The lonesome notes of the Eagles’ “Hotel California” wailed into the sweltering stillness. But no warm smell of colitas rising up through the air, just the pickle-brine stink of an unshowered woman who’d spent the last several hours in a hot-box.
Penny-colored grass punched through the desert around them, and the sun was a merciless diadem on the blue brow of a cloudless sky. A river of asphalt ran straight out to the horizon in both directions, coming from nowhere and going nowhere. She stood next to the Winnebago, swearing at the top of her lungs, sweat soaking into her clothes, her ringlet Mohawk plastered to the side of her head. If this had been her usual Kool-Aid dye job, Robin Martine’s wavy dimetrodon sail of hair would be staining her neck with a dark lilac purple. Her underwear felt like a snot-rag.
Around her chest was a nylon harness, with a camera mounted on her chest. As it always had, the GoPro recorded her trials and tribulations for her YouTube channel MalusDomestica, this time bearing witness to one of her rare outbursts of anger.
Their air conditioner gave out hours ago and the Winnebago was a sweat lodge. If the tire hadn’t popped like a shotgun shell and started flapping around inside the wheel well, she might have passed out at the wheel and driven them into the desert. She tugged at her T-shirt to air out her sweat. A thing jutted from the tire, something like a pull-start or maybe a meat hook, a plastic T-shaped handle with a pointy metal bit sticking out of the middle.
“A hundred thousand miles of hot sand and lizard shit, and you just happen to find the only whatever-the-hell-this-is in Texas!” Robin gave the Winnebago a ferocious punch, clank!
The aluminum body was hot enough to burn and left red scrapes on her knuckles. She winced, massaging her hand.
The Winnebago’s door opened and Kenway stepped out, carrying a little Coleman cooler. “What’d Willy do to you?” He dropped the cooler in the shadow of the RV. He wasn’t wearing a shirt, and he’d developed quite a tan on their tour down the American west coast this spring. Six months of fighting supernatural hags and their minions had trimmed the weight he’d gained moping around in Blackfield. His belly had slimmed to a wall of blond-frosted sandstone, and his hips narrowed to a V of muscle. Under his dock shorts, his prosthetic leg glinted in the sun. After the events of the last Halloween—a battle against four of the hardest of hard-core witches and a newly resurrected Mesopotamian death-goddess—Kenway had tagged along and made himself the big brawny Short Round to her Indiana Jones.
“Ironically, you ran over a tire tool.” He wrenched it out of the tire. The remainder of the air hissed out in a tired, resentful sigh. “Tire guys use it for patching or something.” He shrugged. “I wouldn’t know; I’m not a tire guy.”
Robin caught herself staring at him. “Just grab the jack, beefcake.”
He tied his hair back out of his eyes and opened the hatch in the side of the Winnebago. Hauling out the jack, he shoved it underneath the right fender and was about to start pumping when Robin stopped him.
“I got this,” she said, grasping the jack handle. “Go get me the spare and the lug wrench.”
“You got it.”
He went around to the back of the RV, leaving her to deal with the jack. The first couple of pumps were easy, a quick squeaky-squeaky, but on the third pump, the rod stopped short in midair. Robin gripped the handle with both hands and threw herself onto it with everything she had. It screamed and gave a few inches, almost dumping her over onto her face. What I wouldn’t give to be able to
(hulk out whenever you want?)
do whatever it was I did back in that house, she thought. Whatever that monster was that Andras turned me into that night. Her memory showed her a portrait of herself in the silvered glass of a mirror, her skin a latticework of shadows, her heart shining inside. Nothing like the woman she was now: short, sinewy, tanned, with coalsmoke eyes and a thin, expressive mouth. That girl-shaped effigy, that wicker-wire sculpture with the bottle-rocket soul.
She stared at the dirty steel staff in her hands as if it were a bloody sword. Blue paint flaked off to reveal rust red, polished by decades of hands. Cambion. Crooked. She threw herself on top of the jack handle again with a tortured squeak and the Winnebago started to tilt. Devil-girl.
Laughter. She rounded on the comedian.
“You all right?” Kenway stood there stifling a grin, the massive spare drooping from one hip.
Sweat beaded in his beard, his forehead glittering. He set the tire down on the roadside with a basketball pung-pung and shoved at the side of the RV, rocking it. “I’ll push, you pump. This should make it easier.” He shoved again, and she pushed down on the handle. Him shoving and her pumping, she was able to raise the flat tire off the dirt.
While Kenway made sandwiches with the stuff in the Coleman cooler, Robin changed the tire with much sweating and cursing and kicking. She crouched down and cupped her arms underneath it, lifting the spare like a sumo wrestler, and heaved it onto the axle with a grunt. After screwing on the lug nuts, she let the Winnebago down on all fours with a thud and armed sweat from her forehead, leaving a gray smear.
After washing her hands, she sat with Kenway, eating turkey-and-salami sandwiches, sharing a big bag of Doritos, and drinking Blue Moon in the shade of the RV, listening to music. Aerosmith. Janie’s got a gun.
He finished his lunch first and carried the flat tire around back, heaving it into the spare compartment. Robin pushed the last bite of her sandwich into her mouth and carried the cooler into the RV.
Bladed weapons glinted from their mounts on the interior walls—swords, knives, tomahawks. All the windows were open and a breeze struggled through, trying to dilute the stuffy air. She unbuckled the GoPro harness and tossed it onto the bed. Her T-shirt clung to her like shrink wrap on ground beef. She pulled it off and tossed it in the hamper.
Since she wasn’t wearing a bra, when Kenway turned around his eyebrows bobbed straight up. “Well, okay.”
The wind stiffened her nipples. She shot him a guarded look that dissolved into a smirk, and she held up a fist. “Rock, paper, scissors. Winner gets the shower first.” They shook fists at each other, and on the fourth beat, she held up the two-finger peace sign of scissors, but he pointed at her with an accusing finger.
Puzzled, she asked, “What is that? This ain’t rock-paper-pistol.”
He made an A-OK sign with his other hand and stuck the pointer finger through the loop of his forefinger and thumb. Then he sawed it in and out of the hole.
“Ohh.” A slow smile spread across Robin’s face. “We both win, then.”
She turned off the GoPro, hid it in a dresser drawer, and unbuckled his belt.
* * *
WELCOME TO KEYHOLE HILLS,
WHERE ROUTINE ENDS AND ADVENTURE BEGINS!
ORIGIN OF THE MA’IITSOH HIKING TRAIL
Thank God, no witch graffiti.
Most graffiti is an unintelligible mess, but if you know what you’re looking for, you can find special runes hidden in the design that tell you there’s a witch living nearby. They use runes to passively communicate with each other, same way hobos did back in the Andy Griffith train-jumper days.
The highway led up a hill and through a gap between two sandstone bluffs. Time and weather had punched a space as big as a house through the stone, creating a keyhole-shaped wedge of indigo air.
On the other side of the pass was a low sprawl of houses, businesses, and fast-food signs. There wasn’t a two-story building in sight that Robin could see, and the squatness of Keyhole Hills made the sky look heavy and oppressive. The town seemed to melt down an enormous sagebrush slope that reminded her of a Skee-Ball game, as if the highway lowballed tourists into one of the motels and shops littering the grade. The City Visitors’ Center, 10 points! Roger’s Gas-N’-Go, 25 points! The Best Western, 50 points!
They hobbled into a shade tree at the edge of town, a white cinderblock garage surrounded by desolate old cars and stacks of tires.
To Robin’s surprise, the transaction was painless—the tubby, grease-handed man with the Teddy Roosevelt face actually had the right kind of tire for a 1974 Winnebago Brave, and he was more than willing to mount it on their rim for the right price. Robin bought an extra just in case, and she and Kenway wandered into town on foot.
Gravel grumbled under her Converses as they walked through a neighborhood of bungalows, tract houses, and mobile homes, divvied up by sidewalks and chain-link fences into a lockstep grid. Most of the grass looked like loose hay. Dead as hell. Fortunately, unlike Georgia, the humidity was low and every breeze scraped a little sweat off.
A figure fell into step with them. “Hi, love,” Annie Martine’s spirit murmured in her sketchy-AM-radio voice.
“Hi, Mom,” said Robin. Annie still popped in from time to time ever since her daughter rescued her out of the witches’ soul-sucking apple tree. Evidently, her daughter was the only one that could see her, because no one else ever seemed to react.
“Is she here?” Kenway’s eyes searched the empty space around his girlfriend.
“Tell her I said hi.”
Speaking to ghosts no one else can see tends to freak people out, but he seemed to handle it admirably well. She wasn’t sure if he was just humoring her or if he actually believed her mother was there, but she was grateful for his cavalier attitude.
The ghost grinned. Annie liked Kenway.
“She says hi back.”
Occasionally, she wondered where Annie went when she wasn’t visible. Was she hanging out in some afterlife waiting room? Chilling in some discreet room in the mansion of Robin’s head? She pulled up her T-shirt to wipe her face, flashing her belly. “Gendreau said they wanted to meet at a lunch café.”
“You nervous?” Her self-appointed “cameraman” wore a Margaritaville T-shirt with the sleeves cut off to show off his new tan and the tattoos on his shoulders: Army Air Assault on one side and a rampant gryphon on the other, clutching a spear and a clawful of olive branches. Shitty and blue, they looked like icons on a fifteenth-century map.
“Hell yeah, I’m nervous.”
“He said they were gonna be cool.”
“I dunno.” She smiled tightly, trying to make a face to telegraph “anxiety.” It was probably more like “constipation.” “If they were cool, wouldn’t they want to meet me at their home base in Michigan instead of the middle of nowhere?”
“We were already out here—maybe they just wanted to meet us halfway.”
“Maybe.” Almost three thousand people in town, according to the city limits sign. That sounded like a lot, until you considered the alternative—Blackfield alone was probably twice that, and nearby Houston had two million people. “They probably think I’m going to flip out and go on a rampage or something.” Robin flourished a hand around them. “Not much out here. They’re probably like, ‘If we talk to her in public, she’ll be more at ease, but we don’t want to endanger a Houston amount of people.’” She frowned. “Been months since I went into Beast Mode. We’ve been in dozens of fights. It ain’t happened again.”
He didn’t say anything for a little while. She flashbacked on the memory of tearing open her father, the cacodemon Andras, the tickling-brushing of all those insidious spiders spilling out of his hollow body and coursing up her arm like a lacy black sleeve. “Maybe I need a demon to touch me again—to infect me—to make it happen.”
Am I full of spiders?
Jesus Christ, what kind of a question is that?
“I think you’re reading too much into it,” Kenway finally muttered.
A bird circled high overhead on some invisible thermal. Robin said, “Gendreau didn’t tell ’em right away that I was working for them now.”
“What’d he tell them?”
“That I drove away into the sunset after the fight with Cutty. I think he was trying to protect me. Feeding me leads under the table like I was his secret James Bond and he was my M.”
“Maybe G wasn’t counting on you making more videos, and for the Dogs of Odysseus to see them and realize you still had the Osdathregar.”
“Well, I did kind of tell him that I was going to close my channel down.” Which would have been a lark. She made way too much money on that thing to give it up. Besides … in the three years that she’d been running her YouTube channel, she’d grown to like the attention. The fans.
Attention whore, said the psych-ward nurse in her head.
No, Robin thought. They’re the family I never had. That’s why I love them.
Kenway shook his head. He didn’t say anything, but the accusation was there: You lied and got G in trouble.
“He must have done it because of what I did in the Lazenbury,” said Robin. “Saving his life. Guess he felt like he owed me. But they don’t sound pissed off about being left out of the loop, from what G told me.” She stopped at an intersection and peered up and down the road. “They sound like they just want to meet me and get a feel for me. Ugh, I don’t see this café anywhere.”
A little dog barked at them from behind a fence. Beyond the dog was a mobile home, and a scrubby, pot-bellied old Hunter S. Thompson look-alike in a T-shirt and jeans sat on a warped deck porch with a glass of iced tea. Homespun knickknacks hung from his eaves: twisty blue blown-glass tadpoles, bamboo wind chimes, dreamcatchers.
The dog stopped barking all of a sudden, as if he’d fulfilled his quota for the day. Annie’s ghost stopped to poke a silvery finger through the fence, and the dog sniffed it. Robin blinked, startled.
The old fella waved at them. His eyes twinkled even through his rosy bug-eyed bifocals. “Welcome to the Hole,” he said, tossing a hand like a symphony conductor giving his final bow.
“Excuse me, sir,” said Robin, leaning on the old man’s fence. The dog—some kind of scotty-dog schnauzer or something—sniffed her through the chain link. “Do you know where we can find Uncle Joe’s Diner?”
“Yeah, Mac’s, that’s what I meant. I must have been thinking of Joe’s Crab Shack or something.”
“What I wouldn’t give for a good crab joint.” The toothpick rattled around in the man’s teeth. He pointed one gnarled finger over their shoulders. “Mac’s just yonder ways, about three blocks down and one up. If y’all havin’ dinner there, get the chili. They do somethin’ wonderful with black beans. Best I ever had.”
“What brought yuns out this way? We don’t get many visitors out here. At least, ones that ain’t here to get lost out on the Ma’iitsoh. Y’all hikers?”
“You could say that.” Overgrown grass brushed against the titanium gleaming under the cuff of Kenway’s shorts as he leaned against the fence. “She runs a video channel on the internet, driving around the country. Kinda like a travelogue.”
The old man grunted. “Like them shows on TV? Travel Channel? The chunky kid with the frosted hair and the bowling shirts?”
“Sorta like that.” Robin squinted. The sun lurked directly behind the trailer, throwing hot sunshine in her face. “We’re just passing through and wanted to stop and grab dinner with some friends. Said to meet ’em at Uncle Mac’s.”
“Tell ’em Gil sent you.” He hesitated. “On second thought, don’t do that.”
Gil’s grin faded. “Just behave yourself while you’re in the Hole, aight? Try to stay on this end of town.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder at his trailer, even glancing in that direction, as if they could all see straight through it to some distant point. “Don’t wander past the Conoco up on Fifth. There’s…” Took off his glasses to knuckle one eye. “Well, let’s just say there’s folks. Folks you don’t want to run into.”
Gil put his rose-colored glasses back on. “Enjoy your dinner. You two want to give an old man some company and put away a few beers before you take off again, I’ll be up all night.”
Copyright © 2020 by S. A. Hunt