At night, the drifter could hear the dunes moving in the desert like the body of a giant snake stirring beneath the sand. He followed the brightest star in the sky, but he was no longer certain that he was going north.
He had lost track of how long he had been in the wasteland, and then he had lost track of how long it had been since losing track. When he touched his jaw, he felt the stubble there becoming whiskers. In the heat of the day, they itched terribly. If only he hadn't lost his knife, he thought, he could at least cut his beard. But he didn't know where he'd had his knife last, or even what it had looked liked.
There were still a few inches of stale water left in the bottom of his canteen. No matter how often he stopped to drink, the level never seemed to go down much. All the same, he restricted himself to the smallest of sips. He didn't want to push his luck.
Besides, he almost never felt thirsty anymore.
When he sat down to rest beneath an outcropping of rock a fat black tarantula, larger than his hand, crawled out from hiding and squatted and watched him. Its eyes were as big as the nail on his smallest finger, and he could see himself reflected in them.
He got up and went on, following the brightest star in the sky.
A burrow under the sand tripped him up. He had disturbed a diamondback with a body like a bullwhip. It struck at him, and its fangs glittered yellow in the moonlight, but it feinted away at the last second. The sound of its percussive rattle followed him for a long time after that.
He came across the den of a mangy coyote. Its fur had rubbed off in patches and its ribs poked through its sides like a keyboard of teeth. Eight squeaking, fluffy pups tumbled in the dust around its paws. One looked up at him as he passed, and some trick of the light made it seem that the coyote had the face of his brother, dead all these years.
After that, he walked on quickly and didn't look back.
The dawn broke, red as blood. The sun swam, small and hard, on the horizon. As the first waves of heat began to drift off the sand in front of him, he saw someone up ahead. It was the first human form he'd seen since he'd come to the desert, and he felt his throat grow thick as if it were filling with sand.
"Slow up," he called, "and wait for me. I don't give a damn if you are a ghost."
The figure turned to face him, and he saw that it was a woman. She was dressed like a cowboy in a duster and boots, but beneath her ten gallon hat her hair was loose, so fine and blonde that when it blew in the wind it disappeared into the wisps of dust that encircled her.
"Who are you?" he said.
"I'm just a singer."
"How'd you get all the way out here? Can you point me towards a road?"
She drew her duster around herself and said, "Quit wasting time. There's still a lot you have to see."
He followed the cowgirl through the desert, and his ears popped with equalizing pressure, as if he were coming down off a high mountain. He knew that they weren't going down at all, though. They were going inwards, towards the center.
A graveyard reared up out of the desert. It was just a few rows of crumbling crosses and a fence made of the porous skeletons of dead cactuses.
The cowgirl swept her duster back out of the way and booted down a section of the fence. It fell without a sound, and when it hit the sand it turned to dust.
"They're here," she said. And only then did he realize that he could see the shades.
There were two of them there, crouched among the broken graves. They were both gray-faced and haggard, both bleached like bone until they were uniformly colorless. The first of them was silent, but he watched the drifter the whole time with eyes that were sadly perplexed. The other was bent, bunched over a little heap of sand, his hands buried in it up to the wrists. He talked incessantly, under his breath, but the words came one upon the next, so quickly that the drifter could not understand any of them.
“What’s wrong with them?” he asked.
The cowgirl shrugged. “Ask them yourself. I don’t have time to be answering a bunch of stupid questions.”
She didn’t seem to be in much of a hurry, though. She reached into the inside pocket of her duster and drew out a silver cigarette case. It was too damn hot even to smoke, but the drifter asked, “Can I have one?”
“No,” she replied.
With a sigh, the drifter came forward. The silent shade watched him with a look of deep and questioning sympathy.
“What’s all this now?” the drifter said.
The speaking shade stopped abruptly, breaking off in mid-word. When he turned, the joints in his neck popped and creaked with disuse.
“My brother got the message early in life,” he said. “That idle hands do the devil’s work. He settled down, lived well. Built things with those hands of his. I only knew how to do mischief with mine. I try to stay out of trouble these days. I’ve got some real work now. It’s not glamorous, though. No, it is not.”
He held up a handful of sand. “I just count these. One, two, three. Just like that, until I’ve done them all. Then I hope I’ll understand the value of a hard day’s work.”
“What about him?” the drifter asked, and he nodded to the silent shade.
“That’s my brother. He’s not so bad. He keeps quiet too much, though. He never says a word about the things that I do. I try to help him where I can, try to help him hold his tongue. See?”
He passed the handful of sand to the silent shade, who opened his pale and desiccated lips and shoved the burning dust into his mouth. His jaw worked steadily, chewing, but his pale eyes floated above it all, coldly detached.
The drifter felt his stomach clench, and he turned away. The cowgirl was beside him, sweeping past him already, the tail of her coat brushing his ankle.
“Let’s go,” she said. “I don’t have all day.”
Still the cowgirl led him on, until they came to a dry lakebed. The parched clay had cracked into fissures that seemed to open upon an impossible darkness below.
The ground was littered with old bones, which the drifter knew did not belong to any livestock or wild beast. The cowgirl kicked them impatiently out of her path as she walked, and so the drifter followed close in her footsteps so he could avoid doing the same.
As they descended into the lake, individual bones gave way to the full skeletons of men, picked clean and laying just as they had fallen. The sun played a curious trick with those bleached bones; the way it fell, it almost made it seem as if they were moving.
“Let’s go over there,” the cowgirl said, pointing to a dark spot at the bottom of the lake. She set off without waiting for an reply. The drifter didn’t much want to go with her, but he found himself following her lead without thought or hesitation, as he had done so many times since meeting her.
The dark spot shifted and danced and changed shape as they approached, but they were almost upon it before the drifter at last made out what it was.
A mass of black vultures were hunched over something down there. He could see their raw heads bobbing up and down in agreement, their dusty black wings half-spread. The cowgirl bent down and picked up a femur and heaved it at them, and the vultures rose in heavy indignation and settled out of reach.
When the dust and feathers had cleared, all that was left was the thing that had attracted them.
The man was dead, and had been for a long time. What was left of his face was purple and bloated. A few scraps of clothing still clung to his body, and through the gaping holes in his tailcoat and striped trousers, the drifter could see that a few scraps of meat still remained on his bones.
There were no lips left on the face, no tongue left in the throat, but when the shade spoke it did so in a clear and ringing voice.
“Step right up, step right up. Don’t be shy. See the very last wonder of the world.”
The drifter had no intention of getting any closer than he already was, until the cowgirl drove a sharp elbow into his ribs. “There’s no call to be rude,” she said. “Hurry up now. It’s time.”
Reluctantly, the drifter stepped forward, and the shade’s remaining eye rolled in its raw socket until it found his face.
“To be honest,” the shade said, “I wish they’d just hurry up and pluck it out. The sun is murder round these parts. It’s a sloppy job they’ve done here, yessir. Believe me, I know a thing or two about taking just a piece at a time. Dragging it out for so long that you don’t even know what it is that you are missing. All you know anymore is the lack of it. Of course, it was girls in those days, and not cheap ones either. Good clean company, that was my specialty. Of course, girls like that don’t just give it up for a song, but even the best girls are like to make a mistake once in a while. The trick is to be there when that happens. The trick is just being in the right place at the right time...”
The drifter left him there, talking still. He didn’t once look back, but he heard the rustle of wings behind him, rising and resettling.
“How are you feeling?” the cowgirl said. “Are you starting to get it yet?”
The drifter was watching the wall of sand sweep across the desert towards them. It wasn’t the sandstorm that troubled him, though; it was the black heart at the core of it.
“I think I’m starting to understand a few things,” he said.
The cowgirl opened her mouth to reply, but he didn’t hear a word she said. The storm was right on top of them now, the wind throbbing in his ears. He threw an arm up to protect his face, but it turned out he shouldn’t have bothered. The dust flew all around him, and the air crackled with electricity, but nothing touched him.
Inside the storm, it was black as midnight. The drifter groped blindly until the cowgirl caught hold of his hand. Her fingers were surprisingly cold, even icy.
She drew him on relentlessly. Once, the drifter felt a hand skate over the back of his neck. He jumped, and the cowgirl pulled on his arm so hard that it almost toppled him off his feet. He followed her again, but he was unsettled. There was something in the wind that he hadn’t noticed before. He hadn’t been listening then, but now he was. It wasn’t actually wind at all; it was the murmur of a thousand voices, all speaking at once.
A dark shape brushed by him, and the drifter heard it speak very clearly. Its voice was in his ear.
“It was easy to do it... to go where they were... but they’re not here at all... where are you... where are you... where...”
Then the shade was gone, swept away with a sob that fell into an indifferent and unhearing void.
They had left the last of the desert’s features behind a long time ago, and now all that was left before them was an endless flat wasteland, untouched even by the wind. Their footsteps might remain here a long time after they had gone, like impressions on the surface of the moon.
“Hurry up,” the cowgirl said. “We don’t have all day.”
She hadn’t looked back at him for some time, and the drifter had the impression that she was getting further away from him. He had to run to keep up, but running was hard on the fine sand. With each step he sunk in to the ankle, and he had to lift his legs high to pull them free.
His toe caught on something under the sand, and he fell hard, scraping his knees and drawing a shallow gash on his cheek.
He sat up, dazed. The pressure in his head was enormous now, and he felt disoriented and directionless. They must have been close to the center of the desert now, for he could no longer even tell where the sun was in the sky, knowing only that its light was immense, brilliant but strangely sterile, like the light of a fluorescent bulb.
The drifter pushed to his knees, taking a moment to collect himself. He could hear the cowgirl yelling at him, telling him to hurry, that they had to go. But her voice seemed to come from far away.
As he looked around to get his bearings, he saw for the first time the stone pillars that thrust up out of the sand all around him. Each one was a couple of yards tall, and came to a sharp point at the top as if it had been filed. They were black, metallic, and didn’t look like any other formations he had seen in the desert.
The drifter looked back around, and when he realized the cowgirl was standing over him he jumped.
“Sorry,” she said, and offered her hand. “You aren’t hurt, are you?”
“No,” he rasped. He touched her hand and felt himself lifted to his feet. For a while, they went on side by side, but soon enough she began to pull ahead of him again.
It was only then that they drifter realized she left no footprints in the sand behind her.
He struggled after her, no longer curious or afraid, only knowing that it would all be over once they made it to the center. The stone pillars became more numerous, until they were packed so tightly that he had to dodge around them and squeeze between. The sand caught and sucked at his boots, until at last the drifter tried to take a step, and realized he could not.
The drifter looked down, though he wished that he had not. A film of black obsidian had coalesced around his feet, rooting them to the spot. As he watched, it spread up his calves and immobilized the joints of his knees. He tried to scream, but by then it had reached his abdomen, and it drove the breath out of him in a strangled gasp.
The cowgirl stopped with her back to him. She turned slowly, and he saw that she was smiling, but that her eyes were sad.
“We’re finally here,” she said.
When she stepped towards him, the drifter tried to reach for her, but his arms were frozen at his sides. The cowgirl took the silver case out of her coat and placed a cigarette between his lips. She lit it for him, and he had time for two sweet drags before his throat turned in to a column of stone.
“I have to go now,” the cowgirl said. “I’m late enough as it is.”
She wavered before him, like heat lightning, like a mirage. It was the last thing he saw before the darkness swallowed him whole.