by Heather Masterson
A Chromatic Fantasy & Fugue Story
(Author’s note: This story takes place before the events of There’s No Such Thing as Vampires.)
I. In the Desert
“It’s a rattlesnake.”
“It’s not a rattlesnake. It’s just bugs.”
“It sounds like a rattle. Buzz buzz buzz.”
“It’s bugs rubbing their wings together. Or their legs, maybe. Can’t you tell there’s more than one?”
She listened closely. The buzzing was a symphony in the weeds. She resented him for being right. I should be glad it’s not a snake. Instead, I just want to smack him for being right. This relationship is probably over.
On television, the desert always looked flat and open. You’d see a cactus here and there, small clumps of weeds, and lots of hard, empty dirt. It didn’t look anything like this jungle of tumbleweeds and spiked cactus barrels he’d dragged her to. There were rocks everywhere. The terrain was uneven and studded with holes you could turn an ankle in.
What if she did sprain her ankle? They were five miles from anything. She’d never make it back on her own. He’d have to help her hobble the whole way. It would take hours. He’d probably try to be kind, but his impatience and superiority would seep through eventually. He would never turn an ankle.
Now I’m resenting him for something that hasn’t even happened. I need to end this. Just break up with him. It won’t be that bad.
The hike had been his idea, of course. He liked the outdoorsy stuff. She hated it, but he didn’t know that. When she’d answered his personal ad, she’d told him that she liked all the same stuff he did. Hiking. Camping. Fishing. Even white-water rafting. It’s what you did, if you wanted to get a date. If a guy looked interesting and stable and halfway sane, you fudged a little at the beginning to get him. After he was caught, he could be changed.
She thought that making men fall in line was supposed to be an instinctive female skill. Her mother had always seemed to think so. “Say what you have to say, do what you have to do. Once you’re in control, once he’s hooked, then you can change things as you like.”
She was awful at it. She hadn’t found a way to back out of the lies she’d told. Instead, she’d gritted her teeth and gone along with him over and over again. Camping trips where she’d lain awake in the tent for hours, flinching every time she heard a noise. Was it a bear? A mountain lion?
Fishing trips were worse. The sound of a swallowed hook being ripped out of a fish’s throat made her want to throw up. The bait was disgusting, all clicking bug legs and wriggling, slimy worms.
Hiking left her with sore feet, sore muscles, and a frayed temper. Boating trips were the worst of all. She hated the sickening sensation she felt as the deck rolled beneath her feet, unstable and dangerous.
She kept smiling, kept laughing, kept pretending to have fun. He was watching, after all. She was privately, discreetly miserable. Her mother would have been proud.
Her friends complained about husbands and boyfriends who just wanted to sit around watching sports all day. She would have traded with them in a heartbeat. She would happily make finger foods and read a book while he planted himself in front of the television. Anything but this nightmare of nature he kept dragging her into.
Absorbed in her silent complaints, she’d forgotten to pay attention to the ground. She took a step and put the side of one foot into a cactus. She’d just brushed against it, but the needles pierced her shoe and jabbed into her skin.
He came back, concern on his face. “You ok?”
She pointed to her foot. “I’ve been stabbed.” If you’d been walking next to me instead of running ahead, you could have warned me.
“Here, sit on this rock.” He helped her to it; she sat and began picking needles out of her foot. “The soles are usually too tough, but some of those needles will go right through the sides of your shoe.”
I can see that. It’s my foot they’re jabbing into, you know. She pulled out another needle and winced at the pain. “I was watching a bird and didn’t pay attention,” she lied. “It’s just so pretty out here. I was dumb.”
He smiled. “Not dumb. It’s easy to get absorbed in the wildlife or the scenery and forget to watch where you put your feet. It could happen to anyone.”
Not to you. She wanted to scream at him. She hated to be condescended to. He did it all the time. Why can’t you see that I hate this? Don’t you care enough to see that?
She felt her mother’s stern disapproval hovering over her. She hadn’t managed to “control her man” yet. She was still going along. Smiling. Lying. What did she have to show for it?
My mother would have had a wedding ring and a house in the Hamptons by now. What do I have? Sore feet with cactus needles stuck in them. Sunburn.
“You all right, hon?” Worry lines were appearing and disappearing on his face. Had he finally noticed something?
She forced a smile. “I’m fine. Sorry, I guess my mind wandered again.”
“I think we have all those pesky needles out. Do you want to take your shoe off? Check to see if you’re bleeding?”
Take her shoe off? With scorpions and rattlesnakes everywhere? “I’m pretty sure it’s fine. It didn’t hurt much. It was mostly annoying.” More lies. “How far is it?”
“Just over that next rise there. See it?”
I’m not blind. “Yes. I can’t wait.”
Concern vanished and was instantly replaced by enthusiasm. “The guy who gave me the coordinates for this place said the view is fantastic. The hill looks right out over a gorge.”
Whoopee. “Can’t wait,” she repeated. He grabbed her hands, pulled her to her feet, and hugged her.
“Are you still worried about this?” Laughing. He was laughing at her. Not right out loud, of course, but she could feel him laughing inside.
She fought to keep her voice light. “It’s just that I’m a little iffy about the whole thing. I mean, we’re following directions that you got from some guy on the internet. We’re in the middle of the desert, miles from civilization. And there’s no cell reception at all.”
“The guys in this club, they meet all the time. There are dues. Everyone’s information is on record. It’s not like he’s some random guy — he’s been in the club for years. The guys are always trading coordinates for hikes and camping spots and stuff. I’ve followed their recommendations dozens of times. Nothing’s ever happened.”
That doesn’t mean that something won’t. She smiled again. Her face felt tired and oddly stretched, like a mask that didn’t fit very well. “I think it’s ok to be a little cautious.”
He hugged her again. He did that a lot. It made her feel vaguely claustrophobic. “Cautious is good. Smart. Especially when it’s the internet, you’re right about that. But I promise you, this will be fine.” He leered humorously at her. “I’ll protect you, little girl.”
She laughed and pushed him away playfully, wishing she could push away the disgust rising inside her. This is not the guy for me. I don’t care how much money he makes or how nice he is, this just isn’t for me.
She followed him through the desert. The sun was low in the west, blinding her when she walked to the top of a rise. He continued to point out wildlife and plants. She didn’t care about them, not at all, but he’d been doing it the whole time. She never failed to nod or smile or make a comment when appropriate, though she wasn’t really hearing a word he said.
It’s me. It’s not him — it’s me. He’s a perfectly nice guy, and this is all my fault. I’m the one pretending to be something I’m not. It’s not his fault that I hate all this. I’m the one who pretended to be interested. It’s unfair to blame him for it. I’ll break up with him tomorrow. Nicely. Calmly. I’ll try not to hurt him too much. I’ll move on. It’s just not working.
Admitting her culpability and making a plan cheered her up. Really, it wasn’t so bad. The desert was pretty in a stark, uncompromising way. Like my mother, she thought, amused by the comparison.
He was too trusting, though. Everyone knew how dangerous the internet could be. You never knew if the person on the other side of the screen was really who they said they were.
The sense of foreboding she’d been harboring all day returned in force. Maybe the coordinates to the “spectacular view of the gorge” were legit. Maybe a psychopathic axe murderer wasn’t waiting for them, breath smelling of blood, rusty steel at the ready. Even so, the desert wasn’t tame; they weren’t walking through a well-groomed park where help was just a 911 call away. There were rattlesnakes. There were scorpions, and holes to trap unwary feet, and cactus needles six inches long. An accident could easily be fatal.
Did he have a snakebite kit? Had he checked to see if they could get a roaming signal? Had they told anyone where they were going? She couldn’t remember if she’d mentioned it to anyone. Had he? Would anyone know where to look for them if they didn’t return?
I’m a mouse. A house mouse. I like curling up on the couch with a book and a cup of coffee. I like staying indoors. I’m not made for traipsing all over the wilderness. I’m always freaked out on these trips. Why did I go along with this? There’s nothing wrong with being a mouse. I need to find another mouse to be with, not a… a desert snake.
Why would she think of him as a snake? He wasn’t mean or cruel or dangerous. He was just a nice guy who happened to like doing things that she hated. Snake? He wasn’t a snake.
I should break up with him before I really start hating him. He doesn’t deserve to be hated.
They crossed a shallow ditch and started up a small incline. She looked around, confused. Wasn’t this the spot he’d pointed out to her? How could they be there already?
“Right up here!” he called, looking at the device in his hand again. “We should be able to see…” He reached the top, looked down, and froze.
“What is it? Is it beautiful?”
His hand came up. “Stop.” He sounded like he was strangling. “Don’t come up here.”
“What? Why?” She ignored his warning and hurried up beside him.
The rise didn’t really look out over a gorge. It was just a hole. It was maybe fifteen feet wide, twenty feet long, and twenty or so feet deep.
The flies were thick, a pestilent cloud of buzzing and wings and little skittering feet. The smell was enormous.
The body on top of the pile, the most recent-looking one, appeared to have been dead some time. Very little flesh was left on it; most of the bones were exposed, picked almost clean. A few were almost recognizable as people. The rest were just bones, jumbled beyond all hope of reassembling them.
Bile rose in her throat. The smell was too foul, too chokingly terrible. Thick and powerful, it seemed to coat her lips and tongue and sinuses. She staggered a few steps to the side and vomited. Her stomach emptied before she was able to get herself under control. Hands grabbed her from behind and she screamed.
“Shh! It’s ok! It’s just me! I’m sorry, I was trying to keep you from seeing it. It’s ok. It was probably coyotes.”
She looked up at him, confused. Coyotes? Coyotes couldn’t do this. Coyotes wouldn’t pile bodies into a single hole.
She couldn’t help herself. She looked again.
“Wh…?” She blinked. The bodies were gone, leaving behind a single deer carcass, ripe with flies and rotting in the sun. “I thought…”
He stroked her hair. “What, hon?”
“I… nothing. Nothing. It just surprised me, that’s all. I should have listened to you.”
“No, it’s my fault. I should’ve been clearer. It’s natural to want to look.” He sighed and shook his head. “What’s a deer doing out here in the first place?”
Her head was spinning. She’d seen… what had she seen? “Why didn’t we smell it? Before?” Her stomach was still turning over and her throat was raw.
“Let’s move away from here,” he said. He was starting to look a little green, and she felt a sudden surge of pleasure. He wasn’t enjoying himself anymore, was he?
He took her elbow and led her away, down the side and to the bottom. “The wind’s blowing toward it. That’s why we didn’t smell it until we were right on top of it.”
She let him seat her on a rock, and her stomach slowly began to settle. She needed a toothbrush. She remembered the water bottle, snatched at it, spilled water into her mouth. Swirled it around, turned her head and spat. She did it again, and then drank some, the water soothing her throat. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to… the smell…”
“It’s ok,” he said. “Nothing to be sorry about. It was gross.”
She wanted to accuse him. This was his fault. There was no gorge, no spectacular view. The whole hike was a bad idea, it had failed miserably, she was sore and tired and in pain and now she had thrown up and didn’t have a toothbrush. Her breath would stink, her throat was raw from the bile, and it was a long walk back.
The words were bubbling around so fiercely in her head that some of them had to come out. She had to let some go, vent them, or she’d explode. “No view.”
He rolled one hand into a fist and pounded it lightly on his thigh. “No. The coordinates must’ve been wrong.”
“Or maybe someone did it on purpose. Thought sending people out into the middle of nowhere was a good joke.” She could feel a scream still picking away at the edges of her brain. If she started screaming at him, she might never stop. “Wouldn’t someone else have said something? On those chat rooms, or boards, or whatever they are?”
He thought about it. “I don’t know,” he said. “I mean, yeah, if someone came out here and found nothing, they’d usually post something, let everyone know it was bogus. It happens occasionally, but usually it’s like a typo. Someone puts the coordinates in wrong by mistake, someone else complains and then they apologize and fix it. I’ve never heard of anyone doing it deliberately. But I don’t know if anyone else has tried this hike. I don’t remember anyone saying anything about it.” He smiled, but it was thin. “We might be the first.”
“Lucky us,” she said.
“I’ll make sure to post something, let people know it’s bogus. I’m sure it’s just a mistake. But even if we didn’t get a view, it’s still a nice hike, right?”
She looked around. Tumbleweeds, prickly brown tufts of grass, a stubby round cactus. The ground was brown and tan and hard as a rock. Even the rocks looked brownish. There wasn’t anything pretty about it. It was harsh and uninviting and hot. Her hairline was damp with sweat and a thin rivulet tricked down her spine, making her want to writhe away from it. She didn’t like to sweat. She didn’t even like being around people who sweated.
As her eye wandered over the ground, she spotted a scorpion. It was small, a brownish-greenish color. It looked alien and deadly. Evil. As though its tiny brain had no other thought than to pounce on her, stinging and stinging and stinging.
She felt vindicated. Triumphant. Here was proof that she had been right. He was wrong. Wrong to trust anything he found on the internet, wrong to drag her out here. It was wrong of him to enjoy this, even a little bit.
“Yes,” she said. “It’s disappointing, and I feel really bad about the deer, but it was a nice hike.”
“I just hope that the guy didn’t do this on purpose,” he said. He was still on his feet, looking around. Still eager. He’d practically forgotten about the deer, she thought.
Something in her brain popped. She could almost hear it. Pop, like a tiny balloon. “What kind of person would do that?” she said, furious. “Send people on a wild goose chase, way out in the middle of nowhere? Anything could happen, we could get hurt, we could die, and no one would be able to find us. What is wrong with those people? On the internet? They’re all liars and horrible people and you never know who to trust! Why can’t they just be nice? Why can’t they just be honest?”
He had taken a step back, surprised by her outburst. “I don’t know,” he said. “It’s not right. But, you know… it might just be a mistake.” He was trying to pacify her, but he was looking at her a little oddly. Like he’d seen something that he hadn’t expected to see.
She needed to get it together. Not here. I can’t break up with him here. What if he left me? I could follow him, for a while, anyway, but he can move much faster than I can. He could lose me. I need to get back before I do it. I need to be safe first. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I think I’m just tired. I’m a little cranky.”
He nodded and the odd look vanished. He crouched next to her, patted her knee. Don’t pat me. I’m not a dog. “I know,” he said. “It’s been kind of a long day already, hasn’t it? We should start back. Maybe relax and watch a movie later?”
“That sounds nice.” She smiled at him.
He was a doctor, a plastic surgeon. She knew he made a lot of money. She’d assumed that a surgeon wouldn’t be like this, outdoorsy and athletic. Shouldn’t he take better care of his hands? She’d thought maybe his personal ad was just a lot of bluster, an intellectual trying to sound like a jock. She’d been appalled when she found out that most of his surgeon friends were jocks. Didn’t they all have better things to do? They were intelligent, educated people. Shouldn’t they like going to the theater, the symphony, even the ballet? They shouldn’t be running around outside doing dangerous things. They were surgeons, for crap’s sake, they knew what the world could do to the human body. Cruel things that had to be fixed with knives and tubes and metal.
“Ready to go back?”
She dusted off her pants and stood. “Ready when you are!” Her voice was cheerful, peppy, bright. He smiled warmly at her and led her back the way they’d come, away from the hole and whatever was in it. She couldn’t smell anything now.
As they walked, he began chatting again, and she tuned him out again. He was still too trusting. He wanted to assume that the coordinates had just been some stupid typographical error, a minor oops that led to a rotten day. What if it had been on purpose? What if it was just a stupid joke? What if it was on purpose and not just a joke? What if whoever-it-was led people out into the desert so that he could kill them? Maybe there was a psychotic axe murderer out here, after all. Maybe he’d just missed them.
Or maybe he hadn’t. Maybe he was somewhere ahead of them, setting a trap. They’d walk right into it. They’d be at his mercy.
She nodded and smiled and her mind worked furiously as they hiked back. He was insensitive if he couldn’t see how miserable she was. He was wrong to force her to do things she didn’t like. He was stupid to trust people. He was irresponsible. He was a surgeon, his first thought should be for his patients. What would his patients do if he came back from some stupid trip into the wilderness with maimed hands? They’d find another doctor. He’d lose his practice, go broke. He’d be poor. Where would that leave her? She didn’t want to wind up supporting some guy. She didn’t make that much money. She could barely take care of herself, she couldn’t take care of two people. She certainly couldn’t afford his Porsche, or his condo, or his country club dues.
They were struggling up a steep rise when she realized that the light was going. It wasn’t quite dusk yet, but the sun would be going down soon.
We’ll be stuck out here in the dark. Anything could happen. Anything. Why did he bring me out here so late in the day? Why didn’t we start earlier?
He scrambled over the top, turned, and offered his hand to her. “It’s kind of steep here, watch your step.”
She took his hand, wondering why he couldn’t feel the anger seething inside her. It should vibrate through her, make her skin feel hot and electric. He seemed to be perfectly oblivious as he pulled her up the last few feet.
“Thanks,” she said.
“Look at that.” His voice was hushed, almost reverent.
She turned and saw what had captivated him. The sun was going down in a blaze of red and orange and gold. The colors were vivid and unreal. Above, the sky had turned a strange, bruised purple.
“Isn’t it beautiful?”
She looked at the sunset and the sky above it. She thought that it was horrible. All that brilliant color and light surrounded by a terrible purplish-black sky. It was like a beautiful woman with a bruised face.
He cleared his throat a few times before she realized that he was waiting for something. She turned, and he looked sheepish. “This isn’t exactly what I planned,” he said. “I’m really sorry about it, too, because… well…” He turned his hand over and revealed a small, square box covered in velvet. “We didn’t get the view over the gorge, but that sunset… maybe this is even better.”
She watched as he got down on one knee. She half-listened to his earnest words, hardly saw his sincere face or the hopeful look in his eyes. She registered the ring when he opened the box — white gold, maybe, or platinum. The diamond was the biggest one she’d ever seen in real life. She evaluated it quickly, clinically: big enough to impress, not so big as to be vulgar. The type of ring you’d expect to see, if you were in decent society. It would inspire envy, but not ridicule.
She looked at him and thought about how much she’d come to dread the time they spent together. She thought about the day, and all of the days before it. The misery, the unvoiced complaints, the constant, wearying attempt to be perfect, to be positive, to be whatever he wanted her to be.
She thought about kicking him in the chest. Kicking him hard, from just the right angle. He might go over the edge, might fall all the way to the bottom. He might break his neck, his legs, his back. He might finally realize how awful all of this was.
She realized that he’d fallen silent and was looking at her with hope that was slowly turning to dismay. He’d asked the question and she’d missed it. She hadn’t been listening, and he was waiting for her answer. The longer she remained silent, the more he began to realize that perhaps she wasn’t as serious about him as he’d thought. He was on the verge of embarrassment.
“I’m sorry,” she said, and his face blanched. “I’m so sorry, I was just so surprised… this is just so unexpected!”
Something in her tone encouraged him, and the expression in his eyes began to shade toward hope again. “So…?”
“Of course I’ll marry you!”
He stood, threw his arms around her, kissed her, laughed out loud. He put the ring on her finger. It felt tight. He exclaimed that it fit perfectly, that he’d guessed her size, paraded it as proof of his devotion to her.
She looked at the ring. She thought about the work ahead of her. She sighed inwardly, making sure that the plastic smile on her face never wavered. I’ll find some way to make him change.
I can do this.
“That must have been sooooo disappointing for you. For a moment there, I thought she was going to do it. Smash! Thud! Gaaaaack!”
“She will. Not now, and not quite like that, but she will. The idiot’s going to marry her, she’s not stupid enough to do it before she becomes his legal heir.”
“This isn’t her first rodeo.”
“So she’s in? Really?”
“Hardly. She’s too erratic, and it takes her too long to get to the sticking point. So to speak. I need someone who can plan and act swiftly. Decisively. What I need is… what I really need is a true believer. Someone who can handle an entire field, not get stuck in the one-on-one shit. I can play the long game now, but later? That doesn’t work for later.”
“How do you get a true believer? It’s not like you can just find someone who…”
“No, not find. Create. If I’m ever going to get what I want, I’m going to have to arrange it myself. Sculpt. Shape. Pinch, prod, poke, and provoke.”
“But you can’t…”
“No, not like that.”
“Then… what are you going to do?
A Chromatic Fantasy & Fugue Story
Copyright © 2019
by Heather Masterson.
All Rights Reserved