(While writing this I learned that vultures don’t have the same auditory functions as other birds, so they hiss instead of squawk. Somewhat interesting. They also do something pretty gross with their legs… I went over this a couple times to edit and find typos, but I’m sure there are more lurking. Other than that, enjoy!)
Brian came to. Spots blinked in and out of sight in the dusty air. He coughed and rolled and felt immediate pain stab his shoulder and arm. The jagged rocks tore against his skin. He gave a harsh scream and heard his voice echo through the canyon. Above him, the cloudless sky hung like a river. Its blue band narrowed where he attempted his foolish jump. God, he thought, so stupid. I take it back. Just send me back. God didn’t.
He grit his teeth and slid his arm out from under his body. “Nothing broken,” he said to the rocks and sand. He carefully touched his head and found a growing lump. The skin there was wet. He checked his hands expecting to see blood, but the pads of his fingers were only damp with sweat. He paused, laying on the dry ground, afraid to move his legs. You have to move them, he thought. It’s going to hurt, but you have to move them. So he did. His nerve endings burst into flames, and Brian sent a sustained scream down the narrow canyon.
His left leg hurt, but Brian could tell it wasn’t broken. Instead, it felt as though it had been given a terrible Charley Horse. It was his right ankle that made his body tingle with pain. Brian lifted himself up on his elbows, ignoring the sharp rocks, and looked. His foot was twisted around in an unnatural way, and a balloon of swelling was finding its place.
“Broken,” he said. “That has to be broken. Well that’s fuckin’ great.” He laid down again with care, and his eyes immediately found the narrow gap he tried to jump. He shook his head. So stupid, he thought. “Why didn’t I go around!?” he screamed. The canyon echoed his question back to him. His heart was pounding. His mind began to race. Alone, he thought. No friends. No phone. No water or food. How far did I walk? Eight miles? Nine? He sat up and looked at his ankle again, hoping there was some sort of mistake. There wasn’t. Fuck, he thought. Fuck, fuck, fuck.
Several minutes went by with Brian simply laying still, looking to the sky, waiting for some magic to send him back in time. He touched the swelling on his head again to check for blood. His head felt as though it were about to split open but only sweat showed on the pads of his fingers. Replaying the tragic leap in his mind, he kept seeing the stupid grin on his face, the stupidity of the stunt, and the strange eagerness he approached it with. And for what? To skip a few miles of getting around? To avoid a longer walk? He had hidden in the desert to try and dodge the police, so why the hurry to get back? And right as he jumped, his foot slipped…
He looked down the narrow canyon. White granite formed narrow twists and corners, but Brian could see that it opened further down. The floor was fairly flat and layered with sand. “Work my way down, I guess,” he said. “I won’t be climbing anything like this.” He looked at his ankle and felt sick. The swelling had advanced to the size of a softball. “Jesus,” he whispered to himself. As he sat there, staring, he wondered about the cyclist he hit. He wondered if that woman’s ankle was broken too. If so, it didn’t matter. “She’s dead now,” he said quietly. “And here I am, getting what I deserve.” In his mind’s eye he saw her flying over the guard rail through his rear view mirror. He saw her falling as he blew through the intersection, got on the freeway, and made his getaway for the desert. As he drove, he could see the scream come from her mouth. The vision played itself over and over until he found himself parked in the middle of nowhere. Then, he simply ran to the hills with fear, not knowing what to do next. The whole thing felt as if it had happened weeks ago.
He tried crawling, but it was slow and painful. Instead, he used small handholds in the canyon wall to pull himself up. The Charley Horse in his thigh felt like a knot of wood, and his leg shook from his weight. He leaned against the rocks and made a small hop. His foot kicked up dirt and made a small cloud of dust. He carefully lifted his broken ankle, advanced it, and set it on the ground. He held his breath in anticipation, and the sting quickly came. He repeated the process and hopped again. And so it went, down the canyon.
It was everything he could do to avoid the pain. Each placement of his ankle was slow and careful. The buildup of fear before setting it down was intense. Eventually, the agony leveled out, and Brian was able to pay more attention to moving along. Progress was slow, and anytime he started getting too cocky he would stumble, hit his foot, and fall to the ground. The canyon would echo with the sound of his cries, and the process would start again. Soon, his elbows were bleeding and bruised.
After an hour, the steepness of the canyon walls began to pull away. The bed of the small wash got wider. The rock became less prominent and brush and soil began to intrude. Brian found fewer and fewer places to lean on while he hopped. He looked up and down the canyon for anything that could serve as a makeshift crutch. There was nothing. Sooner than he liked, he was hopping with his arms stretched out with nothing to balance upon.
Despite the shade, the heat of July pounded its way into the canyon and lined Brian with thick sweat. He was thankful to not be in the sun, but there was no breeze. Dark stains turned his brown t-shirt black. Drops of precious liquid fell from his forehead and rolled down his legs. “Don’t think about,” he said to himself. “Focus on your movement. There’s nothing we can do about it now. We’re in for the long haul, body. Better enjoy the water already you have.”
The canyon twisted around a bend and dropped down over a small waterfall. Brian looked down the dry, dead rock for nearly twenty minutes before surrendering to the obvious. He slid on his butt to the edge, and the sharp edges ripped his shorts and tore at his skin. He wedged himself carefully into the carved stone and worked his way down. All in all, it went surprising well. His absolute fear of pain did wonders for his focus. When he got to the bottom safely, he was almost disappointed that he had to start hopping again.
The pace he was forced to take was grinding and slow. The canyon grew wider still and the riverbed became thick with sand. As Brian moved along, he couldn’t help but do the math in his head. How far, he thought, a half mile? Maybe more. And it’s taken three hours? One final bend released Brian into the open desert. Brian hopped quickly, reaching the opening just in time to see the setting sun fall behind the hills of the horizon. The sun seemed to wink at him in a dreadful way. The shadows of the mountains climbed the hills and soon only the tops of the distant mountains saw the light. Then, that too, was gone.
Brian focused on his hopping. From time to time, he looked for a tall bush or possibly a dead Joshua tree to try and build a makeshift crutch, but there was still nothing. As the light faded and the darkness took hold, Brian forced himself to sit and rest. His good leg was overworked and burning with agony. He had many stumbles and several close calls, many of which resulted in accidental pressure falling on his ankle. Each misstep jolted his concentration back to life, but Brian knew the finality of the situation.
He wasn’t making it to his car tonight.
He found a small Joshua tree and decided to make a bed. The tree looked as though it had been dead for quite some time. He took the time to dig out the sand and give it a shape to match his thin body. While he worked, the moonless sky turned black and filled with stars. A fallen limb served as his pillow. An incredible ache filled his body. The taxes for the day were now due. Brian could feel his skin was sunburnt, and the heat, even with the sun now gone, still surrounded him. His eyes itched and he rubbed at them slowly, trying to rub the moisture back into them. His stomach grumbled, and his mouth was dry.
A disturbing silence crept into the valley.
Brian wondered if this was what it felt like to be abandoned, to be rejected from life and light and God. He wondered if this was how the woman on the bicycle felt falling from that cliff. He could still see her in his rear view mirror, spilling over her handlebars as the bike flipped forward over the guard rail. He didn’t hit her directly, rather, clipped her from the side. I tried to turn, he thought. I never even saw her, but when I did I tried to turn. The sun was right in my eyes. I never even saw her. The stars hung above him in countless numbers, unmoved and uncaring. All around him spun the nothingness of a cold universe. Normally, he found the night sky to be a thing of stunning beauty. Tonight, he could barely stomach the sight. Despite the fear gripping his heart, exhaustion closed his eyes and he fell into a shallow sleep.
His eyes snapped open. The last images of some horrible dream, of him falling, fled down the narrow corridor of his subconscious and slammed the door on memory. His heart was pounding. In the distance, somewhere in the dark night, he could hear the laughing calls of coyotes. Then, nearby, he heard a sound of something shuffling in the thick sage brush. His eyes darted from side to side. He stayed perfectly still. I don’t have a weapon, he thought. He squeezed his fists with fearful frustration. He heard the shuffling again. What the fuck kind of things even live in the desert?
The sounds drew nearer. Shadows within the shadows shifted, and Brian could make out movement in the bushes. He sat up and accidentally shifted his ankle. Brian screamed in anger and fear. “Get the fuck out of here!” His voice was a piercing sound in the silence that forced the world back. Even the light from the stars became more distant. Brian listened, trying to hear through the pounding pulse in his ears. He heard nothing. The shadows within the shadows became dangerously still.
He groped in the darkness, fearful of what his hands may touch, and found some loose rocks. They felt useless and small in his hand. For a moment, he understood the ancestry of man, the helplessness of being prey to an unknown predator, the horror of being forgotten by the gods that made him. Then he screamed again, louder than before, and attacked the darkness. He heard the sound of sand breaking traction under a pressing foot. The sage brush shifted violently around him as the creature scurried away. The scampering sound faded, then, all was silent. He was alone once again.
Brian rested his head on the dead wood and stared at the sky. The enormity of space hung above him. His mind jumped back to the woman flying from the side of the road. He saw how the front rim of her bicycle bent into the guard rail. Her knee hit and flung her flung body into a ragdoll spin. He could see the purity of fear in her eyes as she fell. She was certain she was going to die. He never stopped his car to see if she did.
Agony twisted his face, but he could not weep. His mouth was dry and sticky as he whimpered in the dark. “I wanna take it back,” he groaned. “I take it all back. I didn’t mean to hit her. I shouldn’t have ran.” Images of his family flashed through his head. Their smiling faces and loving embraces tore at his heart. “I don’t want to lose them!” he shouted to the stars. “I want to take it back!”
The distant stars above didn’t let him. Instead, he watched his life shatter in slow motion.
He would get to his car and hurry home, trying to beat the police, but they would be there already. Somehow, either from an intersection camera or eyewitness, they’d gotten his license plate and home address. He sees the faces of his family as he drags his broken ankle in through the front door. The living room goes silent as everyone stops and turns. Some fat pig leans forward and whispers into his wife’s ear. She scowls. The cops have already told them what a heartless murderer he is, and his family believes them. He shouts, begs them to wait and hear him out. It was an accident, Brian says. Catherine, please. Don’t listen to them. His wife and daughter go into the kitchen without a sob or a sorrow while the police haul him away. He’s thrown into a cell forever, abandoned and forgotten.
With that starry night hanging above him, he served his imaginary sentence over and over. Arguments that never happened were fought and lost. He stood defenseless before a judge that never existed. The emptiness around him drilled a hollow core into his heart while he suffered under his own convictions. Finally, after several hours of self-torment, his eyes closed and sleep found him once again. The stars retreated back behind their blue curtain, and the light of the morning sun shone down.
That was when the vulture found him.
The dead Joshua tree gave the scarcest bit of shade. Its trunk formed a perfect shadow over Brian’s eyes and left him to slumber a little longer. But the desert heat of mid-July brought no respite, and before Brian awoke he was sweating again.
His mind swam when he opened his eyes, and his head was heavy with pain. The world was a searing light before him, and the horrors of the previous night already seemed far away. When his vision cleared, he looked at his ankle. The swelling pushed at his shoe, and the skin was a mix of dark purple and disturbing yellow. Brian groaned when he thought of the distance that was waiting for him. He wondered if he could make it to his car. The thought of spending another night in the desert was defeating.
He rolled to his stomach and forced his body up. It was difficult, and he took his time. His good leg trembled violently when he stood. The soreness in those muscles ran deep. His breath was already becoming rapid, and sweat was soaking into his clothes again. He lifted his head to see the vulture perched on the branch a few feet in front of him. He fell to the ground with a scream.
“What the fuck!?” he shouted. He pushed himself away in a panic until his broken ankle dug into the sand. Pain stopped the motion immediately. The vulture regarded him with a strange calmness. The tip of its black beak glistened with brilliance in the sun. Black feathers clung to its neck like a boa. Wrinkled pink skin hung loosely from its head, a head that poked up from its large, black body. “I thought you damned things were extinct,” Brian said. The vulture gave a strange grunt in response.
“I don’t know what you’re doing here,” he said. “Vultures only eat dead things, and I ain’t dead.” The vulture stared in silence. The two remained that way for several minutes before Brian decided to get up again. The vulture appraised his movement. As Brian stood, he clutched a few stones in his hand. When he found his balance, he aimed and threw the stones. The first few missed but the fourth gave a light thud on the vulture’s chest. The bird unfolded and flapped its colossal wings. Only then did Brian realize its actual size. The wingspan stretched across at least eight feet. Its claws clamped fully around the limb of the dead tree. A nervous fear came over Brian when the vulture didn’t fly away.
“Well you can just fuck off, bird. I’m not dying in this desert. I’m going home.” The vulture watched with patient eyes that said it had heard this story before. Brian turned in the direction of his car and began his hopping. After an hour, Brian looked back at the dead Joshua tree. He could barely make out its shape by squinting, but he could see it. The vulture sat patiently upon it.
The day was hot, brutally hot. Brian’s vision blurred in and out. His movement was slow and off balance as feelings of dizziness came and went. His muscles cramped, his heart felt rapid and light, and bouts of confusion set in. Strange ideas of searching for water crept into his mind. Sensations of certainty overtook him, convincing him that if he’d only deviated a slight way he’d surely find a fresh spring coming from the ground. Then he’d snag his ankle and come to. It’s the lack of sleep, he thought. You’re exhausted. You’ve got nothing to eat or drink and no sleep and this damned heat. You’re not thinking straight. Just get back to the car. He continued forward.
Around noon, he fell. Not a stumble or a trip, but an actual fall. It wasn’t the impact that was bad, but the stumble that led up to it. His toe snagged on an entrenched rock in the sand. He quickly hopped again to try and recover, but he wasn’t fast enough. Automatically, he planted his full weight on his bad foot and heard a mild crunch. As he fell to the ground, he let out a primal scream. Dust filled his lungs and sent him into a coughing fit. His coughing puffed small grains of sand into the air in front of him.
He was hot. Brian noticed his body was beginning to sweat less and less. For the smallest moment he thought to stop. Just rest here. Wait until nightfall, then go. You’ll lose too much fluid traveling by day. He shook the idea off. There was a panic brewing deep within him now, an ever-growing fear. He must get back, he had to get back. Brian picked up his failing body and hopped on. His second fall came less than an hour later. He managed to save his ankle on the way down, but his good knee landed on the corner of a rock. It was several minutes before he was up and moving again.
And so it went.
Occasionally, Brian looked back for the vulture. In the deepest corners of his mind, he expected it to be there, a lurking monster walking on its claws, always half a step out of reach, its horrid beak snapping open and closed, eager to dig into his flesh. But nothing was there. Just the sage brush and stones and sand and sweltering air. It wasn’t until he fell to the ground again and rested that he looked to the air.
Above him, in that perfect blue sky, free from clouds and rain, circled a small black line. It rotated slowly, patiently, effortlessly. Brian watched the vulture fly as if the bird were on a sort of sight-seeing vacation. “And, ladies and gentlemen, if you’ll look on your right,” Brian said to himself, “you’ll see breakfast lunch and dinner below you. His name is Brian, he hails from Corona, California, and is a foolish man who thinks that jumping is the same as flying.” His voice was cracked and dry. “Fuck you, bird!” Brian shouted. He squinted into the sky and watched, but the bird just hung there, slowly rotating.
Late that afternoon, Brian found the final ridge. It was the same ridge he had climbed in a fearful hurry the day before. He eyed it with a mix of joy and contempt. “My Olympus,” he said. He continued on, and the vulture watched patiently from overhead.
The flat sand slowly turned to hard soil and rock as the ground sloped upward. Brian took to side stepping up the hill and carefully dragging his broken ankle up. He felt hopeless and weak. Each step felt as though it took an hour. Each amount of distance traveled felt paltry. He pressed on as best he could. He cried dry tears of dust as his delirious mind tormented him. Feelings of certainty would come and go. His wife had left him. His daughter was dead. His leg would have to be amputated. He was doomed to serve a life sentence. The sun fell from the sky at an alarming rate and soon he found himself dragging his weary body through the darkness. His body failing, he collapsed face down and quickly fell asleep.
His dreams were horrible mixtures of nightmare and reality. His family screamed at him for committing murder. He drowned in flash floods made from heat and sand. His ankle would swell and pop and trickle out a thick, black rot. All the while, always in the background, the vulture waited and watched with its keen eyes. Its black beak would nip at his flesh with ravenous delight. Brian thrashed his hands to try and fight it away, but the bird was a shadow, endless and unstoppable, spreading across the horizon. He awoke in the darkness, his body snapping up in the night. For a moment, he forgot where he was, unable to tell if he were still in a dream. The lingering pains in his body were quick to remind him. His ankle flared in torment. And then he felt the small bite.
Brian whirled his head and saw the vulture, gigantic in the night, swallowing down flesh. He kicked wildly, screaming in both fear and pain. The bird hopped nonchalantly away from him and gave a low hiss. “What the fuck, bird!? Fuck off!” Brian scrambled, throwing what loose pebbles he found at the creature. The vulture was not amused. It lurched forward with its great, black beak and bit at his swollen ankle.
Brian screamed a shrill mix of horror and pain. He flailed his arms in a frantic search for more rocks to throw. He pulled at the brush and cactus and made a cloud of dust around them. The vulture fluttered its mighty wings and held Brian in its gaze. Then, with a frightful suddenness, it nipped at his ankle again.
“Stop!” he shouted. “Fucking stop! I’m not dead! You can’t eat me!” The vulture grunted and hopped away from Brian’s thrashing feet. He hoped the bird was finding fear, but Brian knew better. Even in that overwhelming darkness of the moonless night, he could see the look in that devil’s eyes. The bird was angry, annoyed, at the meal that was being delayed.
Brian pulled himself along the sloped hill. The vulture watched him closely. It turned its head from side to side as if to ask the question, Where are you going? Where will you hide? Brian’s breath was rapid and shallow. In the back of his mind, he wondered if it was possible for his heart to explode. His body ached and cramped as he dug his hands into the ground, tearing his palms on the rocks. The vulture followed patiently, hopping, hopping.
“Don’t fuckin’ mock me, bird,” Brian said between gasps of air. The vulture hissed its laughter at him. Finally, Brian found a sizable rock in his hand. He gripped it with triumph and rolled it in his fingers. The vulture eyed him calmly, still turning its head from side to side, still asking its silent question. Brian chucked the rock and struck the vulture well in the body. The bird fanned its wings and took flight. Brian watched the form disappear into the darkness. “Fuck you, bird,” he said. “I ain’t dead yet.”
The stars swirled above him. His body trembled with weakness, and his stomach cramped with dry heaves. The blood being pumped through his veins sent quick and shallow pulses of pain to his head. This can’t be happening, he thought. What the hell was that one movie where the guy got his hand caught in the rock? He was alive for days. He tried to control his breathing and slow his heart, but his body felt as though it were a rolling coaster and his mind was along for the ride. In an attempt to calm himself, he closed his eyes, but the world spun violently in the black. He opened them again to the blurry stars. He rubbed his dirty hands at his face to try and force away his mortal hangover.
He began to weep shallow sobs. The dry soil broke free in his hands as he pulled his broken body forward. He was near the top of the hill now. If I can just get over, he thought. I can make it to the car. I’ll be home free. I can make it to the car. The hilltop seemed to move away from him as he clawed with his dirty hands. Dirt wedged under his fingernails. Rocks scraped at his stomach and knees. Pain seared up the length of his body from his dragging foot.
The vulture landed beside him and hissed.
“No,” Brian squeaked. “Please go away.” He lifted his head from the dirt and looked at the giant bird. The wings were spread open and hung like black curtains. The white under-plumage looked like a skull to Brian’s delirious eyes. Its eyes were blood-red and full of hate. The condor shuttered its wings and hissed again. Brian looked at the bird’s legs and saw they were covered in feces. “Ugh,” he said. “You shit your legs?”
The bird hopped forward and snapped at his finger. Brian shrieked and swatted back, but it quickly hopped back. It hissed again. “I’m not dead yet,” Brian said as he pulled his body forward. “You can’t eat me ’til I’m dead. Those are the rules.” He threw a fistful of dirt and dust clouded the air. The bird wafted its wings. “I’m not gonna fuckin’ die out here,” he said. His voice was dry and strained.
The vulture lowered its head and gave a long and steady hiss. Brian felt his mind begin to crack. The vulture’s form grew bigger and bigger on the hillside. Its wings stretched over him and the soil, they spanned across the length of the low ridge and covered the horizon, they blocked out the stars. The vulture wrapped its wings around the desert, making the sky like black cloth, and consumed the world. Brian screamed a weak and feeble sound.
“I didn’t mean to do it,” he whimpered. “I want to take it back.” His body convulsed as another sob shuddered through him. “Forgive me, Lord! Spare me from your wrath.”
The bird nipped at his hand. The bite tore a piece of flesh from the palm of Brian’s hand.
“I’m not a bad man!” he said. “I do good things. I take care of my family.” The bird was the world now. There was nothing left but the wrinkled skin and black feathers of death around him. “You have to forgive me,” he said, pulling himself forward. “It was an accident! I shouldn’t have run. I should have helped that woman.” The bird bit at him again. “It was an accident!” A rock broke loose in his hand. For a moment, Brian thought it was the end. The earth below him, the last stretch of soil that remained, was giving way to the pits of hell. He would fall through its thin layer into a chasm of fire and eternity. He would fall and burn and smash onto the pointed rocks of brimstone that awaited him below. The night sky would fly up and up and out of sight. The cold stars, the distant eyes of an uncaring God, would only watch in silence.
But the soil below him stayed firm, and the world snapped back into reality. Brian saw the bird return to its natural form. It was closer now, almost within reach, and darting its head back and forth in attempted bites. Brian gave his best effort and tossed the rock. The bird was struck in the knee and took to the air.
Fear poured into his blood, and he scrambled. He dug at the soil and ignored the pain. With the help of a tall sage brush, he used the last of his strength to pull himself onto his good leg. He hobbled quickly, placing small amounts of weight onto his ankle. With each step, the fear dulled the pain away. The top of the hill came to him, and as he made his ascent, a fear took to him. What if this was the wrong hill? What if, through all of his bouts of confusion, he was nowhere near his car? What if he was further from salvation than ever before? He pushed on through the doubt, through a patch of cactus that resembled a small graveyard, and crested the low mountain.
He only saw the darkness of the still desert.
Brian teetered on collapse. The energy that so earnestly infused into him began to fade. He stumbled forward and groaned a low surrender. Then he saw the slightest twinkle, a low and distant star. It was the smallest bit of light reflecting from his windshield. Brian shambled forward.
I’m coming, I’m coming, he thought. Catherine, I’m coming. I’m going to make it. Damn the angels and damn the stars. I’ll make it on my own. I’ll take on hell without them. He descended the hill and into a small forest of Joshua trees. The strange figures took on lives of their own in the dark. They stirred to life as keepers of the doorways to all the hells. They watched him travel with empty eyes. They pointed their bent and twisted limbs at him as he passed. As Brian went on, now oblivious to the pain in his broken ankle, they all seemed to ask the same question. Where is it you’re running? There is no escape. There is only delay.
The slope of the hill flattened as Brian cleared the forest of the dead. He stomped along like a zombie to his car. He reached out with his hands, and his world became a dream. He knew he would never reach it. No matter how quickly he walked, how close he came, the car would only move further. He would chase it across the valley floor and into the distant canyons. He would scale rock cliffs and mountain peaks buried in snow. He would follow it passed glacial lakes and down to a frozen shore. He’d walk until his feet found the bottom of the deepest ocean, lost in that cold black—
His hands collapsed into the driver window and Brian fell to the ground in a dreaming heap. As he fell, his body hooked and broke off the side mirror. He lay there in the dark, his broken body caked in dust, shaking and laughing and crying.
The vulture landed heavily on top of the car. It turned its head from left to right, right to left, asking its eternal question, and then stared right at him.
“I’m not dying,” Brian said, looking up from the ground. “You can’t have my soul.”
The bird gave a low hiss and dug its claws into the window frame. Again, it spread its wings, and Brian was horrified. The black and white span was almost the length of his car. The vulture lowered its head down as if to make an important gesture. I’ve come for you, it seemed to say. I know what you’ve done, and I’ve come to take you away.
“You can’t have me,” Brian shrieked. “It wasn’t my fault! I won’t die today.” He shook his head violently and the world around him swam. “I said I take it back. It was an accident.” The blurry figure before him shuttered and shifted its weight. Brian could hear claws scratching against the metal. He crawled forward and reached for the door handle and pulled. The door was locked. He pulled frantically, again and again, but the door did not open. The bird twisted its head and looked down at him. Where are you going?
Brian groped at his pockets but only pulled out pebbles and soil. His hands kept going back and back again, like starving miners searching for the slightest trace of gold. They’re here somewhere, he thought. It can’t end like this. They were right here. Then he began laughing to himself hysterically. “Oh, you idiot, Brian,” he said. His voice was high and shaky. “You don’t even need your keys. Just shatter the window.”
The bird watched patiently as Brian stumbled in the moonless night in search of his primitive tool. He teetered and swayed in every direction. He nearly fell twice but landed his body on nearby boulders. After several minutes of blindly scavenging, Brian returned. The bird eyed his approach and maintained its perch. It hissed when it saw the rock in Brian’s hand. “Fuck you, bird.” Brian smiled. “I told you I ain’t dying today.” Brian brought the rock down on the glass and it bounced away. He looked at the window, confused. A small chip, barely noticeable, was all that remained. The bird turned its head from side to side and gave a subtle hop.
“I said stop mocking me,” said Brian. He brought the rock down, swinging his body forward, and again it bounced back. It rebounded with so much force that the rock struck him in the face. The bird hopped and hissed and fanned its monstrous wings. Brian screamed and threw the rock with all his might. The window exploded inward.
Brian laughed and fell forward onto the car door. The bird nipped at his head, taking a small bite from his scalp, but Brian didn’t notice. Glass tore into his hands as he reached blindly inside and unlocked the door. As it opened, the vulture lashed out again and gave Brian’s cheek a small tear. “Fucking stop I said!” Brian shouted. The bird hissed.
He collapsed into the driver seat. Blood oozed from the wound like a red sap, sticky from dehydration, and slowly rolled down his face. His entire body was shaking, but being inside the vehicle brought him relief. He smiled and pulled his legs into the car. The vulture hopped from the roof onto the hood and looked in through the windshield. It turned its head again. Where is it you’re going?
Realization found him then. He looked the devil in the eye, those beady red eyes, and understood all that happened. The tear in his pants pockets was his punishment from God. His only means of escape had been lost to the desert. He had been abandoned. He stared at the empty ignition in disbelief. It’s just a dream, some horrible dream. My keys are in my pockets. They’ve always been. They’re there. Look again. With every investigation, Brian littered his car with rocks and sand. “I knew this would be my punishment,” he said. He rolled the sand in his hands and watched it fall from his fingers.
He leaned forward and rested on the steering wheel and soon fell asleep. The vulture watched him from the hood of his car. Brian’s breath became slow and shallow. The darkness faded and when the sun rose Brian fell from the open door to the ground in a lifeless heap. The vulture hissed with narrow eyes and hopped in a small circle around him. After a few bites, the vulture had its feast.
The police would discover the vehicle nearly two weeks later. The keys were never found.