october 18, 2023
he sun showed no mercy. A gust of wind blew across the desert. Death and sand rose from the earth, drifted into and filled the air. Tumbleweed rolled past a rattlesnake coiled up on the side of the highway. Trucks passed, missed the snake by inches. The diamonds etched on its back shimmered in the daylight. It released its forked tongue. The snake stretched its head forward. Its body followed. An eagle screeched above, circled back for the snake. Picking up speed, the snake slithered further across the blacktop. When the rattler reached the broken yellow lines dividing the highway, the eagle took a nosedive, went in for the kill. Closing in on the snake, the eagle opened its talons to collect its prize. A burst, flames engulfed the snake. The eagle withdrew into the sky. Fire crackled the snake’s scales. It writhed and shook and twisted and contorted in the middle of the highway, rising several feet into the air and slamming hard on the road. The fire burned faster, harder as the snake’s body expanded, tore. Arms. Toes. Teeth. Flames turned blue. A scream gave birth between the flickering. Hair. Nails. Skin. The fire ballooned out, then disappeared. The Woman lay naked in the road. Her pale skin dripping wet. Red hair. Green eyes. She stood to her feet. She breathed. She walked.
Honey ran her fingers across Shooter’s chest. “How will you do it?”
“I’ll put the gun to his head and pull the trigger,” Shooter said. He pulled back the bed sheets, exposing their bodies. He climbed on top of Honey. “He’ll be as dead as dead can be.”
“Are you scared?”
“Nah.” Shooter leaned down and sucked on Honey’s neck. “You scared for me?”
“I’m scared that you ain’t scared.”
“Don’t worry, baby. Nothing can kill me.”
Honey stretched her neck forward, took his lip in hers, sucked hard, let him loose and whispered, “Cigarettes. Cigarettes will kill you.”
Shooter rolled off Honey, let his feet fall heavy on the green motel carpet, spread the thick velvet curtains apart, allowing a blast of sunlight to invade the room. He stood there naked with his head tilted back, eyes closed, bathing in daylight.
A snap of electricity, Honey turned on the television. She flipped through the channels until landing on a televangelist in tears, holding up a white linen with gold trim as a 1-800 number flashed below. The preacher warned viewers about Satan’s inevitable attack on all the Lord’s children. “But he, that devil of old, has been already crushed beneath the heel of God in the flesh, crucified, buried, resurrected, and seated at the right hand of the father! Stand with me, brothers and sisters in faith. This prayer cloth is my gift to you—having prayed over, anointed, and blessed everyone myself—with any love donation of one-hundred dollars or more to help me spread the gospel of Jesus Christ to the nations. He’s called me to be his prophet, I must prophesy! I cannot go unless I am sent. Will you help send me?”
Honey grabbed the telephone next to the bed and dialed the number on the screen. “I want one,” she said.
“Are you fucking serious?”
“Yes. That thing is gorgeous, and I want it.”
“For a hundred bucks?”
A man’s voice came in over the receiver. “This is the day that the lord has made. My name is Moses. How can I help you?”
Honey covered the phone with her hand and looked at Shooter, “You might need all the prayer you can get.”
“Hello?” Moses called from the other line.
“Hi, I wanna give you some money so I can get one of those pretty white cloths.”
Shooter grabbed his pack of cigarettes, lit up, walked to the bathroom mirror. He swayed his hips back and forth, humming an old Waylon Jennings song to himself. “Nothing can kill me,” he said with the stick hanging between his lips.
Nancy stood behind the register, counting cash. Truckers and tourists filled the diner with a few locals scattered throughout. She watched as a family of four sat in one corner of the restaurant, talking and laughing with one another as the father and mother held hands under the table. Two truckers on the opposite side of the room sat across from one another in silence, eating their blueberry pancakes, drinking black coffee and orange juice. Andres, a local, waddled up to Nancy with the usual display of cotton balls stuffed up each nostril.
Nancy smiled, “Morning, Andres.”
“Hello, darlin’,” Andres smiled back.
“She’s good.” He set his check on the counter and dug through his pockets for cash. “She had a growth on the back of her leg. We shaved it off.”
“I’m glad to hear it. Please tell her I said hello.”
Andres set a twenty-dollar bill on the counter. “You and your little ones should come by sometime. Let us serve you for a change.”
“That’s sweet, but I don’t think I’d be as good of a tipper as you two are, and my kids can be a lot to handle. Last thing I want to do is to mess up your home.” She handed Andres his change.
“That’s yours, Darlin’.”
“Thank you, Andres,” she said, slipping the bills and coins into her apron pockets.
“Kids don’t mess nothing up, really. And between you and me, Melinda’s cooking ain’t exactly fine dining, so I don’t think we’d be expecting no tips.”
“Oh, I’m sure she cooks just fine.”
“Tell that to all the dogs we’ve had to bury who had the misfortune of eating her scraps,” he said. Andres smiled, left the diner.
Nancy went on about her day, taking and delivering orders to her patrons, making small talk with locals and passersby, counting her tips in the bathroom. At the end of her shift, Noonan, the chef, asked her to join him at Elk’s Bar down the road for a few beers.
“Not tonight, Noon,” she told him.
“Why not?” he asked, removing the net from his curly hair.
“Because I’ve got one night to myself, and I don’t want to spend it in some shitty bar buying shitty beer.”
“Fine,” he said, “I’ll buy the damn beer, then.”
Nancy turned and faced Noonan, hand placed firmly on her hip, smirking. “You’re twice my age, old man. What will everyone say about us?”
A smile inched its way across Noonan’s face. He walked slowly to her, put one hand in his pocket and the other on her cheek. “They’ll say you’re gorgeous,” he said, “but dumber than dirt because I am gay as fuck.”
Nancy laughed, slapped his hand away. “Jesus, Noonan.”
He guffawed, walked to the back door, turned, looked back at Nancy. “You want to be my wingman or not, since I’m assuming you’re closed for business downstairs?”
She rolled her eyes. “Next time.”
“Well, come on by after you close up, maybe I’ll even buy you a shitty cocktail. If I’m not already somewhere else, with someone else, fucking my brains out,” he said, turned and left.
The stars poked holes in the blanket of black desert sky outside the empty diner. Nancy turned out all but the lights behind the counter, poured herself a cup of coffee and sat down in one of the empty booths. She added a pinch of sugar, stirred the spoon as her eyes lost themselves in the beauty of the night. Took a sip, stirred. Refill, stirred, stared some more.
The bright red hair of the Woman caught Nancy’s attention first. Then, the glow of her naked skin under moonlight. The Woman seemed to float toward her. “What the hell?” She ran to the entrance door, checked the locks. The Woman approached the glass door. Nancy reached for words to say, found none.
The Woman smiled. “I know you,” she said.
Nancy shook her head.
“Sweet as a peach,” she whispered.
Nancy trembled, began to cry. She ran to the register and grabbed the phone, tried pushing the buttons, but her fingers lost their strength. She steeled herself, dialed 911. The operator asked what the emergency was. Nancy opened her mouth to explain that some crazy buck-ass naked woman was outside her diner, and she needed someone to come out to her immediately. But the only sound to escape her lips was the Woman’s voice, speaking in a tongue she didn’t understand. The dispatcher asked if Nancy was okay and if she needed help, to which Nancy continued to reply with indiscernible language, in the Woman’s voice. Nancy’s eyes welled with tears as she watched the Woman mouth the same sounds, speaking through Nancy like a megaphone into the receiver. Nancy screamed and threw the phone at the door.
The Woman closed her eyes. Click. The door opened. The Woman walked in.
Nancy lost all feelings in her legs and dropped.
The Woman knelt in front of Nancy, studied her, shushed her. “I am not the thing you fear,” she said. She ran a finger through Nancy’s hair, down her face, and lifted her eyes to meet her own. “There will be a healing,” she said, smiling. The Woman leaned in, kissed Nancy’s forehead. Nancy fell into The Woman’s arms, weeping.
Shooter rapped on the window, trying to wake Nancy as she lay sprawled out in one of the diner’s booths. “Hey!”
Nancy shot up in a panic, grabbing her chest, her eyes darting around the empty restaurant. She looked up to see Shooter standing outside, staring at her.
“I gotta talk to you,” he said.
Shooter sat in the booth, running his hands through his slicked back hair. Nancy put coffee in front of him. He lifted the cup, staring into the black sludge, slurped, and let the rim of the cup linger on his lips for a moment.
Nancy folded her hands and leaned back. “I never see you under better circumstances,” she said.
“Might not ever,” Shooter said.
“I hope you’re wrong.”
“Maybe.” Shooter took another long drink, set the cup down in front of him and met Nancy’s eyes. “I’m doing it. I’m going to kill him.”
The buzzing of the kitchen lights echoed throughout the diner, filling the silent space between them. “You’ve been saying that for years,” Nancy said.
“It’s different now.”
“I got a woman. Want to start a family of my own.”
“Why do you need to kill him to do that?”
Shooter looked out at the empty parking lot.
“I asked you a question,” Nancy said.
He returned his attention to her. “I know,” he said.
“It’s already done.”
“It doesn’t have to be. You could move on with your life. You won’t be able to do that if you kill him.”
Shooter leaned forward, “You remember what he did to us.”
“There’s no moving on. It’s this, then whatever is next. But it ain’t moving on. So don’t call it that. We were kids. What he done, there ain’t any undoing, except this. That’s all that’s left.”
Nancy bit her bottom lip. “It’ll always be this way for you so long as you let it, you know.”
“I’m just setting things right,” he said, downing his cup.
“I don’t believe that.”
“You don’t have to,” he said.
“You’re going to end up killing yourself if you do this, Shooter.”
Shooter stared at her. “I love you, sister.”
“I love you,” she said.
He slid the cup across the table. She carried it back to the kitchen.
Nancy stood over the sink for a moment, looking in the mirror at the crow’s feet around her eyes. She took a deep breath. The Woman flashed like a single frame in a motion picture before her. Nancy snapped to. She walked back to the booth. Shooter was gone.
The Woman watched as Shooter parked his motorcycle in the parking lot of the bar and headed inside. Swirls of purple matter, thick as lava, formed in the sky. Tunnels to somewhere. She lifted her head. A young boy’s face took shape at the epicenter of the largest vortex. Shooter, the child. She smiled at him.
The usual crowd of desert weirdos filled the barroom. The bartender handed out bottles of this and glasses of that. Gram Parsons blared from a dusty jukebox.
Shooter sat next to Elroy, who was fidgeting and looking over his shoulder every few seconds.
“Knock that shit off, man,” Shooter said, “you look like a fucking tweaker.”
“You sound like my dad,” Elroy said.
“You don’t know who your daddy is, Elroy.”
“You sure you want to do this, Shooter? He’s got at least half the boys with him. All carrying. Maybe some dogs, too.”
Shooter pulled his jacket back, showed off the handle of his .357 pistol. “And?”
“That won’t help you if you miss. Holtz’ll whoop you to death. And you know I’m right.”
Shooter grabbed Elroy’s Modelo Negro. “You mind?” Elroy shook his head. Shooter finished the bottle, set it down in front of Elroy. “You know why I have to do this, man.”
Elroy waved to the waitress down for another round. “You talk to Nancy about it?”
“Against my better judgement.”
The waitress dropped off two Modelos. They drank slow and in silence, until both bottles were empty. “Holtz is meeting a crew from Bakersfield at the house off Beacon Road. Some new transpo deal. That’s all I know,” Elroy said.
“Thanks.” Shooter got up, left the bar.
The house off Beacon Road looked like something out of a seventies horror film. Chipped paint, roof damn near falling off. Shooter left his bike half a mile away, laid up in a thicket about fifty yards from the front of the house. Lights flickered inside. Shadows flitted across the walls. Two sedans—detective vehicles—sat out front alongside a cluster of Harley Davidsons. A black Dodge Ram rolled up to the house and parked behind the other vehicles, blocking everyone in. Two men came out of the house and down to the truck. The driver’s side door opened and out stepped a massive man with a Silverbelly Stetson cowboy hat: Chief of Police, Allyn Holtz.
“They’re inside waiting for you,” one of the detectives said to Holtz.
“Better be,” he said.
“Rogers and Kinchen are at the back of the house,” the other detective told him.
Holtz nodded. He eyed the detective cars, then the detectives. “What the fuck is this?”
The two men looked at each other. “We thought it would be less conspicuous,” one said.
Holtz punched him in the gut. The detective crumbled. “Do I look like I’ve got my fucking cop car here with me?”
The detective gasped for air. “No, sir,” he said.
“Last thing I want is for anyone seeing my fucking department’s vehicles outside this shithole.” He turned to the other man still standing. “You two stay out here and keep an eye on things.”
Holtz fixed his Stetson, hocked and spit on the ground. “Lot of money being made tonight, boys. Let’s not fuck this up,” he said, and went in the house.
The boy and girl sat on the steps of the house. The evening sun painted yellow streaks across the turquoise sky. The girl stared out at the skyline, the boy played with his wooden pistol, shooting rubber bands into the yard.
“You better pick those up,” the girl said to the boy.
“Shut up. I will,” he said.
The girl took the hem of her denim dress, twirled it in her fingers.
“How much longer is Mama gonna be?” the boy asked.
“As long as she needs to.”
“Is Mama a whore?”
The girl turned to the boy as if jolted with electricity. “Who told you that? That’s an ugly word you don’t call girls, especially not your mama.”
“What’s it mean?”
“I want to know who told you that?”
“That little shit,” she said under her breath.
“What’s it mean?”
“It means someone who does nasty things for money,” she said.
“Nasty things in bed.”
“Oh.” The boy scrunched up his face, fought back tears.
The girl reached her hand across and put it on the boy’s back. He let out a small sob.
“Is she?” he asked, his voice quivering.
“No. She’s not a whore,” she said, and continued rubbing his back.
“I’m gonna kill Thomas,” the boy said.
“No, you won’t. Don’t worry about him. He’ll get what’s coming to him.”
The boy wiped his face on his sleeve, picked up more rubber bands and shot them.
“Mama’s a witch,” the girl said.
“That’s why everybody comes to see her. She helps them with her magic. Spells and stuff. Her mama was a witch, too. One day, I’ll be a witch.”
“How do you know?”
“Grandma told me last year, before she died. She said we come from a powerful family that’s full of magic. Some of them were shapeshifters. But don’t you go telling anyone that. Just because you know something doesn’t mean you can just go and tell anyone you please.”
“Is she really a witch?”
“Yeah, she is. Me too. One day.”
“Okay,” the boy said. “Am I a witch?”
“Boys aren’t witches.”
“Because only girls are witches.”
“Oh. That sucks.” The boy shot another rubber band with more force than the ones before.
“Don’t say ‘sucks’. Mama doesn’t like that.”
“Sorry,” he said.
The screen door burst open. The boy and girl jumped to their feet and cleared the way as a young officer stomped onto the porch. He adjusted his Stetson, pulled a pack of cigarettes from his brown leather bomber jacket.
Mama followed, holding the skirt of her long black dress in one hand, a glass in the other. She looked down at her children, smirked and winked. The girl smiled back. The boy turned to examine the officer, the cigarette shaking between his fingers.
“You sure it’ll work,” the officer asked Mama.
“I don’t doubt it,” she said.
“All right.” He turned to Mama. “And you ain’t saying nothing about this to nobody, right?”
Mama smiled, scoffed. “What’s to tell?”
“You know what’ll happen if you do, right?”
Mama took a step toward the officer. “You know what’ll happen if you threaten me, right?”
The officer took a long drag, flicked the stick far off into the yard. He looked at the boy holding his wooden gun, then pointed to his own in the holster at his side. “I got one, too,” the officer said.
The boy lifted his wooden toy, pointed it at the officer. The officer roared with laughter. “Hold on there, shooter. That’s your name, ain’t it? Shooter?”
“Maybe,” the boy said.
The officer smiled at Mama. Mama didn’t blink. He turned back to the boy. “I can see why,” he said, turned and left.
Mama wrapped up the boy and girl in her long arms and pulled them to her side. “Inside, you two.”
“Yes, ma’am,” they said.
Mama, the boy, and the girl sat at the dinner table, finishing their Hamburger Helper.
“How was school,” Mama asked the girl.
“It was fine. Same old,” she said.
“How about you, handsome?”
“Boring? What made it so boring?”
The boy shot up in his seat, “Oh! Me and Ricky saw a baby rattlesnake out past the gate at recess. I wanted to catch it, but it was too far away.”
Mama’s eyes widened. “If you see a baby rattler, you run. You don’t want to get bit by one of them. If a baby snake bites you, it releases all of its venom and can kill you in a minute. You want that?”
The boy’s eyes fell to the floor. “No, ma’am.”
Mama lifted his face with her fingers. “I can’t have nothing happening to you two, okay? I love you both too much. Please just do as I say. Both of you,” she turned to meet the girl’s eyes, “all right?”
They nodded, said yes.
“My sweet babies,” Mama said, smiling, “Sweet as a peach.”
The girl beamed.
“You both finish up and get in bed. It’s past your bedtimes.”
The boy lay half-awake when he heard the noise. He opened his eyes and saw the girl standing in the doorway, looking down the hall, tears rolling down her cheeks, hands covering her mouth. He got out of bed quick, went beside her, saw Mama slumped over in the corner at the end of the hall, her nightgown lifted over her waist. Blood poured down her legs. Her face purple, distorted. One eye shut, one wide open. No breathing. The boy heard a car door slam outside. He ran past the ripped screen door and onto the porch. The police car sped quietly down the street, disappeared.
The detectives smoked cigarettes in silence outside the house. Holtz’s bolstering laugh boomed from the windows, followed by other voices. Shooter lay still in the thicket, his finger on the trigger of his .357.
Half an hour had gone by when the bikers started leaving the house. They ignored the detectives as they got on their motorcycles and roared away into the night. Holtz came out last, strutting, wearing a shit-eating grin, dusting off his Stetson.
Rogers and Kinchen appeared from around the corner, joined the rest of the police department in the front yard.
“All right. We’ll get the first delivery next month. I’ll send y’all the details. Going to need those roads cleared. Eyes on them the whole time. Safe passage and all that shit. When it’s done, you’re paid. Understood?”
They said yes, of course, anything you need.
Shooter rose from his hiding spot, careful not to make noise. He pointed his gun, walked.
Bang. The shot echoed across the night sky.
Rogers hit the ground. Bullet through his skull.
The others went for their guns.
Shooter fired off four more rounds, unnaturally fast.
Four more bullets. Four bodies fell. Four dead men.
Holtz clawed at his holster. Shooter took a few long strides and pistol-whipped the chief square on his temple. Holtz collapsed to the dirt. Shooter took the handcuffs off one of the dead cops, cuffed Holtz’s hands behind his back, threw him in the back of the truck, cranked the engine, took off down the road.
The Woman stepped out of the house, watched the taillights shrink and disappear. She turned to the four bodies. Crickets chirped on every side. They grew louder the closer she got to the bodies. Her eyes went black.
Nancy couldn’t sleep. It’s too damn hot, she thought. Taking a deep breath, she threw the sheets off and got out of bed. Moonlight poured across the wooden floors like cool silk on skin. The boys’ room was covered in dinosaurs and Spider-Man toys and puzzles. She took a beer from the refrigerator, went and stood on the front porch. She glared out at the nothingness surrounding her home save the road leading into town.
High-beam lights bounced in the distance, growing larger and brighter the closer they got. She shut her eyes and whispered to herself. The Woman walked up behind her.
“Is this it?” she asked the Woman.
The Woman nodded.
Shooter barreled up the twisted dirt road leading to Nancy’s house. He slammed on the brakes. Holtz bounced several feet in the air, crashing hard on the truck bed. Shooter got out of the truck, holding his .357. He opened the tailgate and yanked Holtz out by his cowboy boots. Shooter grabbed the Stetson, now covered in dust and dirt and specks of blood and threw it away. Holtz fell hard on the ground. He gasped for air, muttering a barely audible threat at Shooter. Shooter laughed.
“Keep talking, you piece of shit,” Shooter said, and kicked Holtz several times in the ribs.
Blood spewed from Holtz’s mouth.
Nancy ran down the steps, tried to pull Shooter away. The strikes came fast and heavy against Holtz’s side. Nancy heard the crunch of ribs breaking. Holtz tried to scream but ended up choking on his blood.
“Shooter, please,” Nancy said, putting herself between the two men.
“Fuck that! This motherfucker’s dying tonight.”
“And so will you,” she said.
Shooter stopped, looked at Nancy. “I’ve been dead. Long time now. Just decided I’m taking him with me.”
“That’s not true. He’s not worth this, Shooter.”
“Mama is. Mama’s worth it. And that son of a bitch killed her.”
Nancy placed her hands on Shooter’s face. “I know he did. And his death will be worse than you can imagine. But please. Not this way.”
Holtz struggled to his knees, hacking and wheezing.
“Ain’t no other way, sister.”
Shooter pushed Nancy aside, raised his pistol, fired off the last round into Holtz’s heart. The chief’s eyes froze wide as he fell onto his back, rattled off a breath, and died.
Nancy and Shooter stared at the body.
Another gunshot went off like thunder in the night.
Shooter lifted a hand to his chest—blood.
Nancy screamed. No sound came.
Shooter turned around and saw the boy holding a wooden gun, aimed at Shooter. “I know you,” Shooter said, and fell.
Nancy dropped to Shooter’s side, wailing.
The Woman came behind the boy and put her hand on his shoulder.
“No more shooting,” the Woman said to the boy.
“Yes ma’am.” He lowered his wooden toy.
The woman stepped softly over to Nancy and knelt beside her.
“He has a second chance. Your mama made sure,” the Woman told her.
Nancy looked at the woman, tears cascading. She eyed the boy, nodded at the Woman. Nancy stood, reached for the boy’s hand, and walked towards the house.
“Nancy,” the Woman called. “Your mama wanted you to watch.”
Swirls of purple matter, thick as lava, formed in the sky. Tunnels to somewhere. The Woman touched Holtz’s forehead, whispered to herself. The chief’s eyes opened. He sat up.
“The fuck just happened,” he said. “Who the hell are you? Where the hell is my fucking gun? Ah, fuck. I need to get to a hospital. I’m hurting. Something’s wrong.”
“You took her magic, and you took her life,” the Woman said.
Holtz blinked through the blood in his eyes. “What the hell are you talking about? I need fucking help! I need medical help,” he said, trailing off.
“You took her magic, and you took her life.”
The chief looked at Nancy and the boy, let out a deep growl. “So fucking what? I killed their little devil-fucking mama. Who gives a shit? She was pure evil. Pure fucking evil. World’s better off without her.”
The Woman’s eyes went black. She stuck out a forked tongue. She convulsed. Her skin stretched, twisted. A burst. Hundreds of scaly things slithered around Holtz. He let out a scream. One of the serpents struck him on the leg. Then another. They slithered up his sides.
“Help me,” the chief screamed to Nancy.
Nancy and the boy stood silent, watching, holding each other’s hands. The purple vortex swirled violently above. Red lightning crashed.
Another bite. And another. The snakes covered Holtz’s body, striking every inch of him. His cries and screams were muted when one snake slid down his throat.
From the epicenter of the vortex, Nancy saw something moving. Flesh of some kind. When it finally occurred to her what was coming, she covered the boy’s eyes with her hand. The boy didn’t fight her.
The giant snake head pierced through the vortex, reared itself back, and struck. It took Holtz in its mouth and withdrew back into the portal, the smaller serpents still attached to his arms and legs. His body convulsed until it disappeared, sunken into whatever hell lay beyond that purple matter. The vortex shrunk and swirled until a pop was heard and vanished.
Nancy stared at Shooter’s body. She closed her eyes. “Please take him somewhere peaceful,” she said.
His body faded, like a bad memory.
The engine in Holtz’s truck cranked. The headlights came on. It backed itself out of her driveway and took off down the road.
Nancy turned to the boy. “Are you okay?”
The boy smiled.
Nancy watched from her porch as the three children chased each other in her yard. Her oldest ran up the stairs to her.
“Mama,” he said, “is he gonna live with us now?”
Nancy raised her brow, “Yes, he is. He’s a part of our family.”
“Yes, really. Is that alright with you?”
He turned to the others and shouted, “He’s gonna live with us!”
The children celebrated, giving high fives and hugs and doing silly dances.
Nancy laughed as she watched them.
The children lay in their beds. Nancy went one by one, kissing them on their foreheads. “My sweet babies,” she said, tucked them in, closed their door.
Nancy sat at the kitchen table when she heard the boy tip-toeing in. She smiled as he poked his head around the corner.
“Come on, then,” she told him.
The boy sat at the table.
“What’s got you up?”
“I can’t sleep,” he said.
The boy opened his mouth, ready to speak, then closed his lips.
“Go on,” Nancy said, “what is it?”
The boy swung his feet in the chair, nervously. “Are you a witch?”
D.T. Robbins is the founding editor of Rejection Letters and author of Birds Aren't Real.