“There’s something you should know,” he says.
We’re ten miles outside of Rosarita when he says it—too far to walk, too close to bail and head for someplace else.
“I’d rather not,” I tell him.
There was a time in my life when the last place you’d ever find me was sitting in the cab of a busted pick-up truck with a strange man. That was before the blood disaster and the chaos though, and in the last six weeks, I’ve done all the things your parents tell you not to. I’ve hitchhiked, shared beds with disreputable boys, petted stray dogs, carried a gun with the safety off, driven on the freeway with no spare tire. I have smoked cigarettes and talked to strangers and crossed without looking both ways.
Behind me, there’s a muffled thump from the bed of the truck, but I don’t ask and I don’t turn around.
We pull up to the little ranch house after dark, tires crunching on gravel. All the lights are on. The front door hangs slightly ajar, and none of it looks good.
I climb down from the cab anyway, keeping my hand in my pocket and my fingers around the bone handle of the stiletto. All the country nonsense about wooden stakes is just that. It doesn’t matter what you jam through their chests as long as it’s sharp.
He jumps up into the bed of the truck, stooping to fold himself under the camper shell. The flatbed is loaded up with canned food and jugs of water and sleeping bags, but the thing he’s after is rolled all the way up against the wall of the cab. In the dark, it looks like a giant lumpy moth cocoon.
I can’t help myself. “What is that?”
He’s breathing hard as he drags the bundle toward the tailgate. “It’s that thing I was telling you about.”
The thing is wrapped in burlap, bunched closed at the top and laced tight with baling wire. It is approximately the size of a person.
When he shoves it onto the tailgate, the glow from the porch light glints off something thin and glittering, fine as a web. The rough fabric of the burlap has been painstakingly woven-through with a network of metallic threads. It looks like silver, which means that it’s probably silver. And facing him there in the gravel driveway, I get it.
After all, the bundle is approximately the size of a person.
From the corner of my eye, I think I see someone—a small someone—pale and ghostly in the dark, standing back in the shadow of an aging Tuff Shed. Then it’s gone and I don’t turn my head to see where it went.
“We need to get inside,” I say.
“And we’ll get there,” he says right back. “Just hold your horses.”
After a pause to catch his breath, he crouches and rolls the bundle onto his shoulder, then straightens and starts up the front steps.
Inside, the house smells like dry rot and trash that someone left on the counter and the red all-over dust of the desert. No one’s been here in awhile.
He doesn’t even stop to check the place out, just heads down the hall with the sack slung over his shoulder. He kicks the bathroom door wide with one brass-heeled boot and drops the bundle in the bathtub.
“Why do you have it?” I ask, standing behind him in the hall, blinking in the bright florescent light.
“Her,” he says without looking at me. “It’s a her. Do you want to see?”
I don’t, but I nod anyway. There’s something worse about the covered body and all the little silver wires crawling all over it like ants on a carcass.
With a twist of the baling wire, he undoes the top of the sack, jerking it down to expose a mess of long tangled hair. He grabs her roughly by the scalp and tilts her head back so I can see. Her face is hollow, but there’s enough elegance left in her jaw and her cheekbones to prove that she was beautiful before he starved her.
She opens her eyes and looks up. Her lips are cracked. Her skin is papery, and her veins show through in a blue tangle. The whole left side of her face is covered in a mess of threadlike burns where the silver pressed against her cheek. When she stares up at me, I can just see the jagged points of her teeth.
“Aren’t you scared she’ll get away?” I say. I want to cross my arms over my chest, but I keep my hands in my pockets, fingers closed around the stiletto.
He shakes his head, smiling for the first time. “I’ve got her hands and feet chained with Argentium silver. She’s not going anywhere.” The way he says it is grim, but under that, satisfied. “A whole country full of these things, doing whatever they please with us, making us their cattle. But not this one. This one’s mine.”
I don’t ask what he does with her. I’m not scared of much these days, but some things.
I don’t ask because I’m very scared he’ll tell me.
It’s after ten when the scratching starts. At first, I think it’s nothing but dry branches brushing against the window glass. But the night is windless and Rosarita is nearly bare of trees.
We’re eating SpaghettiOs, cold from the can. The burlap girl is locked in the bathroom, too sick and starved to be much trouble.
He sees me searching around for the noise and shrugs. “Her sister,” he says mildly. “She’s been following me since Abilene. I tried to tell you.”
But he didn’t try that hard, and really, you could make a case that he didn’t try at all.
For one wild instant, I see her face at the kitchen window, just a pale oval. Two dark hollows for eyes. As I watch, she raises a hand and drags her nails down the glass, making a sound like rabbits screaming. Then she’s gone.
“And you’re not worried about that?” I say.
“It’s not like she can come in,” he tells me, giving his can of Chef Boyardee a stir. “Don’t you worry about her. We’ll be just fine.”
I sleep, curled tightly around myself under the coffee table. I wake up with a start and it’s the middle of the night. It should be dark as the bottom of hell, but it’s not, because all the lights are on.
He’s not in his sleeping bag on the couch, but I can hear his voice, leaking out faintly from the bathroom down the hall. I can’t make out what he’s saying.
For a second, I just lie there, thinking of all the things that could be, but are not. Mostly, I’m thinking how if I’m not in a burlap bag, maybe it’s only because his fancy sterling silver net wouldn’t do much to keep me there. Only because he’s got no interest in girls with heartbeats.
When I open the front door, the sister is standing on the steps with a look on her face like she’s been waiting, even though I’m pretty sure she only showed up a second ago, when she heard the knob turn.
She’s just a kid, maybe ten or twelve. It’s October, forty degrees out, but she’s wearing a white sundress. It’s fraying into nothing all the way around the bottom and the front is dark with old blood. Her feet are bare, covered in a layer of dirt so thick is looks like she’s wearing ragged black socks. It must have been summer when she turned.
“Are you wanting me to ask you in?” I say, sounding uncannily like some kind of white-gloved debutante and not at all like someone who’s spent the last month or two thinking they might die at any second.
She nods. Her hair is scraped back from her face in a mess of a ponytail. The end of it is full of twigs, and Abilene is more than five hundred miles from here.
My instinct is to keep my hand on the stiletto, but instead I sweep the keys to the Dodge off the end table by the couch and step back.
“Then be my guest. You come right on in. And feel free to stay awhile.”
There’s a moment. It happens when we pass each other, her coming in and me leaving. We’re less than six inches apart and she turns toward me, so fast that I think for one terrible second that I am already dead.
I can see in her eyes that what she wants more than anything is to throw me down right here on the carpet and drink me dry, but then she stops. Draws back. Her teeth are long and vicious and there’s nothing human about her at all anymore, but I can’t say with any certainty whether that’s the insatiable urge to drink my blood, or if it’s just what happens when someone takes away your sister.
“He’s down the hall,” I say. “Knock yourself out.”
I consider offering her the stiletto, but decide that she can do plenty of damage all on her own.
It takes less than five seconds for him to start screaming. She’s little, but she’s fast. I’m already down the steps, halfway to the truck. I’ve got a handful miles to go before I hit Mexico, and from there, it’s a straight shot through Central America and on into Columbia. After that, who knows?
I will not be stopping for hitchhikers.
Photo by jef_safi