This story involves the mention of suicide, violence, and alcohol-use.
Plum-colored clouds struggled for the dominance of the sky, fire-red and orange and yellow roiling against the impending darkness as the stranger came to Riverbend. With her came a horde of tumbleweeds, dusty wind flowing into the town’s single street on waves of smoke and charred flesh.
Each of Riverbend’s occupants, those pilgrims of the West so brazen as to remain in a dying village when all others had left, stopped and watched the strange woman as she glided into town. Even the Indians who had once pillaged, burned, and scalped the settlers no longer saw the need—the citizens of Riverbend running themselves into extinction.
Her feet were bare, some professing later they didn’t even touch the ground, her corporeal form swept in by the wind and tumbleweeds. Once in the center of town, between the decrepit general store and all-but-abandoned saloon, the only home for the drunks and wanderers of the desert, the stranger stopped. Her gaze shifting, bright grass-green eyes melting all it touched, the townspeople slank into the safety of buildings, coiling in the shadows, some running from that glare, frightened, terrified of what destruction it could bring.
The specter's eyes then fell upon me, leaving the ‘office’ in a stumble, as the lights from the saloon winked and trembled, casting wriggling beams of gold onto the dust road full now of miniature twisters and desert brush, sending me to quivering. Her form was still cast in shadow, and in an attempt to regain some respect for my station and calm the people’s nerves from this twilight creature, I stepped forward, a hand resting on my companion—a Colt .45, its silver inlaid with as much rust and Time as I.
“There’s no hotel here anymore, they moved off to The Gorge—” then, taking notice of her appearance for the first time as it entered the shifting window light, my eyes bulging— “You need help, ma’am?”
Black hair dripped wet from a riverbed gone dry a decade before, her dress of a fashion long since forgotten, torn and ripped, a breast exposed to the last sigh of the sun before it abandoned Riverbend, too, for a much better world beyond the horizon, replaced by a sea of judging, harsh lights. Pinpricks in the ebony cloak thrust over the West, the night allowing all the evil creatures to come out and steal away the gasps of children and frail septuagenarians from their homes, leaving mourning for the dawn and the waking of the sun.
A thousand dark thoughts attacked my mind as if my subconscious recognized this woman from a year-long gone by, then trying to warn me and begging me to listen, but in my sudden stupor shrugging off the thoughts as self-induced fearmongering.
With black, dripping strings strewn before her features, pasted to her pale lips, her jaw fell and she screamed a silent, yet piercing shriek, shattering my glass soul to a million pieces, sending me stumbling back from the wave of the non-sound. Giving a silent, quaking, cowardly shriek of my own as my back struck the wooden post outside my office door, her features melted beneath a river of tears, like wax burning away, it melded with the tears and continued down to the point of her chin, and dropped to the dirt.
Her eyes of that pure green I hadn’t seen since before joining the desert people twisted in agony, in pleading, her shriek suddenly a whisper on the wind, to unwilling, live ears; the only destination for a sorrowful, ghostly train whining long and high.
I sank to my knees as did she, our forms now mirrored, unified—the image of an old man, a sheriff for a dead town, the other of a girl he couldn’t save. But it couldn’t be, her features and appearance only bringing back the memories of the Callan girl, the one taken and disappeared from her father’s ranch on the river’s other side a decade before.
A suspected disappearance never solved, a kidnapper never found.
There was the O’Mallie boy, though a boy no longer, and then not even a boy, instead a man of twenty-one, wild and hungry, his eyes burning with a deep, black fire I never had quite liked.
The only suspect.
But his alibi had been confirmed by his mother and sister, although a mother always protects her son, and his sister had had a rather unhealthy fondness for Robert. Most of Riverbend’s people rumored that was the result of their cousin-parents, a vile and strange couple for even the residents of their Appalachian hometown, poisoned blood transferring to their daughter through birth.
Robert O’Mallie had, on the other hand, an unsettling fascination—not fondness—fascination with Daisy Callan. I had gotten quite a few complaints from her father about it—the boy following her home, ambushing her on her way to the general store, spying on her as she took a dip into the cool mirror waters of the river, skin vanishing into a blue portal to nowhere. My heart quickened in that instant as I recalled this woman and this man, two negative magnets, one pushing, the other pulling away, never getting close, the resistance too fierce.
Until that day.
In a whirl of wind, dust screening the specter from sight, she stood and flurried away, her wails now eerily audible and haunting Riverbend, and on feet that brisked me from the boardwalk I followed, listening to the people moan and cry as if singing along to her sad song within the walls of their hiding places.
Twenty paces and I was free from Riverbend and the shrill songs of widows and cheated wives, of childless fathers, and instead became one with the cool desert, the moon in full force on our side of the dark blanket sky, its glow bouncing from the sand, giving alien, deformed twins to trees and their branches, to cacti and bramble and the scurrying tumbleweeds riding the dust alongside me.
Beyond me was the specter, now nothing but a twisting shadow in the darkness, but her song clear as glass, and that was what I ran after.
I slowed as I pushed wild bushes and branches aside, my heart crawling up into my throat as I realized where I was. I left the trees with their low, writhing limbs and stopped.
The dried riverbed slithered before me, dead grass turning into gravel and sandstone as the earth sloped down to lay to slumber in that bed. I looked around me, in all directions, God even above me for all the good that would do. And the stranger—that eerie ghost of a woman who had floated into town on the sun’s breath, then left, adding her shriek to the night, was gone. Disappeared.
Like Daisy Callan.
I remembered then walking through those trees at midday and seeing the charred grass, a circle of blackened death and ash while around it was still green as the water beyond was still blue and flowing, and thinking to myself what could have happened here. Seeing the earth kicked up and unsettled, the leaves shrinking back from what they witnessed, and me not knowing, but knowing.
The bit of charred earth was where it had happened, at least his disposal of her, burning flesh still ripe on the sea of wind that struck my face, drowning my senses in immense waves. Gone and away now, one of the first families to leave Riverbend, the O’Mallies, headed by Robert since his father had fallen ill from some heart disease, ventured further into that unknown West, the land of prosperous dreams and bloody danger. From my justice, I let him go, wanting rather to rid the town of that poisoned blood than to keep it and its wrath around with an arrest on nothing but a hunch.
Daisy Callan’s family left too, to a different realm, this world and its horrors too much for them, instead spending eternity in those pinpricks of night. My touch graced my Colt, my friend, its body cool from the frigid nighttime, a fingertip caressing the trigger’s curve, sending massive dunes of goosebumps up my arms. Perhaps their journey pushed them beyond the folds of the black blanket, to see what lay beyond. My eyes led me upward, back to the sky. Perhaps I could see it, too. I could find Daisy’s bright green soul among the endless others, all dull and simple compared to her gleaming, shifting hues, and wait for Robert’s, and snuff it before he could see and explore and enjoy a second of peace. That would be enough.