High Noon at the Cactus Sanctuary

by Claudia Lundahl

Annabelle’s lipstick bled into the small creases of skin around her thin lips like watercolor paint. As she spoke, Leonard noticed a greasy coral stain on her front tooth. As her mouth flapped open and closed, her tongue carried the glossy smear across her teeth which had the same grey pallor as an old sink. A coral sink, a greasy sink — it was difficult to listen to what his sister was saying. When did she start wearing so much make-up, he wondered.

They were sitting at a small round table in the glass atrium of the cactus sanctuary. It was brand new, not even open to the public, and here they were, taking it in Leonard took a sip of iced water from the glass on the table. It tasted strange to him, not at all like the refreshing New York City tap water he was used to drinking; the finest in the country. He didn’t know what was in this New Mexico tap water but he didn’t like it.

He placed the glass back down on the table. It fit perfectly back into the ring of water it had left behind. Beads of moisture trickled down the sides of the glass, mimicking the sweat that dribbled down his forehead. The room felt like a sauna. Annabelle kept a small, damp washcloth with her at all times. She frequently wiped it across the back of her neck or dabbed at her browline. It was high noon and the sun beat down on the glass roof above them, heating them as though they were flesh nuggets in a great glass oven. It had to be over one hundred degrees. Stifling. Why didn’t he get a goddamn face cloth?

“That’s why we have a special room for the Stenocereus Hollianus Cristata,” she concluded. Leonard looked up at her. She was smiling at him and gently kneading the crumpled damp washcloth with the tips of her fingers. She looked proud and happy. Happier than he had seen her in a long time. Well, what wasn’t to be happy about, Leonard thought, the inheritance had served her well, apparently.

“So why this?” He asked, gesturing around them. 

“What do you mean?” She replied. He noticed the lines around her mouth started to slowly curve downward. He would have to tread lightly.

“I mean, you could have done anything with 1.3 million dollars. Why cactuses?”

“Cacti.”

“Whatever.”

Annabelle sighed. Took a long drink from her own perspiring glass of water. Set the glass back down. Folded her hands on top of one another on the table.

“Leonard, I’ve just told you,” her tone of voice was exasperated. “Thirty-one percent of cactus species are in danger of extinction. That’s one in three!” 

“But I just don’t see why —”

Clearly you don’t understand. I just — I shouldn’t have expected you to. I’m sorry you came all the way out here. I thought you would be happy for me.”

Leonard was happy for his sister. He really was, and nearly said as much. He thought back over the past couple of years, when their parents were still alive, when Annabelle had still been homeless. Or, “traveling,” as she called it. She had rung him from a pay phone every couple of weeks with the address of a Western Union and would he please wire her a couple hundred bucks? He’d done it, of course — she was his sister, after all. Sure, he was on a budget. There was the mortgage, the car payments, school tuition for Emily and Robert, and Emily was dead set on going to science camp that summer. His wife, Janine, wanted to go to the Caribbean over the holidays. That would cost a pretty penny. And Leonard was no billionaire. But still, Annabelle was his sister. He always wired the money.

“Look, I didn’t mean to offend you. It’s great, Belle. It really is. You’re doing a good thing here.”

“Thank you.” She replied, smiled and straightened her shoulders.

He didn’t expect her to pay him back for any of the money he lent her over the years. He never knew what she did with it and he never asked. Anyway, he’d gotten his half of the inheritance, too, even if most of it had already been allocated to the kids' college fund. If the cactus sanctuary was successful, maybe he’d ask her to pay him back down the line. Would it be too much? He debated the question as she told him the names of the cacti that stood nearby — Blue Myrtle, Golden Barrel, Beaver Tail; that grew with so little water — and knew that — for a little while — he’d at least know where to find her.