Gunpowder Sigil

In the town where I grew up, things sometimes came out of the desert.

Things that flew, slithered, and crawled. That skittered on a thousand legs, or inched along on none at all. Some as small as gadflies, some big as barns. Some were mean little bastards, with thrumming wings and splinter-sharp teeth. Some were bovine, lumbering, with big wet ox eyes and soft, snuffling noses and cloven hooves that stepped gingerly over everything in their paths.

And some things – some things were so terrible, people just ran and hid. Hid everywhere they could, under cars and beds and tables. Stayed that way for hours, cramping and shaking and praying to Jesus it wouldn’t find them.

That only happened once that I know of, and everyone was hoping it would stay that way. But we all knew it was still out there, that terrible thing. Others like it. Maybe even worse.

The desert was boundless, an ocean of sand. Past the horizon was a world beyond anyone’s wildest dreams and worst nightmares, and everyone knew it.

With that in mind, it was incredibly stupid that a teenage girl was riding out to the desert alone, on a rheumatic old mare the color of dirty snow.

She was skinny as a newborn deer, this stupid girl, with molasses-dark hair braided down past her waist and skin the color of dark brown clay. To help quell the heat, she wore a white dress that billowed like a sail, swallowing her up, and she wore an enormous straw hat the size of a wagon wheel.

This stupid girl was me.

The late afternoon was so hot and so bright I could barely squint at the searing sand. The horizon quivered like a boiling sea.

I rode out past the giant, petrified tree stump, the last remnant of some goliath forest that once stood here before time was time. From here, it looked like just another rock formation. Only when you got real close could you see the cracks of ancient, stony bark.

Past two cat-sized sand wyverns, fighting over a pronghorn carcass. They crouched low on their spiny wings, bristling, barbed tails poised over their snapping heads like angry scorpions.

They depressed me, the wyverns. Just a little further south, you got amphipteres – dazzling, winged serpents. Rainbow-plumed wings, eyes like jewels, tongues like golden flames. Bringers of luck and rain.

I regarded the wyverns resentfully. “And here we are, stuck with the buzzards of the dragon kingdom.” I’m not sure who I was addressing. The mare, probably. “If that ain’t a goddamn travesty.”

Talking kept me occupied. Kept me from thinking about how dangerous this was, being out this far in the desert. A gnat on the back of a sleeping giant.

But then, was it any safer at home? Out here, there was at least the possibility of not running into a monster. At home, it was an inevitability.

So, I rode on.

Just like the old lady told me to do, I rode out to the old dead tree. It was near impossible to miss, blackened by centuries of sun and rain, toppled over and half-sunk into the pale sand.

I tethered my snow-colored mare to a protruding root. Being frank, I don’t think the old girl had plans on going anywhere, seeing as she was about a thousand years old and had a nasty case of arthritis. But it made her feel special.

The sky was still a sugary blue dome, like the inside of a robin’s egg, but towards the horizon it was turning the color of whisky. The old lady had told me to wait for sunset. It was almost time.

I set my bony ass down on the sunken tree (which in hindsight was probably sacrilegious, it being a holy location and all). I reached into my satchel and pulled out a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a canteen of water, and a thick, black book. Its leather cover was carved with a bunch of strange characters or sigils, none of which I or anyone I knew could read. I’d borrowed it off the old lady next door.

I propped up the book on my knobby legs and flipped it open with one hand, sloppily unwrapping my sandwich with the other. I ate as I flipped lazily through the moth-brown pages.

I flipped past stipply, pen and ink drawings of a flying whale, floating over the dunes like a tethered blimp. A snarling black coyote with splotches of red ink for eyes and hair sticking up down his back like a razor. Some poor bastard getting eaten by a spider the size of a VW bug.

Those, I’d seen before. The spiders. One would turn up in town every once in a while, ambling over buildings or crouching between cars. They hadn’t eaten anyone in ten years or so, but they still made everyone nervous.

Finally, I flipped to the moneymaker. A dark figure on a dark horse, riding over a rolling swell of sand.

I grinned, sandwich pocketed chipmunk-style in my cheek. “Bingo.” A drop of raspberry jam flew from my mouth and splatted onto the page. I winced as I thumbed it away, hoping the old lady wouldn’t notice the pinkish stain on her book.

On the page across from the drawing were illustrated instructions. Obviously, I couldn’t read them, but the old lady had already explained them to me. And I trusted her more than whoever wrote the book anyway.

The first illustration was a sigil. “This,” she’d said, pointing a weathered brown finger at the page, “is what you gotta draw on the ground. You’ll need to use gunpowder, and it has to be just right. Otherwise, he won’t come.”

I set my half-eaten sandwich aside, felt around in my satchel till I found the change purse of gunpowder. I tossed it in my hand like a beanbag. “Okey-dokey.”

I got to my feet with the change purse in one hand and the open book balanced on the other, and I set about carefully pouring the shape of the sigil. The black gunpowder stood out against the pale yellow sand.

I looked to the next illustration, which was a sort of cryptic and worrisome drawing of a knife.

Pah. Whoever drew that is a goddamn donkey,” the old lady had scoffed. “What it’s supposed to mean is, you have to find something important to the person who hurt you –” she punched her fist, for emphasis “– and destroy it.”

That one was easy. I set the book down on the half-buried tree, and from my satchel, I pulled out an empty beer bottle. Then, I felt around in the hot sand until I found a good-sized stone.

I walked up to my gunpowder sigil, and cracked the bottle over it.

Its shards glinted like split open limes. To me, there was nothing uglier than those bottles, cluttering up the coffee table, littering the rug, fogging up on windowsills. But broken – broken, they were sort of beautiful, weren’t they?

I didn’t need to consult the book to remember what to do last. I had the match in my pocket, and the rock was still in my hand.

I looked up at the sky again. The sun was sinking towards the horizon like a fat nectarine. It was time.

“Do you think he’s a demon?” I’d asked, still not without reservations. “Some people say he’s a demon.”

“And some people say he’s an angel,” shrugged the old lady. “To the damned, they can look like the same thing.”

I took a deep breath, and flicked the match to life. I dropped it on my gunpowder sigil.

The black line burned with a crackling, white-hot flame that snaked around the sigil like a toy train. Every so often, it flickered, and I was a little concerned it might go out. I only had enough gunpowder for one, and I was not signing up to ride out here a second time. But it burned its way full circle, just like the old lady said it should.

I smoothed my hands on my skirt and settled back down on the sunken tree to finish my sandwich. My snow-colored mare came up beside me, regarding me with drowsy, judgemental eyes.

I gave her a pat on the cheek. “All we gotta do now is wait, girl.”

Well. So I thought.

I swear to God, it wasn’t ten seconds before that little black dot appeared on the horizon.

My eyes narrowed, sandwich-stuffed mouth going slack. Surely, it couldn’t be. Not already.

I felt thick lips tickle my fingers, and I realized my horse was eating the remnants of my sandwich. “You can have it,” I muttered. I had more pressing concerns than an abridged snack time.

The tiny speck, which started off no bigger than a black pinprick, grew steadily into a figure on horseback, both so black they looked like they’d been cut out of the horizon with a pair of scissors.

They moved together like a single entity. They moved like a shadow come to life, with the ancient grace of a wild creature. Something that had never known modern man, and never wanted to.

I could see the stallion’s muscles fluctuating like liquid beneath a glistening, oil-black coat, the flaxen explosions of sand beneath its hooves.

I realized they were getting close. Should I stand up? I should probably stand up.

I staggered to my feet, letting the horse-gnawed napkin flutter to the ground, just as the enormous, oil-black stallion came to a stop in front of me. He was the size of a draft horse, but had the look of an Arabian, and he had flashing, honey-colored eyes. There was an eerie sort of intelligence to them. Like, if that horse could talk, you just know it would talk backwards. That was the sort of look it had.

And its rider – he was everything I pictured he would be.

Tall and lean and outlined metallic gold by the setting sun. Dressed all in black, the dramatic bastard. Black Stetson, long black coat down past his knees, and tall black boots. And he wasn’t breaking a sweat.

Back in town, normal people were drowning in puddles of their own perspiration. In a getup like that, they’d cook like a ham.

I couldn’t stop staring at his face. He looked almost human, beautiful in the scruffy way of a wild horse. His skin was as golden brown as the sand beneath my boots, his jawline sharp enough to cut your fist on and dusted with honey-colored stubble.

But his eyes – I can’t begin to explain his eyes. There was nothing remotely human about them. Nothing but liquid, molten gold, light spilling from between his narrowed lids like cracks in the earth.

“Muh,” someone said, and I realized it was me. I tried again, “Mister Nobody?”

Also known as The Nameless Rider, The Shadow Man, Death On Horseback, Mister Mortality, The Man Beyond The Horizon. I’m not really sure who else I thought it could be.

The man – if that’s what you wanted to call him – tilted his head. “Well, there’s no need to be formal about it. We’re all friends here, ain’t we?”

He said that. He was speaking, with a deadpan voice that grumbled like the earth before an avalanche.

“You got it?”

He said that, too. He was asking me a question, and all I could do was stare stupidly up at him. I just couldn’t believe he was here. Not that I doubted his existence, mind you; if I could imagine it, it was out there somewhere. Even then, at the tender age of sixteen, I could acknowledge that truth.

But he had heard me. I had called, and someone had heard me. When was the last time that had happened?

Nobody didn’t seem inclined to wait out my existential crisis. “Do you have it?” he articulated.

It hit me that this was not the sort of person you’d want to keep waiting. “Oh! Right.” I dove into my satchel to look for it. “I, uh. Know it’s here somewhere,” I offered, when it didn’t immediately present itself.

“Take your time.” There was a sarcastic note to his voice that I didn’t quite appreciate. His stallion chuffed, impatiently pawing the sand.

Finally, underneath about fifty paperbacks, three unfinished notebooks, an impossible number of pens, and enough crumbs to fill the entire desert, my fingertips brushed cold metal. “I GOT IT!” I handed him my old pink thermos, grinning and triumphant.

He held it up for examination, squinting and turning it over like a jeweler with a stone. Probably taking note of the faded kitten and owl stickers pasted all over it.

“I, um. I wasn’t sure if you were coming. Some people I talked to, they said you weren’t real.” I tucked a stray ribbon of hair behind my ear. “It’s from grade school.”

He popped open its heart-shaped lid, held it to his lips, and chugged it like it hard liquor. A rivulet of milk trickled through his stubble.

Wow. So, they really liked milk and honey as much as people said they did.

Things from the desert loved milk and honey. Coveted it. Some people left saucers of it on their stoops at night, as offerings to them. Other people warned against that, claimed it attracted them. And the milk was always curdled by morning, anyway.

“Is that. Is that really all you ask for?” I had to ask. “Just ’cause, you know. I don’t have money, or anything. I don’t want you to do all that work and then not be able to—”

Nobody, still guzzling, held up an index finger to silence me.

“Okey-dokey,” I muttered, looking around awkwardly while he finished his milk.

To his credit, he swigged it down in record time. “You got whole milk and everything. Obliged.” He handed it back to me. “To answer your question, missy, yeah. That’s all I ask for.”

“Well, it’s not a lot,” I had to point out. “Don’t you ever want money or something?”

Nobody cocked his eyebrows. “You got any?”

“No. Like, none. I’m just saying—”

“If you don’t got any, why rock the ship?”

He made a good argument.

“Anyway, money’s worthless in the desert, unless you need something to burn. All I ask is a little milk and honey, to sweeten the deal.” He swung down from his oil-black stallion with an inhuman, effortless grace. “And to answer your other question, some people don’t think I’m real ’cause I don’t show up for just anyone. Most people are assholes. I don’t show up for assholes.”

“That’s a pretty good philosophy,” I conceded. “I, uh. Know a few women who could benefit from that.”

“Anyone can benefit from that. But of course, bastards can’t always be avoided.” He took a step towards me, and holy Moses, he was taller than I expected. Maybe six foot four, and lean as a cat. Standing in his shadow, I could see why people were scared of him.

He asked, “How many?”

Once again, I stared stupidly at him.

“How many,” he said, slowly and carefully, “do you want me to take care of?”

I knew what he meant. Hell, I knew what I’d called him here for, and so did he. I kind of got the sense he was only asking out of courtesy. But saying it out loud would make it real.

Good.

“One,” I said. “Just one.”

* * *

I grew up hearing stories about Mister Nobody. I’m not sure how many of them were true.

Stories, the way I figure, are like floorboards. Enough people tread on them, and they get warped. But, like the grain of wood, there’s a truth to them that never changes.

Most of the stories went like this: someone, somewhere in the west, does something unforgivable. Something people either can’t see or would prefer to ignore. Or something they’re powerful enough to get away with, to bury.

That’s when Mister Nobody rides into town like a shadow come to life, a gun on one hip and a coiled up bullwhip on the on other, ready to set things right.

One of those stories, it goes like this:

A man ran into the desert, against the angry slash of rain.

It was a strange picture. Rain was rare enough, but an apparently sane adult running into the desert was downright unnatural.

The rain plastered his rabbit-gray hair to his scalp, fogged up his glasses with the heat of his ruddied face. His button-down shirt was plastered to his moon-round belly, and his slacks were just a little too small, cutting painfully into his pelvis.

Running through the wet sand was like running through drying cement, and his dress shoes weren’t suited for it. But he had to keep running.

Even through the surging blood in his ears, he could hear the creature. Its snarls were like tearing metal, its claws kicking up waves of wet brown sand.

His heart pumped adrenaline into his veins as surely as blood.

He kept running, in search of refuge, in search of salvation.

For the first time, he knew he couldn’t run from it forever.

* * *

“So. What’s his name?” I asked to fill the silence, mostly. But I also wanted to know.

Nobody glanced up, following my gaze to his oil-black stallion. It stood, untethered but motionless, watching the horizon. “Creature.”

My eyebrows shot skyward. “Creature?”

Nobody nodded patiently, like I was an unruly drunk who’d forgotten her manners.

“That’s sort of a funny name for a horse,” I had to point out.

“Well. It’s what he is.”

The sky had darkened to plum purple, but the clouds were still streaked with mango-colored light. The stars were splattered like milk, the full moon fattened with honey.

I’m not sure what I thought would happen after Nobody showed up, but I didn’t expect to be in the desert this late. If there was anything more dangerous than the desert, it was the desert after dark. That was what I was raised to believe.

And yet, I wasn’t afraid. Maybe I was just incredibly stupid.

I shuffled my boots, perched awkwardly on the sunken tree. “Excuse me for asking—”

“You’re excused.”

“—But aren’t we, you know. Going back into town? It’s getting sort of dark.”

“You’re more than welcome to.” Nobody was looking quite content, leaning against the trunk. “The desert is my home. I intend to spend the night here.”

I looked eastward, wondering if my rheumatic old mare could make it home before the desert was submerged in inky black night. From here, the town was nothing more than a tumble of gray bricks on a darkening horizon.

I realized, then, why everyone hated it so much when things from the desert drifted through town. It reminded them how little of this desert was ours. We had no more claim to it than a rowboat adrift on the ocean.

“Besides.” Nobody’s casual baritone jogged me back to reality. “You know your stepfather won’t be back till tomorrow, anyway.”

I could have asked him how he knew that. But, that would be a pretty damn stupid question, wouldn’t it?

“My horse is gonna need—” I started.

“Water,” said Nobody. “If you’ll just look behind you, I think you’ll notice that’s already been taken care of.”

My brow furrowed, and I peered skeptically over the back of the sunken tree. Sure enough, water, clear as glass, gurgled steadily from beneath the blackened trunk, creating a miniature stream through the sand.

“That. That wasn’t there before,” I felt inclined to point out.

“I know,” said Nobody.

I settled back down, thinking to myself. To be totally honest, I was running out of excuses why I couldn’t stay here. To myself, and to him.

“You know, it gets cold out here at night.” Could he even feel cold? “I. Don’t really know why that is, if I’m being honest with you. I think I heard somewhere, it’s because there’s no water in the air, so it doesn’t trap heat. That’s just what I heard. But I don’t know if that’s true.”

Nobody didn’t say anything. He just held his hand over one of the protruding roots of the sunken tree, and it exploded into golden flame.

“Oh, Jesus.” I jolted backwards like a jackrabbit. Even my old mare started, which was the fastest I’d seen her move in about a decade.

“It won’t spread,” Nobody offered, like that was common knowledge.

Sure enough, the flame sat on its perch politely, flickering like a snake’s tongue but otherwise behaving itself.

My narrowed eyes shifted to Nobody, his outline gilded by the firelight. “And it won’t catch on my hair or nothing?”

He stared at me like I was embarrassing myself. “No.”

“Well.” I smoothed my skirts. “Alrighty then.”

I knelt down on the cool sand and leaned slowly, carefully, against the sunken tree. I kept expecting the bite of searing heat, but it never came. It only lapped gently at my face like liquid sunlight.

“It’s nice,” I admitted.

“I know,” said Nobody.

We sat there in silence for a long while. The darkening desert was more beautiful than I ever thought it could be. The song of insects rose in the air like nature’s drunken, midnight choir. A gray cloud rolled across the western horizon, unfurling like cream in coffee.

It was the strangest thing, how comfortable I felt out here. In a place I’d been raised to fear, next to a creature whose name had been spoken in hushed whispers since I was a baby.

My only discomfort was a question, squirming inside me like an itch I couldn’t scratch.

“So.” My hands fidgeted in the fabric of my skirt. “Do you want to know what he did? The man I want you to kill?”

Nobody looked up, his eyes flickering like candles in the night. He had surprisingly long lashes, like the kind you’d see on a pronghorn or a baby cow.

“You already know, don’t you,” I realized. It wasn’t a question.

I looked out over the desert, trying to work out how I felt about this.

If it was anyone else, I would have been ashamed. I didn’t want anyone to know what had happened to me. I wanted to keep that shame in a box inside me. I wanted to take it to my grave, let it rot with my empty husk while my soul rose to the sky.

But now – the strangest thing was, all I felt was relief. Was this what it felt like to have nothing to hide?

“Do you think – ” I just had to ask “– do you think, he deserves to die?”

In the distance, a lindworm wheeled across the desert like a giant, two-legged sidewinder, probably on the hunt for a juicy hare. Jackalopes were more common in these parts, but lindworms didn’t care for them. I can’t imagine those horns felt good going down.

“It’s not my place to judge,” said Nobody. “But I’ve got no problem sending them to God so He can do the judging a little faster.”

I can’t really explain it. I’ve never been much of a believer – more of an agnostic, if I’m being honest – but there was something impossibly comforting about the way he said it. The certainty behind those words. I felt the thrum of guilt inside me sputter and die like a faulty engine.

“Well, alrighty then,” was all I had to say on the matter.

I wanted to shut up after that. I knew I was being a pest. But questions were bubbling inside me like a pot coming to a boil.

“Were you ever human, Nobody?”

He looked up, though I can’t say he looked caught off-guard.

“I know it’s a nosy question, just.” I shrugged, unable to articulate my desire to know. “Some people say you were human once. They say you were killed unjustly, and your murderers were never brought to justice. And that’s why you bring justice to others.”

That was a lot of justices in one sentence.

I left out the more gruesome parts of the myth. Some people claimed he was burned alive, or crowned with molten gold. Which might explain his eyes, his affinity for fire. But the subject was already touchy enough, and I was already pushing my luck.

Thankfully, he didn’t seem angry. He was polishing something small and golden, though I couldn’t tell what. “I don’t know.”

I blinked, surprised by the answer. “Huh?”

“No one remembers how they were created,” he explained. “Like you, for instance. Do you remember being conceived? Being born?”

I grimaced. “No, thank Jesus. My mom told me, though I kind of wished she hadn’t.”

“Well. There you go,” said Nobody. “The desert is my mother, and she’s not much of a talker. So I suppose I’ll never know.”

A chilly wind blew across the desert, and I felt the flesh of my arms pebble into goosebumps. I shifted closer to the fire.

“So you’ve just. Always been doing this, and you don’t even know why?”

“Everyone does that. It’s called living. I just do it a little differently than everyone else.” As if sensing my dissatisfaction with the answer, or lack thereof, he glanced up. “Things like me aren’t made for answering questions, missy. If we’re gonna be friends, you’d best get used to that.”

It made me feel sort of special that he called me his friend, and I shook my head at myself. I really needed to get out more.

It was getting so dark now, Creature’s silhouette looked like a starless patch of sky. He stood more still than any living being should. At the moment, he didn’t look much like a stallion at all, and his name seemed a lot more fitting.

Nobody held up a rectangle of gold, glistening in the flickering firelight. I realized it was a harmonica. “You mind if I play, missy?”

“Go right ahead.” Immediately, I winced at myself. Why the hell did I say that? Normally, you’d have to shoot me in both my legs to get me to listen to harmonica music.

The only person I’d ever heard play was the sheriff’s son, and he made it sound like the mating call of a tone-deaf peacock.

But then, Nobody put the harmonica to his lips. And what came out was the sound of liquid gold.

It was almost impossible to describe. He played like honey, dripping through your fingers. He played like the desert itself was singing, and it seemed to sing with him.

It took me a minute to realize it actually was. The formerly discordant insects were harmonizing with his tune. An orchestra, with a thousand tiny musicians, all playing the same melody.

It was the most beautiful, the most uncanny, the most heartbreaking thing I’d ever heard. It trickled through my veins and spilled into my heart, flowing over like an overfull goblet. Tears like dewdrops pricked the corners of my eyes, and I had to blot them on my sleeves.

Jesus Christmas. Since when had I become such a sissy?

With time, the melody got heavier, slowed like the drip of molasses, and I got heavier with it. Weight filled my head like sand.

The last thing I saw, of all things, was a distant amphiptere. It swam through the sky like a ribbon of rogue moonlight, gliding on massive, plumed wings as pink and orange and purple and gold as the clouds at sunset. The flicker of its tongue was as golden as the fire that danced beside me.

That’s the very last thing I remember, before I sank into the warm, welcoming blackness of sleep.

* * *

The man never thought he’d run this far or this fast, and certainly not into the vast unknown of the desert.

He used to joke that he feared exercise more than Death himself. As it turns out, that wasn’t quite true. The prospect of his death, and what was waiting for him beyond it, was the only thing keeping him going.

His muscles were like screaming metal, and his guts were working themselves into painful kinks. The rain rolled in hot rivulets down his grimacing face. He’d lost his glasses, but he sure as hell wasn’t going back for them.

He could make out the shape of the ancient, petrified tree stump, a miniature, sawed-off mountain against the gray horizon. His only chance of survival.

He lowered his head and pressed on.

* * *

“Wake up.” Nobody’s flat voice prodded my dormant consciousness. “Wake up, please.”

I was dazed, and a little angry. Which is my normal response to being woken up by anyone, for any reason.

My face was pressed into something gritty. Sand. What the hell?

I pushed myself up onto my elbows, blinking. Sand and hair were plastered to the side of my face, and it took me a good fifteen seconds to remember what the hell I was doing out here.

I looked to my left. Next to me was Mister Nobody, holding a scorpion in his open palm and a cat in his lap. Past him were gray clouds, set aflame by candy-pink sunrise.

“It was crawling on your face,” Nobody said, watching the scorpion skitter in his palm. “I figured you’d want me to move it.”

“Too damn early for this,” I muttered, brushing the sand off my skin and hair. Trying to drum up some semblance of courtesy, I made myself ask, “You sleep well?”

“Generally, I don’t sleep.” Nobody carefully set the scorpion down in the sand. “There you go. You just run along now, mister.” He nodded approvingly as it skittered away. “There’s a good fellow.”

I spat a few rogue grains of sand from my mouth, and realized how dry it was. I felt around for my canteen. “So, you were awake all night? You didn’t get bored or nothing?”

“I don’t get bored.” He paused, then conceded, “I suppose I could, in the wrong environment. But there’s so much to observe out here. I could never get tired of it.”

I found my canteen in the sand beside me. “Well. That’s really saying something.” No one knew for sure how old Nobody was, but he’d existed for generations. This desert had to be damn interesting to keep him occupied so long.

I took a swig from my canteen and felt myself come alive like a dried-up plant. I took note of the cat in Nobody’s lap. It had a thick, glossy black coat and huge, eerily intelligent, honey-colored eyes.

“Is that—” I nearly choked on my water. Nobody and the cat regarded me, unimpressed. “Is that Creature?” I managed to rasp out.

Nobody and the cat looked at each other, then back at me. “Yeah,” said Nobody, like that was stupidly obvious.

“Wasn’t. Wasn’t he a horse?”

The two of them stared vacantly at me. “What’s your point?”

I raised my hands in the air, frustrated that basic logic and physics no longer had any meaning. “I guess I don’t have one.”

Nobody shook his head, muttering something to himself in a language that didn’t sound human and probably wasn’t.

“Speaking of horses,” he said, as though consciously changing the subject, “your mare had arthritis.”

“Had?” The past tense made me a little nervous. But when I looked up, there she was, tethered to the root and looking incredibly bored.

“As in, she doesn’t anymore,” Nobody articulated, like I was being incredibly dumb. “I took care of it for her last night.”

I turned to him, perplexed. “Why would you do that?”

“Why wouldn’t I?” he shrugged. “And anyway, you’ll both be thanking me on the ride back to town.”

I pulled a face. “You want me to go back now?” I wasn’t about to question his logic, but the bastard wouldn’t even be home till that evening.

“Well. You probably should. It’s not a great idea to be seen with me,” he explained. “Your people have mixed feelings about desert spirits. They’re drawn to our power, and they’re resentful about it. They can’t very well take their discomfort out on me, but I’m sure they’d settle for whoever summoned me.”

I thought about this. About the old lady, and the rumors that had followed her for most of her life. That she summoned Nobody to kill her husband. That she was a descendent of desert witches, with magic in her blood. Both of which were true, of course. But there was no reason to be rude about it.

It was probably in my best interests to go back. But I didn’t want to.

“It’s your stepfather’s house. Isn’t it.” Nobody was looking at me like he could read my thoughts like a paperback. “You don’t like being there, do you?”

I sighed, looking away. It really was too damn early for this.

“You can tell me, if you’d like,” offered Nobody.

I eyed him skeptically, though I wasn’t sure what, if anything, I was being skeptical about. “You told me you already knew.”

“I didn’t tell you anything. You inferred it.” After a minute, he conceded, “Of course I already know. But you can still tell me. Sometimes talking helps.”

I thumped my head back against the sunken tree. “My God. Everyone acts like you’re the scariest thing since Death himself, but you’re just infuriating.”

“Actually, I’m both,” said Nobody. “Be glad you’re getting one and not the other.”

I chuckled at that, though I got the sense he wasn’t joking. My hair was itching at the back of my neck, and I realized my braid had come partially undone in the night. I scooched up into a sitting position to undo it completely, letting it fall in fat noodles around my shoulders.

Looking out over the infinite sand, turning tawny with the new light of day – suddenly, my secrets lost their weight. Only the desert could hear them.

“My mother died in that house,” I heard myself say.

If Nobody hadn’t known that already, I’m sure that would have made the conversation incredibly awkward. But he did, and nothing I said was gonna shock him. Nothing I said would make him feel sorry for me. I was grateful for that.

“The bastard – my stepfather – he killed her. Well,” I conceded, “she killed herself. Which is weird to say out loud. You don’t really talk about that sort of thing where I’m from.”

It felt weird to talk about it at all. But I knew that if I thought about it too much, I was liable to lose my nerve.

“My sister told her something. Something about what he was doing to her,” I went on. “You, um. Already know what it is. And my mom, she didn’t believe her. Or didn’t want to believe her. I think, deep down, she already knew.”

I began to comb my hair with my fingers. Having a task distracted me a little, kept me from lingering on the memories too much.

“Maybe she would have come around, my mom. She was good to us, before the bastard, back when all we had was each other. But she never got the chance to come around, because my sister ran away. Jumped on the next bus out of town and was gone.” I didn’t feel all that shook up, but when I started re-braiding my hair, I realized my hands were shaking. “Not – not so much as a goodbye, to any of us. And my mom, she waited for her to come back. For weeks. Months, it felt like. I know she wanted to make it right, but, you know. She’d had her chance.” I glanced towards him. “I don’t know if you can make things right, after something like that. Do you?”

Nobody didn’t say anything. Just stared out over the desert, expression unreadable as a stone wall. That was alright with me. Some questions don’t have answers.

“First,” I went on, “first, the bastard patted her hand and kissed her cheek like the good, dutiful husband he was. Told her it was –” my upper lip curled as I tasted the familiar bite of bitterness “– told her it was ‘young female hysterics.’ But I guess.” I had to pause a minute. “I guess, she didn’t find the bastard’s words as comforting as she used to. And one morning, real early, he – he found her.”

No one had seen it coming. We all knew she was upset. There were circles under her eyes like smudges of charcoal, and even the gray at her temples had seemed to turn white as winter. She stopped doing her hair and making dinner.

But no one expected her to end up in her bathtub, her wrists slashed.

I never saw her like that. The bastard had the undertaker come and get her before I even knew, and I was never sure just how I felt about that.

But I saw the blood. Wine-purple and thick as tar at the bottom of the tub. Pale red where it was splattered on the curtain.

I was glad Nobody already knew about that, so I didn’t have to tell him. I wasn’t ready to tell him.

“I never got to say goodbye. To her, or to my sister.” I huffed, shaking my head. “Not that I should want to, I guess. Even after she realized what he’d done, she still left me with that dog.”

I realized how cold that sounded, and I immediately felt guilty for saying it.

“Sometimes,” I felt inclined to clarify, “I miss her so much my whole chest aches. My sister, too. I remember what we had together, before she married the bastard. How great life was when it was just the three of us, being poor together. And then other times, I get so mad at them for leaving me with him, I feel like every cell in my body’s been set on fire. And I have no idea which is the right way to feel.”

Nobody’s liquid golden eyes turned to regard me. “Missy, you can feel any way you damn well want to. You’ve earned it.”

I looked up, a little jarred by the certainty with which he said it, the understanding. It was more comforting than it had any business being.

“Thanks,” was the only response I could think of.

We sat there in silence for a minute or two, looking out over the lightening desert. There was a high-pitched, almost mechanical thrumming sound, and I realized it was Creature purring. Nobody was petting him.

The sky was lightening now, turning a pale, sugary shade of blue.

“I guess,” I offered, reluctantly, “I guess I should be getting back to town now, shouldn’t I?”

Nobody shook his head. “Nah. Not just yet.” He looked back out over the desert, the sunrise soaking the dunes with light as golden as his eyes. “It’s a beautiful morning. Let’s just sit a minute and enjoy it.”

I smiled, warmth filling my body like an underground hot spring. Maybe we were becoming friends. Weirder things had probably happened, somewhere or other.

“That sounds alright to me.”

* * *

By the time he reached the giant tree stump, a cramp had cleaved the man’s side.

Flanks heaving, limbs shaking like leaves, he collapsed against a huge, rain-slick root. Everything hurt. His head was filled with white-hot air, and his lungs wheezed like dying accordions.

In this moment of weakness, he made the fatal mistake of looking back.

Without his spectacles, the creature was a barreling black shadow. Pure darkness, coming to engulf him. He could just make out the twin, honey-colored smudges of its eyes.

The man grunted something that sounded vaguely like, “Shit.”

Clutching his cramped side with one hand, he clambered clumsily onto the root. He felt around in the stony, fossilized bark until he found a groove he could hang onto.

Gritting his teeth, he began to climb.

* * *

I’d never been in the desert this early before. Hell, I could count on both hands the times I’d been out here at all. They were all in my stepfather’s truck, on the lone, paved road that connected the town with its far-off neighbor.

Being alone out here, far from road and civilization, just me and the mare – well, this was an entirely different animal.

The swells of sand were soaked with the whisky-golden light of desert sunrise. What I’d thought was a wasteland was more beautiful than anything I’d expected. And more alive.

Hares and jackalopes darted between tufts of tawny grass, differing only in the curved, devil-sharp prongs of the jackalopes’ horns.

In the distance, I saw a herd of pronghorns. The leader was about the size of a draft horse. When I saw the bronze glint of a single horn, I realized it was a unicorn. Just the desert kind with rabbit-brown fur, but beautiful anyway, with their golden horns and hooves and eyes. They could cross-breed with pronghorns, which is why they hung around them so much.

I wanted to get a closer look, but I knew they’d only run away. Unicorns were shy of people, and pronghorns were almost as bad.

Wyverns perched on cactuses, grooming and fluttering their spiny wings. In the gilded light of new day, they didn’t look so bad anymore.

As I rode close, a wyvern looked up from his grooming, webbed ears pricked. His eyes were emerald green and catlike and curious. For the first time, I believed what bookish kids told me about wyverns being intelligent. And for the first time, I found them beautiful. Almost beautiful.

As I drew closer to the sun-splashed collection of squares that comprised the town, I got the strangest feeling of dread. It was the inverse of what I’d felt riding into the desert, the fragility of being something small and fragile on the back of something greater.

I think the word for it is claustrophobia. But more precisely, I felt like I was in a massive room that was slowly shrinking. Eventually, it would become a coffin.

“Not happy leaving, not happy coming back,” I muttered. “Just can’t win, can you, bitch?”

I lived on the edge of town, which was lucky for me. Riding through the center of town was like lying down on a petri dish for the busybodies to take turns putting under their microscope. But the good news ended there.

Most of the town was stacked out of pale earth the color of elephant skin. Very little of it was built by anyone alive. It was built by people who had lived and gone back to the earth before my great-granddaddy shit his first diaper. And they’d done a better job of it than we ever could, so. Those buildings stayed as they were. Even the movie theater was set up in some kind of ancient temple.

My stepfather’s house was new, by desert standards. Built out of wood, and no more than fifty years old. It had three bedrooms. A dining room. It was Nice, objectively. Much Nicer than the little room above the grocer’s where I used to live with my sister and mom, before she married the bastard.

 

But when they changed the shingles a couple years back, they found that the wood beneath was already rotting. The nice new wallpaper had gray spots of mold at the corners. The basement stank like a dead body.

The desert had rejected it, like a gangrenous limb. And so it rotted like one.

* * *

I thought about having coffee with the old lady next door. She lived in an old clay building, built by her own ancestors. It smelled like fresh coffee and warm bread, and the dewy smell of potted plants. They cluttered every table and hung from every ceiling, fireworks of lush green.

The whole town was scared of her, the old lady. Not the same way they were scared of Nobody, but she made everybody nervous. Her one good eye glinted as sharp as flint. The other was fogged over like milk in water, but you got the sense it could see anyway.

I’d liked her ever since I first met her, and she liked me right back. We’d had coffee together since I was twelve years old.

“Yes, Mister Nobody killed my husband. I asked him to,” she smiled, months before this all began. “He used to beat me. Whipped me, with his belt. Sometimes until I bled. That, I could take. But when he started hitting my babies –” she made a slicing motion across her neck “– I knew he had to go. So, I called Nobody to town, and he chased him into the desert on his big, black horse, and he whipped him, just like he whipped me and my babies. He whipped him until he died.”

I nodded politely. It had taken me months to work up the nerve to ask her that question, to find out if the murmurs and whispers about her were true. Now it felt – well, it felt sort of anticlimactic. It sounded like a story I’d heard a thousand times over.

The old lady smiled like a sand goblin, bark-colored skin wrinkling at the corners of her eyes. “You’ve heard that one before, eh?” She waggled a talon-like finger knowingly. “Those stories, they’re all the same. Everyone loves the brutality of it, a monster meeting his end. They forget that those are the same monsters they invite into their homes, seat at their dinner tables. That the screams of their victims went unheard or unacknowledged. They wish away the truth, that evil is difficult to recognize and tempting to ignore.”

I nodded, running my fingertips over the wooden grain of the table. The statement rang a little too true, and hit a painful note inside me.

“And another thing they never talk about?” The old lady was speaking again. “His kindness.”

I looked up, eyebrows arching like cats. “Who, your husband?”

“No, you donkey!” she cackled, flicking me in the forehead. “Mister Nobody.”

I blinked. Had I somehow misheard? The old lady had a good sense of humor, but she didn’t sound like she was joking.

“They all talk about how cold he is, a merciless assassin. A bringer of brutal justice. But they never spare a word for his kindness. The love he holds in his heart, for those he helps,” she went on. “Once he helps you, he’ll watch over you. All your life, he’ll watch over you.”

She must have read the disbelief on my face, because she clapped me on the shoulder. “He will,” she pressed. “When I needed money, he’d turn on my doorstep with bags of gold. When my boy had appendicitis, he cured him with just a touch. When my girl had pneumonia, he kissed her hand, and she was well.”

If I hadn’t known her as well as I did, I would have thought she was joking.

“I would have left with him, you know.” Her smile faded, eyes drifting towards the window, an unidentifiable emotion behind them. “I still would. If I had it my way, I’d ride out into his realm of endless dunes, and see the strange new world beyond the horizon.”

“Why, um. Didn’t you?”

Besides the fact that it would be batshit crazy. None of us knew what was out there, and no one sane wanted to find out. But of course, the old lady never played by our rules.

“My babies, you dimwit!” Despite the harshness of her tone, she was smiling again. “You think I’d leave them alone, in this anthill of a town, without my words to guide them? And now, my grandbabies. I have them to think about! It keeps me tethered here, my love for them.”

“They’re lucky to have you,” I said, and meant it. I wished I was born to someone like that. If my mother prioritized her children’s happiness, she never would have married the dog.

“Yes,” smiled the old lady, “they are.”

I smiled back, feeling thoughtful as I sipped my coffee.

Before that day, I thought only an idiot would try to summon Mister Nobody. The same kind who’d use a Ouija board, idiots who liked to fuck around in the spirit world for shits and giggles.

But now – well, now I could kind of see the appeal.

Watching me, the old lady’s smile turned implike, a dangerous glint in her flint-dark eye. If I didn’t know better, I’d have sworn she knew just what I was thinking.

“You know, nina. I have just the book for you.”

* * *

Well, I didn’t go have coffee with the old lady that morning. Not because I didn’t want to, but I felt like I was in the process of molting, and I didn’t want anyone to see me until the transition was done.

Instead, I went back to my stepfather’s house and made myself a cup of coffee. I drank it while trying to read my latest paperback, but the words stayed flat and immobile on the page. So I lay on the couch and stared up at the brown splotch on the ceiling, till restlessness filled my bones like fizzling seltzer.

I flipped through a fashion magazine. I listened to Billie Holiday records and danced around in my socks. I watched television, even though the only thing on was a rerun of Rawhide. The episode where Rowdy challenges a disrespectful, hundred-armed gunman to a duel, and Favor has to try and explain why that was probably a bad idea. I’d seen it already.

By the time the episode ended – Rowdy had defeated the hundred-armed man by shooting him in his gun hand – it must have been early afternoon.

That was when I heard something clinking, like glass against metal.

“Howdy, folks! If there’s one thing Rowdy and Favor swear by, it’s Salty’s Grade-A Rocksalt!” A sponsor in an unconvincing cowboy getup was saying. “Whether you’re roaming the wild west, or in the privacy of your bedroom, Salty’s will keep hostile supernatural beings from disturbing your hard-earned rest! Guaranteed by—”

I switched off the tube, still trying to figure out where that damned clinking was coming from.

The kitchen. It was definitely coming from the kitchen. And it sounded like it was getting closer.

Mister Nobody strolled around the corner, eating honey out of the jar. “You’re out of milk,” he said, sucking on a spoon.

I pressed my hand to my chest, heaving a sigh. “I gave the last of it to you,” I said, annoyed. “You nearly gave me a heart attack. I thought you were a burglar.”

He gave me an unimpressed look. “You should have a weapon.” It was a little hard to understand him with the spoon still in his mouth.

“A weapon? You mean a gun?” I huffed. “If I had a gun, I wouldn’t need you to take care of the bastard, would I?”

Nobody loaded a fresh spoonful of honey into his mouth. He said something unintelligible.

I closed my eyes. “Can you take a break from that? I can’t understand you.”

“Pardon.” He carefully screwed the lid back on the jar, spoon still pocketed in his cheek, and then put both in his pocket. Which was a little rude. But he wasn’t asking for money, so I wasn’t complaining. “Some people don’t want blood on their hands,” he reiterated.

I smirked. “But you don’t mind, huh?”

“I’m not human,” he shrugged. “It’s not the same as killing my own people.”

I watched him as he strolled up to the couch, and realized he moved the same way Creature did. With a grace, a charisma, that was too ancient to be human. Even if maybe he used to be.

Nobody set himself down on the opposite end of the sofa, gilded eyes taking in the living room. “I can see why you don’t like it here,” he remarked. “It’s polluted. There’s darkness in every room.”

I knew full well what he was talking about, even though I couldn’t see it. I could feel it in every room. This was the bastard’s home, so it would never be mine.

I thought about telling him more. About how the bastard moved onto me before the year was over, while all his neighbors and pompous, churchgoing friends were still bringing him soup and casserole and telling him how sorry they were for his loss, how noble he was to still take care of me. About how he whispered I love you so fervently, I almost believed it.

About how, when I was about sixteen years old, he stopped paying so much attention to me, and I realized I was getting too old for him. About how much that hurt, and how much I hated myself for being hurt by it.

But it gave me some distance, to sit back and process everything that had happened. Everything he had done.

But I didn’t. He already knew, and I didn’t feel like talking about it.

“I hate him,” was all I said.

Nobody didn’t say anything. He took off his hat and set it in his lap, watching me with unblinking, molten eyes.

“He didn’t just kill my mother, he killed my memory of her. He took everything I loved away from me, everything that was supposed to be mine. And the funny thing is – the funny thing is, I don’t want to hate anyone.” I had to laugh, the whole thing was so ridiculous. “I never even squished a spider, before this whole thing started. Never killed a living thing in all my time on this rock, and I never wanted to. But, I just.” I shrugged. “I need him dead. I just need him dead, so I can move on. Otherwise I’ll always be thinking about him, wondering if he’s hurting anyone else. Does that make any sense?”

“It makes perfect sense,” said Nobody, and I felt relief wash over me.

It was stupid, how much I wanted him to understand. He was an otherworldly being from the desert, and here I was, drinking his approval like water in a drought. Maybe because he was the first one who’d ever known.

I realized the room had darkened, and I looked to the window. The sky was pregnant, distended with swollen gray clouds. The first raindrops clung in fat, quivering beads to the dusty glass.

“The amphiptere,” I remembered. Whenever an amphiptere was nearby, rain was sure to follow. “I thought I might have dreamed it.”

“You didn’t,” said Nobody. “And even if you did, dreams inform life as much as life informs dreams. They’re realer than you’ll ever know.”

“Well, okay then,” I said.

A silence followed, but not an uncomfortable one. I knew I should fear Nobody, but he felt so familiar to me. He felt like a presence, who’d been there since before I was born, but whom I was only noticing now. Sort of like a fairy godmother, or a guardian angel. Or death. But, in a weirdly comforting way.

“He’ll be here soon,” he said, finally. His eyes were lone flashes of color in a gray world, impossible to read.

My throat felt tight and dry as I realized what he meant. I wasn’t sure just how to respond to that, but I knew he didn’t expect me to.

“I’m going to go outside, and I’m going to wait for him,” he went on. “And you’re welcome to come outside and wait with me, or you’re welcome to stay. You’re not obligated to do one or the other.”

I thought about it. Which I really should have done ahead of time. Part of me wanted to look him in the eye, to spit on him. To call him every filthy word I’d ever thought about him. To tell him just how much he’d taken away from me.

But the other—

“No,” I decided, finally. “No, I don’t want to give that bastard one more minute of my life. I just want it to be over. I just want him gone.”

Nobody nodded, slowly. Resolutely. “He will be,” he promised.

His spurs jangled faintly as he got to his feet, putting his hat back on. He whistled, as if to a dog, and for a minute I wondered what the hell he was doing.

Then, claws clicked on the floor behind me. I turned around to see it emerge from the kitchen.

A wolf, or something that looked like one. The biggest I’d ever seen.

Muscles flexed like liquid beneath a coarse, glossy, oil-black coat. Its eerily intelligent eyes were the color of honey. When it strode by, its broad, fluctuating shoulders were the height of a human child, a good four-and-a-half feet.

He and Nobody left together, moving like twin shadows. Feral creatures, who had never known human civilization and never wanted to.

The door swung open before them, and they stepped out into the gray, unforgiving world.

* * *

If you saw him walking down the street, he wouldn’t stand out as evil. He wouldn’t stand out at all.

People didn’t stop and stare at him, the way they do with Nobody. They nodded and tipped their hats and wished him a good day. The only reason the old lady could see the truth was because she had a little bit of magic to her, but I won’t go into that.

He had a plump, pleasant face and soft gray eyes behind little square spectacles. His receding hair was the color of gray rabbit fur, and his skin was the color of bread dough. You might hold the door for him if he was walking behind you, and he would say “thank you.” Or vice versa.

I can’t begin to imagine what it was like for him to come home that day, and find Nobody standing there.

His inkwell-black coat made him look like a walking silhouette, Stetson shading in most of his face. In one hand, he held a coiled-up bullwhip.

Behind him was Creature, crouched low like a wolverine. His fur bristled down his back like needles, lips peeled back to show teeth like polished bone. His flanks seemed to vibrate with a continuous, unnatural growl.

My stepfather stood there a moment, heart fluttering like a cold bivalve in his chest. His heel inched backwards.

“I wouldn’t do that.”

At the grumble of Nobody’s voice, my stepfather froze, like a taxidermied animal.

“If you run now, I’ll shoot you in both knees and whip you till you die. I’ve done it before.”

My stepfather swallowed. His doughy flesh was moist with sweat. “Who – who are you?” He had a weak, almost whistley voice, like a cartoon walrus.

“People call me a lot of things.” Nobody looked up, so my stepfather could see the golden glint of his eyes, like headlights on a foggy day. “I’m partial to Mister Nobody.”

My stepfather’s mouth was a pursed, ugly crack. “You’re. You’re not real,” he managed. “You’re a legend. A myth.” His pulse was fluttering in his neck like a trapped butterfly.

Nobody tilted his head. “That would be comforting, wouldn’t it? For a thing like you.”

My stepfather’s eyes flit between Nobody, the whip, and Creature. “You don’t. You don’t need to do this. You don’t understand.”

Nobody let his whip unfurl.

“I loved them. I loved all of them. I touched them, but that’s all. I never hurt them. I was always gentle.”

Slowly, Nobody raised his whip.

“I can’t help what I am!” my stepfather cried. “And I always waited until they were big enough. Always! I never touched a girl younger than twelve. Never.”

Nobody cracked the whip at his feet, short and vicious. My stepfather made a sound like a kicked dog.

“It’s not fair!” he yelled, losing himself in desperation. “I made a mistake. I made a mistake, that’s all! Don’t I get a chance at redemption? Don’t I get a chance to do better?”

Nobody cracked the whip again, overhand. This time, it struck my stepfather in the shoulder. He staggered backwards with a bloody cry, tripping over his own feet and toppling onto his back.

“You had a chance every day you were alive,” said Nobody. “You’re fresh out.”

My stepfather crawled backwards on his elbows. “Please. Please, just one more chance, I beg of you. I give free candy to children, I’m kind to my friends. I gave those girls everything! I’m not just bad, I’m not! And I’ll do better, I promise you I will!”

Nobody stared down at him, eyes miniature crescent moons.

“Fine.”

My stepfather stared up at him, still gripping his injured shoulder. The rain was beginning to fall more harshly now, wetting the dry earth and plastering his clothes to his body. “What?”

“You have your chance,” said Nobody. “Run.”

My stepfather just lay there for a good minute, still as a startled rabbit.

“I said –” Nobody raised his whip again “– run.”

His survival instincts belatedly kicked into gear. My stepfather rolled onto his hands and knees and scrambled to his feet, but he didn’t move quick enough to escape the crack of the whip. It came down hard on his back. He screamed, but it seemed to motivate him to run faster.

Nobody watched his clumsy, uneven gait as he ran in the opposite direction, away from town, and towards the dampened, brown dunes of the endless desert.

“That seems like a fair start, don’t you?” he remarked, addressing Creature.

Creature, who had stopped growling, panted in agreement, ears curious triangles.

Nobody looked down at him, and gave him a nod. That was all the signal Creature needed.

He bounded forward like a bat out of hell, claws digging up explosions of wet earth behind him, and snarling like a demon set loose for a feast.

* * *

They all think they’ve escaped. That’s what I’ve come to realize. My stepfather. Everyone like him.

It’s easy to recognize evil when it comes from an outside source. But when you’re doing evil things, you feel like you’re exempt from them. Because your reasons for doing them make perfect sense, to you. And if you commit to it, you can justify almost anything to yourself.

So they think what they do won’t catch up to them. They forget it’s already there, always there, as impossible to escape as your own shadow.

My stepfather, the man in the desert. He thought he’d escaped, as he reached the top of the petrified tree stump. I didn’t think the pudgy bastard had it in him, but self-preservation is one hell of a drug.

His muscles screamed like dying men. His body was exerting itself beyond capacity, but relief surged through him in time with his pounding heart.

He reached up and felt the surface of the top, worn smooth by an eternity of sun and wind and sand. He mouthed his gratitude to a God he’d never believed in, already swollen with pride. The first man to face Nobody and survive. It almost made him forget why he faced Nobody in the first place.

That’s when he heard it. The growl. An unnatural, guttural avalanche, right in front of him.

Creature.

His relief, his pride, turned to ice water inside of him, even before he could bring himself to look up.

There they were, waiting for him. Creature, a black shape with eyes like honey-colored headlights and bared teeth like sharpened bone. Nobody was a silhouette, no color to him at all except the glinting, golden scythes of his eyes.

My stepfather grimaced up at him like a rabbit in a snare, like a horse about to be put down, face beaded with rain and sweat.

“Mercy,” he whispered.

Mercy, like he’d never shown my sister.

Mercy, like he’d never shown me.

“Pray for some.” Nobody cocked his gun. “Where you’re going, you’ll need it.”

* * *

While all this was happening, I sat on the sofa and waited.

I probably should have felt something. I probably should have done something. Cried, maybe. Prayed, even if I wasn’t much of a believer. But none of this felt real. It felt like the kind of dream you have where you know it’s a dream, because it’s so absurd and it just can’t be happening. So, I didn’t really feel much of anything.

A floorboard creaked. When I looked up, Nobody was standing there, hat and coat still glistening with rain.

“I didn’t hear you come in,” I said numbly, stating the obvious.

Nobody walked up to the sofa, expression impossible to read. He took off his hat, honey-colored hair the only thing about him that was dry. Up close, I could see that the water rose off his shoulders in steam.

I wet my lips. “It’s over, isn’t it.” It wasn’t a question.

Nobody answered anyway. “It is.”

I thought about this. Tried to feel something. I should feel something, shouldn’t I?

Instead, I scooted down the sofa. Wordlessly, Nobody sat down next to me, probably soaking the cushion.

“He hurt me,” I said, finally. “He hurt me since I was twelve years old.”

Nobody didn’t say anything. He already knew.

“And before that, he hurt my sister. He’s always been hurting someone, I think. I think it’s just built in.” I wrapped my arms around myself, trying to rub away the goosebumps. “He used to say – he used to say, if I left, he’d find someone else. Someone younger. He only said it when he was drunk, but he meant it, I knew he meant it.”

Nobody’s golden eyes stayed set on the rain-splattered window. “I know.”

“He could, too,” I babbled on. “He could find some widow with little girls, make her feel sorry for him, make her feel like she could fix him. She’d send her babies right into his jaws, smiling. Just like—” I couldn’t quite bring myself to finish.

“I know.” His voice was so gentle. “I know.”

I wasn’t crying, but tears pricked the corners of my eyes like pins.

As slowly and tentatively as I’d approached the flame that first night in the desert, I leaned against his shoulder. I just needed to feel something alive and solid, so badly. When he didn’t move away, I looped my arm under his, hugging it. He had an unnatural heat to him, the same warmth of the golden fire.

“You’re the first friend I’ve ever had,” I murmured.

I don’t know why I felt the need to say that. I was by no means prone to such unmitigated mush, especially with a creature I’d known less than a day and a half. But emotions were running high. And anyway, it wasn’t like I could hide anything from Nobody.

Nobody was silent for a time. “That’s sad,” he stated, finally.

In spite of myself, I laughed. A wet, snuffly sound through my runny nose. “I mean, aside from the old lady,” I conceded. “And there are plenty of people I’m, you know, friendly with. But no one’s ever known my secrets before. And they’ve sure as hell never done anything about them.”

We didn’t talk much after that. We didn’t need to. We just sat there together in my stepfather’s big, decaying house, while the rain washed the world clean.

* * *

That night, my sleep wasn’t dreamless. In my mind, the golden dunes swelled and crested and rolled like an ocean. They carried me gently on their surface, a willing passenger, beneath a wine-purple sky and a full moon fattened with honey. The wind was golden with Nobody’s harmonica music, flowing through my hair like cool liquid.

I woke up, aching and restless, and soaked in the mango light of a new morning. My hair had come loose from my braid in the night, glossy black tentacles itchy around my shoulders and neck.

Memories from the day before trickled back to me, and I stretched, as if that would make room for them.

They were real. They were real, and it was really over. The bastard was gone.

What the hell was I going to do now?

Panic grabbed something in my chest and gave it a good, hard squeeze.

I sat bolt upright, and looked around the empty room. Nobody. Had he left already?

I rolled to my feet like a newborn foal, half-hopping as I realized one had fallen asleep. “Pleaseno, pleaseno, pleaseno,” I muttered, as I reached the lone, square window and practically smushed my face against the glass.

Relief soaked me when I spotted the walking silhouette of Nobody. He was sauntering towards the old lady’s house, his black cat perched on his shoulders and his hat in his hands.

I drew in a long, deep sigh. I hadn’t missed my chance.

I grabbed my satchel from beside the couch and ran for the stairs.

* * *

I crept up to the old lady’s house, the thick black book pressed to my chest. I don’t know what good I thought stealth would do for me, or what I was even being stealthy for. From what I’d learned about Nobody, he probably knew what I was doing right now.

Still, I stayed as quiet as possible as I knelt down by the front door, framed with ivy. As I set the book carefully down on the gray square of her front stoop.

On its cover was a note that read, Thank you.

For being my friend when I had none. For seeing what he was doing to me. For helping me do something about it.

I’d been too bashful to write the rest. I hoped she’d know what I meant.

* * *

Nobody left town just the same way he entered it. On the back of his honey-eyed stallion, its muscles like liquid beneath its oil-black coat. Together, they moved like a shadow brought to life, with the wild grace of an ancient creature.

People slowed in the streets, craned their necks, crowded to windows to whisper and watch him go.

It would be a while, I guess, till anyone figured out what happened. Till they pieced together who had gone missing. Till anyone strayed far enough from town to find my stepfather’s sun-cooked corpse, or whatever the wyverns left of it. Till they figured out what he’d done to deserve such a fate.

I guess it doesn’t matter, really. It gave them all a message: it doesn’t matter if you seem like the nicest guy in the world. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got everyone and their dog fooled.

What you do in the dark won’t stay there forever. Someday, it’ll come back for you.

That was maybe the only difference, between when he got to town and when he left it. That, and when he reached the edge of town, someone was waiting for him.

A young girl, somewhere between deerlike and gawky, in a long, billowing white dress and a straw hat the size of a wagon wheel.

That girl was me. God. Was that really me? It feels like lifetimes ago, but it’s as clear as yesterday. Like looking into a deep lake and seeing straight down to the bottom.

I could feel the eyes of the entire town as Nobody rode up to me. I didn’t care. I was only looking at him as Creature came to a stop in front of me.

“Was wondering where you went off to,” he remarked. “Thought I might not get to say goodbye.”

Creature chuffed, laughing at the obvious lie.

I tilted my head. “Who said anything about goodbye?”

Nobody raised an eyebrow, though I’m almost positive he knew damn well what I meant.

“You know what I was saying last night?” I offered, by way of explanation. “About revenge?”

“I don’t recall you saying anything about revenge,” said Nobody.

“Well. I was thinking it then.”

“Ah.”

“People say it’s an ugly thing, revenge. That it’s just vindictive, you know, petty. Well, I don’t think that’s always true,” I said, thinking aloud. “Sometimes, it’s the only way to get shit done. Make sure the bastard doesn’t hurt anyone else.”

“For obvious reasons, I’m inclined to agree with you,” said Nobody.

“They also say, revenge leaves you hollow. I don’t think that’s true, either,” I went on, “so much as it can leave you untethered. Sometimes, it’s the only thing keeping you grounded somewhere. And without it, you’re just – floating. Just floating, like a balloon in the wind.”

“Poetic.”

“Thank you.”

Nobody turned his gaze towards the town, the collection of boxes where I’d grown up. I had some idea, now, of how small it must look to him. Did he know how small it was starting to look to me?

“I’m not taking you with me,” he stated.

My face fell and my heart squeezed, a painful tweak in my chest.

He looked back to me. In the shade of his hat, his eyes were like molten, miniature sunrises, spilling from between his baby-pronghorn lashes.

“But,” he added, “I can’t stop you from following me.”

It took a minute for that statement to sink in. When it did, warmth filled my insides like honey.

“Will, um. Can I still come back here, if I want to?” I still felt like I should ask, even as a smile split my face. “Like, if I miss the old lady?”

“You can go anywhere you want,” said Nobody. “If you find someplace you like better than here, you can stay there, too. You’re not floating, missy. You’re just free.”

Those words echoed through my head like my skull was hollow.

I was free. I’m free.

I opened my mouth to say something, but he was speaking again.

“I’ve gotta warn you,” he said, “out there, where I’m from. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before. You’ll see things you couldn’t possibly imagine.”

I looked over my shoulder, out over the rolling swells of golden sand, and then back to him. I was grinning so wide my cheeks hurt.

“Good.”

The corner of Nobody’s mouth twitched. For a split second, it looked like a smile. “Guess we’d better get going then.”

His oil-black stallion swung his head, and the two of them were riding out of town together. I followed on my snow-colored mare, my whole life stuffed into my satchel.

In the town where I grew up, things sometimes came out of the desert. But I became the first person I know to leave with one of them.

Brooksie C. Fontaine was accepted into college at fifteen, and into her MFA program at nineteen. She has worked as a construction worker, dog walker, private tutor, poster designer, and nude studio model. She is currently working as a freelance writer and illustrator, and can most often be found drinking at her local coffee shops.

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5 Responses to Gunpowder Sigil

  1. abykittiwakewrites says:

    This is flipping fantastic. Will it be an entire novel? And
    when?

  2. Valeria Moreno says:

    I love this, touched me a bit on a few traumas lol, but I love this story so much. Not just because of the main story, but also how there’s little side stories going on around the main one.
    I also love the girl and how she was allowed to show anger towards what happened to her, and later was tried of hating it, because it does get tiring.

  3. Deja Monee says:

    This is the best thing I’ve ever read. Honestly you have to tell me if you write an actual book so I can buy two copies, because one is just not enough. This is seriously amazing.

  4. Evan says:

    Goodness, I would love to read an entire book of this, about her ad where she’s going. The descriptions were so rich and satisfying, and the world you painted was so fascinating.

  5. Sofia Pham says:

    This was so interesting and I couldn’t stop reading. I’m really looking forward to her anthology, and if the other stories are even a fraction as gripping and gorgeous as this one, then I’ll probably be buying 20 copies lol.

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