I wake to the taste of saltwater on my tongue and throbbing behind my eyes. Heat sears my back as I bob in turquoise waves. Below and around me float crates imprinted with Japanese symbols, empty life vests, an object that looks like a severed pale arm…
The desert is no place for a guilty conscience. The silence eats at sinners until they’re small enough and broken enough to be swallowed whole. That’s why Erin Flores chose the Mojave as her new home. After her term in prison, disappearance felt like absolution. She paid cash for a structure that the ad loosely described as a house, the siding peeling off in white strips like dead skin, and settled in to wait for her ingestion.
Wine in hand, I stepped into the scalding shower without checking the temperature. The sensation offered a brief reprieve from the ache in my heart. I stumbled on a leftover sliver of a soap bar, sloshing half the wine into the drain. “What a waste,” I mumbled. I chugged the rest in two gulps and plunked the glass onto the floor, where it quickly overflowed with spray.
The phenomenon first happened when I was seven years old. Mud caked my pants and the tip of my nose as I stirred an earthy concoction with a stick. “Leaves!” I commanded, my hand outstretched. My friend Lily scurried toward the bushes. Within seconds, she returned and placed the ingredients I’d requested in my palm. Careful not to break the surface of the murky water, I spread out the green embellishments and removed my makeshift utensil. “Soup’s done.”
Brown leaves battered Mr. Cotter’s beat-up truck as he pried open its door. He shook his head. How much time had withered since he last drove it? A year. He sighed, remembering the plot he puttered it to last. The once-green paint peeled in his hands like a snake shedding its skin.
Mother’s favorite waltz warbled from the corner of the garage. I must have left the phonograph on a few hours ago, before the party. Behind me, the chipped door closed on the clink of crystal, the swish of silk, and the thrum of a cello.
Shadows draped over the furniture in the small Lifewarden cottage. Death hung over Madiya’s mind like that darkness, clouding all her thoughts. Except the one that chided her for sleeping through her last chance to enjoy the beams of dawn penetrating the curtains and casting beautiful patterns on the floor. But she needed no such distractions today. As she rose from her cot, a vision crashed into her.
“John’s dead, Maggie.” Ann stood in the doorway, her voice hollow and her cheeks streaked. In the two years that she’d been my roommate, I’d never seen her cry.
Dec. 24. Victim discovered 3 min. off San Pasqual Valley Road/Highway 78. Mile marker 12. Female. Mid 20s. Face down. Homicide suspected. No attempted burial. Thrown and discarded. Decomposition suggests 6 weeks since death. Wild animals got to body. Skeleton mostly intact. Left femur missing. No ID. Prostitute? Photograph in back pocket.
Green. Not eaten. Not trampled into the dust. Food, or maybe poison. It didn’t matter which. Prisoner 13358 hadn’t been actively searching for either. If he had, he would have passed over the spot. An inconspicuous clay lump shielded the leaves that cowered between the stack of lumber and the barracks wall.