Fiction: ‘Oasis, California’

“All these baby scorpions hatched inside the bricks. Came crawling out of the walls. And Lolo’s baby girl was in her crib.”

oasis california, scorpions
Zoe Matthiessen

When she first got here, on July 8, she couldn’t believe her mother had forgotten the story of them coming out of the walls. The baby scorpions all crawling toward the baby girl in the crib here? In this room? Or was it the other room, where Lolo was sleeping?

It didn’t matter that there were probably 10 coats of paint on the walls. White. The little house was, like, a hundred years old. Scorpion eggs could live a long time. Like in movies. Like the frog eggs that survived in the mud.

Raquel lay on the bed, staring at the big wooden beams in the ceiling. She’d pulled the bunk bed away from the wall again, inch by inch, so there was a two-foot space between her and the adobe bricks. Her father had slept here, with his brother, in the summers when they worked on the date garden and the grapefruit trees. They never got stung.

This story appears in Issue 22 of Alta Journal.

At least, no one had told her they got stung. Her father had been dead eight years. They only had six years to talk. He didn’t mention scorpions.

She didn’t want to ask Auntie Lolo. Lolo was her grandmother’s sister. She was ancient. She was sleeping in the big room, where the kitchen and couch and bookcase and TV and dining room table were. Raquel’s grandfather had pulled the other bed out of this, the only bedroom, again. Put it out there for Lolo, because Raquel had to isolate for 10 days.

The Fourth of July had made everybody sick again. Like her mother said, “Hell, it was on a weekend, and everybody partied hard. What makes people happy is killing them now. Raquel, baby, you have to go to Oasis. Just for a few more weeks. Until this surge is over.”

Auntie Lolo was old. But she could hear everything. Every cry of the peacocks in the date garden. Every owl at night. She said old people didn’t have to sleep the same way as teenagers. They slept like animals—floating just above here, but still listening. And teenagers slept like they were under the earth and they had to pop their heads out every morning.

Raquel had heard her mother tell the story a couple of years ago. They were at a birthday party for a nurse who had moved from Indio to work at St. Bernardine Hospital, in San Bernardino. Her mother was holding a tequila paloma. Her favorite drink.

Nurses could party.

“My husband’s aunt built that house in, like, 1920. Out in the middle of 20 acres next to her sister’s place. You can see the Salton Sea. Her sister built a wooden house. But Auntie Lolo and her husband made their own adobe bricks. I guess it was spring. And at the end of summer, like, August, all these baby scorpions hatched inside the bricks. Came crawling out of the walls. And Lolo’s baby girl was in her crib.”

“Jesus Christ!” her mother’s ICU supervisor, Mariah Ball, said. “She died?”

Raquel’s mother laughed. “Auntie Lolo had a dog. The dog went crazy and was trying to bite all the scorpions. Hundreds of them. Auntie Lolo woke up and got the baby out.”

Mariah Ball said, “But how did they kill all the scorpions?” and Raquel’s mother shrugged.

“No idea.”

If scorpions came out in August, Raquel couldn’t stay here. She hadn’t left this room for four days now. If you were a nurse or EMT or doctor or anybody who worked at the hospital, you were dangerous. Everything about your own body. And that meant your kids were dangerous, too.

It was so hot she thought she would die.

Her mother had disinfected every day from the hospital. But Lolo was old. If one corona particle had clung to her mother’s hair, Raquel imagined, her mother’s long wavy hair, and then made its way to Raquel’s long wavy hair, Lolo could die.

She’d written an entire report on scorpions for Mr. Espinoza, for extra credit, because she was so far behind in summer school now. They jabbed their prey with that tail, held it over their own head and sent that stinger down hard, paralyzed the bug or whatever, and then ate it. The acid dissolved the exoskeletons of their meal. So why couldn’t they be lingering here, up in the ceiling, hatching this summer ’cause why not, liquefying the straw and mud and horsehair of the bricks, and the whitewash? Making their way through a wall and sensing her in this bed?

Top bunk. She’d climbed up like a little kid. Like her father used to be. And heat rose, so here she was suffocating now. Oasis. The fan pushed the hot air into her face. Her eyeballs dry like grapes in her skull.

She’d be in this room for at least four more days. She was a teenager but she wasn’t sleeping like under the earth.•

Susan Straight’s latest novel, Mecca, was a finalist for a 2022 Kirkus Prize.
Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
More From Dispatches