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Coyote Grin

The engine roared as Jonas downshifted into a curve on a south-bound stretch of Highway 89. The chains hanging from his empty truck bed rattled as tires bounced over the weather-beaten stretch of asphalt. A low sun washed the horizon in a deep orange and long shadows from a few tenacious scrub trees striped the road. Jonas scraped at his burgeoning five-o-clock shadow as he settled into the lonely stretch toward Cameron. The job was quick money, a hook-and-drop load at a small plant a couple of hours south. If he pushed it, he could turn it over and be back in his sagging mattress in Page before midnight. He pressed the accelerator down, spurring his rig to its top speed. That curve in his rearview mirror now was the last for a long time and the police never bothered with this desolate place.

A sterile drive like this usually meant progress on one of his detective audiobooks, but tonight the mood escaped him. The story of a retired FBI agent chasing a serial killer through crowded Chicago neighborhoods conflicted with the scenery beyond his windows. Jonas flicked the satellite radio on instead. He tried some country first, then a talk show where the host and guests rambled on about the sexual escapades of their younger selves. It should have been interesting, but the stories evolved in tired ways. Jonas frowned as he killed the radio. He sat in silence for a few miles, before grabbing his CB mic and putting out his call sign. He waited for a reply, then he tried again, and a third time, but only empty static answered. He set the radio to scan through channels, but they were as barren as the desert around him. It was looking like this would be a real lonely stretch.

He drifted into the drone of his truck as the orange sky faded to black. Headlights and running lamps clicked on. He hadn’t seen another vehicle in thirty minutes, so he switched to his high beams. They cast hazy funnels of yellow glow deep into the dusty night. He forgot where he was until his Qualcomm system alerted him to an approaching turn.

He eased on his brakes and swung his rig left onto a small road. Tires rolled over a thick layer of gravel and a squat cinderblock office appeared in his headlights.  Towering piles of rock and construction materials loomed in the dark behind the office. Jonas reversed the bed under the lift that held his load of pipe and killed the engine.

He stepped down from the driver’s seat. Gravel crunched underfoot as he shook out his legs and twisted his torso to loosen his back. A deep chill bit through his thick work flannel. Goosebumps prickled his back. A deathly quiet accompanied the cold. Only the gentle patter of the truck’s cooling engine dared disturb it.

Jonas shivered as he set to prepping his bed. The drive took longer than he thought. He was already fifteen minutes behind and hurrying through the tedium of untangling straps when a sharp sound cut through the quiet. It raised the hair on his neck. At first, it was groaning—like a rope under tension—but it rose to animalistic yowl. He dropped the tie-downs. His palm hovered by the .357 at his hip.

It yowled again. This time more desperate, like a varmint in distress. Fucking coyote, Jonas thought as he gathered up the tie downs and went back to straightening them out.

The noise grew louder. Now it had a hungry edge. Heavy breaths intermixed with the cries and a terrible stench drifted over in the breeze—blood and rot mixed with sweat. It hung in the air so thick that his throat caught, and his stomach heaved. Two empty trailers beside the little office began to shake. One rocked so hard Jonas thought it might tip. He drew his pistol and did a mental tally of animals strong enough to shake a heavy trailer like that. A bear came to mind, but in twenty years he had not seen one in these parts. Maybe that explained it, he thought. Any bear out here would be pissed off and hungry.

Feet shuffled behind the trailer. Not the footfall of an animal. He dropped the idea of a bear and instead his mind filled with the image of a strung-out meth-head looking for scrap to steal. Jonas drew in a depth breath. “Hey! Hey! Cut that out. This is private property,” he shouted in his most commanding voice.

The trailers stopped shaking. The unnerving cries stopped too. Feet shuffled faster, toward him.  Jonas cocked the hammer back on his pistol. “I have a gun and I’ll fucking shoot if you come closer.”

The footfall died. For a moment, the quiet of the night settled in.

“No,” a voice from behind the trailer said. It was English, the word, but not spoken by a human voice. “No, no, no, no!” The voice droned on like a yowling cat. “No, no, no, no—”

Jonas’s legs shook. He widened his stance and raised his aim. A tall, dark figure stepped around the side of one of the trailers. It had an odd silhouette. Its legs curved strangely and it had eyes neither completely human nor completely animal. They shined back at Jonas in the soft orange glow from the running lights of his flatbed.

The figure smiled, but there was no emotion behind it. It was an animal’s smile—much too wide. The creature laughed a hellish sound. Jonas dropped his aim and sprinted back to his truck. He leaped into the cab and slammed down the plunger on the door lock behind him. He blinked and those horrid eyes appeared right outside his driver’s door window.  Two black hands smacked the window and shook the truck. Jonas screamed as he jammed his key into the ignition and turned the engine over. The old beast was still warm. It roared to life instantly. He stomped the accelerator. Gravel flew from his tires as he sped away. He watched the figure in his mirrors. It froze like a statue and smiled. He watched it fade into the blackness, and when he could not see it anymore, he put his eyes on the road ahead.

“A meth-head,” Jonas muttered to himself. “Just a meth-head.” He reasoned the junkie had covered himself in roadkill and engine grease. Maybe he was deformed too, or just so malnourished that his legs were bowed and looked weird in the dark.  “A fucking junkie,” Jonas repeated to himself as he turned north on Highway 89.

He white-knuckled the steering wheel while tremors rolled through his body. The loose chains and tie-down hanging from his truck bed began to bounce and spark as they struck asphalt. They would be ruined if he did not stop. He should stop. He didn’t. Instead, the engine whined and groaned as Jonas forced it through gears and commanded the old beast to its top speed.

Ahead, a rabbit dashed through his beams. Jonas’s foot hovered over the brake pedal, but he pushed the accelerator instead. He winced, expecting a gentle thump as his tires extinguished the creature. It never came. He opened his eyes. They came into focus, and instead of a road, he saw the creature hunched on the hood of the truck. Its black pupils fixed on him through the windshield, and it let out a terrible laugh. Damp warmth spread down Jonas’s legs. He slammed on the breaks. Tires shrieked and the empty trailer bed flailed wildly behind the truck as Jonas cranked the wheel to throw the creature off.  The truck bed jack-knifed and locked his rig in a sideways skid. Jonas turned back into the skid to prevent the truck from rolling. The truck careened off the asphalt onto the desert floor. He bounced and shook violently as the truck rolled over rocks and ground to a stop on a boulder caught in the undercarriage. The engine rattled and hissed. His headlights flickered. Then he lost all power—even the Qualcomm system went dead. The night flooded in through the windows.  Jonas yanked his phone out of his pocket and started to dial his field office, but the battery flashed low and it died too. He threw the phone to the floor and screamed while he slammed his fists onto the steering wheel hard enough to rock the cab.

His grandpa had told him not to drive these roads at night. He said that he killed something out here once and that others like it would want revenge. Jonas never had before tonight. This job came up. It was quick and easy, and those memories felt so old he wasn’t sure they were even real.  His grandpa told him lots of things that didn’t make sense back then. His mind was gone long before his body. Jonas visited him nearly every day in those last weeks while his grandpa succumbed to dementia and became a breathing husk.

Tears flowed down Jonas’s cheeks while he rested his forehead on the steering wheel. He drew in a deep breath. Cold rushed in as he opened the truck door. Fluids rushed from the engine and flowed into the desiccated earth beneath. He rolled out his shoulder then he drew his pistol and aimed into the night. That dark figure smiled its wide coyote-grin at him. He cocked the hammer and centered the sight on the middle of the dark mass. Jonas squeezed the trigger. A shot rang out as the pistol rocked in his hands—but it either passed straight through the creature or missed it entirely. The creature didn’t even flinch. He cocked the hammer again and fired once more. The bullet thwacked the creature’s chest, but it only smiled wider.

Jonas turned and sprinted into the darkness. The creature kept pace, lingering just over his shoulder. He pushed harder—tripping over rocks and barreling through bushes. He pumped his legs as fast as his lungs could bear. Then, suddenly, he stepped down but found nothing underfoot. His momentum carried him over the edge of a ravine. He tumbled in a blur of sky and earth until he hit flat bottom on his back. Jonas stared up at the stars, choking for air while he accepted that the creature would arrive to finish him at any moment.

It never showed.

Jonas climbed to his feet when his breath returned. His eyes darted around the darkness, but nothing was there. He limped down the wash until he spotted a deep alcove in the rock. He crawled in on sore arms and bruised knees and pressed his back to stone. His eyes locked on the night and scanned the swirling patterns of darkness. Nothing ever came for him, save for the brutal cold. He shivered until morning tinged the sky pink.

Cold racked his body as he emerged from his nook, but his cracked lips and withered tongue made his body crave something more than warmth—water. He desperately needed it. He surveyed the creek bed stretching to his left and right, but the powder-like dust covering everything answered his inquiry. This wash hadn’t seen water in months, years even.

Jonas shambled along the sandy bed, hugging his arms in tight against his body until he found a place where the walls became shallow enough to walk out.  He faced the sun, east toward the highway, and stumbled through the desert not knowing how long he would have to walk before he found his truck. The sun glowed thin above the horizon. In these late autumn days, it offered no real warmth. Like the dry creek bed, it only teased of something that existed before. He knew the basic rules of survival—three minutes without oxygen, three hours in extreme cold, three days without water, three weeks without food. Still, it surprised Jonas when he noticed his body succumbing to the cold.

When he first left the wash, convulsive shivers rocked his body and they persisted well into his walk, but they had left him somewhere along the way. In their absence, a lethargy took his mind and a stiffness consumed his limbs. He shuffled through the dirt, tripping over pebbles, while he wrestled with thoughts of laying down and taking his chances.

An old man came into view a few paces ahead. His blurred vision snapped into focus, and his heart raced. Jonas’s eyes circled the horizon. It was emptiness in all directions. He couldn’t work out where the man came from, or how long he had been there. He looked back at his footpath and realized he had no sense of how long he had been walking. Maybe the man had been there a long time. Maybe the man had been following him.

He looked frail and had the kind of weather-beaten skin only a person who has spent most of their life in the sun could have, but the man closed between them with three quick strides.  

“To,” said the man. “To,” he said as he gestures west.

A deep crease wrinkled Jonas’s forehead as he tried to make sense of the word and the gesture. Then it clicked. Not to but tó. Water, the man said he had water—or knew where it was. Jonas saw nothing in the distance, but a Hogan would blend with the landscape. They were part of the landscape. He may have walked right by it. The man gestured to Jonas’s arm, which was caked with blood and dirt, and spoke more words Jonas could not understand. It seemed like an offer of help.  Jonas nodded, and the man began walking west.

The man led him west for not more than a mile when he pointed to a hogan nestled at the base of a hill. In his daze, Jonas had walked right by it. He waited for the man to lead on, but the man would go no further. Smoke rose from the roof of the little building. Warmth. The man motioned for Jonas to go ahead. He didn’t wait to be told again.

Jonas knocked at the door. It opened and an old woman greeted him with a lopsided expression. She stepped aside and beckoned him in. The heat of the fire washed over him and he stepped in. The woman gestured to a straw mat on the floor and gave him a big plastic jug filled with water. Jonas ripped the cap off and chugged down half of it down before he remembered politeness.

He lowered the jug and capped it. She offered another of those odd expressions while pulled her hand from her pocket and extended a palm-full of chalk-white dust to him. She leaned in over the powder and Jonas mirrored her. Over her shoulder, he caught a glimpse of a pile of bones near the fire. A stack of fragments lay in a worn metate near them. He recoiled, but she puffed a breath, and the dust wicked into his face. It stung as it trailed down his throat and into his lungs. His heart raced and blackness crept into his vision. It overtook him and he fell. A thundering buzz consumed his hearing, and then his thoughts slipped away from him.

*    *   *

Jonas woke on the floor of the hogan. He stood and surveyed the empty room. Whispers of smoke trailed from a fire burned to flake ash. His legs moved, awkward at first, but then lithe and fast. He stepped out into the desert night and ran across the emptiness. He moved faster than he had ever moved in his life. Wind whipped at his face. Shrubs swayed in his wake. He ran far. His lungs burned. His legs ached. He tried to stop, but he couldn’t.

He thought again for his legs to slow, for his lungs to pull air in, but neither would comply. A new presence controlled his body. It stifled his own commands, and it wanted to run, so he watched in agony as the desert rushed by.

Ahead, a flickering light emanated from a rocky wash bed. Bones arranged in spirals cracked underfoot as he approached. He entered a cave—the source of the light. A small fire glowed in a low corner near the back. Crooked teeth revealed the mouth of a dark figure near the fire. Its face was human, but it opened its jaw like the jowls of a snake. Jonas screamed inside. He tried to turn away, but he was only a passenger now.

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