Down the Canyon (Short Story)

(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.

A Woman and Her Cat (Short Story)

(This is a first draft/rough draft that I wrote today. It’s a little over 7300 words. I’ve done a few passes for editing and errors, but it’s likely that there are still more lingering. I’ve also posted this to Wattpad but I’m learning how to use that site so you’re probably better off just reading it here. Enjoy!)

***

“Turkey club,” Bob said.

“Just the sandwich, or do you want a meal?” Her finger hovered over a green button on the register

“I’ll have the meal.”

The finger pressed down. She handed him a cup and smiled. “You’re order fourteen, the chips are on the right. Thank you.”

Bob pressed the cardboard cup to the metal tab. Pepsi sneezed from the spout and sprayed his fingers. “Oh, Pepsi just ran out,” said a skinny teenager in a red apron. “I’m swapping it now if you wanna wait.”

Bob shrugged. “I should just have water anyway. Thanks.”

Bob weaved his way through the small shop. The four tables inside were full, but he had no intention of sitting inside. He stood by the door, waiting for his number to be called. Through the glass, he saw a beautiful woman approach. She wore black heels and a skirt that struggled to cover her knees as she walked. Her white buttoned shirt was tight against her chest, its short sleeves barely extending beyond her shoulders. Her hair was as black as the ravens outside that hopped from crumb to crumb. Small pearls studded her ear lobes. She carried a black leather wallet in a left hand that wore no rings. Bob opened the door.

“Thank you,” she said, looking him in the eye.

“You’re welcome,” Bob said.

She paused briefly, smiled, and then stood in line. Bob stole a glance of her rear and found that it was even better than her front.

A shout came from the register. “Fourteen! Turkey club, fourteen.” Bob went to the front.

“What kind of chips?”

“I don’t care. Uhh,” he pointed, “those stupid baked ones.”

“Here ya go,” said the teenager. “Oh, the Pepsi is in now if you still want some.”

Bob shook his head and turned. He exited directly beside the line, inching his way by, rather than go around the tables. As he passed by the woman, he caught the subtle scent of her perfume. He gently grazed her arm, but she didn’t seem to notice.

The weather was warm, but a breeze stirred the air well enough. Bob picked the table furthest from the street. He enjoyed the food, but it always left him feeling a little sad that the shop was located on a corner. The owner of the shop, Grandma’s Sandwiches, had converted old feeding troughs into flower beds. The petals of purple, red, and blue danced in the wind. A crow watched with impatience as he bit into his sandwich.

The woman exited the door and found the last empty table, which was closest to the street. She sat, pulled a white cloth napkin from her black wallet, and stirred at her salad. Bob did his best to peer around the group of large women that were seated between them. The particularly offensive blocker wore a bright orange t-shirt and cackled like a witch from the 1800’s. He ate slowly and waited for the unpleasant ladies to devour their meals, which they did in shameless fashion.

They left just in time for Bob to see the woman take a long drink from her bottled water. She titled her head back, spilling her hair over her shoulders and showing her white neck. He noticed her fingernails were painted a dark red, like fresh blood. When she brought her head back down and returned his look, he had forgotten that he was staring at her. She gave a smile and fluttered her fingers at him in a playful wave. Bob smiled back, embarrassed. She stood, gathered her things, and walked over to him.

“May I join you?” she asked.

“Of course. Yes, please.” Bob brushed away the crumbs on his t-shirt.

“What’s your name?” she asked.

“Bob.”

“Hello, Bob. I’m Catrina.” She extended her hand. Bob gave it an awkward shake.

“So, Bob, what’s it like being a palindrome?” she asked.

Bob grabbed a chip. “What?”

Catrina smiled and stirred bits of chicken under the leaves of her salad. “Your name, it’s a palindrome. You know, it’s spelled the same way forwards and backwards.”

“Oh,” Bob said. “Oh! Huh. Well how about that? I never realized.”

Catrina smiled and took a bite. She was careful not to smear her lipstick.

“And yours,” Bob said. “I imagine you spell it with a K.”

“With a C, like Cat.”

Bob chuckled. “So do all your friends call you Cat?”

She paused and fixed her dark brown eyes on his. “Only if I ask them to.”

Bob nodded and drummed his fingers on the black metal of the table. “So, what do you do?”

“What do you think I do?” she asked, taking another bite. The fresh lettuce crunched in her mouth and for the first time in months, maybe years, Bob found a salad to be appetizing.

He gave a shrug. “I don’t know. Lawyer maybe? Accounting?”

She smiled. “Paint.”

“Paint?”

“Yes,” she said. “I’m a painter. I paint and I sell paintings.”

“Oh, neat. Anything I would know?” Bob asked.

“No,” she said, giving her head a subtle shake. She swiped her hand at a loose bang. “There are a lot of paintings in the world. The only chance a painter has to truly be recognized is to die. It seems living painters have no place in the art world.” Bob laughed. It was a laugh that started loudly and came to a quick end when Catrina didn’t join in.

“Well you must do pretty well for yourself,” he said.

“I do. What about you? Do you do well for yourself, Bob?”

Bob shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess not. I mean, I’m paying the bills and all that, but I hate my job. I’m sick today, as you can tell.” Bob put his hands to the air and shrugged at his clothes. “The other day I was thinking about buying a lottery ticket just so if I won I could tell that pain in the ass Harken what I really thought of him.” Catrina smiled. “But,” Bob said with a sigh, “Those kind of things only happen in fiction.” He took a chomp from his sandwich. The bite was much smaller than he would normally take.

“Bob, may I see your phone?” she asked.

He gave her a puzzled look. She smiled and only nodded. Still chewing, he fetched his phone from his pocket and set it on the table. She gave delicate taps at the screen with the tips of her fingers and added her number.

“Call me,” she said.

Bob swallowed. “Okay, yeah. I will.”

Catrina laughed. “No. Call me so that I can add your number to mine.”

Bob felt a redness find his cheeks. The redder he felt the larger her smile grew. He thumbed the screen and gave her phone a ring.

“Well, Bob, I need to go.” She whipped her cloth napkin from her lap and sent a waiting crow to the air. “Thank you for lunch, it was a pleasure talking with you.” She rounded the small table and leaned in close. She rubbed the tip of her nose to his and kissed his cheek. The blood so recently in Bob’s face rushed to his groin “Thank you for opening the door for me.”

“My pleasure,” he said. He moved to touch her side but she captured his hand and held it in hers. She kissed a knuckle and smiled again and left him with the crows. Bob watched her and nothing else until she turned the corner and out of sight. The crows cawed at him with anger as he shoved the rest of his sandwich into his mouth.

***

“Dude. Dude!” Bob slapped at his steering wheel.

“Hey man, what’s up?” said the voice on the other end of the phone.

“Dude, you will not believe what just happened to me.”

“What’s going on, did you finally tell Harken to fuck off?” The crunching sound of chips being eaten came through the line.

“No, no,” Bob said, “Nothing like that. I called in sick today.”

“Oh, no kidding? Me too.”

“Why? Are you sick?” Bob asked.

“Hell no. I went in Monday and things went well enough. Then the afternoon rolls around and the floor supervisor calls me over and just start railing on me. ‘Mitch, you gotta do this. Mitch, I expect that.’ Just bla, bla, bla, for like twenty minutes straight.”

“What was he so pissed about?” Bob held the phone away to try and thin out the thundering sound of Doritos being destroyed.

“Hell if I know,” Mitch said. “I didn’t pay attention. The fuckin’ guy went on for almost twenty minutes, right there on the floor. Why’d you call in?”

“Oh, I don’t know. It’s a Tuesday and Harken’s a dick.” Bob said. “Look, listen. God, you’re not even going to believe me.”

“Well spit it out.”

“So I go to the sandwich shop, and there’s this girl there.”

“Why do you to there? That place sucks,” Mitch said.

“Would ya shut up? This girl walks in and she is just smoking hot gorgeous. I mean, seriously. It’s unbelievable how hot she is.” Bob turned the corner, spinning the wheel with one hand.

“Yeah?” The crunching stopped. Few things could bring a premature end to Mitch’s eating of chips; women was one of them.

“So I open the door for her and she says hi and all that. I get my sandwich and go outside to eat it.”

“You’re story is that you opened the door for a hot chick?” Mitch said. “What kind of shit story is this?”

“She comes out,” Bob continued, “and she just ups and sits with me totally out of the blue. All I did was stare at her when she was drinking her water and she comes and sits with me.”

“No way,” Mitch said, drawing the words out. The crunching resumed.

“I’m serious.”

“Uh huh,” Mitch said.

“Then she takes my phone and puts her number on it.”

“Right.”

Bob laughed. “Then she calls her phone with mine so that she has my number.”

Silence.

“Then she gets up, says thank you for lunch, and kisses me.” Bob squeaked his truck to a stop in the apartment complex parking lot. He slapped the steering wheel as fast as he could.

“Dude, you really expect me to believe this?”

Bob laughed while he sprinted up the stairs. “I’m serious.”

“Well it sounds to me,” Mitch said, tossing another chip into his mouth, “like you’ve been smoking a lot of pot instead of just a little. Remember when you said you were going to smoke just a little bit of pot?”

“Dude,” said Bob. “I’m serious.”

“I told you not start up again,” Mitch said. “I told you that were going to quit your job and screw yourself because you’d have to take a piss test for screening. I said you’d just smoke the whole damn bag as soon as you got it. I tried to warn you, man.”

Bob plopped onto his couch and flipped on the TV. He shook his head. “I’m gonna call her.”

“Right, right. You’re going to call your imaginary girlfriend and prove me wrong. Man, you have been smoking. You got any left? It has to be some good shit if it’s got you trippin’ this bad.”

Bob laughed. “I’m not high!”

“How did you even manage to dial the phone? You have yours set up for voice commands or something?”

“I can’t wait for you to see her,” Bob said. “The look on your face is going to be so sweet.”

“Yeah, whatever.” Mitch went into a terrible coughing fit.

“You alright?” Bob asked.

“Yeah,” he said, trying to swallow the cough down. “Fuckin’ chip tried to go down the wrong pipe.”

“Good,” Bob said as he flipped mindlessly through the channels. “That’ll teach you to talk and eat chips at the same time. It’s really loud over the phone.”

“Aww, poor baby. Why don’t you call your invisible girlfriend and talk to her about it?”

Bob shook his head.

“Alright, on a serious topic,” Mitch said. “Fantasy Football, live draft, two weeks, don’t forget.”

“I won’t,” Bob said. “I’ve got my picks all planned out.”

“I’m sure you do, Mr. LAST PLACE!” Mitch filled the phone with crazed laughter and hung up.

Bob laughed and then sighed. He stood and looked out the sliding glass door to take in his wonderful view of the parking lot. Oil stains marked almost every empty spot. The hedges that divided the lots were gashed from foot traffic. On the far side, a man strolled with a leaf blower strapped to his back. He swung the nozzle back and forth, back and forth, as though he’d be sentenced to do it for all of eternity.

He looked back across his apartment with disappointment. His couch was dirty, its gray surface dotted with stains. An unpacked box full of books served as the end table. He looked at his coffee table and wondered why he ever thought it was a good idea to buy one with a glass top. Water-rings layered it like leopard print.

On the other side of the couch was the ugly tile counter that started the kitchen. The cabinets were cheap and old and one had an imbalance to it that it permanently cracked open. The refrigerator kicked on and sent its electric hum into the room.

He went to his bathroom to look in the mirror. The florescent light flickered to life and buzzed a heavy buzz. Bob stirred his brown hair. It hung over his ears and was wavy, but he couldn’t remember the last time he washed it. He rubbed the stubble on his face. A pulse of stupidity shot through him when he saw the stain on his shirt. It was from the sandwich he had for lunch. He shook his head. “Classy, Bob,” he said. “Real classy.” He stripped the shirt off and showered.

***

The afternoon droned into the evening. Bob flipped through the channels without paying attention to what came on the screen. None of it seemed to matter. He surfed the internet without goal or reason. Multiple trips were made from the couch to the fridge that ended in him remembering, yet again, only when the door was opened, that he had nothing to eat. He patted at his belly and figured he could stand to not munch on something for one afternoon. He thumbed his phone again and again, staring at the name Catrina. He remembered the feel of her lips on his skin, the stickiness of her lipstick, the curve of her calf as she walked away. He rubbed at his knuckle where her lips last fell.

And then his phone rang.

For a moment he thought it was only a malfunction. The display did not change, it just stared the same name and numbers at him. Catrina. Realization sat in, then panic. He answered the call just before it was sent to voice mail.

“Hello?”

“Hello, Bob,” she said. “How’s my favorite palindrome?”

Bob laughed. “I’m alright I guess. What’s up?”

“I was wondering if you’d like to get together this evening. I felt so badly for leaving you at lunch the way I did.”

“What do you mean?” asked Bob.

“I left so suddenly. I wanted to explain but I didn’t have time. I hope you’ll forgive me.”

“Uh, yeah. Don’t worry about it.” He brushed at his shirt again and checked it for stains. There were none.

“So then? Can you come by my place in a few hours? I’ll cook you dinner. Do you like spaghetti? It’s nothing fancy, but I make pretty good meatballs and garlic bread. Spaghetti is the excuse I use to make the others.”

“That sounds fuc—” Bob forced a cough. “Uh, amazing. Yes, that sounds amazing.”

“Great. I’ll text you my address. Come by around seven or so.”

“Okay, yeah,” Bob said. “I will.”

“See you soon,” she said, and hung up.

Bob dropped his phone on the couch and shoved his hands in his hair. He stared at the TV while an advertisement for fabric softener played itself out on the screen. He paced the path from his couch to the fridge, shaking his head. He grabbed his phone and made a call.

“Yeah,” said Mitch.

“Dude. I’m going to her place. Tonight.”

“What?”

“Catrina just called me. She wants me to come over. She’s cooking me dinner.”

“What?” Mitch repeated.

“I know, right?” Bob still had one hand in his hair.

“Is this chic, like, psycho?” Mitch paused. “Don’t get me wrong, Bob. You’re my best friend and I love ya and all that, but what the fuck?”

“I don’t know,” Bob said. “I mean, I don’t even get it. Maybe she really likes it when guys open doors for her.”

“Where does she live?”

“I don’t know. She’s going to text me her—” His phone chimed. “Yeah, she just texted me her address.”

“Well look at it!” Mitch said.

Bob pulled the phone down and brought up the address. A map of his home town popped up, and he zoomed out to see the area. “Oh shit,” he said. “She lives uptown.”

“What does this chic do?” asked Mitch.

“She’s an artist I guess, a painter.” Bob scratched at his head.

“So let me get this straight,” said Mitch. “A hot, well off, painter wants you to come by her place, which is probably a fucking mansion, so that she can cook you dinner.”

Bob nodded in silence.

“She’s gonna kill you,” Mitch said. “She’s going to murder you in her kitchen and eat your liver.”

Bob laughed. “What should I do?”

“What?” Mitch squealed. “What do you mean? Go! Take a shower, grab some condoms, and go. Hell, forget the condoms. The crazy bitch probably wants to have your babies. Dude, Bob.”

“Yeah?”

“You’re sure she’s hot? Like, seriously. She’s hot?”

Bob sighed. “I can’t even begin to explain to you how smoking hot this girl is. It blows my mind.”

“Alright,” Mitch said, “if you say so. But I want a picture, you hear me? When you get there you tell your psycho girlfriend that I don’t believe you and I want a picture.”

“Fair enough,” Bob said.

***

Bob glared at his truck. It was a gray, if you could tell through the layer of dust, 1997 Ford Ranger. The headlights looked like they had cataracts, the paint was peeling away above the tire wells, and the passenger window was broken and no longer rolled down. He opened the door, brushed some crumbs from the bench seat, and got in.

He made his way through town, swerving into a Walgreens at the last second to buy some flowers. They were terrible looking things, but he hoped the thought would count. He palmed his phone and made his way out of the grid layout of down-town and into the sweeping, curving lanes of Oak Ridge. “Where the sun always shines,” Bob said, reading the sign. He shook his head.

The homes weren’t mansions, but they were close. Manicured lawns with lush gardens spanned in front of wide two-story houses with three, sometimes four, car garages. Stone arches were suspended over grand entryways. Luxury sedans and sports-cars sat in every driveway. Catrina’s house was no exception. Bob stopped his truck with a squeak and headed up the slate path to her door. When he rang the bell, he half expected an orchestra to start playing.

“Hello, Bob,” Catrina said with a smile. She swung the door wide and held her arm high on its side. She wore a long black dress that hugged her hips and flowed away from her ankles. The cut in front was low and clung to her shoulders with the thinnest of spaghetti straps. A small diamond was nestled at the top of her cleavage, hanging from a thin silver strand.

“Hi,” Bob said.

She smiled. “Come in.” She turned and revealed a bare back.

“Wow,” said Bob as he entered. The entry opened up into a wide living room of vaulted ceilings and thick wooden beams. Dark cherry wood lined the floor. A wide, stone fireplace dominated the southern wall. Two long couches of black leather faced one another before a grand painting of thick blacks and heavy reds. The western wall was almost all glass that looked out into her backyard where a large pool lay undisturbed. Water rippled over a stone fountain and flowed into the shallow end.

“You did this?” Bob asked, standing in front of the painting.

“That’s me,” she said.

“It’s incredible,” he said. “There’s so much texture. I didn’t know you could make paint look so thick.” He stepped closer to examine its surface. The black paint hung like an anchor on the wall. Cracks ripped through its surface like broken down asphalt, revealing the red and purple tones that lurked underneath. Splotches of red were scattered across the black like the blood trail of someone who was violently stabbed.

She smiled. “Thank you. That’s my favorite one, the only one I’ve kept. All of my others have been sold. Well, sold or trying to be sold. Lost souls stuck in some gallery, begging to be claimed, waiting for someone to give them purpose once again.”

Bob looked at her. “Huh?”

She laughed and played with the diamond glittering above her breasts. “Nothing, Bob. Nothing. Would you like some wine?”

“Sure,” he said.

“Would you like to hand me those flowers before you strangle them to death?”

Bob looked at forgotten flowers in his hand. “Oh! Yeah. Here. I got these for you.”

“Thank you, Bob. That’s very sweet. Do you have a particular wine that you enjoy?”

Bob gave her a long look. “No.”

She smiled again and gave the flowers a smell. “Very well. Walk around if you like. Make yourself at home. There are plenty of other paintings throughout the house, pieces that I’ve bought or received as gifts. You may like them.” She disappeared into the kitchen.

Bob wandered through the house. Each room was as amazing as the one before. Paintings hung on nearly every wall. He didn’t recognize a single one, but they all looked equally expensive. He suddenly found himself wishing he had paid closer attention during his one semester of art history. Catrina found him in a guest bedroom staring at another piece. She flicked a switch to illuminate the painting properly.

“What is this?” Bob asked.

She handed him a glass of red wine. “Jesus,” she said.

“Yeah, I know. But what’s this about?”

“This one is titled The Blood of Life.” She swirled the wine in her glass and took a slow sip. “What do you think?”

Bob squinted and shook his head. “It’s horrible. I mean, it’s amazing, the painting itself is so powerful. But, my god. It’s horrible.”

“They tortured him to death,” she said. “It wasn’t a pretty thing. Crucifixes bother me because they’re always depicted in such a modest way. This,” she said, pointing a finger, “is a crucifixion. This is what it looks like to be bound to a cross and left for dead. This is what real suffering looks like.”

Bob stared at the face and found he was uncomfortable doing so. The horror that was captured in the eyes was too well rendered, too real. He took a long drink from his wine. They stood together in silence for several minutes. Catrina sipped at her wine while Bob finished his.

“Are you hungry?” she asked.

“Yeah,” he said, sidestepping away from the painting. “Yeah, let’s eat.”

She led him to the dining room where their meal was waiting for them. They sat at a long oak table that could easily seat twelve. The plates were placed in the middle, across from each other. Catrina pulled the covers to reveal plump meatballs, drenched in sauce, sitting atop a pile of noodles. Small plates of garlic bread completed the scene.

“This is amazing,” Bob said, sitting down. He tucked his cloth napkin into the collar of his gray t-shirt.

Catrina giggled. “Thank you, Bob. I enjoy cooking. It’s one of my hobbies.” As she leaned forward over her plate, Bob couldn’t keep his eyes controlled. Her diamond necklace winked at him relentlessly and her dress hung so low.

“How did you do this?”

She looked up. “Spaghetti?”

“No, this,” he said, pointing to the room around him. “I mean hell, I’m twenty-four and you look younger than me and I don’t have a damn thing to show for myself.”

She smiled, dabbing her napkin to the corner of her mouth. “Well,” she said, “I’m not younger than you, to start with. And truthfully? I got lucky.”

“Lucky?” Bob’s phone vibrated in his pocket.

“Yeah. My father is a lawyer for a very big bank in New York. If there is anyone to know in New York, he knows them. He probably worked for them at some point.” She tore at a piece of bread and took a small bite. “Growing up was easy. My father was gone a lot but he was always very supportive of the arts. I played a lot of music growing up. When I told my parents I liked painting and wanted to do more, they set me up. Classes, personal instruction, materials, all of it at the mention of the word.”

“That must have been nice,” Bob said.

She shrugged. “I missed my father, and I think he really missed me. It bothered him that he had to spend so much time in the city. He tried to compensate as well as he could.” She swirled her wine and took another sip. Bob joined her. “So my father being who he was, it was easy street to high clientele. I loved painting, got good at it, and here we are today.”

Bob shook his head.

Catrina laughed. “What? Why are you shaking your head?”

“I don’t know,” he said. His phone vibrated again. “I’m jealous, I guess.”

She reached over the table and stroked her finger across his hand. “Try a meatball.”

Bob cut one in half and shoved it in his mouth. Catrina watched with an amused smile as he rolled it in his cheeks, chewing and tasting, tasting and chewing. He swallowed it down. “That,” he said, pausing as if catching his breath, “was fucking amazing.”

Catrina smiled and plunged a fork into her own. She held it in front of her face and took a bite from the side. A black cat jumped onto the end of the table.

“Well good evening, Nibbles,” Catrina said. “Nice of you to join us.”

The cat strolled its way to the middle of the table and sat beside Bob’s elbow. Bob gave it a scratch behind the ear and Nibbles turned his head in kind, purring immediately. His hair was long and shimmered in the light.

“Oh, he likes you,” Catrina said. “Do you have a cat?”

“No. No pets allowed in the apartment complex.”

“I got Nibbles when I first moved here,” Catrina said. “Someone to keep me company. This house is so big, so empty sometimes. It’s nice to have someone else inside it, even if it’s just a cat.” Nibbles sniffed around Bob’s plate. “Oh, sorry. I let him eat on the table with me.” She scooped some sauce onto a piece and bread and set aside. Nibbles took to eating.

“He’s beautiful,” Bob said. “His hair, god. He could be a cat model.”

Catrina smiled and laughed. “Yes, Nibbles is quite the feline. A very special cat, indeed.”

The three of them ate together and enjoyed the silence. Any time Bob looked Catrina in the eye she would smile right back until he looked away. He did his best to keep to her eyes, so beautiful and brown, but that damned diamond taunted him. They ate their fill and enjoyed their wine. Catrina poured some of hers for Nibbles who lapped it right up.

“That was, god,” Bob said, stifling a burp. “That was amazing. I’d forgotten how good a meal like that can be.”

“Thank you,” she said. She started to gather up the dishes.

“Oh no, please. Let me, please. I feel like I’m taking advantage of you or something. You’ve done so much.” Bob hurried to his feet and grabbed what he could.

Catrina sat back down and pushed her chair back. She slid skirt up so that she could cross her legs, exposing a bare thigh. “Thank you,” she said. “The kitchen is through there.”

“What do you do with your leftovers?” he asked.

She tugged at the diamond around her neck. “Just pour it back into the pot.”

The kitchen was a cook’s dream. Marble counter tops spanned in every direction with more surface area than Bob thought he had in his living room. Two ovens, a deep sink, a giant stainless-steel refrigerator, and a large island that held the gas range. Above it hung more cooking utensils than Bob knew existed.

Catrina got up and watched him from the doorway as he rinsed the dishes and put them in the washer. Nibbles roamed around him, watching, purring. Bob finished and gave his hands a quick rinse.

“Towel?” he asked.

“Oh, here,” she said, handing him one.

“Thanks.” He sat the towel on the counter and looked at her as she approached. She leaned in. Her brown eyes filled his sight as she rubbed the tip of her nose on his. Dark strands of hair tickled his forehead. Her scent filled his nose. She kissed him full on the mouth, softly, slowly. She licked his tongue and ran her fingers through his hair before pulling away.

Bob caught his breath. “Wow.” His hands fell to her waist and rested there lightly. His phone vibrated again.

She gave him a long gaze. “Bob, is that a vibrator in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?”

Bob smiled and fumbled in his pocket. “It’s my fucking friend. He doesn’t believe I’m here.”

“What?” she asked, taking half a step back.

“It’s dumb, I’m sorry. I’m dumb. After lunch I got so excited that you ate with me and everything that I called him and told him. He thinks I’m making it all up.”

She put a hand to her hip. “Oh really?” she said.

“Yeah, he says you’re my invisible girlfriend.”

“Well, you’ll just have to send him a picture, won’t you?”

Bob sighed and looked down.

“What?” she asked.

“I told him earlier that I would, to prove it to him. I’m sorry. It’s dumb.”

She laughed and gave his chest a light pet. “Oh Bob, it’s not your fault. You’re just a guy and guys are funny. I’m flattered that our lunch together made such an impression. Here,” she said, taking his hand and leading him outside. “Let’s take the picture in front of the pool.”

She went behind the bar and flipped a row of switches for the lights. She reached down and music soon followed. “Would you like another drink?”

“Yeah, that’d be great,” Bob said, looking around. The pool was longer than he first thought. It extended down to a shallow portion that ended next to a large Zen garden and a hot tub. Weeping willows lined the edge of her property. A large oak dominated the middle of the backyard. An old fashioned rope swing with a wooden seat hung from a limb.

“What’s with the swing?” Bob asked.

She shrugged, handing him a glass. “I love it. I don’t know why, it doesn’t make sense to me. But there are days when I’ll come out here and just swing for hours and hours. No music, no drink in my hand, nothing. Just me, the trees, the breeze, and that swing.”

“Hmm. Neat.” Bob sniffed at the glass. “What’s this?”

“Scotch. It’s really expensive so pretend that you like it.” She walked over to the edge of the pool. The curves of her body were accentuated by the water of the pool. “Let’s get this picture nonsense out of the way,” she said.

Bob held his phone and snapped a quick photo. Catrina held out her hands like a model in a game show. He sent the text, and they waited. The reply was almost instant.

“What did he say?” she asked.

“Uhh,” Bob said, rubbing at his head. He laughed. “It’s mostly just a bunch of F-bombs and some degrading things about women.”

She shrugged and took a drink. “Let’s swim,” she said.

“Oh,” Bob said, turning off his phone. “I don’t, I didn’t bring shorts.”

Catrina let her dress fall away from her and smiled. Her body looked as though it were carved from white marble. She slowly turned around for him, never taking her eyes off his. The sparkle of the diamond seemed faded and distant. “Well?” she asked.

Bob kicked off his shoes. She smiled and dove in.

Bob felt a panic like none he had ever experienced. He removed his clothes as quickly as he could yet it seemed a lifetime before he was free from them. He knew now what it must feel like to be a rescuer trying to save someone from the water. He launched into the pool with a dive that almost made him feel proud about himself. He arced under the water and resurfaced in front of her. She smiled and rested her arms on the edge of the pool. Bob lost himself in her eyes.

“Why am I here?” he asked.

“What do you mean” she replied.

“I mean—” He sighed and looked around. “Look at this place. Look at you. What in the hell is someone like me doing here?”

“Bob,” she said, “you’re here because I invited you. You’re here because you accepted my invitation.” She stroked her hand gently down the side of his face. “You’re here because you’re a kind man who took the time to open a door for a lady.”

Bob only looked at her. The diamond sparkled at him again. It hung just above the waterline. “I just, I don’t know.”

She put a hand behind his neck and pulled him close. Their bodies pressed together and she tangled her legs around his. She kissed him slowly, softly. She dragged her nails along his scalp as he wrapped an arm around her waist. Each time Bob tried to pull her closer she would playfully push him away. It was delightful torture.

“Easy, tiger,” she said, feeling him start to grind. “Take your time, we’ve got all night. I want to play.” Bob’s heart was racing, his body throbbing. He took a long breath and smiled. Catrina laughed. She tapped his nose with her finger and they kissed again. The breeze stirred the leaves of the weeping willows. Bob heard a heavy purring and opened his eyes.

“Oh.” he said.

Catrina turned. “Hello, Nibbles, kitty kitty.”

“How did he get out here?” Bob asked.

“There’s a door for him in the garage.” Nibbles looked at Bob with brilliant yellow eyes and licked at the water on Catrina’s shoulder, purring, purring. Catrina ducked under the water and escaped, swimming to the shallow side. “Let’s get in the hot tub,” she said.

Bob nodded. “Okay.” Nibbles licked at his fingers. “Hey kitty,” he said. Nibbles squinted a cat-like smile while Bob rubbed a finger against his head.

As Bob went to leave the pool, he suddenly felt nervous. Catrina slinked into the hot tub and watched him closely. “What’s wrong, Bob? Got something bobbing down there?”

“Uhh, yeah,” he said with a smile. He laughed. “It’s been awhile for me.” He shrugged.

“Ahh,” she said. “That’s why you’re so eager for my beaver.” Bob laughed. “Well come on, cowboy. I showed you mine, you show me yours.”

Bob shrugged and climbed out. His nervousness went away when he thought of the standard effect that pool water had on him. He was glad to be excited. He smiled when Catrina gave him a nod of approval.

“Oh, drinks!” she said, pointing to the bar. Bob brought them along and hopped in next to her. She pushed him back to his side of the Jacuzzi. “I want to see your eyes,” she said. “I want to see you look at me.”

“Fair enough,” he said. “I like looking at you.” He took a drink of the scotch. “Wow, that is good.” Catrina nodded and sipped at her own.

“So what’s your deal then?” Bob asked. “I’m just a nobody with a shitty job, shitty truck, and shitty apartment. How are you single?”

“I’m an artist, Bob.” She waved her hands around in dramatic fashion. “I’m too deep to understand, too difficult to deal with. I simply cannot be kept.” She put her wrist to her forehead and laughed.

Bob smiled and took another drink. It really was amazing scotch. “No, really” he said. “What’s the deal?” Nibbles jumped up onto the side of the hot tub.

Catrina shared a long look between Bob and Nibbles. She twirled the diamond dangling from neck. “I’m different, Bob. That’s all I can say. I’m not a bad person, I don’t do bad things. But there comes a time when I make people feel uncomfortable. You’ll have to decide for yourself. You’ll have to make your own conclusion about me. I can’t do that for you.”

Bob stared at her as she took another drink. She stared right back. Nibbles came around to where Bob sat, licking at his ear and purring. Bob gave him a scratch.

Catrina sighed. “Bob, I have to be honest,” she said, setting her drink down. “I’m tired of talking.” She stood and walked to him and took the drink from his hand. Bob leaned his head back as she slid her body on top of his. Nibbles purred and began to lick. Catrina pushed the cat away. “Not now, Nibbles.”

The first round was over in a flash. Catrina smiled and kissed Bob’s face, never releasing his body from hers, while Bob hung his head and laughed. He did a much better job at the second attempt. The water churned around them as their bodies writhed. Catrina climaxed twice, and Bob felt like a god. Nibbles watched from the bar with sleepy yellow eyes that glowed in the light. They sat and talked between soft kisses and watched the moon and the stars fill the night sky.

“Let’s go in,” Catrina said. “I’ve pruned.”

Bob nodded. “I need some water.”

“Yeah, you’ve got more work to do,” she said. She climbed from the tub and began to dry. She laughed when she saw Bob’s eyes. “Well you didn’t think you were leaving, did you?”

Bob stood naked on the cement and shrugged. “I don’t know. I had no idea what was going to happen tonight. Hell, I didn’t even know you twelve hours ago.”

She tossed him a towel. “You should stay, Bob. I would like it if you stayed.”

Bob shrugged. “Okay. I can stay.” He dried himself and reached for his clothes.

“You don’t need those,” Catrina said. She took his hand and led him into the house. They passed through the kitchen for refreshments on the way to her room.

“What’s that one?” Bob asked, pointing to the wall.

“Blood Ocean,” she said, lighting candles. “A close friend of mine made it.”

“It’s strange,” Bob said. “What’s the thing floating in the distance?”

Catrina looked at the painting and then at Bob. “Whatever you want it to be.” She turned off the lights and pulled back the silk sheet. She crawled onto the bed like a prowling cat. “From behind this time,” she said. Bob took a long drink of water and climbed in after her. The third go around was better than the first two combined. Bob consumed her body with confidence. She dug her nails into his flesh and bit at his shoulders and Bob only gave her more. Nibbles watched with patient eyes from the dresser.

As they slept, Bob fell into a strange dream. A great shadow with yellow eyes stalked him through empty streets. He bumped his way through allies and empty stores. Everything around him was shrouded in darkness, and he could not find his way. The yellow eyes closed in on him, drawing nearer and nearer. Bob could only scream silence. His body was swallowed by the shadow. The yellow eyes came down upon him, growling deep and fierce. Its fangs glistened in the black night.

Bob sat up with a start. He was covered with sweat. He looked at Catrina who was lying awake beside him. She had a strange look on her face. Her lips were red.

“What the fuck!?” He felt a nip at his other wrist. He looked and saw Nibbles licking at his blood from an open wound. He slapped the cat off the bed and flung himself out. “What the fuck is going on!?”

Catrina stood and wiped the blood from the corner of her mouth. Her body glistened in the candle light.

“Is this some kind of vampire shit or something?” Bob rubbed at his wrists. The wounds were small and the bleeding was already beginning to taper.

“Bob, vampires aren’t real,” she said.

“Well this sure as fuck is,” he said, holding out his wrist. Nibbles jumped up onto the dresser and licked at his paws. Bob saw the open door of the bedroom. He started walking.

“Wait, please!” Catrina called out, following.

“No fuckin’ way, man. I’m not into some freaky blood shit. That is not happening.” Bob stormed to the sliding glass door for his clothes.

“Bob, please, it’s not what you think. This isn’t what you think” She closed the door behind her as Bob dressed.

“You’re drinking my blood!” he yelled. “Your fucking cat is drinking my blood. I mean, seriously, what the fuck!?” He stumbled with his pants and had to prop himself up on the edge of the bar.

“It’s not a big deal.” she said.

Bob gaped at her. Despite his shock he still couldn’t believe how beautiful she was.

“Cultures around the world have celebrated blood for thousands of years.” She said the words quietly, calmly. Bob had the feeling she’d said them before. She walked to him and took his hand, turning it over to show his wrist. A small red mark remained. “Are you really that upset about this?” she said, looking at the bite.

Bob let out a heavy sigh. He avoided looking her in the eyes. “Dude, I just can’t. I mean, what if I had hepatitis or something?”

“You don’t have hepatitis, Bob. Either do I.”

He headed for the front door and Catrina followed.

Don’t do this,” she said. “We had such an amazing night, such a beautiful night. Don’t let something so trivial ruin that.”

“I’m sorry, Catrina. You can’t drink my blood, okay?” Bob opened the door. A yellow piece of paper was attached to the windshield of his truck. He turned to look at her. The diamond around her neck sparkled a brilliant light. Her naked body was a work of art. She took his hands into hers and kissed the same knuckle she had kissed at lunch.

“Please, Bob. Stay.” She leaned in closer. He could smell her sweat. He could smell his blood. “You know now, why I’m single. This is the thing about me no one can tolerate, no one takes the time to understand.” She rubbed her nose against his and placed his hand to her breast. “Stay with me, Bob. Stay with me.”

Nibbles watched from the table with his yellow eyes. He licked at his paws and purred.