Night in the desert leaks heat contrails as though an inferno continuously rages beneath the hard baked surface, the top layer of which is perpetually trying to escape on every other wind in little storms of grit. While the Dust Bowl likes to lay claim to it, it is in fact in the desert that the term “Dust Devil” was born. Long before those flat states lost their top soil to raging drought, the desert spread out to the horizon, unquenched.
Electrical storms blaze across the sky there with the ferocity contained inside a conductor globe, the kind they sell at those kitschy novelty stores in the mall. Mother Nature’s very own Tesla jolts illuminating the overhead landscape otherwise darkened in the hours after sunset save the diamond eyes of dying meteors, whose glow may be seen from there like no other place on earth. Lightning jutting through the warm air, darting from star to star, like God conducting a test to see if He’s still got it, like the fighter pilots buzzing out of Miramar and all the little nukes they still test out there that no one is ever supposed to know about. They think there’s no real human life out there, just the people who couldn’t cut it in the real world, so why not test it all there? It can be a helluva show.
McCall was visiting, from Mission Beach in San Diego. An artist, he wore his hair in a pompadour, bragged about having the best body on the beach and got pissed at me once for making fun of him for listening to Levert. We were sitting at one of the nearly rotten picnic tables. The redwood faded saltbox color until it looked like it had been buried under the sand for a hundred years, a relic to be found by future archeologists. My name is carved there somewhere, or was. We were waiting for those veins of white hot energy to shoot across the heavens. McCall had never seen an electrical storm before. I am sometimes a good guide for such ventures. Most desert creatures are nocturnal. Should you see a snake in the middle of the road in the desert during the day it is either sick or already dead, not that you should go near snakes anyway. Night swims can get pretty sporty too with the nighthawks, and bats, unfriendly winged arbiters of thirst. All the scurrying starts with the descending of the shadowed veil of evening, the creatures emerge seeking food, and water. Committing to their migration, to the search for new homes, under cover of night. We’d sit there with a six pack, listen to all this life start sparking up, maybe a coyote first, then a few of the dogs would get going. But there was another sound, mixed with the coyotes sometimes, something much deeper. As soon as one of us heard it, it was time to go in.
One night, we didn’t go in soon enough. We were talking, carrying on. We heard it but, we just didn’t go in. Low distant rumble that builds to something more, like the grown of the earth under the weight of a train, the deeper growl of the tension of a fault line about to be released, by the time that rumble breaks, it really is best to be indoors. We saw it. The trick is not to ever let one of them see you. Once they get a visual, they fixate.
Maybe it was like scaring ourselves when we were kids, maybe we heard it and ignored it on purpose? We kept talking. I remember thinking that McCall and I really didn’t have anything in common but conversation out there can be scarce, he was a friend. He was telling me about his latest art project, laughing. I looked down to grab my smokes, looking back up, I saw it.
The fence posts were leaning, the wood splitting, dry, like the picnic tables, dry like everything left outside in the desert is after a while. The barbed wire stretched between, sand blasted rough and still sharp, it stood on the other side. About a football field away, just far enough that you could see it, but not be quite sure, in between the flashes, in the dark. Funny how curiosity works. If you know for sure that you’ve seen something scary, you run. But at that distance, couple of beers, maybe you wait to see if you saw what you think you did. We waited. The next flash, it was closer. Black shadow, six feet tall, stood upright like a man but it wasn’t a man. I remember thinking, the arms are too long. Disproportionately enough that it stopped me until that second flash. McCall dropped his beer. I grabbed my smokes. He headed towards his parents place there and I thought that I didn’t want to be stuck there all night. My trailer was farther away.
There was a wind kicked up, a screeching coyote that sounded like McCall’s shrill laugh gone awry. The sound of my feet hitting the pavement echoing in my ears, at the corner something brushed at the ends of my hair, at my back. Closing the door behind me, pulling it shut with all my weight, trying to push that little lock button in faster. My hands slippery with sweat. The trailer was an aluminum trap, a tin can and I was the meat. My hands went numb and felt sore up to my shoulder before I let goof that door. Backed away from it slow, up into bed, pulled a pillow against my chest, pulled my knees up and sat there, staring at that door, listening to it scratch.
I was thinking that if it wanted in, there was no way I could stop it, but it just kept scratching. I just kept waiting for it to stop. Slow dragging of those claws across the door, holding my breath in the quiet in between. There was no one to call or call out to. I kept thinking that it couldn’t be, that it was just a story, like the one at camp about the guy with the hook for a hand, or that it was a dream, a nightmare that I was going to wake up from any minute. There were pictures at the post office, of what everyone thought it was supposed to look like. We had all laughed at the black, Yeti-looking thing. We had laughed as the cashier had cast her eyes downward, shaking her head at us in dismay. We laughed because there was no “urban” there for it to be an urban legend and so we had dubbed it a “desert myth.” But we went inside anyway, if we heard that sound.
Standing upright, the fur plastered to its body, lacking definition in the intermittent light. Broad shoulders, narrowing at the waist, those arms too long, hanging to the knees. The movement so fast toward us, as though the creature rode the darkness in between lightning flashes and it was closer each time. The way it was scratching reminded me of the way the dog used to scratch to be let in, only every now and then it was pushing it’s nails a little harder against, the door. I sat there for so long not blinking, telling myself to breath, to stay awake until morning, concentrating on it so hard. I dozed off.
McCall was banging on the door from someplace far away. My eyes were full of grit. Moving to get up, my shirt was stuck to my back, my back was stuck to the bed. I told McCall to hold his horses and he was like a little kid, “Hurry! Hurry!” he said. “You gotta see the outside of your door!”
I managed to work my shirt up over my head, felt it pull some skin with it. Opened the door, stood there wearing my bra.
McCall clasped his hand over his mouth before whispering, “Jesus Christ.” through his fingers. Then, “You gotta go to the doctor like, right now.” I wanted to know, Why? I remember I felt out of it, like I had been in the deepest sleep. McCall reached up, pulled down the shirt that was draped over the mirror.
Scrapes, bruises, a deep gash across my right shoulder blade. Twenty stitches later they sent me home with a bottle of Lorcet. McCall went back to Mission Beach. We didn’t really talk about it. What was there to say? Maybe I was in shock.
I couldn’t eat after that, not really, couldn’t sleep. I’d lay there awake until I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore, afraid it would get me in my sleep, because I couldn’t figure out how it had gotten me in the first place. I dreamt about it touching me, wake up crying, shaking. I didn’t stay outside during electrical storms anymore or at night at all really. The coyotes would kick up and I’d have to take a pill to go to sleep even though that scared me as bad as anything, knowing that I was sedating myself. Knowing that it was the only way that I could rest, but that it made me vulnerable.
My pillow case was clean that night. Spent all afternoon in the laundry room. Hours gone watching the dryer, trying not to itch at the still healing scar. Walking back to my trailer, the wind kicking up, sand stinging at my legs. My pillow case smelled good, maybe I just wanted it to be over. When I heard it, I got up, walked outside in my gown. The second burst of light, there it was, out passed the barbed wire. I stood there, staring at it, needing to know what had done this to me. The lightning crashed again, I didn’t look up but could tell it was beautiful, the sky then, as it was on the same side of the fence as me, this creature that I could not take my eyes away from. I knew then that the stories about it were true and wondered if that was how it had gotten the others, needing to know.
There was a breeze, so cool, from nowhere really, a breeze in the midst of all that heat, felt so good against my skin. My legs trembling, there was just enough time to wonder what I was doing there, standing next to the picnic tables in the middle of the night like that, looking it right in the eye. Knowing that it would be the last thing I would ever see.
Terasa Skultety (known to some by her pen name, Kathryn Soverane) has published several stories with Thunderdome and Slit Your Wrists. She participates online at the these fine establishments; Facebook, Googleplus, Twitter, and at the writing communities The Velvet and LitReactor.
Visit Terasa at Winsome Vein.