ONE THE QUITTER
Her feet pound asphalt. Ahead, Old Highway 60 cuts a knife line through red rock and broken earth, the highway shot through with hairline fractures. Big clouds scattered across the sky like the stuffing from a gutted teddy bear. The side of the highway is lined with gnarly green scrub brush, plants like hands reaching for the road, hands looking to rend and tear. Beyond, it’s just the wide-open nowhere of Arizona: electric fences that don’t contain anything, craggy rocks and distant peaks like so many broken teeth.
Run, she thinks. Sweat is coming off her hair, into her eyes. Fucking hair dye. Fucking spray gel hair bullshit. Fucking suntan lotion. She blinks back sweat carrying all those chemicals, sweat that burns her eyes. Don’t pay attention to that. Just run. Eyes forward. Clarity of thought and vision. Or something.
Then her foot catches something—?a rock, a lip of cratered asphalt, she doesn’t know, and it doesn’t matter, because suddenly she pitches forward. Hands out. Palms catching the macadam, bracing herself so her head doesn’t snap forward and crack in half like a tossed brick. A hard pain jars up her arms, through her elbows like a flicker of lightning. Her hands sting and throb.
She gets up on her knees and then starts coughing.
The coughing jag isn’t brief. She plants her hands on her knees and hacks hard, and between hacks she wheezes, and between
wheezes she just hacks harder. It’s a dry cough of broken sticks and dead leaves until it’s not—?then it’s wet, rheumy, and angry, like her lungs have gone liquid and have decided to disperse themselves up and out of her mouth.
That mouth that wants a cigarette right now. Lips that would plant around the filter and suck smoke deep. Her whole body wants a cigarette, and the nic fit tears over her and through her like a plague of starving locusts. She shudders and bleats and laughs and cries and, once again, coughs.
Her palms pulse with her hummingbird heartbeat. The skin abraded.
Footsteps behind her.
Heavy. Boots hitting hard.
Sweat pours off her now—?spattering on the road.
“It’s hot,” she gasps. “It’s fucking hot. It’s Hell-hot. It’s wearing-the-Devil’s-humid-scrotum-as-a-hat hot.”
“They say it’s a dry heat.”
Louis clomps up alongside her like a Clydesdale.
She looks up at him. The sun hangs behind him, so he’s just a shape, a shadow, a black monolith speaking to her. Oh, Louis, she thinks, and then he turns just so and her eyes adjust. And she can see the black electrical tape crisscrossing his eyes. She can see his pale face, his wormy lips, a tongue that traipses over broken teeth. And when he moves, she hears the rustle of feathers, the clacking of beaks.
Not-Louis. The Trespasser. Her companion that only she can see—?a hallucination, a ghost, a fellow traveler to wherever it is she’s going.
“You know what else is a dry heat?” she asks. “Fire.”
“It’s only April.”
“It’s, like, almost ninety degrees. I should’ve come in December.”
The Trespasser stands over her. Like an executioner ready to drop the head-chopper axe down on the kneeling sinner.
“Why are we out here, Miriam?”
She rocks back on her knees, cranes her head back, eyes closed. She paws at the water bottle hanging at her hip. With her teeth she uncaps it (and even there she thinks: my teeth want a cigarette too, want to bite into the nicotine like it’s a cancerous Slim Jim god I want it so bad I’d kick a baby seal just to get one taste), then drinks deeply, drinks sloppily. Water over her lips, down her chin.
Up in the sky, vultures spin on an invisible axis.
“We are not out here,” she says, wiping her wet mouth with the back of her hand. “I am out here alone. You are—?well, we still don’t know what you are, do we? Let’s go with demon. Invisible, asshole demon. You’re not here. You’re here.” She taps her temple, then drinks more water.
“If I’m up there, then I’m with you, and we are still we,” he says. A loose, muddy chuckle in the well of his chest. “Why are you jogging, Miriam?”
“It’s not jogging. It’s jogging when rich, limp-noodle assholes do it. When I do it, it’s called running, motherfucker.” She sniffs. Coughs again. “I do it because I need to get better. Get stronger. Faster. All that.”
“What are you running from?”
You, she thinks. But instead she says, “It’s funny; anyone who sees me running asks me that. Hur hur, is something chasing you? Yeah. Death. Death is chasing me, and chasing everyone else, too. That’s what I’m running from. My own clock spinning down. The sweep of the Reaper’s scythe.”
“Not like you to run from death.”
“Things have changed.”
Another damp, diseased chuckle. “Oh, we know. You’re trying to get away from us. From you. From the gift you have been given.”
“It’s no gift,” she says, finally starting to stand. The sun is punishing. It feels like a fist trying to punch her back down to the ground. “But you know that. And you don’t care.” She thinks,
but does not say: As soon as I find the woman I’m looking for, you’re outta here, pal. No more trespassing for you. Miriam has a name: Mary Stitch. AKA, Mary Scissors. A woman who can, if the story is true, help Miriam get shut of this so-called “gift.” She wants it gone. She needs it gone before it swallows her whole.
“You’re not done yet,” the Trespasser says. As she stands, she sees Not-Louis’s eyes have become black, glossy circles—?crow eyes, rimmed with puckered gray skin and the start of oily feathers that thread underneath the skin like stitches. “Not by a country mile, little girl.”
She sucks in a bit of sweat from above her lip and spits back at him. The Trespasser doesn’t even flinch. Instead, he just points.
Miriam follows the crooked finger.
There, way down the highway, she sees the glint of light off a vehicle. Her vehicle—?it’s where she parked it. A rust-red, rat-trap pickup truck. A literal rat trap, actually—?when she bought it, rats had made a nest in the engine, chewed up the belts and wires pretty good.
This one, coming from the opposite direction. Hard to make out what it is—?the sun catches on it like in a pool of liquid magma. Despite that, Miriam can see the back of the car fart out a noxious black cloud. She can hear the bang of the engine, and she can see something roll across the road—?a hubcap?—?that hits the tire of her Ford truck and drops. The car stops across from her truck.
Then all is still.
“What is that?” she asks. “Who is that?”
She turns to the Trespasser but he’s gone.
And yet his voice reaches her:
“Go and see.”