by Alex Acks

To Mr. T.H., happy birthday.

 

She was just here a moment ago, round chin on his shoulder, her laugh low in his ear, fingers brushing his arm. But Bill blinks, and everything changes in an instant, over the course of ten years. He’s still got blue eyes and curl to his hair, and it’s August, sky swearing-blue and without a cloud, sun howling heat down on the cracked sage-covered soil outside. The endless hum of the AC unit has a rattle in its voice that spells a new suicide threat from the machine. But she’s not there, even though she should be.

He’s at the sideboard in a silent house, rumpled Brillo pad in one hand, dripping glass pitcher in the other, sleeves of his plaid shirt rolled up to the elbows and decorated with water anyway. Splashing’s inevitable, that’s what Micci always says. And then flicks water in his damn face and laughs.

When he glances down, seeing something pale from the corner of his eye, there’s a skull at his elbow. It’s the size of a pomegranate, bone-white, smooth and shining, painted with vivid patterns in red, orange, intense purples and poison greens. The skull grins at him, and gold shows between its teeth.

He slides the gold out with two wet fingers that blur the lines of color and melt away one of the skull’s canines, and he feels a pang of guilt for having destroyed something beautiful, like seeing the tattered orange wings of a butterfly poking out from under the pointed toe of his cowboy boot. Like when she looks at him with those soft brown eyes after burying her nose in his collar, and he knows that she knows, but she won’t out and say it.

Micci’s wedding ring sits in his palm, heavy and cold, and he no longer feels bad about the skull’s gap-toothed grin. That ring’s been parked on her finger for ten years, since the dusty day they pulled over at a neon-lit chapel and said what the hell, why not, let’s get married by Elvis. She said she couldn’t even take the damn thing off without just cutting off her finger, like her flesh grew around and made it part of her hand. “Micci?” he calls.

The house is silent except the water running, running down the sink. Bill closes the ring in his fist and runs through the halls like the faucet streaming along behind him. “Micci? Micci? The hell’s going on?” He checks under the bed and in the closets, like he’s looking for a five-year-old kid and not his grown woman of a wife, and then bursts out the front door still calling, calling.

The air is heavy with sulfur, gray and choked out with tiny stink-claws that drag the back of Bill’s throat. The front porch. The goddamn porch of his goddamn house is on fire and stinking like the devil as it burns. “Micci? Micci?” He hacks out his wife’s name a time or two, ineffective and too damn soft anyway, before his vision clears.

Orange flames lick the sun-grayed boards like they’ve just been touched by a brand fresh from the fire. Hoof prints, the size of his spread hands—and he has decent-sized hands, big enough to span the strings on his guitar or an octave plus three on a piano with no trouble. Cloven hoof prints.

There are songs everyone knows, in the dry, flat plains that fools only call ranch land because it’s populated by cattle too damn mean and cunning to die. Bill learned them when he moved here with Micci, because those are the songs the leathery ranch hands want to hear when they’re three cervezas in and the social order says it’s okay to tear up. They go on with a twang and a mournful wail:

my love, she got taken by la Vaca Muerta

off into the sky on the Devil’s tour

and ai yi yi yi

she’ll smile, she’ll sing no more

With the signs of Vaca Muerta still smoldering in the wood, there’s no point in calling the sheriff’s department. Run off, they’d say, shake their heads, spit from under the brims of their Smokey the Bear hats. Skull made of baked sugar is just sugar and nothing more, nice of her to leave the ring, cash it in at a pawn shop. And those ever-smoldering, sulfur-stinking circles? Goddamn kids. There’s always a rational explanation for when the truth is too scary to look in the eye.

Bill’s never been a particularly stubborn man, but he’s the dusty plains in human form. Not much to look at on the surface, but there’s hidden beauty and an endless expanse full to the bursting if you just know where to look. Micaela, she always knew where to look, how to look. Now it’s his turn to figure that out.

Bill grabs his hat and his guitar case. The first goes on his head, the second on the bench seat of his pickup truck. No gun for him. His image is pure cowboy, but he’s never shot anything with more kick than a capgun and real bullets make him nervous, the idea that death can just roll around in the palm of his hand before getting spat out a tube.

He watches the smoke still rising from his porch in the rearview mirror, winding gray into the sky until it’s lost in the clouds of dun dust torn from the pitted road by his truck’s tires. Doesn’t rightly know where he’s going at first, but it plucks at him like a chord, Oh the devil in hell they say he was chained, as he turns from dusty road to shimmering blacktop, highway 90 to 277 through Laredo and onto 83, away down south along the Rio Grande. Scorpions and tarantulas gambol by the roadside, skitter across the asphalt, make eight legged tumbleweeds that race his tires along the road pitching down, down, down.

Bill doesn’t stop driving until the diesel gauge creeps down to E and tries to drop past it, and his truck’s rumbling takes on that unsteady, surging cadence that’s as close as a V10 can get to whining like an unhappy dog. The Rio Grande’s canyon and the unassuming bridge across it are just down the two lane road as he pulls in to a dusty service station with a broken sign that declares it’s ope.

“’N’ done run off,” the clerk calls, laughing, as Bill walks in. “Everyone asks about it.” He’s got a stained red and white feed cap pulled low over his eyes, little black and grey curls of hair poking out from under it.

Bill hadn’t planned on asking. The floor crunches with dust underfoot. The drinks cases are cracked and clouded with scratches like they’ve been sand blasted, the shelves packed with seventeen flavors of pork rinds, packs of peanuts in the shell, a prominent space at the front waiting to receive bags of fresh-made tortillas.

“Tortillas done run off too,” the clerk calls. His lower lip’s puffed out with a wedge of chew. The cup by his elbow probably hasn’t seen a drink in decades. “Check back tomorrow and there’ll be more.”

“Just want to pay for pump three.” Shouldn’t have to say anything; he’s the only one at the station. “Though I’ll take a cup for sweet tea, too. For the road.” There are two big cisterns further down the counter, labeled with black marker on yellowed paper. Bill slides his credit card across the countertop. It scrapes like his feet on the floor.

“Tea done run off too.” The clerk slides the card back toward him. His leathery brown skin clings to his finger bones. But his fingernails, they’re clean and perfect and pale, shining almost silver. “And mighty sorry, sir. Card reader don’t work.”

“Run off?” Bill laughs, practice and not humor, already squirming desperately inside.

“Naw, just don’t work.” The clerk smiles at him, showing every tooth in his head, covered with a sheen of brown. “Cash only.” He taps another piece of yellowed paper, held to the counter with cellophane tape gone brown and cracked.

“Don’t have that much cash.” His mouth is suddenly dry. He could really use that tea. “Got an ATM?” The door isn’t that far, he thinks. His keys are in his pocket, he’s got a remote for the door locks. He could be out and into the cab of his truck before the clerk’s over the counter.

“Naw.” The clerk reaches down and pulls out a shotgun, sets it down on the counter, follows it with a friendly smile. “Hope you’re not plannin’ on runnin’ off yourself.”

Bill stares at that black barrel like a ribbon of black water, ready to just leap off the counter and drown him. Despite the heat beating in through the windows, he shivers. “There’s somewhere I’ve got to be.”

“Man’s still got to pay his debts. Got anything good?” The clerk’s eyes read Hell yeah, I’d shoot, like a neon sign.

In desperation, Bill pulls out his wallet again, just in case some cash has mysteriously appeared in there by way of divine providence. The divine hasn’t had time for him since he stopped singing in the church choir and hit the open road, and there’s nothing in his wallet but a single crumpled dollar and Micci’s wedding ring. He shrugs helplessly, trying to think of words, of a song that’ll appeal to the better nature of a man he’s not pretty sure doesn’t have one. For all the clerk’s smiling and drawling, his eyes are hard, calculating, old. The sort Bill’s never liked, because they cry at sentimental songs but never tip their waitress.

“Take either of those.” The clerk nods toward his wallet, and then picks up the cup by his elbow, spits into it. His other hand stays on the shotgun, finger slowly tracing the curve of the trigger like it’s the shoulder blade of a woman. “I got eclectic tastes.”

Bill pinches the dollar between his fingers, but doesn’t pull it out. “Dollar isn’t much.”

“Look, I know you’re Billy Buffalo, and that there’s the first dollar you ever made. You sign it, it’ll be worth a lot more.”

Being recognized isn’t the unusual in this part of Texas, though; he used to tour here often, before he hit it… well, not big, but bigger. “You want a song or two instead?”

“Can’t rub a song between my fingers.”

He should just hand the dollar over; it’s only a dollar. Only a dirty little piece of money. But he remembers the dark-eyed woman that dropped it into his guitar case as he played near a park bench in Laredo. Her lipstick had been red like the idea of blood, brown eyes dancing with mischief under heavy black lashes. So he drops the gold wedding band into his hand and then sets it down on the counter, just a soft click on the cloudy glass.

The clerk pinches the ring between two skeletal fingers and squints at it, like it’s just a thing. “Real gold. Guess you’re not as stingy as I thought.” He holds it up to the light and looks at Bill through it, yellowed eye cold and alien. “Lady this belonged to run off?”

Bill crosses his arms over his chest. He didn’t hate this man for his dirty counters, for his shotgun, his threats. But damn, he hates him now for hammering that sliver of doubt right under his thumbnail where it throbs and aches. “No. Vaca Muerta took her.”

“That so.” So many words in those two syllables, all of them pure mockery. “Then you best hop on the train now, boy.” He points out the dust-streaked windows. “I’ll watch your truck for you til you get back. For free. Might even wash the windows.”

White clouds the street, but it’s not the chuffs of a steam engine, but the froth of white skirts and robes. Six women with their hair braided and curled around red roses bear a long pine box on their shoulders, sixteen men rattling dice that sound like bones march somberly in front, sixteen more men sing in a familiar twang behind.

There’s no way in any fresh hell that Bill’s going to trust this man and his greasy brown teeth. But a truck’s just a thing, far less precious than a ring, than the dollar in his wallet. He slaps the keys down on the counter and walks from the store, eyes fixed on the mourners in white, and stops just long enough to grab his guitar case from the truck. He doesn’t look back as he walks after the parade; there’s been no looking back since he saw the hoof prints of Vaca Muerta, because every time he’s so much as glanced into the rearview mirror there’s just death sitting there, grinning and grinning like he’s reading the joke off a wooden popsicle stick and is waiting for everyone else to just be polite and chuckle.

The mourners give him cold looks over their blindingly white shoulders when he trots up to join the line, until he shuffles his guitar out and abandons the case on the road. Then he plucks a few notes, feels the right notes sing out of his fingernails, and wails along with them as they drift their stately way over the Rio Grande to the roll of the drums.

As their feet cross to the dusty black road from the silver spider web of the Rio Grande bridge, the mourners shiver and writhe, exploding into puffs of feathers. Squawking and shrieking, chickens run out across the heat-vined asphalt and out into the prairie on horny yellow feet. Angrily cooing doves flap away, red eyes snapping fire and wings beating the air with ungainly rage. The pine box crashes to the ground and shatters like glass, leaving behind shining white bones covered with intricate patterns of red and orange, green and blue. Dice, all up snake eyes, sit yellow among the pale knuckle bones.

And behind, the bridge is gone, the river a shimmering ribbon of heat, its water the color of a sunset washed from upstream. Bill sucks in a breath and tastes pecan smoke and sugar not quite burning, then dulce de leche thick against the back of his throat. Like standing in Micci’s oven as she stirs the pots overhead, pouring milk and sugar as she listens to his road stories and smiles.

It’s the grief that seizes his throat, not the heat. He remembers cotton and denim against his hands, Micci’s body firm beneath, the smile directed at him, but it’s fading, centuries lost and baked to a ghost in the sun. He could lean a hip against the counter and burn his tongue on a piece of candy while they both laugh at what an idiot he is sometimes, but he can’t grasp the idea of taking that sugar from her mouth, like it’s gone to foreign territory.

So he walks on, because that doesn’t take imagination.

He’s got blisters on blisters on blisters in his cowboy boots, the boots Micci always laughed at as a stupid affectation. At home, he wears slippers and canvas sneakers, but who heard of a country music man yodeling while he knocks around in classic black and white chucks? His feet squash strangely, a billow of skin detached from flesh and kept from floating away by the constricting boots. Feathers drift on the wind around him, brush past his cheeks like ghostly fingers.

It starts as the growl of an engine, the death rattle of a pickup truck. But it’s too low and organic, gargling with spite. Brown dust billows across the orange sky, turning the setting sun to a red coal waiting for a branding iron. The sun’s been setting in the same damn place for over half a day, just glaring at him with patent disapproval for his stupid footwear. The sound becomes the impact of a thousand hooves and the snarl and yip of unearthly dogs.

Black longhorns stampede in across the sky, glowing red eyes like miniature suns, their hooves throwing clouds of orange sparks that die to gray ash in the breeze, snow straight from hell. Ash gets in his mouth, grits up in his eyes, sucks the moisture out of his tongue and leaves behind only the taste of sulfur and hair. Great brown and gray dogs weave through the herd, drooling out long strings of saliva as they dart back and forth, snarling and barking and sometimes yelping in pain when a hoof lashes out and connects. And behind them are riders like wisps of shadow and smoke, the bare outlines to suggest horses, the curve of a hat brim. There’s nothing but eyes, glowing like jewels, blue and green, amber and brown that looks more like deep, welling blood than anything else.

The prairie cracks like lightning as the first hoof touches down in a shower of sparks. The dry grass shrivels and turns to black curls—like Micci’s hair, really, but this is the worst possible moment to think of that, the red highlights that showed in the sunlight, because all of that hell on earth is headed right for him. Bill clutches his guitar tight and runs best he can, which isn’t much of a run at all. It’s a limping waddle, like he’s got a load of shit in his pants. He might as well, the way the herd’s bearing down on him, heat rolling ahead of it like a wall.

An unearthly sound weaves through the thunder, high and low and high again, the cattle calls of the damned. Yippie yai yoo, yippie yai yee, hey yo hey ho hey yey

He feels the heat of their fiery breath on his neck, burning his skin and charring the collar of his shirt. One horn, hot as a branding iron, draws a line of agony across the back of his shoulder. And if he falls—if he falls he’ll just be red mud soon burned black. In desperation he joins into the cattle calls. It’s not a language he knows, the secret tongue of herdsman and cattle, but there’s a music to it, a rhythm, an endless life and sadness that he can catch with his voice. They sing to let the cattle know they’re close, they’re safe, they’re kin. Yippie yi yo ki yay, yippie yi yo ki yay… His voice cracks as another line burns across his right triceps, but then black bodies like shiny coal flow on around him as he keeps calling, calling.

A hound the size of a horse pads up next to him, claws throwing up gouts of dust every time they touch the ground. It pants with a tongue like raw beef and gives him a lopsided, canine grin around bone-white teeth. A tail like a whip swats him on the shoulder, not to sting, but more like hey, hey brother.

Bill’s breath is running away from him. He was never much of an athlete, never much for running even before he got busy with tours and every little thing in between. Take a chance or be trampled, he’ll take the chance and hope he doesn’t get eaten. Legs churning, he awkwardly wraps one arm around the dog’s neck and scrambles aboard, shoving his guitar back on its embroidered strap. He never learned how to ride a horse, and the dog’s laughing at him like only a dog can do, prancing and squirming between his legs, its black hair like the bristles of a brush.

“You a singer, cowboy?” The voice is thin as a breeze, one of the ghostly riders up next to him. Light, that voice, more woman than man.

“Singer, not a cowboy,” Bill answers. Anyone with plain eyes, let alone glowing green stars, could see he hasn’t ridden a thing in his life.

“You know the one that goes like this? Bum bum bum doo doo doo…?”

Of course he does. He always does. “Bum bum bu doo doo doo‘s my specialty, right up there with da dee dah ai yi yi.”

“Ah yeah, that one,” the ghost breathes out. “Gimme that one instead.”

Voice a bit shaky from the running and the fear and the getting bounced on the back of a giant dog, Bill still manages to turn his guitar, tune it, strum out the chords and sing the one everyone knows, about the lone cowboy at the crossroads, gone to meet the devil when his woman run off. When it’s done he almost loses his seat, from the dog capering so much.

When the song’s done, the ghost’s eye glitter just a bit more, and Bill says, “I’m just here because Vaca Muerta took my wife.”

“Stole her away, huh?” That chime is the sound, he realizes, of insubstantial teeth being sucked.

“One of yours?” he asks. Because this is a whole herd of the dead. Maybe one of them strayed just long enough to pick up a woman who smells like caramel off a porch.

“Don’t reckon so. But Sebastian likes you,” the ghost observes. “She’s my best bitch. Tell ya what. You sing us a few more, til we hit the crossroads, we’ll let her take you in to town. Not much music, out here but what we make calling the cattle.”

“That’s music a-plenty.”

“Sure do appreciate it.” The ghost touches rides insubstantial fingers to a hat that’s not there, and they ride on.

It’s still sunset, always sunset when they hit the crossroads. Bill sings one last note, holding it as they pass over the road like a kid holding his breath in a tunnel. The herd goes straight on, and Sebastian slides between the heaving black wall of living-dead beef and out into the clear prairie.

The dog yelps and keens, and Bill quickly starts playing another one, a square dance because he knows the dog likes the bouncier songs by now even if the seat of his britches sure don’t. Long black legs stretch to cover miles in a stride and eat the horizon down to nothing, taking them to a town that’s a bud burst open on the dry plains. Flowers of every color fill window boxes and beds lined with white and black stones. The adobe houses are painted with stripes in every shade of the rainbow, and the men and women look to be clothed in candy that folds and wrinkles like cloth. They all wave to Sebastian as she skitters by, dodging down streets and weaving around lime trees, knocking the sweet water from fountains with swipes of her tail.

The center of town is a court of pink stone, a dais on one end, a throne of marigolds and copper wire waiting at its top. Folk wrapped in brightly colored boleros and rebozos converse and share rainbow glasses of aguas frescas. But Bill has no eyes for them, only for the enormous black longhorn that takes up the space that should rightfully belong to a building, standing to the right of that throne. Flames crackle from its nostrils and curl around its hooves.

Sebastian simply dumps Bill on the slick stones so abruptly that he slides halfway across the square on the seat of his jeans, which tear. Only a hasty curl saves his guitar, but it’s instinct, the way a mother throws herself on top of her child. And Sebastian, that traitor, gambols at Vaca Muerta’s feet like a puppy and exchanges an affectionate headbutt with the massive animal.

Bill straightens carefully, every inch of him an interconnected bruise. With all the dignity he can muster with his ass flapping in the breeze, he points at the black longhorn and says, “I’ve come for my wife.”

There’s tittering, gasping, some whispered conversations. A woman flips a fan made of bone and translucent pink sugar and hides a red smile behind it. The longhorn snorts flame and paws the ground with one massive hoof, leaving molten streaks in its wake.

But there’s another sound, like wooden wind chimes or rattling bones or maybe water on rocks, and he can’t help but look toward the dais. There’s a woman in the throne, her froth of white skirts embroidered with red and blue thread, her face covered with a wooden mask carved into a skull. Black hair tumbles around her shoulders in boundless curls woven with yellow and orange marigolds, an orange rebozo loops around her shoulders, patterned like a Monarch butterfly’s wings screaming beautiful poison. And he knows, he knows as she rises and walks down to greet him, who this is, because he watched her walk toward him just like that down the aisle with her black curls brushing the brown curve of her neck, just so.

It’s not the sight of his Micci dressed so strangely that stops him, but the way she wears it like a second skin and he can’t understand the how of it. And as she reaches out to take his hand, he feels the coolness of her dead flesh and not the twist and pull of love reunited, that sweet agony he tried to capture in song again and again and could never quite manage because it’s too fleeting. He feels loss, the hanging might have beens in the air, the pensive and distracted smiles faded to ghosts.

“Shit, Micci,” he says. “I done goofed.”

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“Only a little.” There are other words for it, Bill with his ass hanging out of his pants, all of my people wondering why he’s shouting at my cow. But awkward and ridiculous or not, it’s still like watching an old friend get off a dusty train that’s running three hours late.

I push the mask back so I can kiss him on the cheek. I grimace at the stubble; he grimaces at the feeling of cold lips on his skin. But there’s always magic in a kiss. Everyone knows this; it’s why we kiss at weddings, why we kiss the lips of the corpse at a funeral. Love is a kind of magic, and kisses make links in the chain between souls, pin moments of life and death in time for us to remember.

“It’s all right, Bill. I’ll take you home.” I pull on that chain winding over us both and lift us back out of the dusty well at the bottom of the Rio Grande rift valley.

Hot breeze and dust, not warm skin and stubble on my lips. Our house is a yellow dot in the distance, unnatural and bright against the sun-baked tans and browns of the flats, the pale red dust. The dirt track that wants to be a driveway when it grows up, speckled with foreign black river rock, breathes heat through the heels of my shoes.

“We’re home,” Bill says, surprised. “That easy.”

I take his hand for a moment, squeeze. There used to be a spark there, like static on a dry day. It’s still warm with trust, this hand clasp, but it doesn’t make me want to pull him in and drink his lips, wrap my legs around his hips and sing. “We’re never going to go home again,” I say, as gently as I can.

“We could try.”

Try isn’t magic.” I shake my head and start walking, my sandals scuffing against the ground, dust powdering my toes. Light winks off one windshield instead of two in the drive; Bill took the truck to come looking for me. The air has a heaviness to it, a clinging and sour stink that sickens the sweetness that should be coming from all the little yellow flowers dotting the fields.

There’s a dribble of shadow like ink on the drive, legs going in all directions, matted black fur and blood gone dark and sticky in the baking heat. I squat down, breathing in rot and breathing out clean air. What catches in my throat isn’t stink, but futility. Coyote, probably, too wily for a dog that’s had the wolf domesticated out of her in the distant past. And how did the dog come to be on our driveway? Probably abandoned by the side of the road by someone cruel in their utter stupidity. It happens all the time, where we live, and makes the local predator population happy. And despite that betrayal, the dog had tried to make it to our house, had smelled humans and through it meant help. Had died at the end of the drive, unseen but eventually smelled.

I wipe my eyes. I’m still enough of a child that I think unfairness is worth crying over.

The drive stretches out into a path, leading forever back to the horizon. Back to where the dog got pushed out of a car door and ran into the cloud of dust thrown up by the wheels, barking frantically. Back through a spotless and larger house with furniture accented by teeth marks, back to a pet store, to a dank room that smells like old blood and old fear and a whining black bitch giving her puppies hopeless licks in case this time it will be different and they won’t be taken immediately away.

I squat down, skirt blowing around my ankles in the hot breeze. The dog’s eyes are open, ants crawling on them.

“Micci,” Bill says, alarmed. “What are you doing?”

“What I did.” I reach out to pat the still head, fingers skating past the bared, yellow teeth. Shadowy vines like kudzu curl around the dog’s limbs, sink deep in the dead flesh and hold it down to the ground—can Bill see them? He’s always been so good at not seeing things he thinks are dark and ugly. When my hand touches the stiff, sticky fur, I see it all, see a million branches of a simple life that might have been stretching out ahead of me like an ever-growing tree. Something snarls deep inside me, some hot flash of pain—or maybe it’s anger. I snap that tree off, make my anger a machete, and slash into the dirt to cut those vines off at the roots. They crack like thunder, rip and tear, and turn to ash in my hands.

The dog blinks the ants from her eyes. Torn sides move up and down like bellows and I smell meat that’s hot and red and just on the edge of rotting, a breath like a furnace in miniature. Red sparks ignite in the dog’s eyes, a deep fire kindled by touch. Because that’s what you do, when you reach through someone’s heart and into their soul; you put a fire there that’s part you, part them, and then it grows and grows. Bill should know this. On a good day, when he’s channeling whatever ancestral spirits want to talk through him, whatever power that lets his voice haunt when he’s sliding through the joints between notes, he does this to an entire crowd and brings them back to life.

“What the fuck,” Bill breathes, not a question but an exclamation, a prayer.

The dog shakes her head, collar rattling. I reach to unbuckle the stiff leather. The people that gave it to her don’t have a claim any more, don’t have any business holding on to even a corner of this animal’s spirit. The tag on the collar reads Sebastian. “You still want to be Sebastian?” I ask the dog, even as I fling the collar away. Let a coyote use it as a chew toy.

The dog’s head follows the gold glitter of the collar for a moment, some instinct whispering fetch while another suggests stay. The latter wins, and she lets the old life go, turning back to me and giving me a tongue-lolling doggy smile. The ragged tail thumps once.

“You sure? You don’t look like a Sebastian to me.”

Bark. Another tail thump. I don’t speak dog, but I speak to everyone’s heart but my own, and the dog’s telling me: weren’t all bad times, some things are worth remembering.

Maybe a little girl gave her that name, that pretty collar, and used her like a pillow until she went away to school. Maybe an old man whose feet she slept on and slippers she chewed and then he passed off into the west on the backs of sixteen gamblers. There’s a thousand stories, and it’s not my life or my business to demand they be shared. “Sebastian it is, then.”

“You can bring back the dead, but you can’t come home,” Bill says, incredulous.

“You don’t bring back the dead with trying,” I say, rising back to my feet. I scrape off the worst of the ash from my hands, leave gray streaks on my skirt. Sebastian capers in circles around us; she knows Bill, remembers him. Time in the land of the dead flows backwards, sideways, in spirals. She’s always known Bill and never known him. “All you can do is free them and hope they come home, one day a year.”

“She’s sure lively, for a dead dog.”

“Death’s just another life.” Everyone has her own path, and even if we’re running in parallel sometimes, even if we trick ourselves into thinking we’re together and surrounded by loved ones, we still might end up on a lonely highway that goes we know not how long, without another soul in sight and only memory to keep us warm.

“What’s that?” Bill points.

There’s paper clutched in my ash-stained hand now. Sebastian runs off, barking, chasing a bird. Even dead dogs are still dogs. I uncurl my fingers from the crumpled envelope and smooth it out. The return address says Mercy General, the rest torn off. “Mail,” I say shortly.

I don’t resist as he takes the envelope from me and begins to tear the paper, tear the sky, rip the endless blue away to reveal the green and white wallpaper of our kitchen, and tear something in my gut until it’s raw and ragged and hot at the back of my throat.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asks, the paper crinkling in his hand as he reads it. Lab Results, it says. And We regret to inform you. “A text, Micci. An e-mail. Anything. I would have come home.”

I shake my head, cover my face with my hands. They’re sticky too, they smell like blood and rot. Not because of Sebastian, but because I am blood and rot. “There wasn’t anything you could do, Bill. Better for you to stay on the road.” I had sent him texts and emails, asking to talk, saying it was important, but stopping short of the word. Because words have power, and some of them are like grenades. But if I hadn’t wanted to say it, he also hadn’t wanted to hear it. I start looking through the cabinets for a skillet, to fry some tortillas. I want to feel cinnamon and sugar crunch between my teeth.

Bill grabs my wrist, shoves the cabinet door shut. It slams like a car door, that’s right, and it’s so goddamn dark outside. My headlights are cutouts in the night. The truck was gone from the house not because Bill was out, but because I’d taken it to go into town, to the clinic that had experimental in the name. Because you try everything, you see. Everything but looking at the truth straight on.

My mouth tastes of metal salts and my head swims and rolls, my inner ears clucking like chickens. A dark, still form lies in the headlights: the dead dog. I tear my wrist from Bill’s hand and stagger the few steps to fall to my knees in the dirt beside the still form. The fur is wet with fresh blood, it’s so hot against my hands.

I tear a piece out of my heart and shove it into the dog, because I don’t need my heart any more, it’s rotting from the inside. I want to save something. Let the dog have the last pristine piece, the only corner untainted. And this choice tears open something new in me, something that floods over my tongue like caramel and fills my bones with hot knowledge that nothing human can wield. Sebastian rolls to her feet and whines, licking my face. But she’s not a living dog any more, she can never go back just like I can never unread those words or unknow this power. There are flames in her eyes. There’s a rot in my guts that’s death and magic.

Bill stands at my shoulder, but he doesn’t touch me this time. “Which way did it happen?” he asks.

“Both.”

“This isn’t you.” He shakes his head.

“How can you be so sure?” How do you know someone you only see a few days out of the month that start with him smelling like another woman while you pretend not to notice? How do you speak to someone you only know in half-conversations over a shitty cellular connection?

He slides his hands around my waist and holds me tight, sighs against my shoulder. And hums to himself, swaying back and forth.

It puts us back in that kitchen, with the radio on and playing twangy guitar, scratchy with distance from the transmitter, as the air fills with the warm, sweet smell of baking biscuits. “See, we know each other.” This is the day, I remember, he tells me that he’s got a second record deal. We create imaginary children and set them free to play in the yard. It was a good day, a day that I can take from my memories and warm my hands on no matter how cold the night, because how often do you get the chance to be so unabashedly joyous at the fortune of someone else?

I slide back, forcing him to follow, so I can lean a hand on the counter. “When did this stop being your home and become a place you just come to rest when you stop rolling?”

“We agreed that I needed to be on the road.”

It wasn’t fair of me to say that. I lay a cold hand on his too-hot cheek. “We did. Sometimes… sometimes things just happen.” Like continents drifting apart. Like cancer.

“Then that makes it no one’s fault. Not mine, and not yours either. Or do you wish we’d never met?” And he slides his arms around me again, pulls me away from the counter and takes me on a turn around the scuffed linoleum floor. Dancing. We always both loved dancing.

Would that have made a difference? I’d still have the seeds of my own destruction ready to eat me into a hollow shell. He’d still have the wandering feet that let our marriage wither on the vine. But I don’t want to abandon these remembered moments of joy because I’ll never have them again. Every moment we live is one we’ll never have again. “Would you let me do it over again?” Knowing that I’ll leave?

I slide away from him into a greener place, a park in the past.

Bill’s still wearing those same, incredibly stupid cowboy boots, or maybe it’s the first time he’s worn those boots. He sits on a wrought-iron bench painted green against rust. Jeans are faded, shirt’s straight from a rodeo with faux-buttons that are actually snaps, and a battered white Stetson that he bought at a flea market along with everything else for an even $10. Only now, the shirt’s a bit tight across his chest and belly, the belt buckle with its steer horns—silly when you think about it, at that age he was a city slicker who’d never seen a live cow before—tucked under his little gut rather than over it. He’s between songs, guitar laid across his lap.

“I’ve seen cattle now,” he says, almost apologetically. “Other than the one—other than Vaca Muerta. The whole devil’s herd running across the plains.”

“That’s not what you said to me when we first met.” I’m dressed in my old clothes too, leggings and ugly boots and a shapeless gray sweater. Neither of us had a lick of fashion when we met, but when someone’s got eyes that pretty, it doesn’t matter.

“That’s not what you said either.”

We’re not following the script, but it’s because we know the story forward and backwards, even if we’re not those characters any more. He’s on the bench, picking away at a Hank Williams tune. At the time, I don’t know who Hank Williams is, though now I could sing half his songs from memory, and the other half if I just need to hear a few bars first. Bill sings a lot of Hank Williams when he’s not doing his own lyrics. It’s a style that speaks to him.

He twangs out the opening notes of Why Don’t You Love Me.

“That’s unfair,” I whisper, and offer a crooked smile. “You don’t smell like a worn-out shoe.” And wrong besides. That day we’d met, it had been Hey, Good Lookin’. He’s not shy about saying it with a song, even if he’s tongue-tied when you try to talk to him straight on.

“I know.” He laughs. “I’m sorry. Sometimes I still make those dumb jokes where you only laugh to be nice.”

“Hush, Bill. You’re not supposed to know that yet.”

A paper note crinkles in my hands. This is how it goes: I smile at the handsome young wannabe cowboy, with his voice like an angel and those blue eyes with enough soul for three men. He smiles back, shy and crooked as a falling fence. And I hear the magic in his words, his music, see it sparking from his fingertips even if he doesn’t quite realize it’s there, dancing over the guitar strings in shimmers, a rainbow from red to violet, life and death and back around to life.

Bill fingers chords that ask me what my problem is, when his hair’s still curly and his eyes are still blue, instead of what I’m cookin’. I don’t have a good answer for him, not like I did before when I said I was cooking up some sugar if he wanted some. But I know I wouldn’t miss any moment of what we had, even if it always ends with me cutting the throat of the most annoying chicken we own to call down Vaca Muerta while every earthly bond that held me to Bill, to our little house curls up like a dead snake drying in the sun.

I let go of that crumpled dollar bill—the last dollar I have, a tip from a job I just quit because it had stolen my dreams, then sleep, then health—and it whirls down like a samara onto the blue faux-velvet lining his cheap guitar case. The dollar cracks and pops, roots and tendrils running from it, digging through the thin plywood and down into the ground. It bursts upward, curving brown branches and shivering green leaves, so beautiful and alive against the deep blue sky. It’s the most alive thing I’ve ever made. And Bill waters it with sweat and blood from his fingertips, and feeds it with song, and countless people hang on to the branches just to listen.

In the shade of that tree there’s a house, with me looking out the kitchen window, wondering when Bill will come home from his next tour. Feeling something gnaw at the lining of my heart. But also laughing, and knocking over bottles of flavored olive oil when he backs me up to the counter with kissing. This is where it all begins, where it all grows, the good and bad and everything in between.

“You want a lemonade, Micci?” Bill asks.

Rocking chairs on the sunbaked porch, table between them, pitcher of lemonade. How we relax. How we make up to each other after a fight. He holds up the pitcher, jiggles it slightly to set the ice cubes shaking, drops of condensation running down its perfect curves.

I don’t ask if he’s sure. He wouldn’t have offered if he wasn’t sure. Instead I slide into the rocking chair next to his. “Hot day like this? Hell yeah.”

He grins, pours a glass for us both, nudges the second over to me. We drink our lemonade and look out over the scrubby, dry land, out into the endless horizon. The lemonade is sour and perfect.

Bill slides a hand down to take mine, his fingers thick with callouses, and that’s all right too. Warm, strong, solid. “Will I get to see you again?”

“You want to?”

“Think it’d be pretty painful, to just amputate so much of my life. Never really been in to pain. And you still play a mean game of cards, I bet.”

“The meanest.” I hated him, sometimes, for being gone. But what we’ve created together is beautiful, and for that I can forgive anything.

Like he reads my thoughts, which he annoyingly does at times, he says, “And you should forgive yourself.”

I squeeze his hand back. “Always easier to say than do. And you might not be so forgiving in an hour.” I pull a pack of cards out from under my rebozo and tap it on the table.

“Oh, we’ll see about that.” He snatches up the cards, starts dealing out the cards for gin rummy.

I beat him three times in a row. He deals out a fourth game, because Bill’s never cared that much about winning. He’s just in it to play. Halfway to laying down a straight, his hand pauses, cards in a fan between his fingers. “Shit, you’re going to be the next big thing. Bigger than me. Bigger than anyone in the world.”

I laugh. “Never had your taste for fame.”

The sun sinks toward the horizon, going sullen and red. A black shape gambols in the distance: Sebastian. Another moves through the sky, leaving a trail of orange flame.

“That your ride?”

“Yeah.” I finish my lemonade, stand, and pull down my mask. The black speck comes to land and shakes the earth with each step as she trots up to the porch. A trail of fiery, cloven hoof prints shows where she’s stepped. Sebastian runs in cheerful circles around her, deftly avoiding the sweep of her bone horns as she tosses her head.

Bill rises to his feet to gather up the pitcher and the glasses. “Promise me something, Micci.”

The cow next to me stamps her feet, eager to be gone. I stroke her neck, feel the furnace within. “What is it?”

“You’ll come for me yourself. When it’s my turn.” There’s a catch in his voice. It’s a hard thing to think about, for a man still in his prime. But I’d been a woman in my prime too.

I draw a circle around my heart with one finger. “That’s what friends are for.”

“But will I see you before that? Maybe?”

“As long as you care to remember. I’ll bring a pack of cards with me, one day a year.”

“I’ll make the lemonade.” He heads inside to do the washing up.

I leap onto Vaca Muerta’s back like I’m a teenager again. Death has a way of curing your aches and pains, exchanging them for new ones to go with the new life, the new person you become. Sebastian runs at Vaca Muerta’s side as she launches herself into the air. She barks at me, and I hold my hand out for the circle of gold that glimmers on her hot red tongue. “Found it, huh? Good girl. Hope you ate all that man’s shotgun shells.”

Tail whipping, Sebastian lets out a happy doggy belch that stinks of gunpowder.

I glance back over my shoulder. My cow’s hoofprints still smolder on the porch, and I see Bill watching me through the window, crumpled Brillo pad in his hand and his sleeves rolled up to the elbow. I roll the ring around in my fingers, and then turn to flip it back toward the house, like throwing a coin into the wishing well. Memory’s a funny thing. It melts away like sugar and leaves only sweet ghosts to linger.

Then I set my gaze on the horizon, to see the clouds of dust kicked up by the black longhorns that stampede through the sky, and hear the cowboys wailing yippie yi yo yi yey, lonely and beautiful. Sebastian tears off to catch them, tail whipping through the hot, thick air. And Vaca Muerta and I follow, riding into the sun that’s always setting.

____

Copyright 2017 Alex Acks

Alex Acks is a writer, geologist, and dapper AF. They’ve written for Six to Start and been published in Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, Daily Science Fiction, and more. Alex lives in Denver with their two furry little bastards, where they twirl their mustache, watch movies, and bike.