The desert can be a terribly lonely place. Somehow the overbearing solitude and solemnity are enhanced in the winter; the cold – stinging like pricks of a phantom cactus – seems unnatural and outlandish in this climate. I had worked late at my job; putting the finishing touches on a television advertisement that was scheduled to air Thanksgiving night at 8 PM. I compressed the file, emailed it to my editor for last minute changes, packed up and headed for the parking lot. The sun had set long ago and my car was one of only a few that sat bathed in the unhealthy orange glow of the parking structure lights. In the daytime, the garage looked like a marvel of human engineering; gleaming chrome and metallic paints housed in a concrete and steel behemoth. In the night, the vehicles left behind by late workers looked more like cockroaches or some other carapaced scavengers looking for scraps in an abandoned ruin.
My typical commute wasn’t very long; a thirty minute drive from the heart of Phoenix to one of the outlying suburbs. I was heading home to Tucson for the upcoming holiday, however, so my usual drive turned into a veritable tour of the East Valley. I allowed my foot to fall heavily on the gas pedal of my MR2, giving it the freedom of stretching its legs, firing its pistons at speed, that I seldom afforded it due to my city life. The lights of the indistinct cities melted together into a sort of suburban swamp as I sped over the raised interstate. Eventually, the freeway yielded to a four lane highway through a less-developed part of town before finally petering out into a narrow two-lane stretch that cut across the virgin desert like a scar.
I love the desert. I spent most of my childhood outside in the dust and heat riding my bike, playing with Star Wars action figures – the desert makes an excellent Tatooine – or hunkered down in a wash having a dirt clod war with my friends. As I got older, I swapped out playing for working out but kept my activity centered around the same basic place; I hike or mountain bike at least twice a week. Even so, I’ve always had a strange feeling lurking at the back of my mind that I would die in the desert, my blood being absorbed into the dry sand of a wash before it had a chance to pool, my scrabbling hand finding purchase on the stalk of a creosote bush before going permanently limp. That feeling comes on most strongly at night when I’m far from the orange light pollution of city lights. Noticing that my surroundings matched that scenario to miniscule detail, I let my car slow to a speed just below the limit. Coyotes and vultures – who grew to be almost as massive as coyotes out here – were common sights on these seldom-travelled back roads. I didn’t want to hit one, lose control of my car, and spin out. There were worse deaths than bleeding out while watching the sun rise over the brown, rocky mountains, but I had my heart set on some of my mother’s banana bread.
In the distance, the unmistakable flashing lights of an emergency vehicle began to resolve themselves. I slowed my speed further, keeping in mind the recent rash of accidents involving tired drivers slamming into the back of a police cruiser stopped on the shoulder. The flashing red and blue seemed brighter than normal as it reflected off a cloud of dust that rose lazily into the air. That seemed unusual. I had once seen a large cloud of dust like that on my way home from San Diego; a van had overturned and thrown a mixture of smoke and dirt high into the air. I craned my neck to get a better view of the scene as I drove past. The police cruiser sat askew, its front end buried in a sand bank that rose up from the highway shoulder. The emergency lights and spotlight lit the ground enough to be able to see. The driver’s side door was open and I could see black objects littering the ground around it. One of them may have been a radio; another, a magazine for a pistol. In the distance, down a path that couldn’t really be considered a road, I could see the back end of a truck.
I let my MR2 coast to a stop, telling myself I would regret getting out. When the car had finally stopped, I threw it into park and sat in my seat arguing with myself for a good five minutes. Finally deciding that I would feel worse waking up the next morning and finding out something terrible had happened that I could have prevented than embarrassing myself for butting in, I got out and locked my door. The items half buried in the loose sand turned out to be exactly what they looked like from far away; a radio that looked like the one police officers carried on their shoulders and a magazine, empty save for one bullet. Pieces of broken plastic were also strewn about, though there was no indication of the source. The windshield of the cruiser was broken, cracks spiderwebbing far out from a depressed center. Something had hit the glass hard.
I called out several times, but got no answer in return. I sighed, cursing myself, and began walking down the path toward the grey truck. I could just make out the word FORD beveled into the metal of the tailgate when I heard the crunch of a footfall off to my left. I paused at the sound and instantly cursed myself; I had given away any element of surprise I had gained from the snapping twig. I forced myself to begin walking again, rationalizing that any animal could have broken the twig just as easily as a human foot. But the snap had sounded like a larger diameter of wood than a random jackrabbit could have broken with a panicked hop.
Lost inside my own head with fears of what might be tracking me from behind thick weeds, barrel cactuses, and shrubby creosote, I almost walked into the truck before I realized I had reached it. The light from the police cruiser’s askew spotlight still cast enough light by which to see, but not much. I could tell that the truck looked like it had crashed into something heavy, but not something wide like another car. The damage was not at all like a rear-end collision. The dent in the bumper and hood was roughly three feet wide. It looked to me like damage you might see up north from running into a deer or something, but there was no blood. Deer also don’t usually rip your driver side door to shreds after you slam into them, either. The door on the truck wasn’t ajar like the police cruiser, so I had a clear of exactly that kind of damage. The metal from the middle of the four large gouges was curled up like white chocolate on a fancy dessert. Whatever attacked the door, it looked like the thick metal of the old truck was as easy for it to tear as an aluminum soda can was for me.
From directly behind me, I heard another crunch. I stopped dead in my tracks once again. I exhaled and closed my eyes tightly both in silent irritation at my own reflexes and in anticipation of being torn apart by a maniac with a four-bladed scythe or a mutated gila monster. I turned my body slowly around, eyes still clamped shut. When I had completed the 180 degree rotation I prepared to open them, expecting large teeth or something to be hanging centimeters from my face. Instead, a tall, thin man in a well-tailored tuxedo peered at me in frightened confusion. Aside from the sweat beading at his brow and the fine dust gathered on his shiny black shoes and the hems of his pants, he could have stepped directly out of Downton Abbey.
“Ah, Sir, are you, ah… harmed in any way?” he asked quietly, peering over my shoulder at something far beyond the old Ford.
“No, I stopped to help that cop back there. What’s going on?”
“This butler is not exactly sure, Sir. Suffice it to say, we must leave at once.” The butler wrung his hands together and looked around before peering down the path over my shoulder again.
“What’s back there?” I asked.
“The driver of this truck was kind enough to give this butler a ride from the Love’s full service station in Mammoth. We were, ah, besieged by something on the highway. The driver was quick to radio for help on his citizen’s band radio, which prompted the arrival of the Sheriff’s deputy. The, ah, creature returned just as the deputy arrived. The driver of the truck tried to outrun it down this path, but, alas, the truck became bogged down in the sand. The deputy fired several shots at the creature as it pursued us.” The butler made a sort of waving motion with his hand and knelt down. I followed his lead.
“The driver and this butler both tried to flee on foot in different directions. The creature opted to follow the driver. When the deputy reached me, I pointed him in the direction the driver had run. I heard more gunshots some time ago and nothing since. I fear the worst. That is why, dear sir, I must insist that we stop talking and make haste toward your vehicle.”
I shook my head. “Shouldn’t we try to help them?”
“Sir, please do not mistake what I am about to say for cowardice, but no. The deputy had a firearm. I watched several bullets strike the creature with no effect. I sincerely doubt a butler armed with a tire iron,” he raised the metal bludgeon, which had escaped my notice until now, with his left hand, “and an unarmed man in a very nice, but very impractical leather jacket will be a match for such a creature. The best we can hope to do is make good time back to the highway and phone the authorities once we obtain a cellular signal.”
I thought for a short second, then nodded. We silently stalked back down the rugged path and reached the police cruiser without incident. Upon seeing my car the butler paused.
“Sir, is that, by any chance, a Ford Mustang?”
“No. But it’s got an engine in it, if that’s what you’re worried about.” I unlocked the door and slipped in quickly, shutting and locking my own door before leaning across the cabin to unlock the passenger door.
“I assure you, sir,” the butler said as he entered the car equally cautiously and latched his seatbelt, “I have no doubt this car will carry us away from danger. I ask simply because I once knew a man who was fond of white Mustangs. It would be, ah – I suppose ‘interesting’ is the best word – to find one here now.”
I nodded, not really listening to the butler’s reminiscence about a story of which I was clearly not a part. I let my MR2 stretch its legs once again, watching the speedometer climb to 80. The butler watched his phone for the first sign of a signal.
“Sir,” the butler’s voice, ominously low, made me jump and swerve the wheel slightly. “I do not wish to alarm you, but there is a figure a few hundred feet off in the desert that appears to be keeping pace with us.”
I leaned forward and looked out the passenger window. Flicking my eyes back and forth between the desert and the dark stretch of road, I didn’t see anything at first. I was looking for a color or a light, I guess. Instead, there was a silhouette, thin and short, but with impossibly long arms. Its sprinting figure was almost graceful; it didn’t seem to be straining at all. I pressed down on the accelerator. The MR2 growled with enjoyment and the figure began to fall behind.
For only a short time. Within seconds, it had lengthened its stride and ran abreast with us once again. I sat back in my seat and tried not to think about it. As soon as my vision returned to the center of the road, I sensed a tickle of motion in my right periphery. A quick glance confirmed what I hoped was just my imagination. There was a second figure pacing us on the other side. The fear in the butler’s eyes told me he had noticed it, too.
For two miles, the butler and I drove in terrified silence, flanked by the amorphous silhouettes of beings running with uncanny speed. And then they were gone. They seemed to break away for an instant, running further from my car at a diagonal, before completely disappearing from view.
“Sir!” the butler shouted, pointing ahead of us.
I swung my eyes back to the center of the road. My high beams had illuminated a humanoid shape standing in the middle of my lane. Short, thin, flexing its long arms and blinking its eyes that shone a blood red in my headlights. I slammed on the brakes, but I knew they couldn’t stop us in time. We had to be hurtling down the highway a well over 100 miles an hour. As we were about to make contact with the being, its elongated head and sharp teeth as close as a monkey in a zoo, it jumped over the MR2. In its place, further down the road, was the second creature.
We came to rest sandwiched between the two predators. I slunk low in my seat.
“Still no signal, sir,” the butler said, panicking.
And then, from the south, we heard the sharp reports of an automatic weapon. The creature in front of us lurched to one side and spun, a brownish-yellow viscosity spilling from tears in its thick skin. A second weapon erupted. Then a third joined the clamorous discord. Black SUVs rolled to a stop near us, their black-clad occupants hanging half out of windows firing what looked like M16s. I pressed myself as close to the floor as possible as an errant round blasted its way through my driver’s side window. The butler followed suit. I scrunched my eyes shut again, just as I had when I first met the butler. Maybe I thought if I couldn’t see my death coming, it wouldn’t hurt as much.
The shooting died down and there was a soft knock on my door. I opened my eyes. A clean-shaven man in a nondescript business suit stood smiling down at me.
“Chris Hereford, Bureau of Prisons,” he said, offering his hand for a shake through my broken window.
I took it. “Dustin Reading, scared shitless,” I said in reply, using the name from a fake ID I used to score beers in college.
“You boys all right?” Chris asked. We said we were.
“Mighty glad to hear that! We had a couple inmates escape from Florence Prison. We’re trying to apprehend them. They’re a very dangerous pair. We’re also worried they may have come in contact with a serious strain of norovirus. Did you have contact with either one of them?”
“No, sir, we did not,” the butler said, defiantly. I shook my head in agreement with him.
Chris studied us for a moment with a hard face. He lingered on the butler, a sour snarl forming in the corner of his mouth.
“Well, you boys best be off, then. Get home safe. And have a happy Thanksgiving.”
A few miles down the road, the butler broke the silence with an observation: “It is this butler’s opinion that Mr. Hereford was not actually with the Bureau of Prisons.”
I laughed, letting the tension of the night melt away. I invited the butler to stay with me for Thanksgiving, but he claimed he had to catch a flight from Tucson airport to LAX so he could return to his master’s service by Friday. I drove him to the airport. The whole way back to my parents’ house, though I was now in the middle of the city, my eyes kept flitting to the shoulders of the road to make sure I was alone.