By Victoria Shanks
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.
Then she took a pregnancy test.
Grudgingly, she purchased power tools and screwed the siding back into place.
* * *
Seventeen years later, gusts rattled the walls. Erin switched the TV off and glanced out the window. The moon had long since dipped below the ridge, leaving behind thousands of stars that blinked in confusion. Orion and Cygnus jumbled together, the Big Dipper had lost its handle, and the Milky Way streaked over the wrong mountains. Every few months the constellations shifted like a kaleidoscope, and this time the phenomenon was recurring on July nineteenth of all nights. The date hung heavy enough already.
With a sigh, Erin stretched and trudged to the door. “Marisa?”
Only the howl of the wind answered. Something scraped against the shingles above, and her hand darted to the knife on her belt—until dingy sneakers dangled over the roof’s edge.
Marisa jumped down. “Everything okay?” Her enormous camouflage jacket flapped wildly, and she reached up to straighten the dog tags draped around her neck. Both items had belonged to her father. With her wild black curls tied in a semblance of a braid, she looked achingly like Benicio. Except for the hazel eyes that mirrored Erin’s.
Erin shoved her hands into her pockets. “It’s past midnight.”
“One forty-seven. I was watching the thunderbirds.” Marisa pointed skyward. “Saw a big one, blue-green. They’re hunting hares in the river bottom. Pack of coyotes on the move flushed ‘em out.”
“Yeah?” Erin smiled slightly. Marisa’s heart beat to the same cadence as the swirling, never-stilling sand. Yet another inheritance from her father. Erin loathed the oppressive heat and the grit she couldn’t wash off. “How’d you—”
The horizon erupted in amber and fuchsia, and a bolt flared taller than the highest of the peaks.
Marisa sucked in a breath. “Mom, what was that?”
Erin stared at the glow until it faded. Strange flickers often appeared in the distance, unexplainable and intermittent, but nothing as dramatic as that. “I don’t know, querida.”
When she closed her eyes, the flare still stained her vision.
* * *
The next morning, Erin tripped over a walkie-talkie plunked outside her bedroom door. Hamlet, the tailless cat, curled in a black lump around the device and narrowed one eye when she pried it away from him.
In the kitchen, she slit the blinds to check the carport. Empty. Of course Marisa drove her ATV to investigate the explosion. You better have taken the gun. She slid open the drawer beside the fridge. Benicio’s pistol was gone. Good. She’d lectured Marisa countless times for forgetting it. They couldn’t predict who, or what, they might encounter in the desert.
After changing the filter and filling the coffeemaker with water, Erin activated the walkie-talkie. “Mi querida?”
No response, but reception was hit-or-miss. She grabbed the chipped red mug from the cupboard and spooned in a mountain of sugar. Marisa drank hers black; Erin was humble enough to own her weakness.
Once the coffee warmed, she carried the mug and walkie-talkie outside to the firepit and sat cross-legged in one of the flimsy chairs. The plastic burned her back, but she refused to deviate from the habit she forced herself to observe every morning. Mesquite clotted the dry riverbed below, and hills swelled beyond it, fringing the canyon—the reason Erin had gravitated to this spot.
Swigging her coffee, she pulled her phone out and tapped on Psalm 51 in the Bible app. “Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” She finished reciting aloud, and human-shaped shadows peered over the ridge above the house, as if the verses had summoned them.
Dark Watchers, she called the beings. She’d glimpsed the first one the day she bought the property, but its amorphous form had been so far away that she dismissed it as an illusion. Every year they crept closer, invisible except to her. Was losing her mind such a gradual process? Maybe God thought she deserved more punishment, so He sent the Watchers to remind her of the past, like the hallucinations that drove Villefort mad in The Count of Monte Cristo.
The walkie-talkie blared. Erin held it up to her ear, trying to make out words, but only static came through. After the interference stopped, she pressed the talk button. “Marisa? Can you hear me?”
More crackling. “Found—” Crackle. “Need—” Silence.
“You alright? What do you need?” Erin squeezed the walkie-talkie so tightly that her pulse throbbed in her palms. If Marisa was hurt… “Querida, where are you?”
God, keep her safe. Erin jogged back into the house for her keys, her knife thumping against her thigh with each step. She started her ATV with a roar and sped off. The wind licked at her hair as she followed the trail that snaked along the rim of the river bottom.
When she steered to the right, toward the hills, the sun accosted her. She squinted through the glare and, thank God, spotted a black ATV rounding the bend. Marisa—plus a passenger.
Marisa cruised up beside Erin and cut her engine, popping off her headphones. Behind her, a girl in her early twenties clung to the cargo rack. “Noticed her white shirt while passing the mountain and pulled over to ask if she needed rescued. She hasn’t spoken.”
Dried blood crusted the girl’s nose. Her eyes, glazed over and bright blue, were fixated on a point in the distance. Shock? Dehydration? Her fair complexion showed no signs of sunburn, and her outfit—designer jeans, cardigan, tank, flats—was unsuitable for hiking. She couldn’t have been wandering around for long. But the nearest road was miles away.
First the explosion, now an intruder. And she looks so familiar. “We’ll drive her to the hospital. And mention where you’re going next time. If not for the fireworks last night, I couldn’t have figured out which direction you went.”
“Yeah.” Marisa put her headphones back on. “Sorry.”
Together they jolted over the rocky terrain until they arrived at the house. Erin parked and offered the girl a hand down. The ride had torn strands out of her blonde ponytail, making her seem even more frail. She was as petite as Marisa, though thinner. Trembling, she leaned against Erin to keep her balance. “Did you give her water?”
“Couple sips.” Marisa jiggled her canteen. “Thought she might get sick if she guzzled too much.”
“Smart.” Erin guided the girl toward her rusty pickup with the Autism Awareness license plate. But when she yanked on the hot metal handle, the girl jerked away, her eyes wide.
She didn’t hesitate to jump on an ATV. Why is she freaking out about the truck? “We’re just taking you in town to a doctor.”
The girl backpedaled, bumping into Marisa. Her lips parted in a silent no.
Marisa climbed in and patted the seat. “C’mon. We’re not going to harm you.”
The girl shook her head over and over.
“You’re not thinking clearly.” Erin wrapped an arm around the girl’s shoulders. “We can—”
“No!” the girl shouted and wrenched free, clawing at Erin. “I—I’m fine.”
Blood welled in the scratches from the girl’s nails. Erin wiped it on her jeans. Too old to force her to go, and she’s regaining awareness. Maybe all she needs is nutrition in her stomach. “Let’s get you inside, then.”
The girl nodded almost imperceptibly. Erin accepted that as her signal to head for the house, and Marisa hopped out of the truck. She matched the girl’s slow pace, steadying her when she wobbled. In the background, Dark Watchers still lined the ridge. They never stay this late in the morning. Why today?
The girl collapsed onto the scratchy yellow couch in the living room, and Erin tucked a blanket around her to shield her from the blast of air conditioning. “I need you to sit up so Marisa can help you drink, okay? I’ll fetch a towel to clean up your face.”
Erin wetted a washcloth in the sink and waited for the girl to down a few gulps before she dabbed at the blood. She didn’t detect any injuries besides a swollen bruise on her forehead.
“Headache,” the girl mumbled, her eyelids drifting closed.
What if she’s suffering from trauma? Or a concussion? She should be throwing up and displaying a host of other symptoms, but the accident might have been too recent to tell. “You ready to go to the hospital?”
The girl moaned and shrunk into her cocoon.
Just please don’t die on me. “I guess you can rest awhile, then we’ll see how you’re feeling.”
Marisa leapt up and returned a minute later with a pillow. “Here, this’ll make you comfier.”
“Thanks.” The girl sank onto the cushions. Marisa tugged the blanket up to her chin, earning a faint smile.
Their guest didn’t stir for hours, and as evening approached, Erin peeked in on her more often to make sure her chest hadn’t stopped rising and falling. Finally, when the chili they’d be eating for supper threatened to bubble over, the couch springs squeaked. A minute later, the girl shuffled into the kitchen doorway, blanket clutched around her shoulders. Erin hurriedly rolled her sleeves down over her forearms to cover the scars.
The girl scanned the room, her eyes clear, alert. “Where…am I?”
“I’m Erin Flores. My daughter, Marisa, found you. We’re about ten miles off interstate fifteen. Nearest town is Winslow’s Hole, but we don’t go there if we can avoid it.”
The girl lowered herself into a chair. “I can’t remember anything. My name. How old I am. Where I live. It’s all blank.”
Amnesia—from the blow that left the bruise on her forehead? “You searched your pockets for a driver’s license or any other ID?”
The girl rummaged through her jeans. “Only this.” She held up a keychain-sized stone wolf carved in a vaguely Native American style, like the souvenirs sold at the Las Vegas airport.
Erin removed the chili from the stove and began scooping a portion into the blender. Marisa always pureed hers because she disliked the texture. “You need to be examined by a doctor.”
The girl heaved breaths in and out as if she were experiencing an asthma attack. Her face turned three shades paler. “The truck. I can’t. I’m—” She swallowed twice. “Scared to get in. I have no idea why.”
You couldn’t have walked here. “Would you prefer we call an ambulance?”
The girl hugged herself to reduce a shudder. “Same reaction.”
Biting her lip, Erin resumed transferring the chili, but motion outside distracted her. A lump plopped onto the tile.
Three Dark Watchers clustered around the truck.
* * *
When Erin woke the next morning, pink marbled the cobalt sky and the black silhouette of a Watcher loomed in her window. She frowned at it for a long time, her stomach churning harder than the blender last night, before easing the quilt off her body.
No movement from the Watcher.
The hair at the back of her neck prickled as she stacked a cotton tee on top of yesterday’s jeans and slipped into the bathroom to dress. Could the Watchers invade the house? What do they want? The jagged white marks on her arms glared at her beneath the fluorescent light fixture. Is this what they’re after? Self-torture?
She hadn’t cut herself in years. The knife hung on her belt, within easy reach. Her fingers inched downward. No. That hasn’t, and won’t ever, erase the guilt.
But at least for a few minutes, she’d felt like she’d bled the rot out of her veins. Like she was human again. She could slice higher, somewhere out of sight—
No. She balled her hands into fists and marched to the kitchen. The girl leaned forward with her elbows propped on the table, listening to Marisa explain the plaster casts and bags of hair samples she’d strewn in front of her.
“I found this one near the mountain where you were.” Marisa gestured to a footprint-shaped blob. Fifteen inches long, if Erin recalled correctly. “But the best prints are down in the river bottom. That’s where I collect most of the hair too. Tangled in mesquite thorns.”
Yucca Monsters and other oddities—unquestionably Marisa’s obsessions. Smirking, Erin poured herself a cup of coffee. She kept her back to the window, just in case. “How’re you feeling?” she asked the girl.
The girl shrugged. “Headache’s gone. I’m a tad queasy, but not too bad.” Her skin hadn’t changed from its ashen color, and though she examined a few of Marisa’s artifacts with interest, her lips stayed pressed in a thin line.
Erin slurped her coffee and choked. Forgot the sugar. “Anything else?”
The girl traced a scratch in the wood with her thumb. “I dreamed about a car. I think it was mine. I got out and started walking and…I don’t know how much time passed before Marisa stumbled upon me.”
“A car?” Erin shoved Hamlet off the chair beside the girl and sat, careful not to bump any of Marisa’s treasures. “Side of the road?” That theory made no sense because of the lengthy trek to I-15, but none of the girl’s displacement did.
The girl scrunched up her brow, concentrating on the image in her mind. “No. Walls surrounded me. Like a tunnel. But with sand.”
Marisa’s and Erin’s eyes met. “The canyon,” they whispered in unison.
Erin set down her mug with a clunk. She couldn’t ingest any more or her stomach would expel it. “You girls up to more four-wheeling?”
* * *
The breeze ghosted through the creosote shrubs, and a coyote bolted out. Marisa pointed at one of the mountains to their right, her mouth moving. Erin couldn’t hear her over the rumble of the ATVs, but she didn’t need to. That must’ve been where Marisa had discovered the girl.
A dozen yards farther, and the canyon’s red walls towered twenty, thirty, forty feet above their heads. Here and there, a fossilized trilobite or petroglyph protruded from the stone. One uncannily resembled a sauropod. Footprints, partially faded by a fresh layer of dust, trickled out from deeper in.
A fat rattlesnake coiled itself into a crevice as they zoomed past. When the path narrowed, the footprints veered down a branch Erin had never explored. But as soon as she entered it, the sides pressed in on her as if she were stranded in the pitch blackness of a rural highway after midnight, unprepared for the sentencing crack of a gun, and—
Erin had only glimpsed its taillights thirty years ago, but she’d read its description in the newspaper a thousand times. 1983 Land Rover Defender 110, green and white paint. A twenty-two-year-old blonde female named Heather Lovell at the wheel. Five feet, two inches tall. Slender. Wearing a sage cardigan. Erin had memorized every detail of the missing person bulletins. How did I not recognize her immediately?
Behind the car, the canyon folded in on itself and ended. Tire tracks led straight out of…nowhere.
Erin let her engine idle for so long that it sputtered and died. Last night had been an anniversary she would have preferred to forget. The explosion occurred to the hour, maybe even to the minute, of the original crash. This is why the Watchers started hovering after the girl showed up. I’m never going to escape.
Marisa squatted and touched the indentions in the dirt that shouldn’t have existed. “Weird. Car looks pretty old. Seventies or something.” She smoothed her hand over the chrome, then paused to inspect the finish. “Mom, is this what I think it is?”
Sand plastered the outside of the driver’s door, but that didn’t hide the color of the splatters underneath.
“Someone was chasing me,” Heather added, her voice barely audible.
A wave of nausea surged over Erin. She cinched her arms around her torso and bowled over, but controlling the rising bile would be a miracle.
A hand grasped her shoulder. “Mom? You okay?”
Erin couldn’t form words. Have to get away. I can’t throw up in front of the girls. She pumped the ignition on her ATV and whipped it into a tight u-turn, straining the top gear until the house wavered into view. Two Watchers guarded the carport. She abandoned the ATV by the patio and staggered inside to the bathroom.
Once she’d relieved herself, she locked herself in her room and slumped onto the bed. She’d begged God to cleanse her, to remove the guilt even though she deserved to be crushed by it. He promised to forgive any sin—but why would the Watchers stalk her if that was true?
* * *
Erin ignored the knock and the hum of the girls chatting in the living room, determined not to break her stare-down with the Watcher blocking her window. It never twitched or shifted. When the sun descended, it melted into the night, but for the first time, its smoldering pupils became visible, along with hundreds of others.
I notified the police, led them to the grave. And I went to prison. What else do you demand from me?
The Watcher’s eyes burned into her, branding her with her mistakes.
Fine. If pain is what you want, pain is what you’ll get. She rolled out of bed and jerked her door open. Except for the squarish numbers on the digital clock, no lights illuminated the house. The girls must have gone to sleep.
She tiptoed into the kitchen, where a yowl and the whoosh of fur against her ankles warned her that she’d disturbed Hamlet. Raising her knife, she stepped outside and lunged at the first pair of eyes that floated near.
The Watcher dodged. She stabbed again. It wasn’t fast enough, and the blade tore an ember-glowing streak down its side. At the same instant, a piercing sensation shot through Erin’s right thigh. She crumpled to the ground. When she patted the area, a warm and sticky substance coated her fingers.
How? I didn’t cut myself. I attacked that—that thing!
She pushed herself to her feet and hobbled inside, smearing the linoleum. She fumbled for the counter, then the chest in the hallway and the bathroom switch.
The mirror revealed a six-inch rip in her jeans and a gash like a miniature canyon.
Bleeding. Must staunch the bleeding. For Marisa. Erin pulled the first-aid kit from the cupboard, hacked the fabric away from the wound, and applied a wad of gauze. What were Benicio’s instructions? Seven minutes, pressure for seven minutes. Hands shaking, she yanked her belt out of its loops to create a tourniquet that she tightened until her leg stung. She dampened more pads to replace the soiled ones, but half the pile tumbled into the sink.
Somehow, I did this to myself like all the other incidents. David murdered one of his loyal soldiers and God called him a man after His own heart. Paul murdered believers and God transformed him into one of the most powerful apostles. God, why not me? I’ve asked so many times and tried so hard to please You.
She checked her watch repeatedly until the seven minutes elapsed and she could loosen the belt. As she peeled off one gauze pad after another, blood still oozed, but the flow had lessened. She positioned her thigh near the faucet and filled her cupped hands with water to rinse out the remaining gunk. Yellow fat lay exposed, but the damage wasn’t so severe that duct tape couldn’t patch it. She’d improvised before—and probably would need to again.
God, are You a liar? Or even real?
She divided the duct tape into strips to suture the gash before bandaging it. Then she soaked a rag and limped from room to room, wiping up the crimson smudges she’d left on the floor and furniture. In the kitchen, Hamlet had already skittered across the mess and tracked it through the flap in the front door. Out where the Watchers prowled.
Instinctively, Erin groped for her only source of defense, but she’d shed her belt in the bathroom, and the sheath was empty anyway because she’d dropped her knife during the fight.
She couldn’t retrieve it. Couldn’t confront the Watchers again.
But she needed her knife. It kept her safe—it protected her from…what? Whenever she drew it, she was the one who walked away with an injury, not some menacing enemy.
No, she had a different motive for carrying the knife. It provided her with a sense of control. Made her the priest and the sacrificial lamb all at once, spreading blood on the altar. But how many rituals must she perform to atone for the crime she’d committed?
Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.
She pressed her forehead against the door and curled a hand around the knob. Maybe I’ve been asking the wrong question. Her soul had grown hoarse from crying out, the filth choking her more every day. But did she trust God to purify her? Or had she been relying on her own efforts?
She clamped a hand over her mouth to muffle a gasping sob. God, I need You. I can’t purge myself. But You can. You promised—and I believe You.
She swung the door open and addressed the closest Watcher. “My God is not a liar. He died to redeem me.” If I can’t rest in Him, I have nothing.
The Watcher blinked.
“I am a daughter of the Creator.” Her voice gained strength, and a smile swam through her tears. “He promised to forgive me. And He has.”
Doesn’t matter whether I feel forgiven. Or if the Watchers linger. My God is who He claims to be. Merciful. Loving. Unchanging.
She swiped at her eyes and stooped to pick up her knife. She’d strapped it on the day she was released from prison. It had carved the scars on her arms, and dug the gash in her thigh. She’d used it to numb the guilt. On her own, without God.
She retracted her arm and hurled the knife as far as she could. She didn’t need it anymore.
* * *
A persistent thumping tugged Erin out of oblivion and into the pale shaft of light leaking through the curtain. Morning had snuck up. She groggily stood, but her right leg buckled and she latched onto the bedpost to stay upright. “Marisa? You can come in.”
Marisa poked her head through the crack of the door, crinkled her eyebrows, and edged all the way in. “Mom, you look terrible.”
Erin laughed. She hadn’t done that for years. “Gremlins must have roughed me up during the night.” At least I got rid of the bloody clothes.
Marisa fidgeted with Benicio’s dog tags. “The girl…uh, remembered more. Wouldn’t share anything with me. She’s eating breakfast now.”
Erin’s newfound peace ebbed a little. Heather couldn’t possibly recognize me—but I owe her the truth. “Thanks. I’ll talk to her.” She grabbed the envelope cached in her nightstand drawer and padded to the kitchen, trying not to favor her sore leg.
Heather swirled her spoon in a bowl of Cheerios. When a noisy floorboard announced Erin’s presence, the girl lifted her head, then resumed studying the cereal. Erin sat across from her. “So.” The word emerged as a croak. She cleared her throat. “Marisa says you’ve had another flashback.”
Heather rubbed her red-rimmed eyes. “The scene is blurry, but I was riding in a car with someone late at night—I think my mom. We pulled over beside a clunker. A girl had flagged us down. Seemed frantic.” She let go of her spoon, and it sank into the milk. “Someone else ran up. A gunshot rang out. I climbed behind the wheel, swerved onto a dirt road. The other vehicle pursued. Then the canyon gaped. A light blinded me, and…I ended up here.”
Erin swallowed hard. “I remember.”
Heather inhaled sharply. “What—”
“Your name,” Erin continued, focusing on a knot in the tabletop, “is Heather Michelle Lovell. You went missing thirty years ago after your mother was murdered in a robbery. The girl pretended to need help so someone would stop, and her brother shot your mother.”
“Wait.” Marisa scooted out a chair and straddled it. “That sounds like…”
Erin tossed the envelope to Heather. “I was the girl.”
Heather’s gaze darted from Erin to the envelope and back again. She unfolded the first newspaper clipping to read it, her posture rigid.
Marisa squeezed Erin’s shoulder, just for a second. She’d Googled the story years ago, and they’d discussed it off and on, sorting through the pieces and their emotions. The fact that her mom was a felon never seemed to unnerve her.
After an eternity, Heather slid the evidence back into the envelope. “You turned him in,” she stated flatly.
Erin visualized the handcuffs snapping onto her brother’s wrists, the vitriol in his expression, and the relief of the steel bars that eventually separated them. “I didn’t expect him to shoot anyone. Just wanted drug money. And when your car vanished, I flipped. I confessed to the police the next day.”
“Mm-hm. Did jail time. Became a Christian right before I met my husband.” Thank you, God. She mustered the courage to glance at Heather. Tears streamed down the girl’s cheeks, same as her. “I know God’s forgiven me. I doubt you’ll ever be able to.” Even if you can’t, I’m free. “But I’m so, so sorry, and I wish I could reverse what happened.”
Silence fell and dragged.
Then Heather reached across the table to grasp Erin’s hand.
Victoria Shanks became addicted to storytelling when she was challenged to write a book at the age of eleven. She now writes speculative fiction and westerns, and she’s happiest when she can combine the two. She draws inspiration from the vibrancy of Andrew Peterson, the quirky characters of L.M. Montgomery, the raw prose of Markus Zusak, and the nostalgia of Louis L’Amour. She seeks to reveal the beauty of God through her stories of family and redemption. Other than writing, the loves of Victoria’s life are historical costuming, Bigfoot, and the Mojave Desert. She is a student at the Author Conservatory and lives in the hills of Kentucky with her parents, siblings, and a black cat named Princess Fish.