It took them three days by car before they reached the desert. Towards nightfall, in a dusty town in the high Utah plateau, they passed the Wishing Well, a store that, according to the weather-beaten sign, specialized in used and rare books. Tabby asked if they could stop, and Scott, against his better judgement, said yes. During their journey, she’d gone through three coloring books. He tried his best to ignore the strange modifications she’d made to each drawing. Sometimes, though, she tore a page from the book, thrust it in his face, and insist he praise her for her creativity.
Behind the sales counter, enthroned in a lawn chair with faded blue webbing, the proprietor sat with his hands on the armrests and the heels of his snakeskin boots resting on a makeshift footstool of antiquated law books. A thin man in late middle age with wild white hair spilling over his shoulders and a pair of reading glasses resting on the bridge of his nose, he looked part librarian, part gunslinger, definitely drunk, and not especially happy to see anyone intruding upon the solitude and clutter of his little store—but then strangers are resented everywhere. As the screen door swung closed, he did not say hello and did not ask his customers if they were looking for anything in particular.
Scott nodded and wandered the narrow aisles, searching the cluttered shelves for books on the paranormal, UFOs, spirit animals, the mystical practices of those nomadic tribes that inhabited the Escalante Valley long ago, but the haphazardly arranged books seemed only to be about pioneer families who’d settled the Old West. On the floor, near a lopsided stack of National Geographics, he found a paperback about a prospector named Jacob Jeffries who’d lost his way in the Great Anvil Valley, about one hundred miles southwest of here. His mummified body wasn’t discovered until many years after he’d last been seen. Presumably before dying of thirst, he’d crawled under his wagon, maybe hoping the vultures wouldn’t pick his bones clean, and clutched an empty flask and well-thumbed bible to his lonesome heart. The paperback said nothing about his horse. Animals were much more resourceful than avaricious humans who overestimated their own abilities and made serious errors in judgement, but perhaps Jeffries had the compassion and good sense to cut it loose, giving the wretched beast a small chance at survival.
Out of mere politeness, Scott considered purchasing the book, but the proprietor didn’t strike him as the kind of man who would care one way or another.
Tabby was suddenly standing beside him, tugging his sleeve and showing him a coloring book that came with a box of pastel pencils.
“Can you buy this for me?”
He shuddered at the thought of what she might draw this time but said, “I suppose.”
Together they approached the sales counter.
“Where headed?” asked the proprietor without rising from his chair. “East or west?”
“South,” Scott said.
“South…” The man leaned forward and brushed a piece of grit from the toe of one boot. “Dark that way. No paved roads, no towns. Only thing you’ll find is the rim of the Black Coals Canyon and then—”
He whistled and made a hand gesture like a car flying into the abyss.
Tabby frowned. “We know what’s out there.”
The proprietor smiled. “No, sweetie, I don’t think you do.”
“Don’t call me sweetie.”
The man slapped a hand on the armrest and smiled at Scott. “Well, sir, this little girl of yours has a sharp tongue.”
Tabby crossed her arms and gave the proprietor an indignant look. “What makes you think I’m his little girl?”
The man squinted and his glassy, red-rimmed eyes became more focused.
Scott reached into his back pocket. “How much do I owe you?”
Never taking his eyes from Tabby, the man said, “Five dollars.”
Though he wanted to argue about the price, Scott tossed a crumpled bill on the counter. “We better keep moving.”
The proprietor folded the bill and placed it in his shirt pocket. “Watch for the quicksand now. We’ve had some heavy rain last few days. And the desert roads, if you can call them roads, might be washed away.” He sank back in his chair, his face once again taking on the jaundiced pallor of a defeated man deep in drink. The bottle must have been close by. Scott could smell the whiskey on his breath.
“Appreciate the advice.”
Scott led Tabby back to the van, a huge Grand Voyager with 200,00 miles on the odometer bought on a used car lot somewhere in Kansas, and looked over his shoulder to make sure the man wasn’t watching them from the doorway and jotting down the license plate number.
“Maybe we shouldn’t risk stopping again. Not until we reach our destination.”
“Yes,” Tabby agreed, “a wise idea.”
In the back seat she studied the drawings in her coloring book, trying to decide which page to color first. She rifled through crudely drawn rodeo clowns and desperados and covered wagons trundling beneath magisterial mesas and surreal hoodoos.
Scott glanced in the rearview mirror and asked, “We’ll be there soon, right?”
“Another hour.” Tabby opened the box of pencils. “Two at the most.”
“And then he’ll come for us?”
“I told you he would,” Tabby said irritably. “Just drive.”
She selected a purple pencil and said, “I think I’ll add a bird to this page. It could use a hungry little purple bird, don’t you think?”
He averted his eyes and focused on the vast landscape before him. “Whatever you think is best.” The desert was now painted in a hundred subtle shades of pink and red he’d never seen in the perpetually gray city of his birth.
As they pulled away from the Wishing Well, Tabby leaned forward and whispered in his ear, “That man didn’t know what he was talking about. There’s no quicksand where we’re going. And there hasn’t been any rain. Not around here. Not in a long time.”
Thirty minutes later the road became little more than an unmarked trail that vanished just beyond the headlights. The bookseller was right. There was nothing out here but sand and sagebrush and distant rows of slender cacti. The van dipped and swayed across the rough and rutted landscape. Scott gripped the wheel with both hands, trying to control the vehicle as it plowed through heavy clumps of red sandstone. Tabby smiled, her eyes gleaming weirdly in the green dashboard light. She couldn’t color anymore, not in the dark, and definitely not with the van jouncing like this.
“Almost empty,” Scott said. “I should have filled up at the last gas station.”
“You keep saying that.” He scratched his chin. He hadn’t shaved since leaving Ohio. “We’re heading in the right direction?”
“Keep going straight.”
“He knows we’re coming?”
“You’re scared, aren’t you?”
“Why would I be scared?”
“You sound scared. You look scared, too.”
He adjusted the rearview mirror so she couldn’t see his face.
Tabby folded her hands in her lap. “Your wife must know by now. That we’re gone, I mean. It’s been three days. Going on four.”
He shook his head. “It’s not like she ever calls to ask how I’m doing. We’ve been divorced for a year.”
“Your boss then. He must be concerned. You have a job, don’t you?”
“If you can call it a job.”
“You’re a professor, right?”
She seemed to consider this and said, “What does that mean?”
“It means I’m disposable.”
“Most people are. But for you all of that will soon change.”
“He’ll keep his promise?”
She sat with her hands folded in her lap and stared into the darkness. “He always keeps his promises. You’ll see.”
For another thirty minutes they drove through sage flats and over rough terrain made nearly impassible by deep depressions and ancient deadfalls of petrified wood. There came a frightening pop and the vehicle listed suddenly to the left. Scott killed the engine. He opened the glove box and retrieved the penlight he’d purchased yesterday to read maps at night. Outside, standing beside the driver’s side tire, he could hear the distant howls of coyotes.
Tabby crept behind him and cried, “A flat!”
He jumped and then handed her the flashlight. “Follow me.”
He marched to the back of the van and opened the rusty tailgate.
“I don’t believe it,” he whispered.
She swept the light back and forth across the empty compartment. “There’s no spare.” She pointed the penlight at him, its faltering blue beam paling his already pale face. “Guess you should have checked when you traded for it in Kansas.”
He shielded his eyes and scowled. “Get that away from me.”
She set off into the darkness, the penlight too weak to cast a beam beyond her shoes. “We’ll just have to walk from here.”
“Only a little further. Come on!”
He hurried after her, afraid she might plummet into a rimrock canyon. He wasn’t wearing the proper gear for hiking, and every few yards a sharp stone worked its way into his shoes. They trod across the fossilized bones of giant lizards millions of years dead. There had been a forest here once, and before that an inland sea. Scott looked up, astonished by the number of stars in the sky, but he could only identify a tiny fraction of constellations. He was from an old industrial city built on the banks of a polluted river and he’d never known anything but yellow streetlights blazing away from dusk until dawn. Now, for the first time in his life, he could sense the Earth spinning through the Milky Way and understood how ignorant he was about the cosmos, how small and ridiculously inconsequential he was. He wondered what intelligences existed up there in the heavens, unknown, unseen.
“Stop,” said Tabby.
“What is it?”
Scott saw nothing. The penlight had died miles back. It was terrifically cold out here, and he could barely feel his fingers anymore. For a minute he heard only the wind and the beating of his own heart. Then he detected the sound of approaching footsteps, but their irregular rhythm suggested they were produced by something other than a human. Scott briefly considered abandoning the girl in the middle of the desert and running back to the van.
Tabby put her hands at her side and gracefully bowed.
The moon broke through the clouds, and Scott saw it then, a short owl-faced figure standing beside a basalt pillar ten feet high. It stared at them with its wide-set eyes and then snorted before turning around and vanishing back into the darkness.
“He wants us to follow him,” Tabby said.
“Everything is prepared and waiting for us.”
Scott blinked. He’d barely slept during the three-day journey to the desert, and lack of sleep was beginning to take its toll on him. He followed Tabby, listening to the strange footsteps crunching against the sun-hammered earth. Ten minutes later they came upon a circular clearing where the moonlight was so intense it blotted out the stars. In the center they found a stone altar, roughly rectangular in shape and four feet in height. Just beyond the hazy ring of moonlight, dozens of inexplicably odd creatures had gathered to bear witness to the act—freakish bug-eyed creatures with bodies that struck Scott as vaguely amphibious, like newts or salamanders.
Tabby stepped forward and from the altar lifted a long glimmering blade. She handed it to Scott and said, “They want you to use it.”
He shook his head and stumbled backward. He thought again of all the wild promises this girl had made to him, things he dared not imagine on his own for fear of losing his mind—the restoration of his family, his comfortable home, his once promising career. But why had she chosen him? Why had she shown up at his apartment door with this incredible news and persuaded him that she was speaking the truth?
“Court-ordered visitation rights,” she’d explained with a sardonic smile. “In this world the law is sacred.”
Now, moving toward the altar, Scott gazed down at the girl and reluctantly accepted the knife, its polished blade shining in the cold lunar light. She smiled up at him, her ghastly doll’s face transformed by the moon into something more recognizable, almost familiar. All around him the other creatures watched and waited. Scott hoped an angel might shout his name and stay his hand, but when he looked into the sky, he saw a giant bat-like silhouette corkscrewing across the stars. The girl climbed onto the altar, rested her arms at her side, and closed her eyes. Scott trembled. Then he raised the knife high above his head.
Hours later, when the first hints of sunlight touched the high cirrus clouds drifting above the desert plain, he pulled the collar of his flannel shirt close to his throat and walked due north. He felt invigorated, light on his feet, and could breathe without rasping. It was as though he’d never smoked a cigarette, or ten thousand of them, and had never touched a drop of whiskey. In fact, he hadn’t felt this good since his college days on the rowing team, and he almost expected to find that the stubborn layer of fat had vanished around his torso. Making his way with surprising ease across technical terrain, he hiked back to the van and the new life that surely awaited him back home. He thought not at all of last night’s unspeakable ritual.
As the morning wore on, and the desert grew warm and then unbearably hot, he removed his flannel shirt and tied it around his waist. He followed the sun as it traversed the sky but decided he’d drifted too far east and made a correction. He fully expected to see the Grand Voyager just ahead, but the desert appeared flat and empty with no vehicle in sight, and an hour later, when the barren landscape was ablaze with white light, he removed his t-shirt, filthy with dirt and sweat, and tied it loosely around his head. He hadn’t thought to bring a change of clothes with him on this trip, and for a moment he was so focused on his own foul odor that he didn’t notice the bird hopping across the ground right behind him, its feathers so black they were an iridescent purple. He hurdled a stone at it, and the bird fluttered away with a squawk.
By noon the sky was chrome-bright, and the white heat on the horizon seemed to rumble in his ears. When his shoulders began to blister, he put his flannel shirt back on and looked for a place to hide from the sun, a hill, a cave, a Joshua tree tall enough to shelter him in its slender shade. He crouched low to the cracked and blistered earth, thinking this might help for some reason, but he may as well have been crawling across the middle of a blacktop parking lot. He wondered how long he could continue like this and decided he had no options but to keep going. Tabby hadn’t led him into this waste just to let him die.
It was nearly dusk when the van finally came into view. Insane with thirst, his lips cracked and bleeding, he limped toward the vehicle and drew the keys from his pocket. The purple bird perched like a demented hood ornament on the rusted front bumper. It watched him and made strange gurgling sounds and picked at the lice buried deep in its feathers. At his approach the bird took wing and floated over to a nearby pile of rocks. By then Scott was so out of his mind that he didn’t stop to think about it—couldn’t think.
He collapsed in the front seat but found no water bottles inside. Somehow, he managed to muster the strength to put the keys in the ignition and start the engine. Hot air blasted from the vents, but after a few minutes the AC kicked in and the interior began to cool. Though he feared he was going to lose consciousness, he put the van in drive and pressed his foot on the gas. The van jerked forward, listing badly to the left, and
“Just have to take it slow, that’s all.”
Though it might take him all night, he would eventually reach civilization. All he had to do was follow his own tire tracks back to the main road. The van barely started rolling when the engine started to shudder and then stalled. The gas gage read EMPTY.
Scott laughed and then screamed. It hurt his throat to scream so he stopped. If he passed out inside the van—given his dehydration a high probability—he would run the risk of roasting alive shortly after tomorrow’s sunrise. After some careful thought, he decided to spend the night beneath the Grand Voyager. At least that way, if he did lose consciousness, he would be safe in the shade while he waited for someone to come along and rescue him.
Before exiting the vehicle, he reached over and grabbed the coloring book from the backseat. After crawling under the van, he flipped through the pages, looking at the nightmare images Tabby had drawn there. On the final page, he saw a picture of a purple bird tugging at the putrefied flesh of a hand hanging limply beside a flat tire, and just beneath the fingers, in her bold childish hand, Tabby had written the word “Daddy.”