Instead, I said, “You did protect me last night. I don’t know what would have happened if you weren’t there. And in most other circumstances, I’m pretty good at protecting myself.”

He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, a little lost boy look in his eyes. A lock of his black hair fell across his forehead. I wanted to sweep it away but was afraid that if I touched his face in any way I wouldn’t be able to help myself and it would lead to other bad things.

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Sensing something in me, he looked up and our eyes met. Sparks were flying through a current between us. This could lead to bad things too, I thought. A man and a woman just can’t stare at each other like this. Something has to give.

“OK,” Bird said as he suddenly appeared in kitchen. We both jumped a little and gave him a sheepish look, as if he had caught us doing something we shouldn’t be.

“Am I interrupting something?” he asked, stopping in front of us.

Dex was first to let go of my hands and shook his head. “Not at all. What’s the plan?”

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Now, being that we were pretending to be married, it wouldn’t have seemed out of place if Dex had continued to hold on to me but I guess that little thought of Jenn was still present in his head somewhere.

“As soon as you get dressed, I’ll take you to Rudy’s. It’s best if you don’t eat anything either.”

“What do we say to Will and Sarah?” I whispered.

Bird leaned in closer. “Say nothing. Let me take care of that. Meet me by my truck in 15 minutes.”

It ended up being about 20 minutes later when we met him by his truck. I was still super woozy and a bit sick, so getting dressed took some extra effort. It felt like it was the worst hangover I ever had and I didn’t want Dex helping me anymore. I could put on my own pants, thank you very much. It just took a few attempts.

“What took you so long?” Bird said as we walked over to him. He looked me over and pointed at my jeans. “You can’t wear that to a sweat ceremony.”

“Well, I don’t know,” I said feebly but he just shook his head. Bird had really changed in the last 24 hours. I guess we all had.

“It doesn’t matter, get in,” he said as he climbed in the driver’s seat of his red Ford truck. I exchanged a look with Dex and got in, feeling Bird’s urgency.

He backed up the truck and started to pull out of the lot. I looked back at the house and gasped. Sarah was standing at our bedroom’s window, looking out at us. At least, that’s what it looked like.

I looked at Dex beside me to see if he had noticed but his eyes were focused sharply on the road, his tongue flicking a toothpick anxiously. I kept it to myself. What was the difference anyway?

We drove for about a half hour, past the town and into the craggy gullies that jutted in and out by the surrounding mountain ranges. Down a simple dirt road, framed by cacti and boulders, lay a modest adobe rancher. We parked the truck next to a newish SUV and stepped out.

The air here was fresher and hit my lungs sharply. I hadn’t noticed a grade while on the road but perhaps we were at a higher elevation. It was still very early and the air hadn’t warmed up yet.

A lazy woof came out from around the corner of the house and a happy looking mutt came trotting towards us, tail wagging. Seeing a dog made me feel warm and fuzzy inside and I happily petted his rough fur and endured a few rounds of sloppy doggy kisses.

Dex watched me with mild amusement as Bird started for the back of the house.

“That’s just Boy Boy,” Bird said, waving at the dog. “Come, Rudy is back here.”

We walked around the corner, with Boy Boy at our heels, and saw a large tent nestled among some skinny trees. A neat fire was roaring beside it and Rudy was feeding it juniper branches and stones. I guess in my head I had pictured Rudy wearing ceremonial robes and a huge feathered headdress but those were just stereotypes floating around in my mind. Rudy looked the same as he did last night except that he was a little less blasé.

He greeted us sternly and shook his head at my pants. “Those won’t do. Your top is fine but you’re going to have to go pantless in there.”

He looked at Dex’s cargo shorts and told him, “You too. You could get sick in there with so many clothes on. It’s customary for people to be naked during a sweat ceremony, but I understand if you don’t want to do that with us here.”

“Hell no,” I muttered. Even going in there in just my underwear was going to be traumatizing. And it wasn’t because of Bird and Rudy.

The hut was about four feet high and about the size of a six-person tent. From the outside I could see it was made of heavy tarpaulin material and the door, which we would have to crawl through, was in the style of a tent’s door, complete with zipper. At the moment it was unzipped, showing nothing but blackness inside. I was in no hurry to go in there.

Rudy poked the fire one last time and gestured at the house’s back door.

“It’ll be another half hour before the rocks are hot enough,” he said. “We might as well get you prepped for what’s going to happen.”

It sounded terrifyingly ominous. I looked at Dex who was beside me. His expression said the same thing: this wasn’t going to be a typical sauna session, was it?

We went into the house and sat in the kitchen while Rudy brought out several pitchers of water and poured us all a glass.

“Drink now and it’ll help you once you’re in there,” he said.

Then he took out a small pouch and some rolling papers and started to roll sweet smelling cigarettes. He did this as he told us what was going to happen.

“The Great Spirit watches over us but sometimes we need a little help. Traditionally the sweat ceremony is done to cleanse one’s own spirit so that it is clean and good. The negativity and evil thoughts that we experience each day, even without us knowing it, cling to our shells. The sweat purifies us so that we are born again, brand new. The good spirits can find us and protect us while the evil spirits are unable to track us. Eventually they will find us again, as evil always does, but this will give us some protection in the meantime.”

He finished rolling one, lit it with a match and handed it to Dex. “Here smoke some of this.”

Dex took a puff, then coughed. It was a lot, even for him. He took a gulp of water and opened his eyes wide, achieving that crazy look of his.

“Wow, that is some strong shit,” he exclaimed.

Rudy smiled slightly at Dex’s outburst and nodded at me. “Her turn. Have some Perry, it will please The Great Spirit.”

This Great Spirit was so far sounding pretty cool compared to my God, though I was starting to suspect they were all one and the same. I took the cigarette from Dex’s fingers and inhaled. I hadn’t smoked since high school and it showed. Once the smoke entered my lungs, I also broke out into a coughing fit. It was a strong hit of nicotine and I immediately felt simultaneously alert and relaxed. The tobacco tasted very good, almost like licorice and agave. If we had packs like that on the market, there was a good chance I would take up smoking again.

I passed it on to Bird and Rudy continued, “It used to be that men and women would do the sweat separately but those things don’t matter so much these days. Once the rocks are hot enough, I will move them into the center of the hut. I’ll lead us through a few prayers and we will have some breaks in between where you can get out, stretch your legs and get water. As time goes on, it will get hotter and hotter. It may be so hot that you can’t handle it and that’s fine. I strongly suggest you stay in the tent no matter what. Lie down on the ground if you have to but if you leave the tent before the session is over, it may make everything redundant.”

I started feeling a bit nervous. The cigarette hadn’t helped.

Rudy went on to explain how the tent had been made with willow branches, each branch strategically placed to pay homage to various animals and the Great Spirit himself. Everything was connected and the whole experience was to show us our place in the universe, as well as cleanse our sins.

Soon enough, Rudy had stopped talking. It was time.

We walked outside. The fire had died somehow, smoldering under the weight of the rocks, which glowed neon red in the morning light. We watched Rudy and Bird carrying the hot stones on a pitchfork and shovel them into the tent. I felt like I should help them somehow, but I think in this case it was OK if Dex and I were just the curious bystanders. This was sacred to them and I didn’t want to mess it up.

When they were done, Bird went into the kitchen to fetch the water. Rudy pointed at my clothes.

“No time to be shy,” he said simply. He took off his glasses and his denim shirt and placed them in a neat pile outside of the tent. Oh God, Great Spirit, whatever, I thought, please don’t let this turn into a naked old man expedition.

But Rudy kept his boxer shorts on. Dex did too. I sighed and slipped my pants off. Thank goodness I was wearing my comfy black underwear that pretty much covered my butt, or at least most of it. To think I was close to putting on a thong that morning.

Bird came out with the drinks and placed them outside of the tent. He sat down on a log and wiped his brow.

“You’re not coming in?” Dex asked him.

“No, I think it’s a good idea if someone is outside of the tent,” he said. I had to agree with him.

“Ladies first,” Rudy said opening up the flap of the tent even wider and pointing inside. I really did not want to be the first to go in the hot dark tent, let alone have Dex and Rudy stare at my butt as I went in. On all fours, no less.

I turned to look at Dex behind me. He was already grinning.

I smacked him across the chest. “You keep your eyes to yourself, mister.”

“That reminds me,” Rudy said. He walked over to us and held out his hand. “You will want to take off your rings. You could swell up in there.”

Rings? Oh, right. We both slipped them off and placed them in Rudy’s open palm. He examined each ring closely and then stole a glance at our ring fingers. Could he even see without his glasses? I could have sworn a smile skipped across his stony lips.

“In you go,” he said tapping me on the shoulder.

I took a few steps towards the entrance and got down on all fours. I heard Dex snicker behind me but ignored it. The wall of heat I felt emanating from inside the tent was intense. I took a deep breath and went inside.

It was dark as hell except for the glowing stones in the center. The floor was packed with very soft dirt that was still cool on my knees. I crawled along the outer edge of the circular floor, making sure I was far away from the hot rocks, and sat back. It was so hot, and so dry, that I couldn’t imagine it getting any hotter.

Dex came in next, his shaggy silhouette against the door, and crawled towards me. He sat next to me, cross-legged, our knees touching. I was glad for that.

Rudy came in last and settled across from us, pulling a doeskin bag of stuff up beside him.

“OK Bird,” he called out. “Time to seal us.”

I heard a rustling outside. Bird appeared at the door, the blinding daylight behind him. I couldn’t see his face from the exposure but I could feel he was giving us all a hopeful look. He nodded and disappeared. The tent flapped shut and the loud tear of the zipper filled the air as he shut us in.

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