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Cupcakes in the Desert

             Mere seconds after Matthew commented for the sixth time about how bad it would be if the car broke down now, the car broke down. Dalton guided it to a stop on the side of the road as smoke poured out from under the hood. Matthew and Dalton got out and stood ten yards away from the car, watching to see if it was going to burst into flames. The desert sun blazed down at them and red dust swirled around their shoes on the smoldering highway. The car didn’t burst into flames. The smoke dissipated.

            “This is bad news,” said Matthew. “How long since you saw another car?”

            “I dunno,” said Dalton . He took his baseball cap off and fanned himself with it. “I blame you for this, Matthew. You couldn’t stop talking about breaking down. You said it over and over. If you think back I think you’ll be surprised at how often you mentioned it.” He went back to the car and sat sideways in the driver’s seat with his feet on the blacktop. He opened the dog-eared road atlas on his lap and traced his finger along their route. Matthew stood over him casting a nervous shadow across the page. “Twelve miles,” said Dalton . “We’re gonna have to hike it. What do we have for supplies?”

            Matthew opened the back door and pawed through the clothes, wrappers, and tools on the seat. “We’ve got the melted ice in the bottom of the cooler and these,” said Matthew, holding out a Tupperware container with a dozen cupcakes in it that his wife had made for the two men to eat on the trip. The heat had melted the icing on the cupcakes to a nearly liquid consistency. It had run down the sides of the cupcakes and blended into pink and blue swirls on the bottom of the container. “We’re in trouble, aren’t we,” said Matthew. “I mean, we are really unprepared for this.”

            Dalton tossed the atlas onto the passenger’s seat. “So now you’re gonna jinx us again? Just shut up!” He turned the key in the ignition one more time, but nothing happened. He stood and walked a short distance off of the road, kicking at the scraggly weeds and trying to think critically about the situation. A lizard without a tail ran under a rock. An impressive butte loomed in the distance, but it was impossible to gauge how far away it actually was. Dalton was already getting thirsty.

            “Here comes a horse,” said Matthew. He was leaning on the trunk of the car and pointing to the other side of the road. Sure enough, a horse. It was trotting towards them and tossing its head from side to side. The horse, a red and white paint, was wearing a saddle, and when it stopped twenty yards from the road to watch the men from a safe distance, Dalton saw that there was a pair of empty boots still wedged into the stirrups. Dalton crossed the road and walked toward the horse one cautious step at a time, holding his hands out in front of him and saying, “C’mere, pal. Come over here. I’m a friend to horses. You like me, don’t you?” When he got within a few feet, the horse whinnied and bounded away. Then, with a healthy distance reestablished between them, it stopped to stare at Dalton again with its black, wet eyes.

            Dalton walked back to the car and opened the Tupperware container that Matthew had set on the roof. He took one of the cupcakes and walked back toward the horse, which had ventured closer while Dalton wasn’t watching. “Good idea,” said Matthew. “Feed all of our provisions to animals. I bet there are some hungry fire ants around.”

            Dalton held the cupcake out to the horse, balancing it on his palm. The horse regarded him warily, but it didn’t run this time. “Look, Trigger,” said Dalton . “Look, look here, don’t you want to take sweets from a stranger?” The horse made huffing sounds as it nuzzled the cupcake, blue frosting smearing across its nose. “Eat it, stupid,” said Dalton . The horse ate the cupcake in one bite, its blunt teeth scraping across Dalton ’s palm. “That’s the spirit,’ said Dalton . “Throw caution to the wind.” He patted the horse’s nose and then moved around to stand beside it, taking the reins in his hands to keep the horse from getting away if it decided the cupcake wasn’t sitting well.

            “Whose boots do you think those are?” asked Matthew. “And how crippled do you think he is?”

            Dalton took one of the boots out of the stirrup and looked it over, shaking it upside down and then tossing it to the ground. “Whoever he was, he didn’t have the kind of rapport with this horse that I do,” said Dalton . “Besides, my shoes have laces.” He put his left foot in the empty stirrup, grabbed the saddlehorn, and pulled himself up into the saddle, swinging his right leg over the horse and kicking the other boot out of its stirrup. “Here’s the new plan,” said Dalton . “Give me a little water and I’ll ride to the next town and get someone to come back to pick you up. It’s faster and safer than both of us walking through the desert in this heat. I better take another cupcake in case there’s an incident and I need to make this guy like me again.”

            Matthew looked down the road as if willing a vehicle to appear. “I don’t like the idea of splitting up,” he said. “And those boots give me the creeps.”

            “You wanna double up?” asked Dalton , patting the horse on the rump.

            “No,” said Matthew, already walking back to the car with Dalton following on the horse. “But stay by the road so I can find you if a car comes along.” He put a half-filled bottle of water and a cupcake into a plastic bag and handed it to Dalton . “What if the horse gets sick?” asked Matthew. “What if you get sunstroke? What if I get bitten by a snake?”

            “Matthew, please! Just stay in the car and be positive!”

            Five minutes later the horse was trotting with an energetic step along the edge of the highway, Dalton bouncing up and down in the saddle, his right arm hooked through the handles of the plastic bag. After a while, Dalton turned and looked back in the direction he’d come from and the car was just a glint of sun on the black strip of road. Sweat ran down Dalton ’s face and he could tell the back of his neck was burning, but the sky was electric blue, the horse kept scaring up long, lean jackrabbits, and Dalton felt like a welcome part of the landscape. He congratulated himself on his ability to adapt. The steady rhythm of the horse’s gait was soothing. The desert spread out glowing and sleepy in every direction, strapped down to the earth by the road. It murmured incoherencies in Dalton ’s ear and his head nodded forward, his shoulders relaxing, the reins falling from his fingers.


            This is what Dalton saw: Dusk was easing over the desert, deepening the reds to purples, stretching the shadows until they overlapped. A bootless cowboy was walking with his hat tipped back on his head, his tattered socks covered in red dust and the spines of prickly plants. The cowboy came to a road, came to a broken-down car, knocked on the back window and roused Matthew, who had been sleeping on the seat among the garbage. The two of them spoke to each other. Matthew popped the hood of the car, produced a wrench from somewhere, and handed it to the cowboy, who knocked around under the hood for a while and then slammed it shut, wiping his hands on his filthy jeans. Matthew turned the key in the ignition and the car started right up. As Matthew shook the cowboy’s hand, thanking him over and over, he noticed the cowboy’s stocking feet for the first time.

            The light was fading fast, but Matthew found the boots out in the brush without trouble, holding them up in triumph as he carried them back to the cowboy. Then Dalton heard them speaking.

            “The horse came this way?” asked the cowboy. “The horse with these boots in his stirrups? You saw him?”

            “Sure,” said Matthew. “My buddy rode off on him to get help.”

            “Which d’rection?” asked the cowboy, already striding toward the car.

            “Up the road,” said Matthew, pointing.

            “We gotta find him,” said the cowboy, climbing into the driver’s seat and fastening the seatbelt.

Matthew ran around the car and got in the passenger’s side, infected by the cowboy’s urgency. “I told him to stay near the road,” said Matthew. “Is this bad? Is this really bad?”

The cowboy punched the accelerator and the car jumped off down the highway in a cloud of scorched dust. They saw nothing as they drove, just weeds and rocks. Ten minutes later, they turned around in the parking lot of a gas station at the outskirts of town and headed back in the direction they’d come from.

“We’re not gonna find him, are we,” said Matthew.

The cowboy narrowed his eyes and hunched over the steering wheel, looking for any sign of movement along the edges of the headlights’ reach. “Keep that doom and gloom talk to y’rself,” said the cowboy.


            Dalton woke up. The sun had set. The road was nowhere in sight. On Dalton ’s left was a sheer rock wall. On his right, a drop of hundreds of feet into darkness. And just beyond the horse’s gently bobbing head, a staircase carved from the rock wall descended into the depths of a narrow canyon. Dalton looked up. Far above him, the full moon rested on the rim of the canyon like a fat tourist watching the white dot of his spit plummet out of sight. There wasn’t enough room to turn the horse around on the staircase. Dalton pulled back on the reins to stop his descent, but the horse made a panicky sound in its throat and lurched towards the edge in a way that made Dalton ’s extremities go numb. He dropped the reins and the horse continued downward.

            “We had an agreement,” said Dalton . “I gave you the biggest cupcake we had.” The horse pretended not to hear him. Dalton pulled the other cupcake out of the plastic bag and held it next to the horse’s head, waggling it back and forth, but the horse was indifferent. Maybe the first one hadn’t tasted that good. Dalton decided his best chance of escape would be to slide backwards off of the horse and hope he didn’t get kicked, but when he tried to take his feet out of the stirrups to dismount, he couldn’t move them. It was as if the rubber soles of his shoes had fused with the leather of the stirrups. He felt panic sweeping toward him in swift arc. He needed to get out of his shoes. He struggled and kicked his feet, curling his toes in frustration. It was hopeless. His shoelaces were pulled tight and knotted twice. His shoes were inescapable. “It’ll be fine,” he said out loud. “We’ll just turn around at the bottom and come right back up.”

            The horse’s hooves scraped on the rough steps as it navigated them in the dark. A chorus of mournful howls drifted up to Dalton from the canyon floor. The horse didn’t acknowledge the howls. Dalton couldn’t tell how many there were, but the sound made him ache. He hoped the alpha male liked cupcakes. He had his doubts, but he didn’t dare express them out loud. “He’ll like them,” said Dalton . “Everything likes cupcakes.”

Discussion Questions

  • At what point does “proactive resourcefulness” start to interfere with accomplishment? Think about times when this has been in the case in your own life. Think about times when you’ve done nothing and better resources have shown up unexpectedly and you’ve been able to achieve your goals with a fraction of the effort that you would have expended while being proactively resourceful.

  • Is the horse a dynamic or static character?

  • Does Dalton create his own luck?

  • Would this story have been better if you had said, “This story is great!” out loud at regular intervals while you listened to it?

  • Could the character of Matthew behave any less like my friend Matt Martin would/has in similar circumstances?

  • How would your interpretation of this story change if the cowboy were to refer to Matthew as “Cupcake” in Dalton’s vision/dream?