I sing along with “Jane Says” by Jane’s Addiction as loud as I can. I beat my hurt hand against Veronica’s steering wheel as Lowell’s mixtape gives me voice. With the windows rolled up and the dark pressing in, Farrell’s words keep me driving.
This Black Hills highway, with the dense woods on my right and a bottomless drop-off on my left, is too narrow to turn around on so I keep going up, up, up into the increasing darkness of night before I start making turns onto side roads that I hope will lead me back down.
Harney Peak is the highest point in these black mountains, but if this is 244 like I think it is, Mount Rushmore can’t be more than a dozen miles away. Civilization of some kind should feel closer. There is surely going to be a tourist stop or public restroom. So far, nothing.
Veronica is about out of gas. I couldn’t go back for Lowell even if I wanted to and I don’t want to. There is a fork in the road ahead, a patch of clear black breaking up the otherwise perfect line of trees, and Veronica inches forward toward the dark, turning right just as the moon slides behind a cloud. I flip on her brights. The road snakes through pine trees for a few miles before it becomes more pothole than road.
Something’s up ahead. A building? It shines in the dark despite the lack of moonlight. The road straightens out and Veronica eases into a large parking lot before she sputters to a halt and dies.
“I’m sorry, sweet girl.” I rub the dashboard with the palm of my bloodied hand. The pain zips up my arm, grounding me.
The place is deserted. On the other side of the empty lot, there are two gas pumps, a phone booth, and an old silver dining car. Ray told me about the ghost towns in these Black Hills. Abandoned buildings from the gold rush that still stand, stubborn. He’d hand me facts about a time or place, something dark he was obsessing over, and I’d weave it into a story in which we were the heroes. Ray loved my stories. In them we were powerful, facing the decaying buildings and bodies with equal parts ferocity and humor. This diner looks just like the kind of place he would have given me, putting his head in my lap so I could run my fingers through his hair. Back when I calmed him. When I helped him shut his mind down so he could dream of things not quite so dark.
The moon pushes out from behind a cloud, bright and full, and the diner shines its full silver. Below a row of windows that stretch across the front are the words “Good Food” and above the windows in larger block lettering, EARLENE’S DINER.
I put Veronica in neutral. The wind whispers high up in the trees. The only sound. Once out in the cold, I put my weight into her doorframe to push her across the lot. A light snow begins to fall. Veronica rolls grumpily forward.
“There could be gas in those tanks, old girl. I know you’re hungry.” I push Veronica as close to the gas pumps as I can and then jump back into the driver’s seat, pushing down the parking brake with my left foot just before she hits the old-fashioned pumps.
My eyes adjust a bit and the moon obliges by peeking down at me so I can lift one of the gas pumps and apply pressure. No gas comes out, not a drip.
“It might not mean there isn’t any,” I say to Veronica. “It could just mean I need some sleep and sunshine to figure it out.”
The woods are quiet. I let myself notice that now. The forest gives off an unnatural, deafening silence. Ray would say, “This land was promised in perpetuity to the Lakota Sioux in 1868 and then we took it back as soon as we found gold. That’s the silence you hear, Emma My Emma. A silence we white people bloodied ourselves for.” Ray always spoke like that, with the full drama of having been there. Culpable in ways that he could not imagine his way through. And that was his problem, really. In his art and in his mind. Ray would find a horror to circle and he’d feel it with his whole person, researching it until there was nothing left to read and then regurgitating the information in various art forms—painting the same bloody black hole of history over and over again until the obsession became so self-indulgent, so personal and painful that he’d break from the world for a while, shutting himself in his room for days.
Ray was a welder, a painter, a muralist. His best work came from his darkest moments and so I never stopped him when he was in the midst of it. Never said enough is enough. Not until he was exhausted and weepy from lack of sleep. Then, and only then, I’d soothe him. Interrupt the circle of thoughts he was trapped in and talk to him until he slept. I see now that another person, a less selfish person would have tried to stop him long before he needed me, but I always wanted to see what he’d make next, and if I’d be in it. I longed to be that horror, the thing he obsessed over for so long that he understood and loved all of its truths and ugly spots and yet still wanted to know more. I wanted to be his muse.
A breeze picks up, the light snow floats across the lot toward the diner and the tiny scattering sound, as quiet as it is, breaks the spell. The diner door is ajar, I see that now, and the wind is moving toward it, as if the building is breathing in. Its inhale pulls at my body, tugs at the hairs on my arms.
Then there’s a scraping noise that is not the wind.
“Hello?” I say.
It’s coming from the side of the building. There is a five-foot gap between the diner and the phone booth and from inside that dark hole someone or something is watching me. The sound comes again, like something is being dragged along the diner’s metal frame.
As the moon makes a full appearance, I move to the outside curve of the diner car. I see it. A glare, a shine of silver that isn’t the diner. A pair of eyes, human eyes. Green and bright and peeking out from behind the eyeholes of a mask that looks winged.
The creature stares back at me for one held breath before it turns to run.
I leap forward, five long strides to the edge of the building but I’m standing alone. There’s nothing. No one.
I’m tired. I have to pee. I need sleep. I need perspective. Surely some sunshine will make everything seem doable.
There is a smear of blood on my jeans so wide and thick that I know there is no getting rid of it. It’s Lowell’s. Better-off-dead roadkill Lowell. I move to the phone booth and once inside, see that I am shaking. My hands make the receiver clatter against the metal before I yank it back. I dig into my inside pocket where I keep my medication. A nearly full bottle rattles comfortingly. I take one. Just one pill and the peace of it settles in my throat, my belly, my veins. One pill doesn’t mean I haven’t quit.
Lowell is probably already dead.
There is a dial tone. My heart leaps and I push 911. The numbers beep back at me but then the dial tone returns as if unaware of my request. I try it again. Nothing. This is when I look up and notice the sign in the booth. I pull my Zippo out of my pocket and hold it up high. A big ape of a man with fangs dripping blood, hair all over his face, his arms too long for his body. The words above him big and bold as if announcing a movie premiere: BIGFOOT SIGHTING? REPORT YOUR FINDINGS. DIAL 555.
Like a fool I dial 555.
“Hi and welcome to Earlene’s Diner where the incredible can happen. From finding the best pancakes in South Dakota to finding your own nugget of gold. Think you’ve seen the Sasquatch? Leave us your story and make a wish.”
The voice is followed by a beep and then silence.
“The Sasquatch lives in the Pacific Northwest. I’m not in the fucking Pacific Northwest.” I slam down the phone. My hand rests on the receiver and the moon slides out, shines through the glass of the booth like the sun, and there is blood under my fingernails. It looks like dirt. I rub it on my jeans, but the blood is there too.
Most of it is Lowell’s and there is no getting rid of it. No calling for help. No finding Lowell again. The pain in my belly shoots through me harsh and fast, and I crouch down into a ball in the booth. The pill isn’t quick enough. Not one anyway. Two would be perfect, but I’m going to hold back. Wean myself.
Ray had an intimate knowledge of genocide and atrocity and the Lakota Sioux were a particular fascination. He built himself up a hatred for humanity so thick it could not be undone.
I push back the pain to rise and dial 555. When prompted, I say, “I shot a man. He’s in the hills. Bleeding out on the side of the highway. Someone should find him before he is all the way dead.”
I stick my hands in my armpits to steady them and exit the phone booth. The snow is falling, fast enough to make me keep my chin down. I put all of my weight into the door of the diner to get it to budge. It shudders with effort, and then stops after ten or twelve inches, stuck solid on the warped tile floor. I slip in.
Once fully inside, I raise my lighter again and flick it back on. The flame doesn’t do a whole lot, but I hold it up anyway for the little bit of light that it does give. It’s a small diner with only a few booths against the front wall and a long counter with a dozen or so stools. I can make out salt and pepper shakers, the coffee station, and strange little figurines lining the high shelf behind the counter. The place is remarkably tidy. The napkin dispensers are full and everything sits in its place.
The air is warm, much warmer, in fact, than an abandoned building has any right to be. I reach into my jacket pocket. The pill is tiny in my hand. What harm can it do? I swallow and the pain turns to a soft, warm fuzz—a ball of fur I can manage, cradle, tickle behind the ears.
I shouldn’t be here. I realize it fully and confidently even as my sweetly dulled senses keep me still. There is a threat here that I can’t see or name. Something that wants me.
My father used to tell me evil had to be invited in. “It’s like a friendship at first,” he said. “You have to want to be friends with it. Open the door wide and let it play with your toys.” He used to rattle my Tonka trucks in my face with a goofy smile meant to look menacing and say, “The devil made me do it.” We had a routine, a little one-act play, that we’d do standing across the room from each other, me fidgeting and hopping—giggle-girl anxious:
“Daddy, are you the devil?”
“Hell yeah, pumpkin.”
“Will you play with me?”
Then he’d run to me and lift me up above his head to spin me Supergirl style.
My dad’s point, I think, was that evil doesn’t take people by surprise. In order for it to really get you, a tiny piece of you has to want it. He sure wanted it, my father. He drank it up until he lay down on the train tracks where he let it kill him. Literally let it split him in half. And that’s what I tried to do too, right? It’s what I’m still trying to do. Split myself in half.
In the warm, moonlit gloom of the diner, I search the wall and find light switches. I flip them all on and turn to face the long room. Their low hum kicks in. I see signs everywhere that once stated the obvious: COFFEE. CIGARETTES. PIE. THIS HERE IS SOUTH DAKOTA. Proud pictures of anonymous Native Americans on horseback. A wooden carving of just a head. Pictures of horses and buffalo. The inside of the diner has been cleaned recently. The shiny curl of the stools, the edge of the countertop, and the shelves along the back wall. It all sparkles.
The counter splits at the midpoint. Behind it is a swinging door with a diamond window of glass that must lead to the kitchen. I’ve triggered the lights in the kitchen too and they shine proudly through the diamond window.
I’ll check the kitchen for food. Then head back out to Veronica for the night.
Through the swinging door there is a small kitchen fully stocked with pots and pans. The grill with an oven below sits in front of me and to my right is the silver door of a walk-in freezer. To my left is a prep station.
“Diners are for waking you up and bars are for putting you back to sleep,” I say aloud in homage to my father. He would have wanted to bring this place back to life. Ray would have wanted to burn it down.
I still the swinging door behind me. With it closed, the kitchen feels safe. Almost cozy. The refrigerator is empty, the air inside of it warm, but when I open the metal cupboards, I find neatly stacked cans of beans and corn. Tomato sauce. Tuna. The cans are ordered, arranged with the labels out. I pull out a can of black beans, find a can opener, and a small pot. The stovetop clicks once, twice, and then the flame leaps up. At least one tank is still full on this property. I find some old spices and a spoon. I turn on the oven and open the door so the heat of it fills the room. With my back to the freezer, I eat the beans from the pan.
The warmth of the oven loosens my muscles further. I feel floppy. Soft. I’ll rest for a minute. My eyes burn when I shut them. I’m drifting, drifting, gone.
I wake with my hands on my forehead. The stove is still on. I can feel its heat, and I sit up and pull my boots away. The rubber soles are warm. The eyelets burn too hot to touch. My throat is sore. How long did I sleep?
The narrow kitchen spins, and I press my hand to my stomach. I have to pee or puke or both. I turn off the stove and test the kitchen sink to see if there is running water but the pipes don’t even groan; they’ve given up long ago. When I feel steady, I push out into the dining area. The building is empty. Outside, morning has arrived.
The sky is yellow and pink, and the world isn’t so scary. I walk across the parking lot—avoiding the spot where I saw that masked creature last night and find a space to squat and pee. The ground is brown with pine needles and shiny with frost. My urine is hot. A faint steam rises.
The world is steadier, warmer once I’ve finished peeing.
All my aches and pains holler, but yesterday’s damage isn’t too bad. The air is crisp, and the pavement is slick enough to skate across.
The diner remains warm compared to the outside world. I’m hungry, and I pull another can of beans down off the shelf. I put it all in a pot to heat, but the burner won’t light this time. There’s just the noise of the gas clicking on so I reach for my lighter. But it isn’t in the pocket where I always keep it. It isn’t in any pocket. I see it on the counter next to the stove and snatch it up. I know I didn’t put it there. I’d never leave it out like that. Pills. It’s my next thought and shame comes with it. I search my pockets. They are gone.
A low thump. And then another from beyond the kitchen door. It’s a purposeful sound.
A fist against a door, perhaps. A rap against a countertop, probably.
“Is someone there?”
I push open the kitchen doorway and stand still. The room appears to be empty. The silence and the growing daylight make me feel confident even as my heart begins to pound faster.
The door swings shut behind me; it flaps freely back and forth.
“Do you know how to get to the Badlands? I’m lost, actually.” I touch the rough edge of the counter with my fingertips. “I’m stepping out from behind the counter now,” I say. My blood is beating heart-attack fast.
There’s a click, a familiar noise. It’s Lowell’s gun, held by a little boy and pointed at me.
He’s young. Maybe seven or eight. A silver mask obscures his face. It looks as if it’s made of tinfoil, crumpled and shaped into wings. His eyes, nose, and lips peek through. The mask is beautiful. His fingers on the gun are dirty.
“Hello.” A greeting that comes out too loudly against the silence and then I hear the shot. It’s deafening. The room comes alive as my heartbeat increases, pumping through my limbs, climbing up into my ears and mouth. I smell the gas burner still trying to light and the little boy’s sweat. He exhales in a way that makes me worry he’s been holding it in since I first arrived at the diner. The gun drops to the floor.
My eyes stay with the boy as he pushes through the door and out into light.