was life in Rachel. It wasn’t a mystery, it wasn’t a place of intrigue. It was just a place.
“Just a place a little too close to Area 51.” The woman said.
The man threw down a hand of cards in response. “Go fish.”
“You’re losing your touch, kid.” He winked at her. “Looks like you’ve got company.” The teenage boy stood at the bar, staring at them.
“Have you seen one?” The woman wished she could remember how many times she had been asked this question.
“If I had, I would make sure you were the first to know.” The boy laughed.
“Do you know anyone who has?”
“Lots of people- mostly people like you. They come here to find the answers they’re looking for. Some don't and some do. The people who live here are quiet about that kind of thing, and anyway, if you hadn’t noticed” her voice dropped to a mock whisper “most of them are crotchety old men.” The man in the kitchen rolled his eyes. He was used to their routine, the script that they stuck to. “Let me know when you’re ready to order. Today’s special is our eggs-traterrestrial eggs.” That was their special every day, but most people didn’t stay long enough to figure that out. Somehow they always had too many eggs.
“Joseph, come back here.” The boy gave the woman behind the counter a remorseful look.
“Told you.” The woman didn’t look at the man behind the counter.
“I didn’t say anything.”
Rosa beckoned to the woman behind the counter.
“I’d like a grilled cheese, Joseph wants the burger.” The customers were always too embarrassed to call the menu items by their names. The woman thought it was funny.
“Sure. Any drinks? The Shirley Temple of the Ancients? The Martian-tini?”
“I’m driving.” Not without any gas, but the woman didn’t mention that.
“What’s your name?” Joseph asked. The woman raised her eyebrowsf.
“You mean you can’t read this?” She gestured to her name tag, which was exclusively written in symbols. Rosa rolled her eyes, and the boy laughed. She left without answering them.
When the woman got back to the bar, the man in the kitchen was already making their order. He had worked at the Little A’Le’Inn for so long that he could guess the customers orders without asking. He was never wrong.
“I like your glasses.”
“Thank you.” The woman smiled at the boy, setting his plate down in front of him. They were cheap sunglasses shaped like alien faces, complete with tiny antennae on the top.
“No more theatrics today?” The man in the kitchen asked her in a voice that the tourists couldn't hear.
“I’m not really in the mood.” She shrugged, digging in her apron pocket for her hand of cards. “Anyway, doesn’t scaring tourists get old for you?” The man laughed.
“Not really. Isn’t that what they came here for, anyway?”
The man won the game, as he did every day, and the woman glanced at the clock, 5 PM. “Guess it’s that time again.” She groaned. She hated cleaning the rooms.
“No time like the present. Sorry, kid.”
“Bold words from a man who has never had to touch a stranger's glow in the dark condoms, Riding-In.”
“Check-in for room 5 will be in an hour.” The woman said to Rosa and her son as she unlocked the supply closet door with a sign that read “No Earthlings Allowed.”
The supply closet was dark and smelled like bleach and fabric softener. The woman pulled the string on the light bulb.
Life in Rachel was life in Rachel. It wasn’t a mystery, it wasn’t a place of intrigue. It was just a place. Every day was the same, no matter who drove into town, and the people who lived there didn’t mind.