It hadn’t rained in close to seven weeks the night I met you. The rain-barrels were down to the last silty dregs, the skies stubborn in their pale blue clarity. I wasn’t even certain the car would start; it chugged to life on the third attempt, emitting a choked gurgle like a throat full of sand. My sole back-up plan: an ageing Chevy Cavalier, tyres balding, paintwork leprous, a quarter-tank of gas which might not even get me the whole way to Wildrose.
My parents had been preppers; I should’ve known better. Boxes of ammo next to the bread in the pantry, towering crates of bottled water in the basement. Rucksacks in the hall closet piled with emergency supplies—should the End Days catch us unawares—and a framed cross-stitch on the wall: “Failure to Prepare Is Preparing to Fail.” Pastel colours, delicate bluebell border; a portent of doom, handcrafted with love.
I left at dusk. The sky was a cut mouth bleeding out onto the western mountains. It seemed there was not a single soul out on the highway that night except for me. If the Chevy broke down, I’d be screwed; cellphone reception was null this far out into the desert, and hadn’t that been the entire point in the first place? Going solo on the edge of civilisation: the complete amputation of my former life, gangrenous with regrets.
I had a foil blanket in the trunk, a protein bar in the glovebox. Half a bottle of water in the footwell. Not good enough. I kept an eye on the fuel gauge as I drove, foot light on the gas. There was a gas station at Wildrose, a general store and a gift shop. A campsite out back full of shiny-white RVs, gleaming despite the dust. Desert adventure for kindergartners. A thought came to me in my mother’s voice, criticism from beyond the grave: at least they have water.
The way station was just visible on the horizon, a halo of light lingering over the scrub and above it, a fat, pale moon. Not the blood-red moon of my childhood terrors, heralding the arrival of the End Days—peeling back the curtains, peering up at the sky through parted fingers, because you could never tell when it might happen, and you would have to be Ready when it did.
The asphalt gleamed black in the headlights. Something ducked out of the road, into the sparse cover of the scrub. I saw it in the rear-view mirror; bright eyes sparked momentarily, the shadow of some slender creature crouched just off the roadside. Kit fox, maybe, or bobcat. I turned back to the road.
A man stepped out in front of the car.
I hit the brakes hard. The car arced wildly; my hands were tight on the wheel, my eyes squeezed shut, awaiting the impact, the crunch of bone against metal. When I opened them, the car was still, and the man was intact, staring at me with wide-eyed surprise in the middle of the road. I unbuckled the seatbelt with trembling fingers, aware now of how sore my sternum felt, how fast my heart was beating. Slowly, I stepped out of the car.
The man took a step forward. Clutched tight in his hands was a hunting rifle. .204 Ruger, walnut stock. Approach with caution. He had a canteen of water at his hip, heavy-duty boots, scuffed and well-worn. He scanned me. “Are you hurt?”
My ribs ached with each exhalation, muscles contracting over bruised bone. “I’m fine,” I said. His shoulders were loose, his fingers slack on the gun. No obvious signs of hostility, but I was a lone female on an empty highway, and I was unarmed. I could almost hear my daddy rolling in his grave. “You ought to take care if you’re coming out here in the dark. I could’ve killed you.” I swallowed hard, tasting sour adrenaline. “I could’ve killed us both.”
The seashore hiss of cicadas filled the momentary silence. “I’m sorry,” he said, after a time. He wasn’t looking at me. His eyes were focused on some point beyond the car, out towards the darkened scrub, dust-pale in the moonlight. I wondered what he was looking for. “Are you alone?” Eyes locked on mine now, a bright, lunatic urgency. I looked quickly over my shoulder, judging the distance to the car. “It’s not safe to be alone out here,” he said, “especially at night. There’re some vicious creatures around. You got a gun?”
“Keep it loaded. Carry it with you.” Staring back out at the roadside now, finger inching closer to the safety catch. His paranoia made my skin itch, as though it were contagious. “A kid got killed up at the campsite yesterday. Some kind of animal got him. You’d best take care.”
“I’ve lived out here for some time now,” I said, mindful of how he held the rifle, how intently he scanned the horizon. My muscles were tight, my breathing a little too quick. “I can handle animals just fine.”
He snorted. “They’re getting bolder. People feed them like they’re pets. Try to get pictures with them, if you can believe it. They’ve forgotten to be afraid of humans and they ain’t keeping their distance like they used to.” He stepped off the road, into the sand. I flexed my fingers, loosening too-taut ligaments. I thought about asking what he was doing here, alone on the highway; what he was looking for out in the scrub. I caught the sudden glint of his rifle scope as he turned, the muscular heft of him illuminated in the headlights, and I thought better of questioning him.
The car had come to rest at an angle, bisecting the highway. I slipped into the driver’s seat and locked the door behind me. The man was a little way off the road and moving further, cautious steps like a hunter flushing out a deer, gun raised and ready.
This time, the engine started on the first try. I hit reverse, pulled the car around; wheels ground on gravel. I peered over my shoulder as the car reversed.
And then I saw you, cowering in the back seat; skin and bone and blood, torn blue jeans and a man’s leather jacket; I bit back a cry of surprise, staring in rapt horror at the bright blood pooling on the seat beneath you, fingersmeared over your face like warpaint. You looked up at me, eyes wide, finger pressed urgently to your lips, and I could sense your terror so acutely I could almost feel it; a shot of panicked adrenaline straight to the heart.
I had no water and precious little fuel, but I swung the car round. He couldn’t fail to notice the change in direction, but I paid him no mind as I hit the gas. If I drove fast enough, he’d never know where I’d taken you. If the fuel held out, we might even get there in one piece.
“It’s going to be okay,” I told you, though I had no idea if it really would. You pressed your face into the worn fabric of the back seat, exhausted; your limbs were slack, your eyes closed. It looked as though you were dying. The thought terrified me, not because I cared about you, but because, although I could shoot and skin and gut a deer without so much as flinching, I had never in my life watched a human being die.
The wheels ate up the distance. Above, the night gathered like a bruise. I wondered what had happened to you. How you came to be out there, all alone in the desert, and whether it was you the man had been chasing in the dark.
The car ran dry a quarter mile from home. I had to carry you the rest of the way, first on my back, then in my arms when you at last fell unconscious. My bruised ribs ached with the weight of you. Your skin was hot, as though you’d baked a while in the sun; you felt empty in my arms, exsanguinated, breathing shallow. Helpless. I thought about leaving you there. Taking you a way off the road, out into the dunes, so that when death came for you—inevitably, I thought, cradling your bird-hollow bones—the coyotes and hawks might pick your remains clean. But home was close, and your heart still beat, and I thought we’ve come this far. Only a little further now.
Home was a brick and timber shack built on land that had once been my father’s. He in turn had bought the land for next to nothing from a man who’d run a campsite there in the early 90’s. It was where my dad had always intended to ‘bug out’ to when the End Days came. As it turned out, heart failure came first. He hadn’t prepared for that eventuality.
I didn’t want you in my home. You have to understand that. Those last hundred metres to the house were beset with doubt. I couldn’t have left you bleeding by the roadside, entirely at the mercy of an armed stranger; I knew the ways men could hurt women, how inclined they were towards it when the power balance shifted in their favour. I could’ve taken you to Wildrose, made you someone else’s problem, but if he had been chasing you—and my instincts were screaming that he had—then he would surely think to look for you there. I can’t honestly say why I took you with me except that in all my years, I had never seen anyone look quite so afraid as you had in that moment.
You stirred when I laid you out on the couch, mumbling something unintelligible. I peeled off your jacket, pulling limp arms through worn sleeves. Your limbs were slender but your muscles were tight as cord beneath the skin, the lean physique of a long-distance runner. I wondered when you’d eaten last. Adjacent to your right shoulder was a puckered hole, a glistening crater of flesh and bloody, matted shirt.
I cradled your head against my chest as I lifted you up, hoping to find an exit wound. Whoever had shot you had done so from a high angle, standing above you; the exit wound was lower down, suggesting a diagonal trajectory. Clean margins. One hand cupped the back of your skull as I traced the radius. I pried at the shredded edges of your shirt, peeling it gently away from the wound. Your muscles tensed; if you weren’t so weak you might have fought me.
“It’s okay,” I murmured absently. Your dark hair was thick beneath my fingers, the matted pelt of a wild thing. “You’re safe now.”
Slowly, you relaxed, allowing me to peel away the fabric. There was blood on the couch, a faint scrim of dirt. Your lips moved against my skin, barely a whisper. It sounded like ‘thank you’.
You slept while I cleaned your wound and stitched the edges together—not a beautiful job, but good enough. I washed my hands, aware that I had only half a bottle of water left, no fuel, no way back to Wildrose. My nearest neighbours were two miles away. I didn’t want to leave you alone, but that half bottle wasn’t going to stretch much further. I didn’t know when you’d last eaten or drank. You’d need water far more than I would when you woke.
I sat on the porch and lit a cigarette; I blew smoke into the breeze, watching it dissipate. It was long past midnight and my bones felt heavy beneath the skin, my eyes weary; I hated the idea of sleeping only yards away from a stranger. I’d lived alone for years, long before I even considered relocating to the desert. I’d never been close to my brother as a child; my school reports bluntly stated that I did not play well with others.
The lunatic cry of a coyote cut through the night. The sky was starless, the moon obscured behind a thin veil of cloud. I’d smoked almost down to my fingers. When the sun rose, I would set out with my hat in my hands and ask the Burnetts for water. They’d be quietly scornful, but I could swallow that, and they wouldn’t deny me.
I stubbed the cigarette out on the step and came back inside. You watched me approach, and I saw how you cringed away from me—the simultaneous drawing inward of all your muscles, humble as a beaten dog. I hated you for that; I hated that pang of sympathy, that sharp, sudden ache in my heart.
“I’m not gonna hurt you,” I said. I sat down opposite. The foldout chair creaked under my weight. You flinched. “I promise you that. But you can’t stop here for long.”
Your eyes were wary beneath your sweat-tangled hair. You knotted your hands in the blanket, thick with dirt beneath the nails, black crescents on bony fingers. “I don’t want to,” you replied, curt. Your voice was water on gravel.
“Is there anyone you want me to call? I don’t have a phone here, but there’s a family nearby who do.”
You shook your head and looked away, staring sullenly at the curtains. It occurred to me then that you might be as unaccustomed to the company of other people as I was.
“All right. Well, as soon as the sun comes up I’m heading out. I won’t be gone long; I just need to beg a little fuel and some water from the neighbours. I’m running bone dry.”
“It’s going to rain.”
I laughed at that. “They’ve been saying that for weeks and I haven’t seen so much as a drop.”
You laid your head back on the pillow. “It’s going to rain,” you said, quietly now, a voice on the precipice of sleep. Your eyes were closed. “Not now, but soon. Can’t you smell it?”
The air smelled of stale cigarette smoke, the ripe rust stink of blood. “I won’t be gone long,” I said. “An hour, maybe. I don’t usually get visitors but I’ll lock the door just in case. You’ll be safe here ’til I get back. You should rest until then.”
I rose from my chair. You were already asleep, or perhaps you were pretending. I imagined you were watching me as I left, peering through barely-parted lids. It was difficult to tell in the dark. I pulled the front door shut as I passed through the hall, turning the lock with a barely audible pop. I hadn’t locked my door in years. I resented you for this sudden uncertainty.
The bedroom window framed a nascent sunrise; rose gold blooming slowly outward. I lay back on the bed, fighting sleep. You were at the periphery of my vision, utterly still. You might have been dead, and in that moment I might not have minded.
I laced my hands behind my skull and waited for morning.
You were asleep when I left. I decided against locking the door behind me; it felt like imprisonment, shutting you inside that tiny house in the gathering heat of the day. And part of me hoped you’d be gone by the time I returned. That you’d wake up to an unlocked door and smell freedom.
It was barely six a.m. and already the chill of the night had dissipated, a thick heat building behind the blanket of cloud overhead. I set out with a five litre bottle under one arm, a jerry can in my free hand. The Burnetts lived out towards the hills. They’d been out here a long time, had raised and home-schooled their kids and were now alone, enjoying the solitude of their retirement. The kids moved to San Francisco, got jobs in tech startups and organic bakeries and never came back to visit. I imagined they must still dream about sand; hear the whisper of the wind along the dunes even in the depths of sleep.
The Burnetts’ home was brick-built, a chimera made from parts scavenged over the best part of a decade and extended over and over, a tumorous mass expanding slowly into the scrub. They tolerated my presence; I was far enough away and suitably unobtrusive, not even a smudge on their wide blue horizon. I did not intrude upon their isolation.
Peggy was in the yard as I approached. High-waisted blue jeans slung on motherly hips, skin the shade and texture of old hide. “What brings you up here so early, Sadie?” She’d affected a perfect neutrality, but she glanced briefly down at the water bottle under my arm the way a rich man might glance at a beggar’s bowl.
“Real sorry to trouble you, Peggy,” I said. Humility was not my strong suit, but the shame that bowed my head was genuine. I had, after all, failed to prepare. I explained the situation without once mentioning you; as I spoke, the contortions of her face and haughty arch of her eyebrow reminded me so much of my mother it almost hurt. Serves you right, I imagined her saying, mouth twisted in spite. You’ll die of thirst, lazy girl. The Rapture will catch you with your pants down and your engine dry, and then you’ll be sorry.
She didn’t. She listened, and did not say a word until I was done. And when I was, she beckoned me wordlessly to the back of the house. Six blue water barrels sat lined up in the shade. A far larger rain barrel was just visible beyond the curve of the far wall.
“Don’t tell Dan about this,” Peggy said, taking the water bottle from me. I heard her knees creak as she squatted. I thought about offering to help and knew she’d be offended. “Lord knows he means well. He’s a big believer in tough love, you know? Says it’s a harsh world out there and young folks have got to learn to fend for themselves, ’cause it’s only gonna get harsher.” Water spilled out of the tap, into the bottle. I realised then just how parched my throat was. “No doubt he’s right, but that don’t mean you can’t lend a hand every now and again. It’s about compassion, ain’t it? That’s what it’s all about in the end.” She shut off the tap, screwed the cap onto the bottle. A spattering of droplets fell from the tap, sinking without trace into the dust. Peggy stood, grimacing as her knees stretched out. “Smart girl like you, you’ll do better next time, won’t you?”
“I will, Peggy. Thank you.”
“There’s a little gas in the shed out back. Dan won’t notice it’s gone. Mostly it’s me who drives these days, you know, since my boys moved away.” She smiled then, and there was sorrow in the crease of her eyes, the starburst of wrinkles etched into her face. “Do you see much of your mother, Sadie?”
I blinked. In the two years since I’d shacked up in the desert Peggy had never once asked me anything about my life before. I thought about all the tinned food my mama had sent me over the years, always on the brink of expiration, piling up in the spare bedroom of my San Diego apartment because old habits died hard. “She passed away,” I said. “Eight years ago.”
“Oh.” She looked down at her feet. Then, with sudden brightness: “Well, let me get you that gasoline. I’m sure you’ve got better things to be doing than standing around, listening to me harp on.”
I stood in the shade as she went to the shed, gait slow and careful. I wondered if she might be lonely out here, with only wild beasts and a taciturn husband for company; whether perhaps the blissful isolation the Burnetts had worked so hard for was everything they’d built it up to be.
By the time I got back the sun was up high, and you were gone.
You’d folded the blanket and left it atop the pillow, streaked rust-brown with dried blood. It was the only sign you’d ever been there, and even that seemed vague, as though that carefully-folded bundle might have been my own doing. I picked it up. The scent of you clung to the blanket: sweat, faintly sour but not entirely unpleasant. The sharp, animal smell of your hair. I realised I was a little worried about you—out there, exposed to the rising heat, weak and fatigued. The wound was still fresh. It might fester, the stitches might split, anything might happen to you and I had abandoned you. I swallowed down guilt as I put the blanket in the washbasket. I knew nothing about you except that someone had hurt you, and that you had been afraid, and that I had let you go. I hadn’t even asked your name.
I set the water bottle down in a pool of shade outside the house. Inside, I fished out a yellow legal pad from the stash under the couch; there was a half-written article scrawled in upward slanting script, and a deadline for the end of the week. I’d hand-write articles and drive over the state border into Nevada, where Jackie Emery would lend me the use of his computer and internet connection for five bucks an hour. A few articles a month would keep me in fuel and supplies. I’d come to live the kind of pared-down, uncomplicated life my parents might have considered too sparse and therefore doomed, ultimately, to fail.
Pen hovered over paper. Through drooping eyes, my handwriting warped into inscrutable hieroglyphs, marks without form or meaning. I hadn’t slept in over twenty-four hours and my eyes were heavy with grit. Just a nap, I told myself, curling up on the couch. The cushions smelled of warm, old dust, and faintly of you. Empirical evidence of your invasion, a stranger’s presence yet to be erased. Strange, then, that I didn’t seem to mind.
A jaundiced afternoon light cast the room in shades of faded bruise. I’d slept longer than I’d intended. My damaged ribs seemed to groan as I stretched out. A glance at the clock on the windowsill revealed that despite the gloom it was just past three o’clock.
Outside, the sky sweltered behind still clouds. The water bottle was warm to the touch. I poured a little out, washing the sweat from my face and neck; cool water wound a slow path down my spine, coursing down my arms. There was no breeze, no movement; it seemed that the world had stopped without warning and curled in on itself, interminably paused, waiting for something terrible. There was only the mechanical whirr of cicadas in the long grass, the air as still and silent as a held breath.
The first raindrop hit the ground hard, like a thrown penny.
And then the rain came, violently, and all at once. I found myself soaked and winded; the curves and concavities of my face became a waterfall, hair clinging to my face like black kelp, the shock of water in my nostrils, my open mouth. A premature twilight fell and in that sudden darkness I saw you. You were a silhouette against the deluge, growing darker, gaining corporeal form; you were unhurried as you tracked barefoot across the gleaming hardpan, dangling something unseen in your left hand.
I finally found the wherewithal to retreat into the house. My boots left great puddles on the linoleum as I shoved into the tiny shower room, retrieving the only two towels I owned. When I returned you were at the doorway, expectant but still, as though awaiting an invite. In your sodden state you seemed very small, as though the meat of you had been washed away; as though beneath it you had only ever been an imitation of a girl, fashioned from wire and draped in skin. Your smile was almost shy as you handed me your prize—a pair of skinned jackrabbits, rose-quartz flesh wet and glistening.
“I was right,” you said, pointing to the sky. Your wounded shoulder drooped. You must have been in pain, but your face betrayed no hint of weakness; your lips retained a hint of a smile, a feral Mona Lisa.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
Your name conjured up vibrant wildflower meadows, a cobalt sky reflected in a smooth, still lake. A Pacific Northwest spring. “As in the month?”
You smiled again, baring bone-white teeth. “As in the month. But I was born in November.”
“Come inside,” I said. “You’ll drown out here.”
So you did.
I didn’t want you in my home. Except that somewhere along the way—pulling needle and thread through your open skin, perhaps, or your quiet belligerence, when you were hurt and afraid but still defiant—somewhere in among all of it I felt myself beginning to relent; a palpable sense that something inside of me had opened a little, exposing a glimpse of viscera, the hint of a rib. I hadn’t wanted you there, but there you were anyway, my borrowed t-shirt hanging loose from your shoulders, wound cleaned and freshly bandaged. Your hair hung half-dried and leonine: dark honey shot through with silver, though you could surely be no older than twenty-five.
“A boy got killed up in Wildrose,” I said.
You stared at the rain running down the window, silver rivulets like molten metal. “I heard an animal tore his throat out.”
“Do you believe that?”
You turned your head. Your confusion was tempered with a narrow-eyed wariness; an inherent mistrust of the path I might be leading you down. “Shouldn’t I?”
I sighed. “I know that man shot you, June. And he would’ve killed you if I hadn’t found you first. What kind of a man hurts a woman the way he did? What kind of man hunts a woman down like an animal? You think someone like that would flinch at harming a child?”
I saw the flinch in your limbs, the way you folded in on yourself; I saw the defiance bleed slowly from you and felt an answering ache in my chest. “Don’t,” you murmured. “Please.”
“What happened to you?” I wanted to grab you by the shoulders and shake you until the answers tumbled out. I wanted to hold you and soothe your ragged nerves. “It’s your business, June, I know that, and maybe I don’t have the right to ask questions of you. But I’ve never seen a person look as scared as you did that night.”
“Okay.” You had the look of a hunted thing, hunched and ready to bolt, but there was steel in the rigid set of your spine. “Ask me one question. Just one. But then you have to drop it, okay? Because I don’t want to talk about this anymore. I want it to go away.”
You’re in my house, I thought. If you’re in danger then I might be too. I deserve to know. Rain clattered relentlessly against the windows, washing away seven weeks of dust. Pouring into the rain barrels, better late than never. I should have felt trapped in that small room, forced by the elements into your sullen vicinity; I should have resented every inch of space your body occupied. “Why you?”
You smiled then, though there was no joy in it; you drew your knees up, planting bare feet on the couch cushions. A hint of slender ankle, of downy dark-gold hair. “Because he thought I was somebody else,” you said. The rain thrummed like an arrhythmia against the roof shingles. You closed your eyes and said nothing more.
Every morning I woke to find you gone. You were meticulous in your absence; the couch cushions were carefully rearranged, the blankets folded and replaced in the hall closet. You moved like a ghost, silent despite the creaking floorboards; the sun would rise, and you would already be gone.
In the first few days I would linger at the windows, squinting through the heat haze at distorted shapes; I would sit smoking on the porch as the sun crawled across the sky, watching shadows shift and lengthen. I didn’t know if you would come back, at least in those first days; I found myself luxuriating in the space you left behind, glad of the silence but aware, unexpectedly, that something vital was missing. I would look up from my work and expect to feel your eyes on me; I would listen out for the hiss of your feet on dusty floorboards and hear only silence.
You returned as quietly as you left. The sun would slink behind the distant mountains and you would emerge from the deep shadows as though you’d been born there. I never saw you coming, no matter how long and how carefully I watched for you. You came in on the evening breeze, smiling that clever half-smile and you would pause at the door, an odd formality, waiting for me to invite you in. I always did.
I never asked you where you’d been.
We sat side by side on the porch, the air redolent with the musty wet-weather scent of the creosote bushes. Against a spilled-ink sky sat a spattered multitude of stars, their light guttering like faraway candles. I told you I could navigate using the stars as guidance; that it was one of the first things my father taught me as a young girl, my earliest lessons in preparedness.
I pointed up. “You locate the North Star,” I said, plucking your hand from your lap. I guided your outstretched finger to where the North Star sat, bright and lonely. “You see? That’s Polaris. And just across from there—those stars—that’s the Big Dipper.”
“The Great Bear,” you said, and pulled my hand along with yours as you traced the shape in the sky, a wide, faltering oblong. “She’s monstrous, bigger than any bear you’ve ever seen. And those four stars—” punctuating each one with the tip of your finger, as though they were mere yards away “—those are pissed-off mother coyotes chasing her across the sky. My mom told me that. She said that in those days, food was scarce, and the bear had grown so hungry that she would dig up coyote dens to eat the pups. And even though the coyotes were weak and hungry and scared to death of that bear, they vowed that they would fight to protect their babies. So when the Great Bear came sniffing around, they joined together, these four fierce coyote mothers, and they chased her. They chased her for so long and so far that when they stopped to catch their breath, they realised they’d run right up into the sky.”
“I’ve never heard it told like that before.”
“It was my mom’s version.” You drew your hands to your chest, long fingers forming a lattice across your heart. “My dumbass sisters never listened to her stories.”
“You don’t get on with your family?”
“My mom died. My sisters . . . we don’t see eye to eye. I guess I don’t like the way they live.”
I let out a snort of bitter laughter. “I know how that feels.”
“I listened to all my mom’s stories. I liked that we saw the stars differently to everyone else. And I guess now . . . ” you were dazzling in the dark, eyes like Baltic amber set into the pale bronze of your skin; you were a small and perfect sun, and I was willingly subsumed by your gravity. “I guess you do too, don’t you?”
I smiled. I felt like you’d given me something of yourself then, a small gift by which I might begin know you. I looked up at the Great Bear, at the four coyote mothers chasing her in perpetuity through the heavens, and wondered who you were, where you’d been all this time, why you kept coming back to me.
The men came a few days later. They arrived in a rust-coloured station wagon, kicking up plumes of dust behind them like the tail of a comet. I stood out on the porch as they pulled up, piling out of the car in a tangle of identical plaid limbs and khaki vests.
I straightened my back, set my shoulders square. I didn’t know any of them, though I had a vague sense that I’d seen one or two before—perhaps out at Wildrose, working the gas pumps or the campsite. Three of them, each with a rifle at their hip. Men on the hunt.
A tall, thin man stepped forward. “Afternoon ma’am.” He tipped his cap, an antiquated notion of politeness. Beneath it, a sparse rim of sandy hair traced an oasis of sun-pink skin. “You live out here by yourself?”
“Yes, I do.” None of them were the man who’d shot you, but I was wary all the same. Men like that, they travelled in packs, associated closely with one another; they wore their guns like membership badges. I didn’t like the nature of his question, the way all three of them ran their eyes the length of my body, assessing me as though I were a prize sow. “Can I ask what it is you want?”
“Sorry to disturb you, miss,” the second man said, with a wide-eyed humbleness I knew was feigned. My palms itched. I wished I’d brought my gun out with me. I wished I’d never have to touch the damn thing again. “Only there’s been a situation down at the campsite. Some sort of animal going round hurting folk. Rabid, maybe. Killed a couple kids . . . ”
“Yes miss. Little girl got killed yesterday afternoon. Wandered out a little ways into the desert. Her momma never even knew she was gone ’til it was too late. Anyway, Bryson at the store said there was someone lived on her own out in the desert. He asked us to check on you, make sure you’re able to protect yourself.”
“I’m able,” I said.
“We’ve seen coyotes heading out in this direction,” the thin man said. “Could be there’s a pack of them somewhere nearby. You’d best take care . . . ”
“They say it’s an animal,” the third man said suddenly. “But nobody’s got a lick of proof. Nobody’s seen an animal do anything.” His companions stared at him for a moment, uncertain how they ought to proceed; clearly, this was not the agreed story. “There’s a lot of transients round here, is all I’m saying. It’s damn near impossible to keep track of who’s coming and going. You could do anything and nobody’d know so much as your name. You want my advice, ma’am, you’d be best off watching out for strangers.”
I’m a grown woman, I thought, staring at the three of them, the earnest way they presented themselves; guns respectfully lowered, pink-cheeked and sweating like pigs beneath their heavy khakis. They thought me soft, I realised. They thought it a fluke that I’d survived this long. “I’ll be careful,” I told them. There was no acid in my voice; I burned with the desire to tell them to get the hell off my land, but I resisted. Better not to upset three armed men. “Thank you. I appreciate your good intentions. But you don’t need to check up on me again. I’ve been looking after myself for a long time.”
They scanned the distance as they piled back into the car, checking for motion, for shadows beneath the desert sun. I watched them leave, heading back the way they’d come, the car a bloodspot on the horizon. And I thought, better a pack of beasts than a pack of men with guns.
I didn’t tell you about the men, but you knew anyway. You were quiet when you came back; you did not join me on the porch to smoke and stargaze, but curled up silent on the couch, blanket drawn over your head so that I could see only a vaguely human-shaped lump lying very still against the cushions.
The cloud cover was thick that night, the air heavy, foretelling rain. A dry wind had picked up, casting fistfuls of sand like a spiteful child. And I didn’t feel safe out there on my own, staring into a distance whose edges I could not discern; in which anyone or anything might be hiding. I shucked off my shoes in the hallway, locked the door behind me. As I passed by the couch my fingers brushed the crest of the blanket, where I supposed your face might be.
“I don’t know you very well, June, but for what it’s worth, I know you’ve got a good heart. I can feel that much.” I drew my hand away, honouring the privacy of your cocoon. “I know they have you mistaken. I just wanted you to know that.”
Sometime in the night I felt you crawl into the bed beside me, slow but determined in your audacity. I lay perfectly still as you slipped beneath the sheet, each movement cautious; I sensed the breath held in your lungs as you curled a hand around my arm, your knees pressed gently behind my own. I felt the tension of your muscles: apprehensive, but bold enough to persevere. I turned to face you, pulling you closer with great care. I feared I might crush you with the slightest movement. Your ribcage was sharp against my abdomen, the planes and angles of you a stark contrast to my softness, my roundness.
“Be careful out there tomorrow,” I said, as though this sudden easy intimacy were normal. “There’re men with guns sniffing around.”
Your mouth pressed against mine. You had glass shards for teeth, wire for bones; your lips tasted like copper. My father’s voice distant in my mind: it is an abomination for a man to lay with another man. I traced the braille of your spine with the tips of my fingers. Joke’s on you, dad, I thought. Neither of us are men.
“Sadie, Sadie,” you whispered, singsong. “Oh, Sadie, don’t you know? I was born careful. I’ve been careful all my life.”
Every day I feared your absence less and less; you were like the tide, receding into the gloaming, returning again as the sun set. I had not planned for the eventuality that, someday, you might not come back; curiously, I had no desire to prepare for it. It was as though after a life spent preparing fastidiously for a future that might never come, I had finally learned to absorb the present; you had taught me, somehow, that the sum total of my existence could not be pared down to numbers on a spreadsheet: how many tins, how many bullets, how fast I could run, how many weeks I might survive.
Sadie, you sang. I loved the way my name sounded in your mouth, the warm gravel of your voice lilting. I was born careful. Born lucky too, perhaps, because those men never found you, though I saw them on the road once or twice. They would nod, in greeting or in solidarity, and I would nod back, though I would sooner have driven on without acknowledgement.
“Can you run?” you asked me one night, perhaps a week after the men had stopped by. You were wrapped in a knitted blanket; a sharp breeze swept in from the mountains, a familiar whistling in the eaves, heralding the very beginnings of winter.
A cigarette stub glowed between the tips of my fingers, heat licking at the calluses. “When I was ten,” I said, propping myself up against the headboard, “I was so physically fit I could do five hundred pushups in one session. I could run a mile in six minutes. I’d even go to bed with my sneakers on in case the world went to shit in the middle of the night and I’d have to run for my life.”
“That’s kind of fucked up.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, it is.”
“But how about now?” You indicated the dying cigarette at my lips; you glossed over the heaviness of my thighs, the thickness of my waist, though they must have crossed your mind. “Could you run now? If you had to, I mean?”
The question sat heavy on my tongue, forbidden but always present. A ghost between us. Your face was drawn, eyes wide and anxious and beautiful. “June,” I said, crushing the remnants of my cigarette between thumb and forefinger. Ash scattered the bedsheet, a thin grey snowfall. “What is it they think you’ve done?”
There came a strangled cry from outside, the sound of an animal caught unaware; the back of my neck prickled. We both turned our heads, staring out of the window at the darkened scrub. “Not what I’ve done,” you murmured. “What I am.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Listen.” Your hands clasped my face, urgent. “I need you to know that what you see, right here—this is the truth. This is what’s real. Do you believe me?”
You were so close I could see myself reflected in the black of your pupils. “June—”
“Whatever else I may be. Whatever anyone says. This—” You drew my head gently towards you; your lips were velvet against my forehead, your teeth hard behind them. “—all of this. I swear, Sadie. I’d give everything away just to keep this.”
Everything you were to me had been pieced together; you were a loose-stitched patchwork of intuition, of little stories and guesswork. And I loved you, somehow, despite your insubstantiality; you cast no shadow, left no footprints, but the warmth of your body and the salt taste of your skin mattered far more. I wrapped my arms around you, the curve of your skull delicate beneath my chin. Your hair smelled like gasoline. I wondered where you’d been. “I see you, June,” I said, after a time. “I believe you.”
“It’s not their fault.” Barely audible. “My poor sisters. They’re so hungry.”
I smoothed your hair back, glancing down at your face. “Your sisters?” I asked, but you said nothing more. Your eyes were closed, your mouth a slack, sleepy line. Perhaps you’d been dreaming aloud.
The bed sagged a little under our combined weight; I lay quietly, listening to your breathing deepen; my beloved stranger, dreaming strange, sunlit dreams. I held your bones close and let my eyes slip shut.
I will always remember the look on your face when I saw you standing there, neck stretched, pulse throbbing in that vital spot beneath your jaw; the edge of a knife pressed against your throat just hard enough to break the skin. The man’s grip tight on your arm, fingers buried deep in your flesh. I will always remember the spark in your eye: not fear but fury, acute as any knife-edge. It was barely dawn. I stood helpless, desperate to tear you from his grip but unarmed, unprepared.
“I said you ought to be careful.” The .204 Ruger hung from his left shoulder; his right hand held the knife against your carotid. “Said there were vicious animals out there. Do you have the faintest clue what you’ve let into your home?”
“What I know is none of your goddamn business.” I’d woken to the sound of shattering glass, a door being kicked in; your scream still echoed in my skull, ricocheting back and forth. I thought I’d lost you. I knew I still might. “I don’t know where you get off hurting women-”
He spat. “She ain’t a woman. Ain’t even a person. What, she never told you?” Lips pulled back, a rictus sneer. His free hand yanked a clump of your hair, snapping your head sharply back; you let out a pained yelp. “Never even told your friend here the truth? What you and your bitch sisters have done?”
“Let her alone—”
“Watch,” he said, brow knotted in disgust. “You just watch.”
I could do nothing else. I watched as he dragged you by the hair, pulled you towards the shattered window, your bare feet dancing over broken glass; you shrank away from the sunlight, writhing wildly in his grip, and for the briefest of moments his balance faltered. Barely a second, but it was enough. Your teeth tore into his thick white throat; your fingers anchored in his hair, pulling him down, dragging him through the open doorway and onto the porch. He fought, but you were terrible in your persistence; his fingers spasmed, clutching ineffectually at your hair, your face. The knife clattered to the floor. In the darkness you were a girl, a furious girl with blood spilling like water from your mouth; in the sunlight I saw the truth. You were a thin, ragged animal, a starving coyote tearing the throat of a grown man as easy as paper. As you moved through that sun-dappled room you were liquid: shadow-girl, sun-dog; your pelt shone russet in the warm light, your skin smooth in the shade. Hot blood streamed from crimson lips, glistened on sharp ivory teeth, changing and warping as the sun rose, illuminating the truth of you.
At last, he slumped to the ground, and he did not move again.
In a pool of shade you stood up, all torn feet and trembling legs. You wiped your mouth with the back of your hand, streaking gore down your face, into your hair. I imagined I could hear the railroad clatter of your heart.
“Do you see me, Sadie?”
You were wild-eyed and trembling, but you were not afraid. You were a world away from the frightened, wounded girl I’d met outside Wildrose. You held your palms out to me. This is what’s real: you, sleeping in my arms; your legs wrapped around mine, skin slick with sweat, your lips grazing my jaw. The sound of my name in your mouth. I swallowed, thick-throated. “I see you,” I said.
There came the low hum of a car engine approaching. I turned. The rust-red station wagon was coming up the dirt road.
“Run with me,” you said.
And we ran. You weaved through the shadows, into the light; you were a girl on torn feet, a swift coyote with the wind in your pelt. The hardpan stung my bare soles, the sun hot already at my back; my lungs burned with the effort and still there was such a long way to go. We had no plan, no destination, and perhaps we would fail, but for now we would run, and it seemed to me—breathless, exhilarated—that nothing in my life had been as pure, as perfect as this singular moment of freedom.
Originally published in Shadows & Tall Trees 7, edited by Michael Kelly.