“Sure.”

“You’re not sleeping with him are you?”

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My jaw dropped. My dad had never brought up sex with me before.

“Perry? You there?”

I laughed, astonished. “Yeah, I’m here. I’m sorry, I don’t know what to say, dad. What the hell kind of question is that?”

“Stop using that word.”

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“Dad?”

“Perry, I am serious.”

I wiped the sweat off my forehead and looked back at the house, where Dex was probably still flipping through the books. I guess technically I was “sleeping” with him, but…

“No, dad. I am not sleeping with him, sheesh. He’s kind of my boss in a way.”

Now that was a weird thought.

He sighed, long and heavy. Silence hung in the air. I knew better than to say anymore.

“I just don’t see why you’re doing this, that’s all, pumpkin.”

“Oh, so you thought I was doing all of this for sex, is that it?”

“Ghosts don’t exist Perry. You know they don’t. Anyone who says they do are after something else themselves. You’re chasing after an illusion and the sooner you drop this charade and start putting your extra time and effort into your career, your job, the better off you’ll be. You need to get serious about your life.”

My turn to sigh. It was amazing how being in a wind-dusted barren field, with an azure cloudless sky, could feel so restrictive. Cell phones were the devil.

“Dad. We can talk about this when I get back. I’m here now, this is what I’m doing, I’m smack in the middle of it. You’re just going to have to deal with it for now.”

The front door to the house opened and Dex came out, the bigger camera hoisted on his shoulder this time. I raised my finger at him to indicate I was busy, if he couldn’t already tell, and turned my back.

“And by the way, it’s not cool to call me when I’m out here working and lay all this stuff on me,” I hissed into the phone. “That’s not being very adult.”

My dad started to say something back but the phone was suddenly snatched out of my hands. Dex put it up his mouth.

“Hello dad!”

“No!” I yelled and tried to take it back from him but he just pushed me away with the camera.

“Yes, this is Dex.” He grinned, looking far too pleased with himself. I felt sick.

“Oh, I’m taking real good care of your daughter,” he said in a tone my dad was bound to find sarcastic. “Actually, I should say she’s taking real good care of me.”

“Please give me back the phone,” I pleaded.

He gave me a dismissive look and listened to whatever my dad was saying.

“Oh, I know career is very important,” he said, winking at me. “Believe me, if I found out that she’d trade in a good job for what we are doing here, well…I’d probably call her an idiot.”

At the mention of idiot, I knew my face fell. Dex didn’t know about my situation still and I didn’t want him to know but at that exact second my face probably said it all.

But if he picked up on it, he didn’t show it. He watched me as he continued, “She’s a smart girl though, you raised her well. She knows what’s important. Yes, I’ll make sure she calls you tomorrow. Okay, see ya pops.”

And with that he hung up and tossed the phone up in the air. I scrambled for it and barely caught it before it smashed on the hard earth. It’s just my freaking ultra-breakable, irreplaceable iPhone, no big deal, you stupid jerk, I thought wildly.

“What the fuck, asshole?” I exclaimed, and wiped down the screen.

“You’ve got good reflexes,” he said nonchalantly and started off towards the car.

I stayed put. “No I mean, don’t you dare talk to my parents again.”

He stopped and gave me a lazy look. “What’s the big deal? I only said nice things.”

“You don’t understand,” I said simply. That’s really all I could say. I was lying to both of them.

“You’re right. I don’t. Now let’s get moving.”

“Where are you going?”

“We are going into town. Meet up with Max, walk around, take some set-up shots of the town, maybe ask around, talk to some people, perhaps find those guys who got attacked a few days ago.” He walked towards the car.

“You go,” I found myself saying.

He stopped, turned and folded his arms, thinking. He looked angry at first, then confused, then concerned, all in the space of a few seconds.

“I kind of need you,” he finally said.

“No, you don’t. Not for setting up shots. And you’ve got your buddy there to help you anyway.” I put a sarcastic spin on the word buddy.

He frowned but didn’t say anything.

“I just want some time alone, that’s all,” I admitted. “I need to process everything that’s happened so far.”

He rubbed his mouth with the back of his hand. I could tell he was mulling it over.

He walked back over to me and stopped a few feet away. His eyes roamed all over my face. Sometimes Dex reminded me of a truth-sniffing dog.

“I don’t feel good about leaving you here,” he said in a low voice. “I’d feel better if you were with me.”

“Are you worried about me or about what might happen to me?”

He nodded at that and looked at the barn. “Just stay put. Stay around Will or Bird. I’ll be back soon. Call me the minute you…need to.”

I gave him a quick smile. “Thanks dad.”

He walked over to the car, calling over his shoulder, “I don’t need to be your dad to worry about you.”

I watched him get into the Jeep and speed out of the ranch, dust clouds blooming behind him until they disintegrated into the blue. I breathed out a huge sigh of relief. I know that being alone may have seemed like a bad idea, but I honestly needed some time to just be.

I thought about going back into the house and maybe reading those books again but I was sure Sarah would be prowling about somewhere. I hadn’t seen her at breakfast, thank goodness, but figured by now she was in the living room, knitting a voodoo doll version of me (I had seen traces of her yarn collection), or perhaps complaining to Will and Miguel as they worked on the window. It’s not that I was afraid of Sarah, but there was something about her that made me extremely uneasy. And I didn’t like her impulsiveness and her total lack of tact. If I was alone with her I might end up saying something I’d really regret and spoil everything for us.

I turned around and looked at the barn and the paddocks. I couldn’t see Shan or Bird but figured they were somewhere doing ranchy-type stuff. I didn’t want to bug them either.

A nice walk, alone, would do me good.

Though my skinny jeans weren’t exactly New Mexico material and they were already making me sweat, my long tank top was airy and at least I had piled sunscreen on my arms. I didn’t have a hat or water, but I did have a phone. And my Doc Martens were perfect for any potential ruggedness.

I looked up at the low ridges that snaked away from the back of the paddocks. There was something about those ridges that had looked so familiar from the moment I had arrived. I wanted to explore them, climb to the top to get a better look. Also, I had a strange affinity for climbing up low rugged hills. Something about an exposed landscape up close got me feeling so…free. So different from the dense, dark, tree-covered slopes back home.

I walked to the edge of the paddocks and assessed the best way up. It wasn’t steep at all, just a low, gradual slope through rock and the occasional cacti and scrubby brush until it flattened out amid some pine and junipers. If I followed the ridge along the trees to the left it eventually came to a clearing on a bluff. The view from that point would overlook the whole ranch, and maybe part of the town.

I walked up the hill, my footing slipping on rocks occasionally, but overall my boots held out. I kept looking behind me to make sure the house was still visible. If I just followed my route as planned, it would never leave my sight.

Sweat dripped off my face by the time I got to the ridge and I was grateful for the shelter that the sparse pines provided. It was cooler in the shade too, making the sweat on my back feel refreshing. I caught my breath and leaned against a tree. I was maybe 150 feet above the flatlands, not too shabby considering I got up there without an actual path.

Once my heart slowed to a reasonable rate, I walked along the ridge’s edge, weaving in and out among the trees and tracing the rocky slope which slowly took me higher and higher. It took a lot longer for me to get to the clearing than I had thought, maybe twenty minutes, but the trees finally ended and there was the flat butte thrusting out above the valley.

I walked across the butte and stopped near the edge. The wind had picked up, rushing across my body, and the view was stupendous. I could see the entire farm, now looking a lot smaller than before, like a Lego version of it. The sheep roamed the dry pastures below like tiny cotton balls. I could see the road leading away from the ranch and disappearing up and down as the undulating desert took it as far as the tiny dot of Red Fox on the horizon. Above that, the big sky enveloped everything, and I imagined I could see the curvature of the atmosphere, spreading from the jagged peaks of my right to the lower, smoother desert hills of my left.

I thought about bringing my phone out to take a photo but decided against it. No way would that camera do this scene justice. No camera could. I just had to commit the sight and feeling to memory and hope it lasted.

I closed my eyes and breathed in deeply. I really did feel a million times better than earlier and I was so thankful that I took the time to be by myself and regroup. I wasn’t used to being around people all the time. Up here, on this mesa, I felt real freedom. Miles of open desert, blue sky and intense sunlight that made me feel like anything was possible. I wanted to keep that feeling in me forever.

I smiled to myself and opened my eyes. I looked around for a tree stump or a rock I could sit down on, so I could take everything in and just meditate. But the ground here was plain, rough and dusty and the concept of scorpions, snakes and spiders was creeping at the back of my head.

The butte sloped off to the left and led back towards a few more clearings surrounded by forest. The rocks over by the base of another ridge looked promising.

I skid down the slope a bit, the tops of my boots filling up with red dirt, and darted between a few jagged edges. I reached the rocks by the ridge but they were a lot pointier up close and there were far too many dark and creepy cave-like holes between them.

I looked up the ridge. If I could just climb up the rocks – providing they didn’t roll away from under me – I would make it to the next ridge. Who knew what I’d see from that vantage point?

I paused and looked behind me. I couldn’t see the valley anymore, at least not where the farm was. So much for not letting the ranch leave my sight.

A tiny, uneasy feeling nagged at the back of my head. But that was the adventure, wasn’t it? I’d just have to tell it to shut up. I was in exploration mode and I couldn’t quit now. I’d quit at the top. That’s it.

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