There are moments in your life, in every life, where you can look back at the small nodes of causality, those split second forks in which your course and path are fundamentally altered, sent careening in unanticipated or unforeseen directions. I prided myself, once, in being able to see these moments before they arrived, but the truth is, we hardly recognize we are at a crossroad until it has receded into the distance. You can spin the gears of your mind until they grind smooth, wondering what would happen, if only… If only you had refused the last drink, or took a cab instead… If only you had held your temper and your tongue… If only you had believed her… If only.
When I allow myself to drift down these avenues of doubt, I dream of being able to sleep through the night without waking in screams, without the sweat soaked sheets clinging to my shuddering body. I dream about looking on the deserts of my former home, and smelling the dry, warm earth without gagging and trembling like a lamb. If only.
When I arrived at my nexus, a literal crossroad on Indian Route 8064 in the high desert of Arizona, I had not an inkling that I was on the precipice. The sun was low in the horizon, fat and bloated red through the dusty air, and the heat of the day was only beginning to recede. Ahead of me was the long drive to Flagstaff through the great empty patches of the state. Long, long ago, I had taken to avoiding the highways and began taking the old roads, the crumbling delta of blacktop that go almost unused as they silently crisscross the desert. Each time, I would take a new fork, and allow the desert’s quiet purity envelop me as I traversed an unfamiliar path. It was like meditation, a way to wipe clean the slate of my worries: the rising debt, the disintegrating marriage, my mother’s rapidly metastasizing cancer. It was a place of simplicity and calm, earth and sky and quiet and emptiness. It was my paradise, the great panacea to my doubts and worries.
I took the road without hesitation, stopping only to consult the map crisscrossed with green highlighter, trying to find the untaken paths. It was the same as any other, and as the wavering crimson sun slipped beyond the horizon it took with it all my fears and doubts, and I floated in that comfortable oblivion.
I saw the coyote only seconds before the impact, looming large in my headlights as it crossed the road. I swerved and slammed my foot to the brake as my focus and clarity returned with a snap. The tires locked and skidded on dusty asphalt, and I jerked the steering wheel against the spin, and then we collided. I heard bone crunch and metal creak, whether from the impact of the coyote, or my own collision with the steering wheel, I do not know.
When I awoke, the moonless desert night was still and quiet, punctuated only by the ticking sound of the cooling engine. Blood was in my eyes, and a trio of shattered teeth rattled in my mouth like the clicking of dice. In the minimal light, every shape swam and tumbled in my blurry vision, and I retched, bitter bile and little ivory chips spattering the dashboard.
The flashlight in the glovebox cast hazy dancing shadows in the dark, the dying batteries only mustering a wan and sickly yellow beam. The front of the car was ruined, metal hood torn and sheared, the engine leaking its oil and coolant onto the hot blacktop. My dizzy mind spun at the sight, and I wondered if what I had thought was a coyote had been a boulder, or something else that could have explained the kinetic violence of the collision, but in the torn hooks of steel and plastic were tufts of gray and brown ticked hair, and bright red blood, dripping and mixing with the vital fluids of the car.
The coyote was on the side of the road, at the end of a trail of impossibly deep paw prints and blood. The animal lay in a dark patch of sand, where the dry earth sucked greedily at the moisture, now clotted and crimson in the weak torchlight. His legs were cracked and shredded, white splinters of bone swaddled in wet pink meat and sodden fur. His chest was an abstract landscape of ribs, torn muscle and viscera. Fighting down a wave of nausea and vertigo, my eyes locked on the animal.
The ruined chest was rising and falling, slowly. As I watched in disbelief and horror, I saw the bones of it’s chest begin curve inward, so slowly that I doubted my vision. Then the skin began to crawl forward, like a wave of insects, covering the exposed flesh. It’s breathing quickened and I heard a low growl from deep inside it, as it’s cloudy eyes snapped open.
I could feel heat coming off the beast now like a furnace, and I shrugged back involuntarily as it began to twitch and shudder in the grips of some sort of seizure. The dark swam in front of me like an angry sea and I pitched backward into the dirt, dizzy and nauseous and aching all over. I don’t recall losing consciousness, but when my senses returned, the sky was now the dark grey of early morning.
Yards away, the coyote stood on trembling, straight legs. It looked weak and it’s fur was mottled with blood and sand, but it was whole, and impossibly alive. Rational thought demanded that this was not the same animal, but the tangled mess of fur and bone I saw dying in the dirt was no where to be found. It turned to me, and growled, baring rows of sharp teeth. The growl began to rise and fall in staccato bursts, and I had the sudden impression that the animal was laughing. That’s when it began to change.
It lowered it’s head and I watched in mute disbelief as it’s body began to thicken and swell, the hide splitting as it stretched taut across rapidly swelling limbs. The animals jaw swung free with a clicking sound, and dropped to the earth, and I saw the skull crack open and quiver. Beneath the splitting skin and bone was pale, naked, hairless flesh.
It reared up on it’s hind legs, a nightmare chimera of flesh, bone, and meat, and I found I could no longer move or cry out as the the shredded remnants of hide began to slough free from the foul shape. It shuddered once stretching forelimbs wide with the sound of snapping bones and tearing muscles.
It was still laughing when the last of the wet skin had dropped to the earth, leaving a pale, hairless, naked caricature of a man in it’s stead. His limbs were long thin sticks, and his body was emaciated and drawn tight. The blood and gore that coated his scarecrow body began to steam away in the sun, and he shook himself in an unmistakably canine gesture.
My arms were useless as I tried desperately to crawl away from the horror, and an aching wave of pain wrapped itself around my battered skull. The thing stooped low, black eyes locked with me, and scooped up handfuls of the blood and skin and bone at it’s feet. Smiling wide, it opened it jaws and began to suck down the detritus greedily, crunching on bone to suck out the marrow, and swallowing sheets of flesh without chewing. It’s sunken and concave belly began to bulge. I drifted dizzily away into the release of darkness.
When I woke again, in the blazing white sun of high noon, my face was already blistered and cracked. My limbs were stiff and the throbbing pain in my temples spread like burning oil on the surface of water across my body. I became aware of my surroundings slowly, as I twisted my head painfully from side to side.
Behind my wrecked car was a police cruiser, empty and silent, with the door swung open. A constellation of dark and running droplets spattered the window. I had not heard it arrive, and the driver was nowhere in sight. But I was not alone.
The thing was crouched beside me a few yards away, like a dog on his hind legs, grinning. Aside from the hollow black eyes and wicked grin, it could have been another man all together. He was larger now, great ropes of muscle tightly coiled beneath dusty dry skin now encircled his powerful body. His belly was distended, like a famine stricken child, a smooth round bulge on his powerful runner’s body.
He laughed again, that dry animal sound, and leaned forward to retch. His jaw swung loose, dangling impossibly wide like a snake and he began to disgorge a steaming torrent of bones and watery bile. A human jawbone, snapped in half, glistened in the noonday sun. A femur, a shattered pelvis, scraps of clothing, the entirety of the undigestible parts of a man came out slowly with each surge, nothing larger than a fist. There was a glint of metal in the stinking stain, a shining police badge, etched clean and vibrant by the acid fire of digestion.
My body howled in protest as I launched to my feet and began to run, legs pumping against the blacktop. I slowly became aware that I was shrieking with every breath, crying out into the hot dry air, tears streaking my face.
It was following me, of course, loping effortlessly beside me on all fours, that dusty chuckle, like grinding stones and sand, playing counterpoint to my screaming. After a mile of sprinting in the desert heat, it slowed to a stop, and I hoped, foolishly, that it had abandoned the chase. But it merely slid from it’s human skin, the coyote beneath only stopping to greedily devour the slippery mess of skin and bone before returning to my side with a satisfied growl.
It followed me as I chased the sun across the sky, my body drying and desiccating in the desert heat. It allowed me to take a small lead before returning to nip at my heels, all the while, giggling to itself, an inhuman sound of violent delight. I could feel the will to flee evaporating in the dry air, and I struggled not to collapse, not to give up and bare my throat in hope of a quick end.
I do not know how long it planned to toy with me, or when it would strike that final blow. I wonder if it regrets not acting earlier, the way I regret ever taking that road. But it did not.
When the second police cruiser broke the evening silence with it’s siren, coming to halt in the road ahead of me, the thing shrieked, a nightmare cry of anger and loathing and despair. It began to rush towards me, closing the distance with lightning speed. I could hear the tiny clicks of it’s claws on the pavement as it neared.
The officer later told me he’d never seen a coyote attack a man like that, and that it had scared him more than he cared to admit. But he didn’t hesitate to fire a blast of buckshot from his shotgun at the thing. I turned just as the cloud of metal pellets shredded it’s coat and saw a dozen ragged holes erupt with blood. It didn’t stop running, it simply changed direction, darting to the left and vanished into the low brush. I collapsed on the road, sobbing, body aching and crying for release.
I haven’t been to the desert since. My new home, high in the mountains is my only place of solace. It is everything the desert is not. The cool wet air, and buzz of life cradles me, and sometimes, for a few bright seconds, I feel at peace again. These moments are few and far between, and on every quiet night, and on every warm afternoon, I can hear the padding of feet and the click of claws on the rocks around me, always just out of my vision. I hear the death dry laugh in every creaking tree and every soft breeze.
I do not doubt that it will find me one day. When it does, it can have what’s left of my shattered life, and I would give it willingly for the promise of release. I’ve run far enough.