by V.S. Kemanis
While not a Halloween short story–this story somehow seems to fit with the Halloween season! This short story was originally published in a collection by V.S. Kemanis called Everyone But Us in 2012.
ROY SAT ON his haunches squinting up at the clouds, thick and white as whipped cream piled high on a glass plate. His nostrils sucked dust and the air pulled moisture from his eyes before it could surface.
He had been to other, damper places, but belonged here. Red-brown like the earth, he felt like another, larger morsel of it. He lived inside it, erecting no structures, no barriers, carrying his possessions on his back: a bedroll, canteen, knife, revolver, tin pan, a few other things. Everything he needed, and his wits besides.
His eyes followed the path of the sun, leveling on distant peaks at the horizon. Around him spread an extraterrestrial canvas: miles of pock-marked dust sprouting pockets of Indian paintbrush, century plants, and the vivid blooms of beavertail cactus. A few outcroppings of layered rock—shelter from the sun. Home to Roy, snakes, and lizards.
A dot moved, grew larger, became a human figure shimmering in the heat. Roy stood and tried to swallow, finding nothing in his mouth but a thick coat of dusty phlegm. He spat and tugged at the spines on his chin where he’d hacked at his whiskers with a knife to keep the heat away.
The figure slowed then stopped, dead still, not ten feet away.
Roy stared. The newcomer stared back then moved slightly, hand touching rifle slung over back, body shifting under denim shirt. It was then he could see she was a woman.
Her gesture toward the rifle was a matter of habit, not of threat. But his heart, instead of slowing, galloped a few paces as he looked into her milky blue eyes, light as opal. Tumbleweed for hair, front teeth poking out long and brown like a prairie dog’s. Skin thick and tough as rawhide, covered with bristly fuzz like thistledown.
She removed her hand from the rifle and hitched up her silver buckle, shaking the inhabitants of her belt: a dozen or more rattler tails, some near dust, others fresh kill. Roy’s head chased words, finding none; he didn’t have much use for them.
She was the first to speak. “Goin’ east?” Not an invitation, but a warning.
“Nah,” he choked, then turned his head and spat to clear room for more. “Goin’ west.”
THAT NIGHT, BEDROLLS laid together under the stars, they tussled a mite, but nothing came of it. She was dry as the air and tight as a rusty pocketknife.
“Move y’r paws,” she said, pushing him away.
He rolled over onto his back, hands behind head, gazing at the moon. He lay that way a long time, and when he turned to look, she was five arm lengths away, asleep with her hand on the butt of her rifle.
At dawn, he opened his eyes without her knowing. She sat with her back to him, licking her knuckles like a bobcat and stroking her tangled head, smoothing and matting the fur as best she could. He closed his eyes again when she turned around.
PURE EAST OR west didn’t work, neither one of them willing to give in. For an hour or more he trudged southwest, two paces in front, until she began her determined, steady drift to the southeast. The distance between them grew while his heart loped along just fine to a point, then froze up the way it always did when he stepped near a rattler, coiled up for the strike. To find his breath again he closed the gap, staying back a ways as if she couldn’t see, until he was no more than two steps behind, getting hot under his collar, feeling his blood boil worse than being stranded in a 110 degree sun without a rock for cover. To cool off, he broke away and found his own path again, increasing their distance, plodding along toward the southwest.
Who needs a woman anyhow? Roy’s head told him.
A while later he heard her muttering, close behind.
THREE DAYS OF zigzagging and they were twenty miles due south of where they’d first met. Good and sick of agave and jerky. Running low on water. And here he was, letting her take him south.
But Roy knew of a stream ten miles off, southwest. He wouldn’t allow himself to stray. He wouldn’t be led to die of thirst.
Plodding along, he drifted off when it wasn’t his turn, half wondering if she would follow. The distance between them grew the longest yet, but he kept his eyes forward, refusing to see her.
A rifle shot turned his head. He froze, watching her in the distance. She stooped, pulled her knife and hacked off the tail, found a place for it on her belt, then hacked off the head, leaving it in the dust. She stood, winding the thick body around her hand like a coil of rope.
She looked at Roy but didn’t budge. He looked at her, motionless.
Then she took a step toward him and called out. “I ain’t goin’ west, but I need the water.” Roy’s eyes popped wide in awe. She walked to him and he waited until he could see the raw end of the snake, dense and meaty, before he started walking again. She followed.
A strange excitement crept over him like the way he felt sometimes looking at the deepening orange-purple of a sunset. He wanted to talk. He thought of some words, then spoke while they walked. “Ya got a name?” he asked.
“S’pose so,” she said.
They walked another ten yards, dust billowing.
“Well, what is it anyhow?”
She cocked her head to the side. “Don’t rightly ’member.”
Roy searched for more words, tugging at the straps of his pack. In another dozen steps his excitement slowly vanished, replaced with lonesomeness, his sunset darkening into night.
“You c’n come, I guess,” he said, finally. “But you hafta give me some of that.” He nodded in the direction of the snake.
Later, they had a tasty meal.
ON THE FIFTH night, their canteens full, he decided to try her again. She didn’t push him away right off, but she didn’t like it either. Nothing seemed to fit or work right, so he gave up.
“Don’t have no use f’r it,” she muttered.
“Well—ya ain’t hardly tried.”
She moved away to where he couldn’t touch her. “Once, a baby come outta me backward,” she said. “Ain’t worked right since then. That’s all.” She moved another couple yards away and settled down, turning her back to him. When she spoke again, her voice was fuzzy and muffled. “Had a coyote face, so I left it f ’r the coyotes.”
He rolled onto his back, hands under head, thinking of the coyote-baby. She won’t want to stay after this, he thought.
At first he couldn’t sleep, and then, as soon as sleep tugged at his eyelids, he became determined to stay awake. He looked over at her, sleeping on her side, hand on the butt of her rifle.
“Don’t have no use for him either.”
Roy blinked and turned his head. Could swear she patted her rifle. Or maybe it was a shadow in the moonlight.
“Lookin’ f’r him, are ya?”
She patted her rifle. Maybe.
He turned back, rubbed his eyes and set his eyelids hard in their sockets, but they lowered in spite of himself, sending him into a deep sleep.
His eyes opened again in the first gray light of dawn. He sat up and looked to the left, to the right, and all around. She was gone.
NO MORE SOUTH or southwest. Pure west, following the path of the sun. The pink ball drew him on, and he watched it turn white as he headed toward it. The coyote-baby shimmered before his eyes. He spat and it was gone.
His feet moved one in front of the other, but his body stood still and unsure at the edge of a canyon, too deep to go down, too wide to go around.
The sun rose directly in front of him from his chest to his crown, reaching straight overhead as he came up beside a prickly pear with a lone flower, fire orange.
He stopped, looked again. Not one, but two, blossoms merged.
His heart beat hard up in his throat. He turned around on his heels and shook his head. The sun should’ve come up from behind. He’d been going the wrong way all along and just now saw it.
He turned back, facing east again.
She was there, a good ways off, quivering within a transparent wave of heat. He squinted hard. She had stopped, her head tilted slightly sideways and back as if sensing his approach.
The sides of the canyon clapped together. His footing was sure. He walked on, and she waited for him.