Devil in the Desert [cw: smoking, childbirth, miscarriage, blood] Sweat and blood pools between my legs, soaking the liner of my cotton panties as I squat by the trunk of the car. I clutch my stomach, bearing down on its doughy surface in an effort to alleviate the building pressure. My gut throbs as the pain reaches a fever pitch and I vomit all of this morning’s Powerade and protein bars onto the dusty dirt road. “Gross,” Vera chides, flicking her cigarette into the candy-colored chunks before kicking a pile of sand over the mess. Her red lipstick remains unblemished, clinging to her lips like it knows what an honor it is to touch her. “Sorry.” I wipe my mouth, the taste of soured sugar burning my tongue as the bright, red sun blisters my shoulders. “Don’t be sorry.” She says it like it’s a switch I can flip. I nod, too weak to be anything but obedient, and drop my head. A restless wind ruffles my dark hair, blowing loose strands across my face like spider-webs. With the wind and the dusty earth, it feels as though bugs are constantly trying to take up residence in my body. I swat the sensation away. “Look,” Vera says, stepping over the sandy mound of vomit. “There’s a truck coming this way.” I peek out from behind my tanned forearms and catch a glimpse of the green pick-up rolling over the shimmering horizon. The engine roars in defiance of the desert’s dead silence, buzzing with life as clouds of dust trail behind. The truck stops in front of us like it’s a last-minute decision on the driver’s part. I find myself fascinated by the unique pattern of dents and gouges on the passenger side door. The old Cheyenne pick-up groans and jiggles as its owner exits. A tall, tan man comes around the front, his fingers brushing over the Cheyenne’s hood as if stepping around the back-end of a horse. His wide, black hat obscures the top half of his face, but I can tell from his smile that he’s not half as old as his truck is. “I heard there’d be tourists passing through. Two or three passengers, depending on who ya asked,” he says, and my stomach lurches as if on a carnival ride. He points a calloused finger to the front of our rental car. “Mind if I pop the hood?” “Sure,” Vera replies and follows him to the driver side door. He reaches through the open window and yanks on the hood-lever. He’s already elbow deep in engine organs by the time I pull myself to my feet. Vera stands beside him, perfectly petite arms crossed and plush lips in a pout as she dissects him with her eyes. “So,” she says, “are you like this place’s version of Triple A or something?” He shakes his head. “Nope. Just a good samaritan who’s seen a whole lot of folks get stranded ‘cause they’re not used to driving in the strip. The heat can kill your battery.” He turns to me, sun catching in his tawny eyes. “Somebody’s gotta look out for you out here,” he says, and slams the hood down as if punctuating the end of his sentence. “Thanks,” I murmur, humanity hollowed out from my voice. I must have buried the brunt of it in the desert last night. “So, we gonna follow you back or you gonna write us a map or what? Cell service kinda sucks out here,” Vera says, following behind him with all the misplaced confidence of a paying customer. “Well, you’re not gonna be following anyone any time soon, that’s for sure. Your serpentine belt’s in pieces and I ain’t got the equipment or the truck to tow you.” “And what’s that mean?” He circles round to the back of his truck, hefting out a sun-bleached gas can and a couple of enamel mugs. The mugs clink together at the perfect frequency to make me want to shove screwdrivers in my ears as he walks back over. “Means I can give you a lift to the station, but I doubt it’ll do much good since it’s after five on a Friday. There should be a payphone in back, though.” He hands me one of the blue mugs and I take it without thinking, fingers curling around the rust-pitted shell as he twists off the top of the gas can. “It’s water,” he says, and fills my cup until it runs over. It has the taste and warmth of soapy bathwater, but I gulp it down anyway, swallowing my cupful before Vera can even accept hers. “I’d suggest taking anything you wanna keep with ya,” he warns. “Otherwise, it might not be here when you get back.” # I sit pressed up against the passenger side door, window crank digging into my side as my sticky thighs meld with the leather interior. Miscellaneous tools jostle around on the floorboard, threatening to crush a toe with every bump in the road. I twist my legs together, feeling a clot evacuate into my distressed denim shorts. I wonder if he can single the scent out over the pervading stench of motor oil that fills the cab. “So, what brings y’all out here, if I may ask?” He says, shedding his hat to reveal a crop of black hair and a young face with handsome, but delicate features. He could be Vera and I’s age, or he could be much older. No telling, really. “Doing a little cross-country trip. Guess we got lost on our way back from the Grand Canyon,” Vera replies, lolling her head back against the rear window. With her sunglasses on and her jaw slacked, she almost looks asleep. “GPS said we were taking a short-cut to Vegas. Guess that was wrong.” “About as wrong as you can get,” he smiles, but not in the way men normally smile at Vera. Vera tilts her head toward him, her cheek inches from his shoulder. “How’d you know to come looking way out here, anyway? You said you heard we’d be passing through.” He points at the radio bolted in front of the rearview mirror. “Told ya, somebody’s gotta look out for folks out here, and sure as shit ain’t gonna be the police,” he says, enunciating the po. “Us locals are the last line of defense against all the evil out there. Desert can kill you dead in a day. Sometimes quicker.” Evil. The word settles in my stomach like a black stone, pitted and ugly. I sink my dirty nails into my knees, clawing at the grimy skin. Evil isn’t a place. It’s a person. Radio static crackles overhead as a choppy voice washes in. The dark-haired man unhooks the mic and brings it to his lips. “Copy that, billy goat. Got a couple of passengers on their way out. I’ll be bringing them ‘round shortly. Over.” A sizzle of transmission comes in reply, intelligible only to the man. My eyes catch his as he clicks the mic back in place, and he winks at me. Nausea ripples through me and I turn away, pressing my forehead against the window and my body against the door. Suddenly, the cab is all too small. # The sun’s casting its dying rays over a bruised sky by the time we roll up on the station. There’s a singular gas pump on the side of the building, its price forever fixed at 89 cents. On the other side is a shuttered garage with chipped red and white paint that reads Auto - Repair - Service. “I’ll go see if he’s home,” the man says, hopping out of his truck. I reach for the handle on my side of the cab, but he stops me. “I’ll get it.” With a few long strides, he’s on the other side of the door, yanking it open. “Gets stuck sometimes,” he says as my feet hit the cracked pavement. The station is a concrete island in a sea of sand. I start walking to take a closer look, but Vera strangles the circulation in my arm before I can take another step. Her pitch-black eyes issue their own warning as she slides out of the cab. Stay close, they say as we walk together. The man’s already peering through the front door’s latticed window, a rusted welcome bell ringing with every beat of his fist. “He’s probably already left for the weekend,” he says, pulling back from the wood door. “He likes to get an early start on hunting.” His eyes land on me like a fly on a rotting carcass, and I get the tickling sensation of ants under my skin. “I’ll go check out the payphone,” I say, untangling my arm from Vera’s. “You said it’s in the back?” My feet are moving before he can even finish nodding. I hear snatches of conversation as I round the building, tracing its grout lines with my index finger. Vera’s good at handling people, even when she doesn’t want to. She just has one of those faces that people love to talk at. I guess the dark-haired man is no different from the rest. The payphone’s bolted straight into the concrete wall with only a small metal cover to shield it from the elements. The phone dangles at the end of its coil, twisting back and forth like a botched suicide. I pick it up, pressing the receiver to my ear. I’ve never actually used a payphone before, but it seems easy. Get the quarter, push it in, dial the number. That’s how it works, right? I dig around in my pocket for the loose change I stuffed into it after yesterday’s convenience store haul. Cash only, Vera had said. We can’t leave a trail. I slip the quarter into the slot and listen as it tinkles around inside like a piggy bank. The phone remains dead in my hand. I press down on the metal plunger above the number pad, hoping to hear a familiar dial tone, but am greeted with only silence. I slip another quarter in and smash every button I can. Any directions on the box have long been worn away, offering only the engravings on the numbers themselves. Anxiety coils in my chest, sinking my lungs as my heart hums. I’ve already sweated all my tears out, but my eyes crinkle all the same. Vera’s laughing when I return, obviously engaged in some form of witty banter with the tall man. He looks slimmer now, as if a stiff wind could knock him off his feet. Maybe it's just the genuine mirth on his face that’s offsetting. The laughter quiets as my presence becomes known and Vera smiles at me over her shoulder. “How’d it go?” she asks, taking a drag of her cigarette. “It didn’t work. It was completely dead.” The man shakes his head and looks through one of the store windows as if he could see all the way back to the phone. “Must be another outage.” “Guess that means we’re completely SOL, then,” Vera says with all the concern of someone who has been minorly inconvenienced. “What’s the nearest town again?” “Probably Cane Beds. About 30 or 40 miles northeast of here.” Vera flicks her cigarette and stamps out the light. “Great. Can you drop us off there?” “Not tonight,” he answers. “Too easy to get turned around in the dark. Not to mention the prowlers.” He lifts a brow, eyes roaming around the horizon as if an assault is seconds away. “I’ve got a satellite phone back at my place y’all can use. Stay the night there and head out in the morning.” I lean against the storefront, its chipped exterior biting into the raised goosebumps on my arm. I try to part my lips, try to utter a singular word of protest, but a goiter-like lump in my throat blocks them all. “How far is your place?” Vera asks. “Just about 15 miles down the road.” What are you doing? I want to ask. I want to grab her by the wrist and yank her back. Want to stop her before it happens again. Before we’re stuck, shifting sand in the desert again. Instead, I turn away and peer through the darkened glass into the gloomy shop. I can make out the shadowy shape of the objects within. A rack of unsold postcards. A singular chair in the middle of the floor, lined with cobwebs and facing the back wall. Tin cans in the corner, so filmy I can’t even tell what they contain. And, finally, a jar of bright yellow dust sitting on the checkout counter. Vera smiles. “Let’s go then.” # His property is crisscrossed with barbed wire fences and rusted cattle gates. Two dogs bark at our arrival, but they know better than to approach. They howl from the front porch, their sorrowful cries mixing with those of hand-made wind chimes. The house is a mishmash of rustic cabin and fisherman shack, with an obvious make-do attitude about its structure. Windows are slanted, skewed by warped wood and old tin. Chimney pipes spring out from the roof like mushrooms. And firewood of varying cut and quality lines the porch. Still, the cabin manages to exude a cozy aura that makes it seem like a kitschy roadside motel instead of a stranger’s abode. Again, he opens the passenger door and waits for Vera and I to slither out. Vera jumps out ahead of me this time. “You a farmer or something?” she asks, gesturing toward the mismatched array of fences. “I’ve got a jenny mule in back and a couple of chickens, but I’m no farmer. Those aren’t for keeping things in. They’re for keeping things out.” He slams the door shut behind me. We follow him into the house, his dogs trailing behind, eager to sniff out his new guests. The place is as much of a patchwork inside as it is out. The walls are an eclectic parade of items, ranging from the household ladle to the hand-carved mask. Everything looks used, as if either handed down to or created by the man himself. “It’s not much, but it’s enough for me. Sit anywhere you like.” He lights a couple of kerosene lamps hanging from the ceiling, their dull glow reminiscent of a firefly’s tail. A cast iron stove sits in the corner of the kitchen, next to the back door. He balls a couple of newspapers up and chucks them into its maw before lighting a match. Vera flops onto a well-worn recliner as if she’s been coming here all her life. I stand by the kitchen table, supporting myself on one of its mismatched chairs. There’s another room just left of the kitchen with a peeling green door, but I can’t see anything beyond it. “You hungry?” He wipes his hands on the front of his pants and steps closer to me. “I can fry something up.” His eyes trail down my body like a drop of sweat, rolling through the valley of my breasts and down between my legs. A worried crease forms between his eyes. “You’re looking a little green there. Wanna sit down?” He pulls out a seat, offering it to me. I shift from one aching foot to the other. “I’m fine. Could I maybe use that phone you were talking about earlier?” “Sure thing,” he says and turns toward the green door. “It’s in here.” I follow him into the room, quickly realizing it’s his bedroom as well as a base of operations. There, on a desk shoved up against the wall, lay a sprawling radio system with a phone charging beside it. The phone, though mobile, appears as large and unwieldy as those huge 1990s cellphones that moms show you to make themselves feel old. “Here, sit.” He scoots the desk chair out, and I sit down, knowing he won’t leave if I don’t. “It’s about three dollars a minute, so try to keep it under five, all right?” He smiles, wrapping his arm around the back of the chair. Heat radiates off his sun-tanned skin like a furnace. Somehow, he’s even more attractive up close. I nod up at him, and he presses the phone into my hands. “Works like any other phone. Just dial 333 and the number after it. Then turn it off and plug it back in when you’re done.” He pulls away, leaving a lingering scent of diesel fuel and creosote bush where his warmth once was. Once he’s gone, I start digging around in my pocket for the Triple A card. I pull it out just as the green door creaks back open. “Change of plans,” Vera says, plucking the card from my hand. “What do you mean?” “We’re gonna ditch the car here. It’s probably getting stripped as we speak. The boy scout in there can just drop us off in town tomorrow. Then we’ll get the hell out of dodge.” “What if they trace the car back to us? He saw us with it,” I whisper. We had been so careful. Kept our cell phones off ever since we crossed state lines. Only used cash the entire time. Never let anyone who knew us actually see us with the car. Vera even picked a guy up to sign for the rental so our licenses wouldn’t be on it. “It’s not like it’ll be any skin off our backs if we don’t return it. Anyway, we never told him our names, and he never told us his. I’m guessing he’s got something to hide, too.” “And you’re trusting him to bring us to town?” “C’mon. It’s not like we’re wilting fucking flowers,” Vera scoffs, leaning in. “We can take care of him.” Silence seeps into the dry air, dead as the desert outside. My stomach throbs with hunger and pain, twisting in the dull agony that’s been cramping my insides since last night. I wince at its reappearance. Vera lays a cool hand over my shoulder, her touch as alarming as it is refreshing. “Just get through the night. It’ll all be over by morning, okay?” I nod and she leaves the room. I turn off the phone and plug it back in, but can’t bring myself to get up just yet. The pain washes over me in waves, each one growing stronger until slowly they grow weaker and weaker. I wonder if I’ve passed the last of it. The last little piece of death inside of me. And as I loll my head back to celebrate this macabre achievement, a broadcast crackles over the radio. I lean in and a deep and distant voice hisses through the static. “He’s coming…” It says, and my skin crawls with a thousand twitching ants. “He’s coming tonight…” # Dinner is a medley of fried snake, frybread, and hominy. We sip room temperature water from mismatched glasses and eat with incomplete cutlery. Vera and I share the knife while he just eats with his hands. There’s an unspoken elegance to his eating habits, though, as if we’re the crude ones for needing utensils. My eyes rove around the kitchen until they come to rest on a jar of bright yellow powder by the wash basin. “What’s that?” I point. “Oh, that’s corn pollen. Just something people keep around here,” he answers. “You grow corn?” Vera asks. “No,” he chuckles, “it’s for blessing. Supposed to ward off bad things.” “What? Like things that go bump in the night?” Vera laughs. He bobbles his head as if considering the idea and shrugs. “Maybe,” he says, tearing off another piece of bread. “Maybe worse things.” He looks over at me. “I think your friend knows what I’m talking about. Don’t you?” His smile makes it seem like a taunt. I sit back in the chair, letting the wood make indents in my body. “I don’t think I know what you mean.” My voice is quiet and wet, like a frog that’s hopped too far from its pond. “Don’t be coy, now. You feel it, don’t you?” There’s a spark in his eyes that reminds me of the lit end of a cigarette, burning me wherever he stares. “Evil slithers through the desert, mean as a sidewinder and pale as its tail.” Vera scoffs, downing her glass. “I wanna smoke whatever you’re on, dude. Sounds like you’ve got the good stuff.” He laughs, the orange glow of his eyes dissipating. “I’m not joking. You go looking for the devil out there and he’ll come calling soon enough. And you won’t be nearly as pleased to see him as he is to see you.” “You really believe this shit, huh?” Vera snickers, venom in her voice. “Don’t have to believe. Proof’s on the side of my truck.” He finishes off the last of his snake meat, chewing on it for an uncomfortably long amount of time. “Shot a coyote trying to snatch a hen one night. Nailed him right between the eyes,” he says, poking the center of his brow. “Dragged him off behind the barn, dead as a door nail. Son of a bitch was gone by morning.” “So, you’re not as good a shot as you tho—” “Next night I see him skulking around my pen again, hole still in his head. I fire off a couple more rounds, but those just make him angry. Hop in my truck to lead him away, and he catches up with me going fifty miles an hour. Gave me and my truck something I wouldn’t soon forget.” My stomach twists into a nauseous knot, threatening to expel its contents all over the kitchen table. I clasp my hand over my mouth, hoping to bar the exit. “Things have a funny way of coming back in the desert,” he says, eyes meeting mine. “See, your friend knows it.” # Vera and I sleep in the den. She takes the leather recliner and I take the velour couch. The smell of tobacco and grease mingle in its cushions, creating the familiar stench of much maligned grandparents. I cocoon myself in a red and yellow wool blanket, sweltering under its protection. The bleeding’s stopped, but a swollen ache remains. Finally, under the cover of darkness, I let the tears roll down my cheeks. My breath hitches as the hiccuping sobs take over my throat, and I bury them in a tweed pillow. After a while, Vera says, “Stop crying.” And then, quieter, “It’s not like you wanted it, anyway.” Somewhere in the mix of tears and sweat, I find a few hours of sleep. It’s still dark when I awake, and the creaking floorboards tell me I’m not the only one. I listen for the man’s steps, soft and deliberate as he creeps across the house. The dogs are growling by Vera’s feet, their muzzles pointed at the front door. He carries a rifle in his right hand, finger knotted around the trigger. A somber collection of notes scatter through the air as wind assaults the hanging chimes. They almost sound like screams echoing off the mountainside. I curl up under the blanket, feeling blood wet the insides of my legs again. The image of blood, colonized by ants flashes across my eyes and I screw them closed to shut it out. The ants came so fast. The flies too. Engulfing the ugly mess that had slid from between my legs within minutes. That’s how desert life is, Vera had said. Always hungry. Always wanting. And never getting enough. I steeple my trembling fingers and pray, just as I prayed that night. Please, let his soul be at rest. I didn’t wanna hurt him… I just didn’t want him to suffer. Let him find peace in the next world… Let him in, Lord… Let him stop suffering… Don’t let the Devil take him, even if he has to take me instead… The dark-haired man stands over me, eyes burning holes into my body. I peek out from the blanket, ragged breath escaping my lips, and he clamps a hand over my mouth. His gaze breaks from mine to peer out the curtained window. The porch creaks and his brows furrow. In between gusts of wind and worried breaths, I hear static sizzling in the air. I suck the electricity in through my nose, letting it crackle inside me before finally departing. “Mama?” it cries outside the door, voice high and pitiful and not altogether human. A voice I never got to know. The man removes his hand from my mouth and raises his gun, docking it in the meat of his shoulder. Slowly, he cracks the door and slides the barrel through. The dogs whine behind him, licking at his heels. He squeezes one eye shut, aiming with the other. Whines turn to silence, and the world goes dead. Not even hollowed out echoes can reach this place. Seconds feel like hours in the stillness, but eventually he lowers the gun and locks the door. I sit up on the couch as he walks away. “Thank you.” “Somebody’s gotta look out for you,” he answers. # I wait until sunlight’s streaming through the window to move. Vera’s still sleeping when I get up, her internal alarm clock perpetually set to noon. I edge past her, padding lightly across the floor until I reach the back door. He’s on the other side when I open it. “I can cook up some breakfast, if you’d like,” he says, leaning against the side of the house. “Then take y’all into town.” I tip-toe down the back steps, letting the door flutter closed behind me. “You don’t have to.” He’s standing tall, hat shielding his eyes as he carves a palm-sized block of wood. He looks older now, though it may just be the concentration playing with his features. “Why’d you come for us?” I ask. He stops carving. “Because you called to me.” He hands the chunk of wood to me. It’s rough, but I can already tell what it’s supposed to be. A baby, swaddled in cloth. “And what do I have to give to you?” I ask and he grins. “Nothing you haven’t given already. You can go if you like.” Static settles in the air, dull and low like a distant beehive. “And if I choose to stay…?” He steps toward me, lowering his head to reveal a lantern-like glow in his eyes. “I’ll give you everything you’ve ever wanted,” he whispers into my ear. “Not everything,” I reply, hand drifting toward my hollow womb. He smiles, his own hand overlapping mine. “I already told you. Everything in the desert comes back.”
Beeper Peddle is a writer and healer living on the East Coast. She lives with her partner and their beloved soul puppy. Beeper writes about sorrows, lies, and deep loves. When you read her work, you will dip down into her heart and end up in all manner of body parts. Should you find yourself reflected in these words, it is merely coincidence; however, it does not surprise her you share the same heart. Find her at bethpeddle.com and @beeperpeddle on Twitter and Instagram
A. Morgan-Penn is a horror author with a taste for macabre romance. You can find more of her short stories and southern folklore in Crow Toes Quarterly, Flash Fiction Magazine, and Teleport Magazine. Her twitter is @AMorganPenn.