Jo shades her eyes against the sharp slant of the sun into the canyon and watches the Rio Grande surge beneath her. According to the little placard, the other side of the canyon represents the beginning of Mexico, and she almost searches for a big, black dotted line along the riverbed before she catches herself. She laughs, and then she tries it louder, and she likes how it bounces against the steep walls and comes back to her in a rush.
“Sounds like a pack of hyenas.”
Jo turns. Her mother is climbing the last few steps leading to the overlook, brown hair coming out of its ponytail, papers in one hand.
“The ranger any help?” Jo asks.
“As much help as they usually are.” Ellen comes to the rail beside Jo and rests her forearms on the stained wood. The papers flicker in the wind tunnel created by sheer walls. Her expression is inscrutable. “It’s gonna be whatever we can get from locals,” she says. “And even then I think most of it will be our own fieldwork.”
“We going to get started tomorrow?”
“So can we stay here for a bit?”
Ellen nods without looking over. Jo wonders if she’s worried. Some cases, Ellen says, stick in her gut the wrong way. If it’s bad enough, Ellen will pack them up and book it down the highway without looking back. Let more foolhardy hunters take this one, she’ll say. We’re not the Winchesters; we don’t have a death wish.
Jo used to point out that the Winchesters seemed to do okay with their method. Then Ellen would look across the car and Jo would remember and she’d shut her mouth. She knows it’s no accident that her mom survived this long and kept a kid alive in the process. Ellen has her methods. Maybe in the Roadhouse Jo would have had the energy to fight them, but it’s incredible how losing a permanent home can knock the wind out of a person. These days she mostly sleeps crunched up against a car door and wakes up tired. She focuses her energy on the hunts, which come in a steady stream. And if her mom says they need to abandon this one, Jo will get in the car but give herself the rebellion of watching the back window while they roar away.
They linger at the canyon’s overlook for almost a half hour. Tourists filter through to take pictures and eat packed sandwiches and trail mix at the little collection of picnic tables. They read the informational placard and marvel at the closeness of Mexico. Ellen watches them and tries to gauge whether they’re worth approaching for more information.
Right now, she has what most hunters have at the start of a case: missing persons and unexplained circumstances. She knows about six of them, scattered across the last few decades, all vanished in the same two-mile radius. Ellen has a hunch that if she could dig properly into the park’s records, or if she put on her historian hat, she could find local lore and family histories documenting even more missing. But Ellen doesn’t have the research bug like Bobby and Sam do; she knows Jo doesn’t really have it either. They’re women of action. Six is plenty of victims to tell Ellen something strange is at work.
“Come on,” she says when the sun starts to edge out of the canyon. “Let’s get dinner.”
Jo doesn’t move immediately, and Ellen watches the orange light catch in her daughter’s yellow hair. Gorgeous hair, Ellen always thought; a replica of her husband’s. Sometimes Ellen catches herself reaching out to stroke it aside like she did when Jo was Joanna Beth and tiny and frightened of thunderstorms. She usually catches herself.
They find a little Tex-Mex place outside the park’s borders. Ellen goes to a far table and spreads out her papers. Jo slips behind the bar and starts chatting with the bartender. Ellen watches sidelong as Jo throws back her head and laughs off key. Sometimes, Ellen reflects, she doesn’t quite recognize Jo. It’s unnerving.
Ellen orders a beer and the cheapest thing on the menu and focuses on mapping out the disappearing hikers. When Jo joins her an hour later, Ellen presents her with the fruits of her labor.
“Color coded,” Jo says, taking a pull of Ellen’s beer without asking. “Nice, mom.”
“You can shush.” Ellen jerks her head toward the bar. “Anything?”
“Guess what?” Jo straightens and grins. “Ghosts.”
“Ghosts?” Ellen raises her eyebrows. “What are we talking about? Figures in old-fashioned clothing?”
“Voices.” Jo tugs the map toward her and traces the official trail with her finger. “Apparently there’s a small canyon a half mile or so east of the trail. A lot of people go off the path to see it; sometimes people camp near there. Bartender boy,” she jerks her thumb. “He claims to know people who have spent the night out there and heard things. Voices. Horses. Sometimes gunshot.” She tilts her head. “He says we’re better off not spending too much time in the canyon. Says it’s not safe.”
“Not safe how?”
“Huh.” Ellen leans back in her seat. “Voices and horses, you said?” Jo nods, and Ellen rubs at her chin. “I can buy that. A couple of rancheros or native people or soldiers have a scuffle, some of their ghosts stick around.” She likes this line of thought. If this is a matter of angry ghosts nabbing unfortunate campers, that’s something she knows how to tackle. Sure, it might be a pain in the ass to figure out where the remains are, but Ellen is sure that a few calls to Bobby will point them in the right direction.
“Let’s check it first thing in the morning,” Ellen says. “See what pops up.”
Jo flicks back her sleeve to check her watch. “Probably should find a motel now, then.”
Ellen pushes herself to a stand. “You saying you don’t have plans to get more out of bartender boy?”
Jo rolls her eyes without gracing her mother with an answer.
They drive into the park a half hour before dawn. Jo leans against the window, hands wound around her styrofoam coffee cup, and watches red light paint the high peaks of the cordillera. Her mom has something soft and bluesy on the radio. Jo shifts, and the papers gathered in her lap make a soft rustle. She was going to read them on the drive over.
Ellen pulls the car over on a long stretch of road with no discernable nearby landmarks. Jo leaves her coffee in the cup holder and helps her mom pull out the salt guns and their jury-rigged EMF meter. This is Texas, so they shouldn’t have too much trouble with the guns, but Jo still keeps a weathered eye out for rangers.
They lock the car and start walking. The swell of rock to the east is their destination; according to the map the canyons are nestled in there. The riverbed that carved the canyons is supposed to be somewhere nearby. They’re walking in the shadow of its floodplain: a flat, spider-webbed expanse of cracked earth stippled with squat cacti and sage bushes.
Jo pulls ahead by a few paces and squints into the horizon. It’s flat to the west; a perfect line unbroken even by grass. It unnerves Jo; the only other place she’s seen with that kind of horizon is the ocean, and she didn’t like that either. Too easy to imagine being swallowed by a horizon like that. Jo shifts her attention to the east, to the mounds too big for hills and too small for mountains.
They walk in silence. The desert morning carries a heavy chill; it pricks against the heat of Jo’s skin when she works up a mild sweat. Their boots create soft impressions in the earth. When Jo pauses to take a swig from her water, she can follow their path all the way back to a shimmering afterimage of their car and the road.
“Gonna be hot,” Ellen says. Her voice snaps through the air. She’s already tied her hair on top of her head in a bun; strands fall into her face. Jo drinks her water and pretends that she isn’t examining the way the ambient light spills into the seams of her mother’s face. Jo doesn’t take after her mom much; she’s gathered that she better resembles her dad. But she wonders if she can expect to look like this one day, assuming she makes it that far. Weather-beaten in a dignified sort of way, the way old ships and well-lived homes are.
Jo spits a stream of water to the ground to create a patch of shocking dark brown. They shoulder their packs again and keep walking.
The sun starts to gain a foothold in the east. The red light softens into pink and sweeps across them. Jo squints into the watery sun, turns to the west and the flat expanses, abruptly gets vertigo. She can’t tell how long they’ve been walking. When she searches for her mom again, she realizes Ellen has drifted to Jo’s right; she’s bathed in direct pink and she doesn’t look real or familiar at all, and Jo has to swerve toward her to regain the details that tell her this is who she thinks it is. Ellen glances up when Jo nears; Jo focuses on keeping her footsteps in beat with her mother’s. She doesn’t want to look back at their footsteps or at the remains of the car and the road.
The dry riverbed, when they find it, is shallower than Ellen expected. They slide down one of its walls and land in a thick cobble of smoothed stones. They clack underfoot, lining the bed as it meanders toward the rising sun and the canyon. Ellen thinks she can see the edge of the canyon; a place where the rock misaligns and she spots the hint of open space.
The sun is properly risen when they follow the riverbed’s curve and round on the canyon head on. It’s a moderate thing with semi-sloping walls and thick bushes of green along its floor. Ellen gazes at the opening and thinks, strangely, of a birth canal. She’s half certain she’s read creation myths about the first humans coming from the depths of a canyon. She can see where they got the imagery.
Jo is quiet; she’s been quiet most of the past hour; Ellen had assumed she was tired. Now, Ellen looks over at her daughter and sees the way lines have etched above her eyes while she studies the canyon.
“Okay?” Ellen asks.
Jo inhales audibly when she turns her head. Her yellow hair flies. She blinks at Ellen like she’s having trouble processing her. She hikes her backpack higher and starts walking. Ellen follows after half a heartbeat. Jo walks jerkily; her feet keep sliding on the smoothed stones.
The canyon rises to meet them; they’re approaching it quickly. The sun’s angle leaves a thick slice of shadow that, once they come to the canyon’s mouth, seems to seep coolness. Ellen can feel it even while she stands in the sunlight. They stop again to drink water and pull out the shotguns. Ellen surveys the canyon and spots two scraggly deer trails that have been made into unofficial paths. One winds through the canyon’s floor, through deep green bushes with rusty red wood. The other climbs higher and follows the base of the canyon walls.
“Don’t see any cowboy ghosts,” Jo says at length.
“Nope,” Ellen agrees. “Think it’s safe to split up, though? One on each path?”
Jo surveys the paths and shrugs. “I think we’ll still be able to see one another,” she says. “Might as well.”
Jo starts walking toward the bush-heavy path, and Ellen veers toward the left-hand wall. Within a few minutes, Jo becomes a flash of yellow among deep green. Ellen’s thighs burn as she scales small boulders and edges along jutting rock. The sun beats down on her properly now, and tiny beads of sweat appear on her upper lip. When she pauses to take a swig from her water bottle, Ellen runs her eyes along the canyon. It’s not a long one. She can see where the walls make a shallow turn then start to crumble away, leaving the canyon’s innards exposed to the open air again. Nothing catches Ellen as unusual, and that puts her on edge.
She turns her attention to the canyon’s belly, searching for a flash of yellow and plaid shirt. It takes her several seconds to realize she can’t see Jo at all. Ellen’s heart leaps; she turns to peer at the far end of the canyon and works her way over waves of dark green and the gray strip of riverbed. When the second sweep reveals nothing, Ellen exhales hard and briefly wipes her hand over the lower part of her mouth. The fear is like a heavy blanket draped over her, muffling everything. She cups her hands over her mouth and is about to shout Jo’s name when she realizes her daughter is walking almost directly beneath her, plowing through the riverbed, plain as anything. Ellen grows still. Her hands float down from her face.
“Getting old,” she mutters, as if saying it out loud will make the phrase into anything like an explanation. A fresh breeze billows down the canyon, creating a high, thin wail. Ellen scowls; she keeps walking.
The bushes are stippled with tiny thorns, and they’re almost too soft and small to think about for the first five minutes. Then Jo starts to feel nips of pain on her arms and legs and especially her fingers. She realizes that her clothes have become stippled with the thorns, which cling to her like burrs. She pulls back her sleeve; thorns have buried into the upper layer of her skin, visible as tiny pink-red smudges. She tries to pick one out; that only creates pinprick pain in the tips of her fingers.
“Fuck,” she mutters, examining her fingers. They’re thick with the thorns. When she drops her hands, they twinge against her sides as if she’s just touched superfine needles.
Jo keeps moving, though this time with more care. She hopes the path will veer toward the thorn-free riverbed, but it keeps disappearing underneath deep green, and she keeps following it. She’s not sure why; she doubts it would be much trouble to hack her way toward the riverbed. But every time she tries to angle herself to where she suspects the riverbed lies, she finds more dark green foliage. It crowds in on her, wide and dense. Leaves and stems lick at her cheeks and across her arms, depositing the tiny thorns; the spindly path veers in and out of existence; the sound of wind sloughing through growth becomes something like a roar, like it could block out everything else, and for a moment Jo thinks illogically that the riverbed has filled with water, although the sky is pristine blue.
Jo doesn’t realize she’s started running until she barrels out of a stand of bushes and almost stumbles to a halt at the other end of the canyon, where the walls fall away to reveal rolling desert. The roaring wind cuts off as if someone has slammed shut a tap.
Something is standing a few hundred yards away, lit up by sunlight. It’s erect, shoulders back, half turned away as if ready to dart off. A brown pleated skirt that could have come from the ‘60s sways sluggishly around its calves. A pale blue blouse, its sleeves coming down to hands loosely clenched at the waist. A neck—the lower half of a neck. Then a hint of something rust-red. Then, like a macabre mask, a gray horse skull staring at her.
Jo steps back on instinct, and her foot comes down on a loose rock, and she sways off balance at the same moment that, somewhere nearby, an insect begins a high whine. Her feet scramble for purchase; the insect whine swirls against her eardrum like it’s perched at the entrance of her ear canal; the thing’s horse skull watches from its perch above the rust-red neck. Jo lifts a hand as if to swipe the insect away; the thorns in her fingertips flare when she touches the shell of her ear. She vibrates in a moment that stretches into rising panic, and she’s going to fall and shatter her teeth on the riverbed.
And the next second her feet are planted again; the insect has retreated; the pain in her fingers fades. Jo straightens. Her eardrums hum. The world shifts without moving, as if she’s just stopped spinning and is feeling the first heave of dizziness. The horse skull figure is gone.
Jo turns. Her mom stands a half dozen paces away, her stance wide, her eyes on the ground near Jo’s feet. She drops her head dumbly and takes several seconds to see the coil of stippled dark brown. A golden eye peers up at her.
“Oh,” Jo says. Her voice sounds numb and far away, and she takes several steps toward her mom. The rattlesnake watches, its tongue flickering, then it slides away smooth as quicksilver.
“Did it get you?” Ellen crouches down and tugs up Jo’s pants legs, and Jo is reminded of fifteen years ago when her mom would tie her shoes. Ellen’s rough, warm hands feel up and down Jo’s calves. “Don’t feel anything,” Ellen says.
“No.” Jo bends down and trails her fingers over skin and spikes of hair. She hardly notices the thorns this time. “I’m fine, mom.”
“Should have remembered snakes would be hanging out,” Ellen says, straightening. “You okay otherwise?”
“The bushes are full of thorns.” Jo holds up her hands dumbly like she’s six again.
“Oh, shoot, hon, sorry.” Ellen examines the fingers. “They’ll fall out. Or dissolve. Eventually. Is that why you went into the riverbed?”
“The riverbed. I saw you walking in it.”
“I never went in there,” Jo says. Ellen’s face drops.
Jo’s left ankle twinges in a pulse. “Mom, I saw something.”
They hike back to the car in relative silence, and Ellen blasts the AC when they drive away. Jo sits with her back glued along the seat, her hands splayed palm-up on her thighs.
“Was it translucent?” Ellen tries.
“No, I really don’t think so,” Jo says. “It was in full sunlight; it looked opaque.”
“Did you smell anything?”
“No.” Jo pauses, squinting hard. “Something wet?”
“What about dizziness? Nausea? Senses of doom or despair?”
Jo is silent for a beat. “I don’t know.”
Ellen exhales hard and slows when they reach the park’s edge. “And I guess it was throwing up a…mirage of some kind to mess with me, which isn’t something I see much. I dunno, this isn’t pinging off anything for me. I’m gonna have to ask Bobby.” She purses her lips. “It was dressed in a skirt and blouse, you said?”
“It looked like the kind of outfit I see grandma wearing in the photos of when you were a kid. Sort of old fashioned.”
“Might be a corrupted ghost then,” Ellen murmurs. “Or a poltergeist. We’d better do some digging in that direction; see if any women disappeared around here a few decades ago.” They hit a pothole, and Jo sucks in air through her teeth.
Jo declines dinner, and that causes a stir of concern in Ellen, but Jo’s also been quieter than usual most of the day. Ellen wants to chalk it up to a bug and stop worrying about it. Experience tells her it’s not usually that simple. So Ellen picks up a salad from one of the take-out chain restaurants along the main road and keeps watching Jo and keeps feeling echoes of the muffling fear that descended over her when she couldn’t find Jo in the canyon’s bed.
When they get back to the room, Jo tucks herself on one half of her motel bed while Ellen sits at the tiny desk and makes calls. She distracts herself by spending almost two hours arguing—discussing—with Bobby about what would create a woman with a horse skull for a head.
“Horses show up plenty in various lore, though humans with horse skulls are more niche,” Bobby says. “First thing coming to my mind is a nightmare.”
“This wasn’t a dream—“
“Night. Mare. Like a female horse who comes at night and sits on your chest and gives you bad dreams. Usually people describe it as a goblin type thing, but horse skulls show up, too.”
“Dunno, that’s not clicking for me,” Ellen muses. “You sure it couldn’t be a ghost that’s been warped by something?”
“Since when do ghosts grow horse skull heads?”
“She must have died while wearing it.”
“Something cult related?”
“I’d buy that.”
Thoughtful silence, and Bobby grunts. “How d’you know it’s not a monster?”
“No one’s seen clawmarks, no remains like something’s been feeding, no legends I can scare up about local creatures. I’ve never known a demon to wear a horse skull and hide in a canyon in the middle of nowhere. I called Carl already and he doesn’t think it sounds like witch work.” She buries her fingers into her eyelids. “It’s not leaving behind bodies for me to look at or witnesses to interview. It snatches people in a specific lonely part of the park and doesn’t leave traces. What does that?”
Bobby’s sigh races down the phone line. “I mean, I guess it could be a god or spirit, but that could encompass just about anything. It would take some real digging to find any specifics.”
“Damn, no wonder everyone comes tripping to you for help. Just a fount of wisdom you are.”
“Put Jo on if you’re going to have that attitude. She sasses me a little less.”
“She’s still at the age she can be mildly impressed by an old fart in a beard.” Ellen turns toward Jo’s bed, grin in place, to see her reaction. The bed is empty.
“Jo?” Ellen twists around in her chair. A snick, and yellow light streams through the bathroom door’s edges.
“Oh,” Ellen breathes; she stands and hurries up to the door to pat it with the flat of her palm. “Jo? Everything okay?”
“Just showering,” Jo’s voice calls.
“Ellen?” Ellen realizes she’s let the cellphone fall to her side, that Bobby’s voice has been echoing up to her.
“Sorry,” she says, slipping the phone back up to her ear and turning to the desk again. “Jo moves too quietly.”
“How’s that going?” Bobby asks in too casual a voice.
“You know. Hunting with a kid.” Ellen remains standing by the desk and listens to water start to spatter against porcelain.
“You got something to say, you can say it.” Her voice is low.
“I didn’t mean anything by asking, Ellen. Just wanted to—”
“I’m not John.”
“Never said that.”
“Plenty of hunting teams are parents and kids. It don’t have to end bad.” She exhales and drags her hand through her hair. She glances at the door again as if that will tell her if Jo can hear her. She decides Jo isn’t listening.
“I know.” Bobby sounds weary suddenly. “Listen, I really didn’t mean it like that. I just meant that Jo has a little piss and vinegar in her, and I know how kids that age can be about working with family, and I wanted to make sure you two are doing all right. The Roadhouse wasn’t so long ago. Ash—”
“Yeah.” Ellen cuts in. “We’re handling it okay.”
Bobby is silent for a beat. “I’ll dig around,” he says. “See if I can help you out some.”
Beyond the thin bathroom door, the shower curtain clacks and feet squeal against porcelain. Ellen presses her tongue to the back of her teeth.
That night, Jo dreams about vast pale shapes skimming over a flat horizon. She doesn’t exist, and they rush toward her and away from her at once. A vast sphere plows through her, and she is arcing and heaving and she wakes up with something pressing against the back of her throat. She stumbles from the bed and manages to clatter through the bathroom and to the toilet. Her bile is thin and colorless; she remembers she hadn’t eaten the night before.
Her mother shifts in the main room. Jo squeezes her eyes shut; she takes three deliberate, deep breaths. The thorns in her fingers prick where they press against the porcelain rim. From beyond several thick planes of mental glass, her left ankle throbs.
Jo wipes the back of her wrist across her lips and levers herself to a crouch. She peers into the toilet bowl. No red.
“Think you’re right; think I’ve got a bug,” Jo says.
Ellen steps into the bathroom and crouches down to tuck a strand of damp hair behind Jo’s ear.
“Not food poisoning?”
“I didn’t eat.”
“Right. I’d forgotten.”
Jo reaches to flush the toilet then moves to a stand. Ellen reaches out as if to catch her, but Jo doesn’t sway.
“You go back to sleep,” Ellen says. “Take it easy. I gotta do mostly research today, anyway.”
Jo doesn’t sleep.
She pretends to. She buries her face in her pillow while her mom showers and get dressed. She can feel when Ellen leans over her; she can hear the few seconds of withheld breath and creaking joints as her mother keeps still to hear her. Then a rasp of clothing, and Ellen creaks across the floor to the door. The lock clicks. Silence. A few minutes later, the truck rumbles to life.
Jo flops over to her back and winces at the thorns in her arms. She’d hoped the shower would take care of them, but if anything they seem to be more present than before. She hopes they aren’t going to infect.
She wishes, abruptly, that she’d gone with her mom to research. She doesn’t like the motel room’s smallness, nor its faint smell of mold. After less than five minutes, Jo pulls out an old notebook she uses sometimes while researching and clatters outside. She finds a rusted bench on the opposite side of the motel building and sits, letting herself watch cars whip past for several minutes. Then, slowly, she flips the notebook open and lets her pencil hover over the paper. The thorns in her fingertips pulse.
Jo was never a great artist, not enough to really enjoy it. But she can create decent sketches when she puts in the time, and she has all the rest of the day until her mom comes back.
She starts with the torso. Broad shoulders, long-sleeved blouse, the pleated skirt. She fills in the body with more and more meticulous detail, trying to recreate the peter pan collar of the blouse and the way the feet turned away as if ready to run. It’s high noon before Jo’s pencil starts to wander to the space above the shoulders.
Drawing animal skulls is the kind of thing actual artists do to practice stuff like shading, and Jo’s skull looks more like a cartoon. But she also can’t bring herself to leave it alone, and she keeps adding thin lines of shadow, erasing, trying it again. Her pencil rasps over the eye sockets and nasal cavities in endless crosshatching.
Jo only lets her pencil drift away from the paper when a sudden pulse in her ankle makes her dart down to grab at it. She’s half afraid she’ll find a spider or scorpion. But the area around her boots is clear; her skin over her ankle is unbroken. She can still feel a throb: a soft press of blood against swollen tissue. Jo runs her hand along the knobby ankle bone a few times, ignoring the bite of the thorns, before she straightens and examines her drawing. It examines her back with empty sockets. Jo slaps the notebook closed and goes back to watching cars roar past while her ankle pounds.
She tolerates this for a half hour and then stands with the notebook tucked under her arm and strides toward the motel office.
The old man working behind the counter peers at her with rheumy eyes as she explains she’d like to get into the park, and is there some sort of shuttle? He says there isn’t, but the next town over has a taxi service. Jo tells him thank you and leaves with a tinkle of the door’s bells. The thorns prick when she presses her hand against the door.
She jogs across the road, a blast of hot tar rising into her nostrils. Her hair is damp and sticks to her neck. Her ankle shouts at her in steady pulses.
The Tex-Mex restaurant is cool and still with the lull after lunch rush. A few TVs play; patrons murmur and rustle in the neon-toned dimness like pigeons in a barn roof. Jo sees the bartender from the night before and approaches him with a smile she learned once from Dean. He smiles back like it’s an automatic response.
Jo doesn’t process much of what is said; her ankle and the pulsing through her skin is becoming distracting. What she does catch is that bartender boy has a car, sure; it’s parked in the back. He’s still got another few hours until he gets off, though. Jo adds sparkles to her smile and tilts her head, says something she can’t remember a second later. His mouth curls up. He disappears into the back, and a minute later emerges with his apron gone.
Jo chatters while he drives them toward the park. She knows that she’s shimmering and charming; he’s thoroughly taken in. When they pull up to the trailhead that runs by the canyons, Jo can feel the thorns by how hard the blood pounds beneath them, and the left ankle is rendered all but numb by sheer pressure She kisses the bartender on the cheek and presses ten dollars into his hand before she crunches onto the desert soil.
Bartender boy rumbles away while Jo starts to pick her way along the trail, the notebook still clutched in one hand. She can see the mounds of earth in the east. Her walk breaks into a jog. She feels her right toes jamming against the innards of her boot followed by a numb thump from where her left foot should be, a hammerfall of rushing capillaries. The thorns sing accompaniment. Somewhere high above, at the shell of her ear, an insect trills a perfect discordant C.
Ellen throws herself back from the microfiche reader with her eyes screwed shut. The silence is thick; she can practically hear the sunlit dust settling over the library shelves. She doubts most of the books have felt human hands in a few decades. The ones closest to where she’s sitting are bound in thick plastic binding with stamped white titles like “1938 Crayton County Census”; they smell of fragrant mold.
Ellen doesn’t like places like this, shuttered off from the rest of the world. Bobby once described the back of a local library as a stronghold. She’d resisted the urge to tell him he was off his rocker.
When Ellen opens her eyes, the librarian is moving at the other end of a long corridor of shelves; she walks in a tight stroll that tells Ellen she’s trying to snoop without being obvious. Probably bored; probably not used to strangers coming in and asking about local newspapers.
Ellen gathers her hair away from her face with a deep inhale and feeds the next microfiche sheet into the reader. She starts to flip through the remnants of newspapers—she’s in the late ‘60s, as per Jo’s description of the outfit—but she hasn’t found any mention of local women disappearing, and all the obituaries seem perfectly innocuous. Which doesn’t say much; plenty of small communities can have disappearances that no one bothers about.
Ellen lifts her head again, but the librarian has disappeared. She heaves herself to a stand and walks toward the library’s front; on impulse she checks her phone. No reply from Jo. She’s probably conked out.
The library’s front desk is wedged up near a single rotating fan and a basket with a ratty, laminated “Returns” sign on it. The librarian isn’t there either.
Ellen pulls at her mouth, exhales hard, and makes a short walk along the shelves. Nothing. Unless there’s a back office hidden somewhere, Ellen can only imagine the librarian went outside for a smoke break or something.
Sighing, Ellen looks up and down the nearest shelf. Fiction. Ellen drags her finger along spines and pauses over a thick slice of a hardcover with an oil painting of 19th century women. Little Women. Louisa May Alcott. Ellen’s lips tug up, and she hooks her finger into the book’s spine to slip it out. She lets the book fall open and scans a few lines. She used to have a copy in the Roadhouse; she tried to read it to Jo once because she remembered her own mother reading it to her. Jo had liked the book’s Jo and asked if she was named after her.
“This is a Josephine,” Ellen had said. “You’re a Joanna Beth.”
“But we’re almost the same,” Jo had argued. “You sure you didn’t name me for her? Don’t tell me you named me after Beth. She’s boring.”
Ellen had told Jo her names came from great grandmothers. Jo had lost interest in the book soon after. Ellen thought it was just as well. A paranoid part of her preferred the idea that Jo never found out what happened to Beth.
Movement makes Ellen lift her head. The librarian hovers at her desk. She looks like someone’s mom, round and clothed in soft green. She watches Ellen the way a nervous dog watches a stranger. Ellen slides the book back into place and smiles.
“I’m wondering if I could bother you again for some help finding oral records. Afraid the newspapers aren’t quite cutting it.”
The librarian looks like she’s sucking her teeth. “You’re a historian?”
“An enthusiast.” Ellen leans back on her heels; she tries to make herself smaller by dropping her shoulders. “Playing around with an idea of writing a book one day about the history of parks and the people who live near them, if I can find enough material.”
The librarian nods; her fingers twitch and tug at the hem of her shirt. “We’ve had a few people write books about the town’s history; don’t know how much the park plays a role besides the tourist dollars.”
“Right. You know about any women who went missing a few decades ago?”
“Gosh, I don’t know,” the woman says, sounding confused. “I mean, probably not. I never recall hearing about it.”
“What about the disappearances around the canyon?”
“The little one near the Snakeskin trail, in the park,” Ellen presses. “You know what I’m talking about?”
“Right,” the woman says. Her voice is softer. “Right,” she says again.
“You know it?”
“I think so.”
Ellen lets out a little laugh. “Just that I’ve heard a few things about people disappearing in that area. And then my daughter was talking to someone at the restaurant yesterday and he told her there were some ghost stories surrounding those canyons. I gotta tell you, I’m a little bit of a sucker for a good ghost story.”
The woman isn’t smiling at all. She looks at Ellen like she wishes, deeply, that Ellen would leave the building and not come back.
“Was that Gavin?” the woman asks. “Gavin talks. All the young boys talk about anything to tourists.”
“Why? Is there anything to it?”
“Wind, I guess.” The woman shifts position; her hand has fallen to brace against the desk. “You can hear high, thin sounds sometimes, but it’s the same sound you get outside the window on a brisk day, you know?”
“Sure.” Silence. “But people do disappear around there.”
Flinch. Ellen’s got her now; the woman’s face is all angles and clenched muscles. Ellen would feel bad if she wasn’t set on teasing this thing out to the end.
“Park that big and empty, hikers are going to get lost and some don’t get found till years later,” the woman says. “Shame, but it’s gonna happen.”
“Yeah,” Ellen says with an empathetic nod. “But people get lost around there more than usual, right?”
“Don’t know that they do.”
“Seems like they do, if you look at the numbers.”
Silence again, only interrupted by dust settling on books. No wonder this lady is twitchy if she listens to that all day, Ellen thinks.
“When I was a little girl,” the woman says. “I remember a town a few hours north of us kept losing folks on this one stretch of road. Everyone was telling stories about axe murderers and chainsaw cannibals and crap like that. They finally got someone to investigate. This road ran near a ravine, see. And at one point the road went straight toward the ravine before turning and going along it. But at night or during a bad storm, you wouldn’t see the ravine at all. You could drive right into it and get swept downriver within seconds. They searched, and they found at least fifteen cars’ remains scattered around that ravine. Wasn’t any monsters, just the land and people not being smart in how they handled it.
“Figure one day they’ll find what it is near that trail that makes folks disappear. Figure until then, you just keep your head on out there. Better you don’t go near it at all.”
Ellen doesn’t reply immediately, turning the concept over in her head.
“I see,” she says at length.
The woman says nothing.
Ellen nods, mostly to herself, and strides to the library’s front door. The woman doesn’t move when Ellen slides past her and opens the door to desert afternoon. The previously clear, blue sky has white mounds in the distance. The air smells charged and damp.
“Rain,” says the woman right before Ellen lets the door swing shut behind her.
The canyon looks no different than it did yesterday morning, and Jo doesn’t know why that surprises her. She slows at the canyon’s mouth and stands in the riverbed with her notebook hanging by her side. The air is low and oppressive with the promise of a storm. The canyon’s green belly waves at her. The high, trebling insect tone has retreated to a hum in her jawbone; the thorns and the ankle are quieter.
Slowly, Jo flips her notebook back open and looks over her sketch. The horse skull seems patient, like it’s waiting for her to get on with things. She grabs the paper, tugs, and tears the page from its binding. She finds a wide, flat rock and places the notebook beneath it; she then folds the sheet with the sketch into neat fourths and slips it into her jacket pocket. She straightens, takes a breath, and starts to walk. Her left foot still throbs every time she moves it, but she’s learning to ignore it.
She takes the riverbed this time, lifting her chin to follow the progress of the canyon’s walls above her. It’s cooler here, and soon the hair that had been slick against her neck is fluffed again, although thin and stringy. And the air smells like green things instead of baked sand; that’s a nice change.
When Jo sees the horse—woman—thing, her first thought is that it must have been waiting for her. It sits on a rock ledge on the left-hand wall, not so far that Jo can’t see its details. It leans back on its hands like a college kid, its legs crossed and one foot bobbing. One of the eye sockets is pointed in Jo’s directions, and Jo thinks that if the head had flesh and hair, its ears would be pricked. Jo stops walking; she waits.
The creature doesn’t move for several long seconds, but then it shifts to a stand. The breeze catches at its skirt and blouse; the blue fabric billows like a sail. The creature turns and picks its way along the ledge to a place where a tumble of boulders makes for a natural staircase. The creature doesn’t float or move with unnatural smoothness. Jo can see it working to find its footing; once it lands on a loose rock, and it stumbles. That, out of everything, makes Jo’s heart palpitate. Her hand slips to her waist; she has a silver knife there that Ash gave her once in another lifetime. Silver is usually a good bet against anything supernatural. She could try it on this thing. She could.
The horse woman has made it to the canyon’s floor. Only the top of its gray skull is visible over the brush. It’s moving steadily toward the riverbed, and Jo could run or she could pull out the knife or she could—
It emerges by pushing a long, green stem out of its way, and Jo is hit with a wave of something that is animal sweat and faint, stale perfume. She doesn’t move as the horse woman steps into the riverbed. Its feet are clad in dark blue leather clogs; veins crawl up its knobby ankles. It stops several arm lengths away, and Jo makes her eyes crawl up the figure, up the pressed skirt, up the blouse with pearlescent buttons. She stops at the string of rust red around the neck. It looks like it dribbled down from somewhere on the head—the human head, the one that’s theoretically inside the horse skull. She hopes it’s there, at least.
Jo doesn’t have the courage to look up at the skull and check, so lets her eyes fall again, and this time she starts to pick up grimy details that she usually sees on living bodies: smudges of dirt and scrapes on the hands, a small tear in the blouse. She can see the chest moving. She can hear the crackle of dirt under clogs and shush of fabric against skin and she can smell something hot and semi-alive.
The thrumming C still sings in her jawbone. When Jo drags her eyes up and stares into dark sockets, it goes quiet.
The skull is gray and weathered; divots at its edges make it look as if a carnivore has gnawed at it. The wide, yellow molars grin, and the sockets are pools. Somewhere, deep inside them, Jo sees light reflecting off of a glistening surface.
Jo takes the first step forward, and her left ankle doesn’t so much as twinge. She takes a second step; her jawbone remains quiet. She reaches the horse woman; she lifts a hand and brushes it against the blouse’s cotton fabric. The thorns have muted completely.
The horse woman’s hand lifts too, and her skin is nut brown. She plucks at Jo’s hair with bird-like twitches then grows bolder and runs a cool, smooth thumb along Jo’s cheekbone. It feels utterly real, corporeal. Jo doesn’t move; she breathes in animal sweat and department store perfume. The nut-brown hands shift to examine Jo’s nose, her eyebrows, the bottom curve of her lips. They snake down her neck and rest on her shoulders, then they retreat back to horse woman’s side. Jo can feel where the hands touched her; the skin tickles with leftover sensation. The horse skull is still tilted in Jo’s direction; its innards still gleam. Jo peels her lips open and says, “What are you?”
The horse woman doesn’t respond in any way; doesn’t speak or move.
“Who are you?”
“Do you live here? Do you take people away with you?”
The skull turns to the right in a smooth arc, and Jo’s eyes follow. She can’t see anything, just the small jungle of brush and the canyon wall beyond it. She returns to the horse skull, and realizes that its lower jawbone has opened. Inside is the same glistening black. One of the nut-brown hands comes up, and Jo watches it slip between the flat, yellowed teeth. The arm shoves in deeper, almost to the elbow, and Jo has the urge to gag sympathetically.
The muscles and tendons of the arm ripple with work, and then it pulls out of the jaw again, and the blouse sleeve and hand are stained with something that resembles dark, loamy river valley soil. A clump of the soil is caged in the thing’s fingers. The horse woman uses its hands to roll the clump a few times, and it coalesces into a clayey ball the size of a buckeye. One hand grabs Jo’s wrist and turns it palm up. The other drops the clay ball into the palm, and it’s moist, cold, gritty when it gently bounces against Jo’s skin. Jo’s fingers close around the ball unthinkingly.
She doesn’t have time to react when she realizes that the horse skull is leaning toward her, and then its rough, cold cheek is pressed against hers. The sharp edge of the jawbone digs into Jo’s skin. Another second and it pulls away, and the horse woman steps back with a sway of pleated skirt. It turns away.
Jo watches it walk down the riverbed, squeezing the clay ball and feeling the throbbing return to her skin and ankle, the high hum worming back into her jaw.
Jo isn’t in the motel room when Ellen opens the door at early evening. Ellen does a patient, requisite search of the room, peers into the closets and bathroom. She finds Jo’s phone on the bedside table, and that’s when she lets the first ripple of fear spread. She goes over the room more carefully, searching for signs of struggle or supernatural attacks. The place looks sound, which means Jo left on her own. She might have gone to the vending or ice machines, but even as Ellen yanks the curtains open to peer toward the vending machines’ glow, she doesn’t think that’s right.
She goes to the motel’s front desk, and the elderly man gives her a gruff reply that sure, a young lady was asking about shuttles into the park.
“She left after that,” he says after a moment of thought. “Walked across the road.”
“Across—“ Ellen turns; a small line of buildings are just visible in the dusk. The blue and green lettering of the Tex-Mex restaurant flickers like glowworms. The clouds have become dim, gray behemoths piling right over her head.
It’s not hard; Jo wasn’t bothering to cover her tracks. The manager tells Ellen yeah, his bartender left his shift to drive a girl out to the park. To a trail. Ellen would be tempted to yell at him if he didn’t look so bewildered.
The sun has disappeared by the time Ellen guns her way across the park’s border, past the empty ranger booth. She almost misses the place where she and Jo walked in. She hauls out an industrial strength flashlight and rifle from the trunk and starts following their footprints from earlier; they’ve barely been disturbed. She can’t tell if an extra set has been added.
The canyon rises in spurts of distant rock wall. Even as Ellen plows toward it, with low ripples of thunder somewhere to the east, she doesn’t want to enter. It’s a throat waiting for her to come in.
“JO!” Ellen bellows when she gets near enough to the canyon for the green underbrush to glitter at her with reflected lamplight. Ellen’s voice careens off the rock walls. A breeze sifts in response, twining through Ellen’s loose hair. She snatches at it with her free hand, and her hair drifts back to her shoulders with a sullen twitch. She considers, with a distant thud of panic, that she shouldn’t be shouting her presence. The horse skull thing could be stalking her right now.
Ellen slides into the riverbed and moves as quickly she can without twisting an ankle on loose rocks. The canyons walls lean over her like they’re curious about her progress.
Ellen keeps walking, focusing on one step in front of the next. She moves, and at some point, she tries to remember how long the canyon is. She stops and flips her flashlight to the walls. They curve generously and slip from view. They didn’t curve like that this morning. She should have reached the other end by now.
When Ellen lowers the flashlight, the light catches on something yellow, and then Ellen sees the checkered shirt, and she breaks into a run. Jo sits against the riverbank’s side with her arms crossed over her knees. She lifts her head; her eyes shine milk heavy.
Ellen stows the flashlight and shotgun, takes three descending steps so that she’s on the ground beside Jo when she reaches her. Jo sighs and sinks against her mother. Ellen tugs her closer and kisses the top of her head. Jo’s scalp smells somehow both musty and floral. Ellen pulls back to sit on her heels, keeping her hands on Jo’s shoulders to examine her at an arm’s length.
“What the ever loving hell,” she says.
Jo’s eyes fill; she makes a low whine somewhere in her chest.
“Shit,” Ellen murmurs, pulling hair from Jo’s eyes. “What else? Fever? The nausea?”
“I’m not sick.”
“It’s just pounding.”
“Under my skin.” Jo lifts a hand like it has a lead weight attached to it. “My ankle.” Ellen’s heart rockets into her mouth, and she reaches down to tug at the hem of Jo’s jeans.
“Which leg was it?” she says. “The snake—“
“It didn’t bite me; I don’t know; it just hurts.”
Ellen trains her flashlight on Jo’s ankle, but she’s right. Nothing indicates an injury. Though the longer Ellen looks, the more she thinks she can see the blood flushing in a rhythm just beneath the pale skin.
“Can you walk?” Ellen asks.
“I think so.”
“Let’s get you back to the truck.”
There’s a lot of hissing and murmured “sorry” before they lever Jo to a stand. She visibly favors her left foot, but she’s managing to stay standing on her own.
“The thorns are still there,” Jo breathes splaying her hands. “Can feel them.”
Ellen frowns, catches Jo’s stare, and turns, her boots rotating in the riverstone. The skull is almost camouflaged, all shadows and crannies. It’s the bright blue blouse that makes it obvious. It’s squatted a few paces away, its hands braced on its knees. It examines them with sockets full of something damp and glistening.
“Jo—“ Ellen starts and lets her words peter out in favor of releasing Jo’s waist and swinging up the rifle.
“It’s fine!” Jo says, staggering slightly. “Mom, she’s okay, she’s okay.”
“Like hell.” Ellen settles into a deep crouch, rifle trained on the thing, staring down the horse skull like she can will it into leaving them alone. Through all this, the thing doesn’t move, doesn’t so much as flinch.
“Mom.” Jo digs her fingernails into Ellen’s upper arm. “I don’t think she’s the one doing this.”
Jo claps her mouth shut when the thing stands in one tight motion. It pauses; its skirt flaps around her ankles. Then it lifts her head, and it’s as if it’s looking at something above and behind them. Jo twists around while Ellen keeps her attention trained on the thing. Jo’s hand, still clasped onto Ellen’s arm, tightens.
The tone of her voice causes Ellen to look and her rifle to sag. She inhales so hard it hurts. They stay still, like hiding rabbits, and watch two figures navigate the ledge along the canyon’s wall. One is taller and has brown hair and leather jacket. The other is smaller and yellow-haired. They look real, too. The full moonlight doesn’t slip through them, but hits solid clothes and hair and they look real.
“What is this?” Ellen breathes. “Illusion? Shifters?”
Jo shakes her head. They watch, not saying a word, as the two figures edge along the ledge, turn a bend, and disappear from view. Ellen lets out her breath in a great whoosh.
“We’re getting out. Now.” She looks to where the horse skull thing last was, and isn’t overly surprised to see that it’s moved. It takes her a moment to find it again, several yards down the riverbank. It’s half turned toward them.
“She wants us to follow,” Jo says.
Ellen turns, very deliberately, and starts walking in the opposite direction.
“Jo. We’re going.”
Jo follows a heartbeat later.
Ellen knows the canyon isn’t very long. She remembers walking it; it took maybe twenty minutes from one end to the other. It’s not like that now. She notices the moon right after they’ve made yet another curve of the canyon and still not found desert. Before, it was a gibbous moon rising in the southwest. Now it’s a fingernail crescent, perched in the northeast and grinning like a hellbeast.
“Fuck,” Ellen mutters.
“I don’t think it’s going to let us go,” Jo says faintly behind her. Ellen turns; Jo is too pale and there’s a slight tremble to her edges, but she’s walking on her own. It’s enough, for now.
Ellen swipes a tongue over her lips. “Following the riverbed isn’t working,” she says, mostly to keep herself focused and in the here and now. “We should try the path on the ledge.”
“That’s where we saw—“
“We need to try it.”
Jo doesn’t reply.
Somewhere, far away, thunder roars and wind yowls. But when Jo peers up, the sky is clear. She massages the clay ball again, buried deep in her jacket pocket next to her sketch. She watches her mother’s bobbing back in front of her as they pick their way along the ledge. Every time they round a corner, she expects to see their doubles, and then she can’t focus on what might happen next because the buzzing, throbbing waves don’t let her think that far until her fingers scramble around the clay ball again and her thoughts settle down enough to let her consider that her mother will try to shoot them and Jo suspects there’d be ramifications to that.
The horse skull woman doesn’t appear, even as Jo clutches at the clay ball. She starts to dig her fingernails into the soft surface, letting the dirt build up under her nails and dust her knuckles. Then, as they turn another corner, she starts when a fingertip finds something tough, maybe fibrous.
At that moment, Jo nearly slams into her mom’s back, and she’s about to snap something to her, when she realizes Ellen is staring down into the canyon. Jo follows her gaze, and she should have expected to see two familiar figures, a taller brown-haired one helping the smaller blond one to her feet. Jo’s throat swells.
“Keep moving,” Ellen mutters, and surges forward. Jo follows without a word and buries the clay ball into her fist.
“Mom,” Jo says. Ellen doesn’t stop. Jo swallows and tries louder, “Mom!”
Ellen pauses and turns; her cheekbones are gaunt. Jo wonders just how long it’s been since they started walking; she suspects she doesn’t want to know the answer.
“I’m serious this time,” she croaks. “My ankle is…I need to stop. For a little bit.”
Jo watches her mother sway with indecision, fingers tight on the rifle. Ellen glances ahead of her, where the canyon wall curves yet again.
“It’s not going to be there,” Jo cuts in. “We’re not getting out like this.”
“We’re just going to walk ourselves to death, and my ankle is killing me, and I want to sit for a while.” Then, like she’s a bratty twelve-year-old again, she slumps down against the canyon wall. She almost groans with relief. She can feel blood pounding through the bottom of her feet, but that feels organic compared to the foreign buzzing still licking at her jaw and skin and ankle. She hears Ellen sigh then shuffle to her side. She slumps down as well, though she keeps to a crouch.
“Ten minutes,” she says, laying the rifle across her lap.
“Gee, thanks.” Jo twists so she’s facing away from her mother. A beat later, she feels stupid. She was the one who came back, wasn’t she? Her fault they’re here at all. She ought to apologize, but it’s easier to lie silently and stare at the red-gray rock. She remains like that for several seconds then feigns rearranging herself so she can slip the clay ball out of her pocket. She tilts her head down and examines the ball in the light of a waxing moon. It doesn’t take her long to find the fibrous thing she felt earlier. It’s long and green, like the stem of a blade of grass. Jo considers the ball for a moment then digs a thumb into one of the ball’s cracks. It crumbles open without much resistance, revealing a sudden mess of deep, green grass and leaves. The scent of living things envelops her, and without thinking, Jo bends her head to inhale with an open mouth. She can smell a thick carpet of tender grass; she smells an orchard.
Jo lets her hand sink into her lap. Her heart is still pounding and the throb hovers somewhere at the edge of her body, but she also feels doused in peculiar calm. She imagines that she’s sitting alongside a hushed river under the dappled shadow of low trees. A songbird chirrups nearby; grass crackles with the weight of a body. Jo looks, and there is a nut-brown hand edged with a blue sleeve pressing deep into a riot of painfully green grass. The figure reclines on its side. The pleated skirt bends away; a metallic beetle wanders along it. Up. Jo makes herself look up.
A wide, brown face with high cheekbones. Blue-black hair plaited and hanging over one shoulder. Lips moving; a flash of pink tongue. Dark brown, almost black eyes framed by strong brows. Above the right eye, a crater of exposed bone and blood and something congealing gray.
Poor thing, Jo thinks.
Then a sideways shift in the world, and Jo is in a stretch of desert. She’s turns, and it takes her a moment to process the gouge in the earth as the top of the canyon. She hovers on the rim; she can see the riverbed and riot of green below her. She spots a small figure walking. It’s too far away to properly see details, but she decides it’s a man; his clothes look modern if filthy. Jo peers around her, to the canyon’s edge rolling away from her on either side, to the desert behind her. When she looks to her right one more time, the woman is walking toward her.
She has the horse skull tucked under one arm like a helmet. The space above her right eyebrow is still mottled with blood, bone, congealing gray. She moves quickly, shimmers, and she’s suddenly very close. Jo steps back out of instinct. The woman stops, looks Jo up and down then glances into the canyon. Jo follows her attention; the man from before is not walking anymore; he’s curled up on a fetal position with his head tucked into his hands. She looks to the woman, who is still watching the figure.
“Are you doing that?” Jo asks. The woman’s eyes—dark, dark brown—slip to Jo. She shakes her head. She does it carefully.
“Okay,” Jo murmurs; she licks her lips and says, “Who are you?”
The woman seems to consider this, one brown finger running along the horse skull’s edge. Then, as if she’s forgotten the question entirely, she looks into the canyon again and points. Jo obliges. The man hasn’t moved; he’s become visibly grayed and flat, and she realizes it resembles a corpse that has been exposed to the elements for days, weeks even.
Jo whips her head around. The noise came from the woman, who is frowning. She brings up her free hand and wipes her palm roughly down her tongue. She examines her palm then does it again, jamming her fingers into her throat and almost tugging her tongue out of her mouth. She turns to Jo. “That’s. What. H-happens to them.” He voice is rough and rotten, like it’s been caked in sand and mold for too long. Jo almost turns around and runs because for the first time, she feels the full weight of the fact that this woman is not alive.
“Happens to who?” Jo asks instead. The woman scowls.
“P-people. Who. Come. In.” She points down. “It. Doesn’t. Let. Them go. They. Get. Thirsty first. Then hungry. Then they lie down. And don’t. Stand up.” Jo looks down one last time. The figure is a skeleton, picked clean and gray and half covered in sand. It’s intact, though. No sign of scavengers. They probably know better. Movement catches Jo’s eye, and she turns to the other end of the canyon. She inhales sharply. The same man as before, stumbling through the underbrush. She flips her attention to the skeleton. Still there.
“How?” she asks.
“The canyon. Curves in. M-more than one. Way.” She pauses. “It’s. Dangerous. Once. It gets. Its hooks in. Well. You know how. It. Feels.” Jo hears a small sound escape her own mouth. Dully, she feels a wave of pricking pain just under her skin.
“Is this what happened to you?” Jo asks.
The woman makes an expression that is almost a smile. “No.” She turns, ever so slightly, to face along the canyon’s lip. Jo peers in that direction too, and that’s when she sees two figures on two horses. The woman has on a pale blue blouse and long skirt; the man is dressed in brown trousers and a pale shirt. Jo can hear voices drifting through the air, arguing voices. The man and woman gesture; their horses dance nervously beneath them. Then something flashes in the man’s hand; a gun blast ricochets through the air. The woman jerks, slumps. The horse reels back and its back hooves slip off the canyon’s edge. The fall is slow and agonizing, and the woman almost floats, and the man stares. Then the woman and her horse disappear over the edge. The man is wiped out in a gust of sand-filled wind.
“Already. Gone,” the woman’s voice says from beside Jo’s ear. “Can’t kill. A thing. Already. Gone.” She sighs, and her breath is full of musk and department store perfume. “We got. Tangled. On the way. Down.” Pause. “This place. Will do that.”
A peculiar feeling pitches through Jo’s stomach, and she’s enveloped by the sense that she’s falling as well without moving at all. The world blurs, and she stumbles, and then she’s surrounded by high walls. Something large and screaming tumbles past her, lands several paces away.
Jo surges through the green underbrush and emerges into a spare clearing. There stands the woman, and in front of her sprawls the gray, cracked skeleton of what was once a horse. The head is missing.
The woman turns her head, turns the skull, and stares at Jo with glittering sockets. Jo opens her mouth, and before she can speak, the sky cracks open. Rain roars down like a solid sheet, and Jo stumbles back with a cry. Her fist loosens; she can feel the clay ball tumble from her fingers.
The horse skull rushes in so close Jo can feel the graze of the sharp end of its nasal cavity. Yellow molars bear down; Jo can see a blur of nut-brown hands and a blue blouse trimmed in white lace. The hands come close; something cool and round is pressed against Jo’s lips. Her own hand comes up to accept it, and without thinking she helps the nut-brown hand slip the clay ball into her mouth. It lands full and heavy on her tongue.
The world lurches, and Jo seizes into a slumped position against the rock wall. She breathes hard around the knob of soil and grass lodged between her teeth, but she doesn’t take it out. Instead she stares at her hands and lets the ball’s essence of pelt, perfume, and river soil gather against her palette and crawl into her lungs.
She becomes aware of a hand shaking her shoulder, a frightened voice shouting her name. Beyond that, she can hear pounding, torrential rain. Jo eases herself to a sit and spits the clay ball into her trembling hand. Leftover grit spackles her tongue and inner cheeks; she doesn’t try to spit it out as well.
“Shh,” Jo says, shutting her eyes. She can hear rain pounding against dry soil. And beneath that, a low roar of rushing water. She opens her eyes again; the night is dry and clear. The sounds don’t go away.
“Wait.” Jo surges to a stand, damp ball still in her hand. She peers down into the canyon, and yes.
“The riverbed,” Jo says. “It’s filling.”
A pause, and then Ellen says in a soft voice, “What the hell.”
Jo’s eyes rove over the canyon’s bottom, and it doesn’t take her long at all to catch the smear of pale blue and the glint of gray. The woman looks up at Jo and lifts a single hand, as if beckoning. That’s all Jo needs.
“Come on,” Jo orders, the idea already starting to form at the edge of her mind, but she’s hesitant to examine it too closely in case she balks before she’s ready.
“What the hell you think you’re doing?” Ellen demands, then a second later, “Jo!” as Jo starts to slide down the shallow wall of rubble that leads from the ledge to the bed.
“We need to get to the river!” Jo shouts without looking back, then focuses on keeping her footing. She hears her mother follow after another few heartbeats. When Jo stumbles into the underbrush, the sound of rain has swelled to a deafening roar; thunder shatters through every so often. Yet there’s not so much as a breeze or a cloud scuttling overhead. But the riverbed. The riverbed is swelling with muddy water and on the opposite bank stands the horse skull woman, waiting patiently.
Jo starts when she realizes her mother is right at her shoulder. She focuses on the woman, keeping her fingers jammed into the clay ball and the clump of grass. The woman points to the rushing water. Jo inhales.
“We’re going to have to let the water carry us out,” she says, voice flat.
“You off your rocker?”
“This whole place is off its rocker!” Jo snaps. “Mom, nothing about this place wants to let us go. It’s gonna have to be the water.”
“We’re going to get brained on rocks.”
“Maybe not.” Jo can’t put as much bravado in that as she’d like; her mom isn’t wrong. Silence, and Jo watches her mother wipe a hand down her face. Then, she swings the rifle over her shoulder and reaches down to grab Jo’s hand.
“Don’t let go,” she orders.
Jo blinks; her eyes are burning. “I’m sorry I got us into this,” she blurts. Ellen glances at her, then leans over and presses a hard kiss to her forehead.
“Ready?” Ellen asks.
They step toward the riverbank; the horse woman has disappeared from view. They stand at the edge of the water, and Ellen counts to three, and they jump.
The next thing Ellen registers is heat. It spills over her like thick syrup, and her thought is to wriggle away from it somehow. She moves, and she inhales hard. Muscles in her neck and left shoulder shout at her. She becomes aware of grit in her mouth, in the creases of her skin, in the corners of her eyes. She cracks them open, and the first thing she understands is a jumble of gray shapes. Rocks, she realizes a second later. River rocks. Beyond that, the shallow slope of the riverbed’s edge. Past that, blue sky.
Ellen tries shifting her arms, and her shoulder complains at her again, but it’s not the complaint of a dislocated joint. Pulled muscles, maybe. Deep bruises. She can deal. Ellen gives herself another five seconds then groans aloud when she pushes herself up. She squints against a hard sun and a dizzying expanse of open desert without so much as a hint of canyon wall. She winces as she turns her head, but it’s not so bad to discourage her from easing herself to a stand.
She peers around her; Jo is nowhere in sight. The dehydrated fuzz filling her skull dulls the panic that thumps into place, but not by much. She takes a step forward, then another, and she’s stumbling along the riverbed with not much of a plan besides to keep moving forward.
It works, strangely enough. A small, checkered figure appears in the distance. Ellen exhales raggedly in relief and breaks into a jog. Jo is sitting upright on the bank’s edge, knees to her chest, staring at something hidden from Ellen’s view.
“Jo!” Ellen shouts. Jo whips her head up and visibly staggers her way upright. She takes a few faltering steps in Ellen’s direction then stops, waving her arms above her head. Ellen picks up her pace and when she reaches Jo, she almost has to catch her because at that point Jo is slow motion falling.
“Easy, easy,” Ellen is saying, holding her daughter up, while Jo babbles something about her ankle.
“Broken,” Ellen hears, and that’s definitely bad, but a part of Ellen feels like they got off easy. Then Jo’s forehead slams into Ellen’s sternum, and Ellen wraps both hands around the back of Jo’s neck, buries her nose in her hair, like if she keeps Jo locked in then she can’t go away again.
Jo sucks in air like someone almost drowned; Ellen takes one of her hands and runs it up and down Jo’s knobby back. She realizes she’s saying something nonsensical and low and soothing while Jo shudders and bucks lightly under her hands. Ellen feels hot dampness seep into her shirt.
When Ellen looks up, she sees a pool of pale blue in the riverbed. Her heart crashes into her stomach. She ducks her head to Jo again.
“You’re okay,” she says, but she doesn’t take her eyes off the smudge of blue fabric.
Eventually, Jo pulls away and starts to sink despite Ellen’s arms keeping her upright. Ellen goes down with her, and they’re left dusty, bruised, breathing hard on the edge of a dead riverbank in the middle of a desert.
“The water dumped us really far out,” is the first wholly coherent thing Jo says.
“Yeah.” Ellen is still watching the blue smudge. Jo follows her attention, and she doesn’t speak immediately.
“She’s gone now, I think,” she says.
Ellen nods, scrutinizing the huddled mass. It’s a body. Freshly dead. Young. Female. Nut brown skin. Pale blue blouse, brown skirt, skinny ankles sticking out of soft leather clogs. Ellen lets her eyes climb up toward a fold of matted black hair that grows like grass from the split remains of a horse skull. Inside the skull, like loamy wet soil, is what Ellen supposes was once a head. It’s wrong, though, because it looks as if it’s several days, even weeks, into decomposition, and that doesn’t match up with the rest of the woman’s body, and at that point Ellen has to look away and inhale through her nose, exhale through her mouth.
“I think she was stuck in there,” Jo rasps. Her eyes are fixed on the body. “I don’t think any part of her could leave. For a long time.” She shifts, and Ellen watches her hand disappear into her pocket. When she pulls it out, she reveals a mess of dirt and leaves and grass. And a molar. Ellen can see the yellow enamel and the bend of the roots. “She gave me this,” Jo says. “It was a ball before.” Pause. “I found the tooth a few minutes ago. Didn’t know that was in there.”
“You accepted a gift from…that?” Ellen asks. She should be scolding right now, but every bruise is still an immediate thing, and Jo looks worn enough.
“Yeah. Stupid. But I didn’t think she was the one doing the harm. I think she was trying to help. Help us. Help herself get out.”
“You didn’t know that.”
“I know. I didn’t.” Jo wrinkles her nose. “Hunter’s intuition.”
Ellen exhales hard without meaning to. Jo is capable. Scarily capable, sometimes. It makes Ellen’s innards roil because one day she’s going to recognize it and leave when Ellen isn’t fast enough to keep up.
But that’s later, she supposes. Now, she needs to get her daughter’s ankle bound up and haul them out of this town as quickly as possible. Nothing to be done for a whole canyon; best she can do is tell Bobby and let him spread the word.
“We need to get to the truck,” Ellen says. “Can you manage?”
“Eventually,” Jo says in an exhale. “At least the…the buzzing is gone.” She frowns. “We need to burn her.”
“However we can. I’m not leaving her alone like this.”
Ellen wants to argue. She should argue. But Jo has that edge to her voice that Ellen is too tired to confront, so she starts patting at her pockets for one of the usual books of matches or Zippos she keeps on her person. She finds a damp set of two matches in her back jeans pocket, and she holds them out to Jo. Jo accepts them and, on her hands and knees, edges her way into the riverbed. Ellen drags to a stand and, after a moment of consideration, starts to collect dead pieces of sage. She brings her offering to the body, still not looking at it too closely, and arranges the brittle, gray sage wood around the blouse and the skirt. Jo ignites one of the matches after several failed tries, and sets the match in a fold of the skirt. It catches, and Ellen crouches beside Jo with a hand on her shoulder while they watch the flame lick across the fabric. The smell of burning meat wafts toward them next, and for a moment, Ellen thinks she can also smell damp soil and animal musk and department store perfume.
She tilts her head toward the high noon sun. She waits while the smoke thickens.