The stars were gone that night. They, the newlyweds, paid to sleep in the desert and see the sky illuminated—riddled in constellation, in endless combustion. The wind blew hard that day and that night the moon was so full and bright it outshone everything. They had never seen a moon that bright before.
“We should’ve stayed in Fes,” Jack said, looking up, yawning.
“Don’t be rotten about it,” Marjorie said.
“At least our tent has running water and a toilet.”
“Aren’t you doing enough shitting on the sky?”
“Easy,” he said. “We came here for the stars.”
Marjorie walked away from her husband and aimed her camera at the moon. She snapped off some pictures and checked them on the LCD screen. She aimed her camera at Jack.
“I’m going back to the tent. We have to be up early for the sunrise ride,” he said. “Hopefully the moon won’t fuck that up for us.”
“I’ll be in soon.”
Marjorie walked out into the desert, over the crest of the dune that fell back to their camp. Away from any artificial light—she wanted to be alone with the moon. She walked out farther and farther. A few hours later when Jack woke up she wasn’t in bed next to him. He went looking for her. She wasn’t anywhere in their tent or the communal tent where meals were served. He scanned the horizon. The wind was blowing harder. The sun was still an hour away. He woke up their guide, Yusef, who searched the camp, double-checking every spot Jack already had.
“The weather has changed overnight,” Yusef said. “A storm will hit us soon.”
“We have to go looking for her,” Jack said. “Give me a flashlight.”
Yusef alerted the other staff members of the incident and they called their headquarters in Fes. It seemed a useless gesture, but at least it felt like something was being done. Jack wrapped his face in the scarf he bought at the market in Marrakesh. He set off towards where they stood a few hours prior. He yelled out into the desert, the beam of the flashlight cutting into the final hour of the night—a spotlight shot out into darkness. He took a few steps and called out again. The wind erased his voice.
Yusef approached him. “We have contacted the nearby camps. She is not there. We will bring the quads from nearby. They will be here soon and we will go looking.”
“Do people often get lost in the desert?” Jack asked. Hoping to find solace and reassurance in facts and occurrence. If a thing has happened before, there can be a plan to follow—a course of action.
“It is easy to do,” Yusef said and looked out into the desert. The milky orange glow of the sun began to show on the horizon behind them. He thought of his own wife and children, at home. He would rejoin them after the tourist season was over.
“Have you lost a guest before?”
“Guests have often wondered off on their own,” Yusef said. “It is in the waiver to stay in view of camp at night.”
Jack looked at Yusef.
The sound of small engines approached.
Two men pulled over to Yusef and they spoke fast and in Arabic. They made gestures to the desert, to the sky.
“What are they saying,” Jack said. The men spoke louder and quicker. There seemed to be a disagreement.
“Goddamnit,” Jack said. “Are we going?”
Yusef turned to Jack. “The storm is coming very soon. The wind has been blowing all night and finding a trail is going to be difficult.”
“We were right here last night. She had to have gone out this way.”
Jack approached one of the men on the quads. He motioned for the man to get off. The man looked at Yusef. Yusef nodded and mounted the other quad. The men exchanged more words. They pulled goggles out of a bag and handed them over.
Jack took off into the desert. Yusef was right behind him. The wind blew hard and brought with it the sand, biting into their faces and hands. Finding its way into the folds of their clothes. After a few minutes, the men stopped. Jack rewrapped his scarf around his face.
“We should split up. I will go some meters this way and you that way. Then we will move forward,” Yusef said.
The sun was beginning to rise and cast a dull glow behind them. The wind and sand was picking up and fighting the light.
“If we begin to lose sight of each other, we will move back towards the center.”
Jack nodded. They set off again. Goddamnit, Marjorie, Jack said to himself.
Jack and Yusef were riding into the storm and it wasn’t long before they could hardly see a few yards in front of themselves. They rode towards each other.
“We must go back,” Yusef said. His own wife would text him in a few hours as she did every morning.
“I’m not going back,” Jack said, adjusting his scarf.
It was dark where they were. The sun had risen, but it could not penetrate the storm.
“Jack, we will be lost if we continue.”
“My wife is lost.”
“The storm will pass, and then we can look for her again.” Yusef paused. “It is unlikely harm has come to her.”
Jack shook his head. The word “harm” hung in his ears. It was a thought he hadn’t formed. By moving, searching, he was avoiding it. He began to move forward on his quad, but the engine choked. The quad wouldn’t restart.
“God fucking damnit,” Jack said and hit the handlebar. He yelled out into the desert, “Marjorie.”
Yusef put his hand on his shoulder. It was firm. Jack turned to him. “Hop on,” Yusef said, calmly. “We are going back. The storm will pass and then we can resume.”
Jack sat on the back of the quad while Yusef crouched over the handlebars. The vehicle lurched forward—the wind blew at their backs pushing them forward, from where they came.
Back at camp a pickup truck pulled in. A man got out and helped a woman out of the other side. They could hardly see the black outline of the tents for the heavy curtain of sand the wind brought. The man explained that the woman had wandered into their camp late last night.
“We called you,” a man said.
“The person who answered was unaware,” the driver said.
“Why didn’t you call?”
The driver held up his phone. “We lost the line soon after. No reception from the storm.”
Earlier during their trip in Tangier, after the ferry from Tarifa, they were approached by men welcoming them with “My friend, the time is an hour back here. I will show you the Market, the Kasbah, the Medina, Grand Socco.” They declined and entered the city by way of the port after, as polite as they could, fend off the other tour guides—men looking for a day’s pay from tourists. Men who would grow angry with them after being declined. There were customs and a way of life in Tangier they were not prepared for.
They had booked an overnight train to Marrakesh that wouldn’t depart for another 7 hours. This was part of their plan—to slip in a visit to Tangier. They managed a cab to the train station where they stored their luggage and went back out into the taxi queue and were met with more men looking to guide them on their visit. They declined again and went to the Casbah and wandered around. A man put a snake on Marjorie. Another asked Jack for money. They went to a small teahouse where a man played the oud. Another man, outside, asked them for money. They wandered the small streets congested with colors and fabrics and fragrances and spices and sounds. They had each bought a rug. That did not stop other shop keepers from persuading them inside their stores.
“We’re going to be broke before we leave Tangier,” Jack said.
“But rich in experience,” Marjorie said and smiled at him.
Jack hugged his wife kissed her on the head. “Yes. We will have 17 rugs and lots of stories.”
“I wasn’t sure where I was,” Marjorie said. “I knew the road was to the east. I made an estimate based on the position of the moon.”
“It was a good estimate,” a man said.
Marjorie was wrapped in a blanket, drinking a hot tea. The desert was cold last night. With the absence of the sun that morning the cold hung around.
“When did they leave?” Marjorie asked again.
“Minutes before you came back.”
Marjorie sipped on her tea. She looked to the entrance of the tent.
“They will be back soon,” a man said. “Yusef knows the desert. He has spent many years in this desert. He will bring your husband back.”
Marjorie thought of their wedding day. Two weeks before. Everything was perfect. The flowers that were misdelivered were able to be replaced with even more beautiful ones. Everyone danced and drank. They managed to eat dinner. Everyone said they’d never be able to eat their dinner.
Outside the wind blew. The sides of the tent shuddered, flapping like wings of a tethered bird. She turned on her camera and reviewed the photos from last night, from this morning. The moon was beautiful. It was the only thing in the sky. She had felt alone, adrift. She scrolled through desert and sky, darkness and moon. The picture she snapped of Jack looking up. He was tired. Irritated. He didn’t take to flying well and trains made him seasick.
An hour later Marjorie and Jack were reunited and they went back to their tents to sleep. The men stayed up and smoked and drank tea. They laughed and pat Yusef on his back.
“You are too kind,” they said. “These Americans walk over you.”
“It is our job. They are in our care.”
“She would have been fine even if they did not find her.”
“She could have froze.”
“Not to death.”
“You are too kind.”
One of the men went outside to check on the weather. When he came back he said the storm was as thick as an American tourist. “But more generous with its currency,” a man replied. The men laughed. The storm continued and it would continue for the rest of the morning. Yusef’s wife texted him, Good morning, my love. The same greeting she always had.
Yusef raised his glass of tea. “To the newlyweds, reunited.”
The others raised their glasses halfheartedly.
“You are too kind,” a man said again to Yusef. “You are too kind.”
Yusef smiled and thumbed a message back to his wife.
The wind outside would eventually cease. Some of the tourists would go back to Fes. Some would stay another night or two. He wasn’t sure if the woman who was lost would stay. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. The desert would remain indifferent in its splendor.
Daniel DiFranco lives in Philadelphia. He is an Arcadia University MFA alum. His novel, Panic Years, was published in 2018 by Tailwinds Press. His short stories can be found in Smokelong Quarterly, Monkeybicycle, Drunk Monkeys, and others. Full list of pubs and miscellany can be found at danieldifranco.com, and @danieldifranco.