Standing in the fountain looking down at her feet, Stella sees the old tile has made worrying patterns. A whale opens its great mouth as though it will swallow all of the water. Abreast of it, a dog with a gray snout barks. The two are neck and neck in a race. Are they running toward something—or away?
“Dr. Vikram would have a field day with this,” Stella says to her feet.
He would say that the patterns represent Stella’s past in Miami catching up with her. The whale is Rudy, her boss at the club who is always hungry for more. More steak fries, more customers, more money. The dirty dog is the bartender, Frank, inventor of new drinks for the nightly crowds, himself an addictive mixture bitter and sweet that Stella could drink by the pitcher.
In her effort to get far away quickly, Stella has traded one hot city drowned in pink for another. But perhaps her mistake is much greater. Palm Springs doesn’t seem very big and yet it’s a mystery. Where are its hiding places beyond this tiny, rundown hotel? Rooting in her purse, Stella gathers a handful of change and casts it into the water, making a silent wish that everyone will forget her. Or maybe for a way to go back in time, before her biggest mistake. If her crime were a cocktail, it would be her own tears mixed with Everclear and then set on fire.
Stella rubs her feet over the tiles to erase what Dr. Vikram would term “unproductive thoughts.” But the tiles are clean. Spotless, in fact. The disturbing patterns in the water are not living at the bottom of the fountain. They’re coming from above. They are shadows cast by someone very large standing behind her.
There are degrees of crimes. The worst are classified as “first.” Stella’s crime was her first. If she finds Frank, will hers get downgraded?
Stella babbles this and more to the tall woman dressed in silver Mylar to look like a car. Appropriately, her name is Mercedes.
“That is certainly a lot of money,” Mercedes says. “Can’t you just mail it back to this Rudy person?” Her pretty brown face appears from a cutout in the middle of the car’s undercarriage. After they met at the fountain, Mercedes begged a ride to her gig at the museum’s outdoor art opening. It was difficult to squash Mercedes into the Bronco.
“Well, no. I took the money from the club and gave it to my boyfriend Frank so he could get out of debt with Rudy.” Stella drives as Mercedes the person motions directions with long silver-gloved arms. “Then Frank disappeared. With the money.”
“You stole from the boss to pay off the boss?” Nothing seems to shock Mercedes.
“Yes, it doesn’t make any sense.”
“Love doesn’t make sense,” Mercedes says.
They have reached the museum nestled in gold and rose sand with big gray mountains above it. Night is starting to float down like a soft navy scarf upon the turquoise sky.
Mercedes the car poses alongside the huge artwork car suspended in air with its nose inches above a small lake. Stella takes the photo before joining the crowd viewing the exhibition.
It’s only later, back at the hotel, that Stella will pull out her phone again and see that an unknown number has texted her a message and a photo of herself gazing at the car, the lake.
“It’s not too late to avert a nasty accident, Stella. Return the money.”
It is nearly dawn and Stella is still sitting on the edge of her lumpy hotel bed. Her fear is so great that she thinks she may faint, which just makes her more frightened.
She breathes in through her nose and out through her mouth, as Dr. Vikram taught her during their first session many years ago. He is probably not an actual therapist—he works out of a kiosk at a Miami mall—but he helps her all the same.
Stella’s phone plays “Hallelujah.” She answers and breathes heavily.
“Stella? You missed your appointment yesterday.” Dr. Vikram has somehow been summoned. His voice is like inspirational music.
“I’m so sorry,” Stella murmurs, and these words are sent out to everyone in her life like the coins she keeps tossing into the fountain.
“Are you alright, my darling? You sound strained. Let’s reschedule.”
“I’ve been called out of town suddenly.” This is not a lie. While Stella has put the phone on speaker, she hurriedly packs. “I’ll call you when I return.”
“Alright. But really I’m calling to warn you…”
As Stella hurriedly hangs up on Dr. Vikram, she sees he has not called from his cell. The number is local.
Just as there are degrees of crimes, there are numbers of chances. It’s time for Stella to take her second and probably last.
She is driving the blue highway out of Palm Springs as the sun rises, spreading its golden beams upon hills of sand and dirt. Yesterday’s pale sky is shot through with this morning’s threads of bloody red.
On the deserted highway, a hitchhiker in grimy camouflage turns to her approaching car. Sticks out an arm with his thumb up.
They are nearly at Aunt Maude’s. Stella can just make out the low house in the distance, designed to blend in among the hills and cacti.
“I took the money for you.” Stella blinks back tears.
“But then you took the money from me.” Frank sips something sharp from his water bottle. Stella smells grapefruit, vodka, and maybe cilantro.
Unhappiness floats like the road’s rusty dust throughout the car.
Frank has explained it all twice. After Stella gave the money to Frank, Rudy realized the exact amount he was owed was now missing from his vault. Frank planned to give it back to Rudy, then figure out how to pay back the original amount he owed. But when he unlocked his desk that night, the money Stella had given him was gone. He assumed she took it, so he took off before Rudy came for him.
“Your aunt’s was the only place I could think you would go. I flew to L.A. and then hitchhiked to hide my trail. I’ve come to convince you to give back the money.” As though this is a drinking game, Frank takes another swig from his bottle after saying the word “money” again.
Stella can understand the words, but put together they are confusing, like the weird parts of the Joshua trees.
They have reached Aunt Maude’s. Stella doesn’t want to beg her mother’s wealthy sister for help. But this is the end of the road.
Even Aunt Maude’s door is expensive—strange fire eaters, stilt walkers, and concubines carved in pale wood. The doorbell is a lion’s roar.
“I really don’t have the money,” Stella says again. “And if you don’t, then who does?”
The door is opened by a familiar woman holding a gun who says, “I do. I have the money.”
When Frank rushes forward, Stella screams.
But there’s no gunfire, only Frank embracing Mercedes, who out of her Mylar car costume has clouds of dark hair and an hourglass shape.
Stella stands outside like an unwanted guest, then strides forward, spins Frank around, and slaps him.
“Stella, stop. You’re demeaning yourself.” Aunt Maude slowly rolls forward in a bedazzled wheelchair. She is an ancient skeleton with huge, kohl-rimmed eyes. A piece of red coral dangles from the front of her black turban.
Aunt Maude looks at Mercedes. “So the boyfriend’s finally here. What does it take to get rid of you two?”
“Money, of course. Lots of it.” Mercedes pockets the gun. “And a painting might be nice.”
Aunt Maude’s famous oils of the desert fill the vast room. One wall of glass faces the landscape she paints.
“More money? You already have Rudy’s.” Stella moves in front of her aunt. “Leave Aunt Maude out of this.”
“You should have thought of that before you led us here, Stella,” Frank says. “I just had to tell you one little lie—that I owed Rudy money—then plant the idea of your stealing from him.”
“All I had to do was befriend you, which was too easy,” Mercedes says. “I am a model, by the way. The museum gig was for learning more about Aunt Maude here. I texted that photo and threat from the opening, to speed things along.” Mercedes picks up a small jade monkey and stuffs it into another pocket. “I dropped off Frank on the highway earlier to ensure you got here. You’re a very easy mark, Stella.”
As if in agreement, the bell roars like a lion.
Mercedes pulls out her gun and flings open the door.
A six-pack of Dos Equis sits on the mat.
While everyone stares at the beer and Mercedes pockets her gun, Stella is transfixed by the big red ceramic cactus near the hallway. Or, more specifically, the large man hiding behind it.
Rudy tiptoes out and slips next to Aunt Maude, with whom he exchanges the same expression, as though they are one face reflected in a mirror. Triumph.
“I’ll take my money back now,” Rudy says.
Frank and Mercedes swivel around, their faces twin masks of fear.
Mercedes struggles to find her gun and instead pulls out the jade carving.
“Monkeys are terrifying.” Rudy strides forward and roughly finds the little gun in her pocket before pointing it at her and Frank. “Do you have another, larger pocket with my cash in it?”
“Rudy, we don’t have it!” Frank has put his arm around Mercedes, who nods rapidly before adding, “Stella stole the money from your safe.”
“No.” Aunt Maude gives Stella a meaningful look. “Stella was set up. Frank took it.”
Everyone is looking at Stella. There aren’t really degrees of truth, or shades. It’s black and white. She will confess to Rudy she did steal for Frank, who stole from them both. She will say she is sorry. And keep saying it all the way to jail, where she will have years to think about the gray areas of love.
Before she can say anything, though, Mercedes and Frank rush out the door.
“Wait for it,” Aunt Maude says.
Moments later they are back, their arms up in the air.
Dr. Vikram is behind them, pointing a bigger gun. “Hello, Rudy. Maude. Stella! These two almost left without taking our thoughtful gift for them! Dos Equis. The perfect drink for double-crossers.”
The tourist asks to see the earrings from the case, and Stella takes them out and places them on a silk scarf used for this purpose.
“Do you think it’s weird they’re different from one another?” The woman strokes the tiny glass wine bottle and cactus.
“No, they tell a story together,” Stella says. “Try them on.”
Stella is good with the people who flow in and out of the museum shop. However they show up at the counter where she works—jet-lagged, in love, lost—she waits with soothing words and ideas for treasures to take back home.
Aunt Maude got this job for Stella. A quarter of her salary goes into a fund for endangered desert tortoises.
“We’re going to make things right with you and the universe, Stella,” Aunt Maude had said. “It will take a long time.”
They have said goodbye to Rudy, whose missing money was discovered in another of Mercedes’ pockets after she and Frank were arrested. Vikram is not a doctor, but rather a detective Aunt Maude hired to keep an eye on Stella. He now rents a room at the hotel where Stella is living.
“Darlings, there is a great need for my services here,” Vikram tells her and Aunt Maude that afternoon as they view celebrity homes from the top of a double decker tour bus. They understand him to mean chakra alignment, not sleuthing.
But Stella is only half listening. She smiles as she looks down into Dean Martin’s backyard, where there’s a dog with a faded muzzle and a teenager wearing a T-shirt picturing a whale. They are running across the lawn very quickly—not away from something, but toward it.
Merrick Adams is a Los Angeles-based painter and printmaker. His works examine our experiences of space and environment, as well as nuanced explorations of person and psyche. Highly regarded for both his figuration and abstraction, Adams’s works tread the complex space where they intersect, sometimes alluding to figure and form with only the slightest gesture. Adams holds a B.F.A. in printmaking, and an M.F.A. from RISD.
Lynn Mundell’s writing has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Booth, Five Points, and elsewhere, including the W.W. Norton anthology “New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction.” Her piece from Tin House earned first place in the 2019 Lascaux Prize in Creative Nonfiction and her flash fiction has been recognized in the annual Wigleaf Top 50 Very Short Fictions lists between 2017 and 2020. Lynn is co-editor of 100 Word Story and its anthology “Nothing Short Of: Selected Tales from 100 Word Story” (Outpost19). Her chapbook “Let Our Bodies Be Returned to Us” is out this year from Yemassee.