Alex glances down, checks my leg. “No, I think you just sprained it.”
“Fuck,” I gasp from beneath a wave of pain.
“Squeeze my hand if you need to,” he says, and I do, as tight as I can. In his giant, masculine palm, my own looks tiny, my knuckles knobby and bulbous.
The pain lets up enough that mania rushes in to replace it. Tears falling in great gushes, I ask, “Do I have slow loris hands?”
“What?” Alex asks, understandably confused. His worried expression judders. He turns a laugh into a cough. “Slow loris hands?” he repeats seriously.
“Don’t laugh at me!” I squeak out, fully regressed into an eight-year-old little sister.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “No, you don’t have slow loris hands. Not that I know what a slow loris is.”
“It’s kind of like a lemur,” I say tearfully.
“You have beautiful hands, Poppy.” He tries very, very hard—perhaps his hardest ever—not to smile, but slowly it happens anyway, and I break into a teary laugh. “Do you want to try to stand?” he asks.
“Can’t you just roll me down the mountain?”
“I’d rather not,” he says. “There might be poison ivy once we get off the trail.”
I sigh. “Okay, then.” He helps me up, but I can’t put any weight on my right foot without a lightning bolt of pain crackling up my leg. I stop shambling along, start to cry again, and bury my face in my hands to hide the snotty mess I’m crumbling into.
Alex rubs his hands slowly up and down my arms for a few seconds, which only makes me cry harder. People being nice to me when I’m upset always has this effect. He pulls me in against his chest and hooks his arms against my back.
“Am I going to have to, like, pay for a helicopter to get down there?” I get out.
“We’re not that far,” he says.
“I’m not kidding, I can’t put any weight on it.”
“Here’s what’s going to happen,” he says. “I’m going to pick you up, and I’m going to carry you—very slowly—down the trail. And I’m probably going to have to stop a lot and set you down, and you’re not allowed to call me Seabiscuit, or scream Faster! Faster! in my ear.”
I laugh into his chest, nod against him, leaving wet marks behind on his T-shirt.
“And if I find out you faked this whole thing just to see if I would carry you half a mile down a mountain,” he says, “I’m going to be really annoyed.”
“Scale of one to ten,” I say, leaning back to look into his face.
“Seven at least,” he says.
“You are so, so nice,” I say.
“You mean buttery and warm and perfect,” he teases, widening his stance. “Ready?”
“Ready,” I confirm, and Alex Nilsen sweeps me up into his arms and carries me down a motherfucking mountain.
No. I really could not have invented him.
FULLY RECHARGED AFTER two water bottles and forty minutes in a zoo gift shop full of stuffed camels, we head to our next destination.
The Cabazon Dinosaurs are pretty much exactly what they sound like: two big-ass dinosaur sculptures on the side of the highway in the middle of nowhere, California.
A theme-park sculptor built the steel monsters hoping to drive business to his roadside diner. Since he died, the property’s been sold to a group that put in a creationist museum and gift shop inside the tail of one of the dinosaurs.
It’s the kind of place you stop at because you’re already driving past. It’s also the kind of place you drive to, out of your way, when you’re trying to fill every second of your day.
“Well,” Alex says when we get out of the car. The dusty T. rex and brontosaurus tower over us, a few spiky palm trees and scraggly bushes dotting the sand beneath them. Time and sunlight have drained the dinos of almost any color. They look thirsty, like they’ve been shambling through this place and its harsh sunlight for millennia.
“Well, indeed,” I agree.
“Guess we should get some pictures?” Alex says.
He takes his phone out and waits for me to strike some poses in front of the dinosaurs. After a couple tame Instagram-appropriate pictures, I start jumping and flailing my arms, hoping to make him laugh.
He smiles but still looks a little peaked, and I decide it’s best if we get into the shade. We amble through the grounds, take a couple more photos closer up and with the smaller dinosaurs that have been added within the scrubby brush surrounding the two main offerings. Then we climb the steps to poke around the gift shop.
“You can hardly tell we’re inside a dinosaur,” Alex jokingly complains.
“Right? Where are the giant vertebrae? Where are the blood vessels and tail muscles?”
“This is not getting a favorable Yelp review,” Alex mutters, and I laugh, but he doesn’t join in. I’m suddenly aware of how pathetic the AC is in this shop. Nothing compared to the zoo gift shop. We might as well be back in Nikolai’s hellhole.
“Should we get out of here?” I ask.
“God, yes,” Alex says, and sets down the dinosaur figurine he’s been holding.
I check the time on my phone. It’s only four p.m. and we’ve burned through everything I had planned for today. I open my notes app and scan the list for something else to do.
“Okay,” I say, trying to mask my anxiety. “I’ve got it. Come on.”
The Moorten Botanical Garden. It’s outside, but it’s sure to have a better cooling system than the gift shop inside a steel dinosaur.