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Fear of Angels
I. A classical overture softly pours from the radio, creating a fleeting sense of order, and a thick metallic odor fills the air. My bloodied hands gripping the wheel at ten and two, I guide my car, a white 1991 Acura Legend, through the darkening desert, the mountains large bumps in the distance.
Fighting despair, I sense the obsidian angel clinging like a giant bat to the roof of my car, his song a hymn of judgment. I hope I am imagining things. I glance over at Dara, who is slumped into the space between the passenger seat and the door. A thread of blood trickling from her mouth, she looks at me, eyes dark glaring slits, her black hair flowing onto the soiled and bloodied T-shirt bearing the letters "Jesus 1989." "Hi, Stud," she gasps, her light flickering, and coughs weakly. I cannot look below the T-shirt.
"Almost there, babe," I whisper, though I don't know where we are anymore. Somewhere in the western Nevada desert, I think. "Doin' OK?" I ask, but she does not answer. Maybe she's silently praying or reciting scripture. Maybe she's listening to the dark thing attached to the roof.
Praying is good, I tell myself; scripture is good. But I haven't really believed this for a long time, Dara and I having bound ourselves a year ago to an obscure pulsing darkness by joining our sliced palms in a sacred oath. My mind saturated by blood scent, I remember Dara telling me that she grew up religious, her parents frequently dragging her to revivals.
At nineteen, fearing God, she escaped the Kansas plains for Las Vegas glitter. That was four years ago, and it was then that she met me. I was working as a DJ at Jenny's, Las Vegas' newest topless club. "How ya doin', big boy?" she asked me nightly, always pulling down her top and brushing her nipples against me when she walked by. "Huge, babe, huge," I always said, fascinated by this tall, thin, raven-haired woman, who exuded dark, twisted danger. Maybe it was her glaring, mesmerizing eyes, but she struck me immediately as one who could enjoy murder. Having once been diagnosed as borderline bi-polar with an IQ near 175, I was studying for my Ph. D. in medieval literature then. Two days later when we were alone together for the first time out at the lake, I fit into her perfectly, a snake into a dark hole.
Now driving through desert, waiting upon Dara's every breath, I force my eyes on the highway stretching to the mountains and try to visualize the cabin in far Northern California where we planned to spend several days. I wonder how far it is to the next town; I wonder if there is a next town, for I haven't driven this stretch for fifteen years. Darkness is setting in. Less than fifteen minutes ago, the sun set in a crimson explosion, bleeding the sky with yellows, oranges, reds, and purples.
II. Let me start from the beginning.
One night, several weeks ago after a fucking frenzy, while talking about getting out of town and going to her friend's cabin, I told Dara that, years ago, some friends and I had had some fun with an elderly couple we'd found in the mountains between Lund and California: for kicks, we'd chased the frightened old folks and shot arrows at them while they howled like dogs. "It was a gas," I said. That's pretty much all I told her.
Sitting up in bed, lighting a cigarette, Dara turned to me and smiled. Her response was that chasing people through the forest just for the hell of it sounded like great "predatory fun," as she put it. She suggested that we detour through Lund on our way to the cabin in Northern California. "No problem," I said. "I'm easy." My answer opened the door and, insatiable, we fucked some more.
So today, leaving Las Vegas around noon, we drove the I-93 north-northwest toward Lund, a tiny Mormon farming community in central Nevada. Just beyond Lund, we took the road west where we would pass through mountains. Bored, Dara had her top off, which normal for her on trips out of Vegas in a non-air conditioned car.
"Didn't think much of Lund, huh?" I asked, glancing at her brown pointed nipples.
"Not much at all," she said. "Anyway, I wanna see where you chased that old couple when you were no more than a young buck. I mean, this is why we came through this little shit hole."
Lund behind us, we drove the endless, two-lane highway. The car was doing about fifty.
Finally, Dara lit up a cigarette and rolled down the window. She inhaled deeply, looked to the north, then exhaled out the window, turned to me, and laughed.
"Jesus, Nick," she said. "You don't have the slightest idea where we're headed, do you?" She sounded disappointed. "Bone, how can you drive this god-forsaken stretch, and then do something wild like chasing those old folks and probably scaring them shitless out here, and not remember it?"
"I dunno," I mumbled, my stomach in knots.
"I don't either."
Up to this point, I had remembered --or allowed myself to ponder-- this area and what happened here only vaguely, and so I had told Dara a fragment. Now, however, Dara's sharp words jarred something savage buried deep, and memory erupted to the surface.
III. Years before, high on something, I'd driven this road with three guys I'd met at an archery range in Vegas. On a winding mountain road, headed west out of Lund, we had stopped by an abandoned black pickup and, after searching the area, found an elderly couple picnicking on a grassy rise, surrounded by scraggly Nevada pine, about five hundred feet from the road. Holding a book inches from his face, the bespectacled old man, fine white hair blowing in the wind, had been reading a poem aloud.
I can't remember whose idea it was, but as two of us held the old man, the other two raped the old lady. Then, moved by the dark spirit that rules the planet, we'd let them go, counted to fifteen hundred, and hunted them down. Surprised by the couple's cleverness in hiding, we found them hours later huddled naked and trembling in a cave way up a mountain.
They reminded us of two very smart dogs, and gamely, after we urged them out of the cave, we took turns shooting the howling creatures full of arrows. Killing them provided an insanely glorious rush. We buried their corpses under large, hallow trees just down the mountain from the cave.
IV. Feeling insulted for having been accused of taking us on a "wild goose chase," I didn't speak to Dara for a while. I actually considered pulling over to the side of the road, pulling her out of the car, and leaving her.
About half an hour out of Lund, driving at 6,000 feet through mountains dotted with scrubby pines, we passed a car parked along the side of the road. A black Cadillac with the windows down, the car was empty, and I slowed down.
When I saw the golden cross on the driver's door, my flesh went numb and the dream I'd been having for weeks filled my brain: in the dream, driving on a mountain road, I passed a cross-marked grave with two large, sword-wielding, obsidian angels standing on either side. I drove on.
I glanced at Dara, who looked at me, eyes dark slits. She smiled, and I think I forced a smile back. Though there were no clouds in the sky, when I looked out the windshield the sky seemed darker.
"Let's go back to the car, Nicky," she said.
"Not this time, babe," I muttered, heart racing. "Let's leave whoever it is alone. Maybe this is not a good idea." The image of the angels and of the gold cross hung over me like the hand of night.
"Nicky," she said, "Nicky, sweet chop: let's stop and see. I mean, fuck, how dangerous can a person be if he drives with a cross painted on his car?"
"Dunno," I said, my throat feeling constricted.
"Then let's go back. Search. Chase. Shit, Nick, it's just for fun."
I inhaled deeply, my mind torn. But I hadn't the strength to resist Dara.
And I didn't want her to think me a coward. "You're sure, huh?" I said, forcing nervousness from my voice. "Just for fun?"
"Just for fun, Bone Man."
Dara reached over, put her hand between my knees, unzipped my pants, reached in, and gently squeezed. "Just for fun, Nicky," she cooed. My manhood is my weakness, and slowly aroused I felt fear fade as my breathing returned to normal.
Loving the gentle stroke, I slowed, waited for a straight and open stretch, pulled to the side of the road, made a quick u-turn and headed back to the Cadillac a half mile back. Really, how risky could this be? I asked myself, thinking that the driver was probably some fundamentalist preacher who'd stopped in the woods to take a shit. I figured that by the time we got back, the car would be gone.
I glanced again at Dara, whose small tits were glistening from perspiration. At that moment, she looked like a goddess.
"This'll be blissfully wild," she said.
"Yes," I said, "something to write home about." After all, I reasoned, on a deserted mountain road, who would ever find out?
She must have sensed my resignation to a plan she thought was hers.
She looked up at me, took her hand away, leaned back, and said, "I love you, Bone."
Soon the black Cadillac came into view.
"Don't want to miss an opportunity," she said.
"God forbid," I said, light-headed, repeating words I had heard from my mother hours before she had in a motorcycle head-on twenty years ago in central Idaho.
I pulled my car onto the gravel on the other side of the road, stopped, and zipped up. Dara put on her T-shirt. My heart racing, I looked out my window for angels. For a moment, we studied the car, framed by mountains, brush, pine, and blue sky.
Then Dara broke the silence.
"I do wonder: what kind of an asshole abandons a car like this out in the middle of nowhere?" Dara mused.
"Who knows?" I responded. "Let's get this over with." I switched the ignition off, threw the door open, and stepped out. My legs trembled slightly from the thrill of the prospective chase. It was a dry and hot mid-July, and I could feel the pavement burning through my tennis shoes.
"Jesus, it's warm," Dara sighed as she stood on the other side of my car looking at the Cadillac. "Maybe this is Hell, Nicky."
"Maybe," I muttered, actually laughing to myself t as I walked around the car and over to the Caddy. I stuck my head through open driver's window, searching the front seat and back seat. Inside, the car was immaculate; the upholstery was beige leather. A silver cross sat on the dash. Dara walked around to the other side, reached down through the passenger window, and opened the glove box. Save for a small black Bible, it was empty.
"Nothing but the word of the Lord," she said. Leaning through the driver's window, I stared at her. Thinking the Bible was a sign, I felt that there was something dangerous and profane in what we were about to do.
"You call the shots," I said.
Facing me, she said, "Fuck the Bible is what I say. Get the knives, Nicky, get the goddamned fuckin' knives. Let's have some fun and set the captives free." Bringing the knives, hand-me-downs from my great grandparents, had been my idea.
"A minute," I said, pulling my head out of the car, turning and walking across the road to open the trunk. Eager now, I unzipped my suitcase, reached in and felt around until I discovered the knives. I shut the suitcase, closed the trunk, stepped back, and held up the glorious instruments, one in each hand. Silently, attempting to summon boldness, I prayed to darkness and was flooded with a rush of night. Blazing with dark empowerment, I offered both quivering instruments to the sun. To myself, in that instant, I became deity. Let's kill, a voice inside me said.
Light exploding off metal, transforming into darkness, and entering me, I lowered my arms, trembling with furious energy, and walked back across the road to join Dara. I felt that I was walking through flames. I handed Dara the knife with the emerald handle. I kept the ruby handled one, which had spilled blood centuries ago.
"Time to go," I said, and Dara nodded, walking with me up the empty road. After about fifty feet, we found the path taking off to the right.
Perspiring, we followed the smooth brown path straight through brush and pine and around the side of a thickly forested mountain until we came upon a small green meadow divided by a meandering stream. Dara and I stopped in a clump of trees, searching the meadow. The mountain was to our right.
"See anything?" I whispered, crouching, smelling pine and death. An instant before, I had heard a clicking. Sweat poured from me.
"Don't see a fuckin' thing," Dara commented, more coolly, crouching. She was panting.
We stayed in the shade, the meadow spread before us. We waited and waited, Dara smoking cigarette after cigarette, I occasionally hearing dry twigs cracking around us. Small forest animals, I thought. Just small forest animals. Blaming imagination, I wondered if our prey had wandered beyond the stream when I saw to our far right a young couple walking along the creek and holding hands. Dressed in white, they seemed ethereal.
"There," I whispered, pointing. "There."
"Good man, Nicky," Dara said, cigarette dangling from her mouth. She held her knife in front of her and studied it admiringly.
All fear left me for an instant, and we soaked in the dark anticipatory thrill of the kill.
"Let's do it," Dara finally said, rising to her feet just as, behind us just then, I heard something crashing through the bushes, then dry twigs cracking. Sensing that nightmare was invading reality, I held my breath and all sound stopped. Looking at Dara, now also perspiring profusely, I heard the cracking again. And again. Something was back there.
Slowly rising to my feet, hair on the back of my neck bristling, I turned toward the sounds and felt something. Alert, Dara turned with me, flipped her cigarette into a stony pit ten feet from us, knife ready in her right hand.
Looking up the mountain, I heard the hard thud of giant footsteps over grassy earth, knew something big was running across the side of the mountain and out of view. I wondered if I were dreaming, sensed I was on the verge of splitting into fragments, then felt a slight earth tremor and heard the rumble something moving toward us. Reacting instantly, I pulled Dara aside as a boulder exploded through bushes just feet from where we now stood.
Silence followed. We stood, peering through bushes and trees up the mountain. Then, something happened: the light around us slowly began fading, and Dara and I gradually became darkness as a distant glow slowly poured down from the top of the mountain through the trees. Encased in darkness, we were trapped in a black box, watching light billowing downward, like a slowly moving death cloud. Dread pierced me, and I knew that I was close to annihilation.
"What is this, Nicky?" she whispered, frightened. "Are we in Hell?" I glanced at her in the darkness and could barely make out her face. Her eyes were wide open. I heard her heart thumping wildly.
"'Course not." I was numb.
"Nicky," she whispered, "let's get outta here."
We stood for a moment, as if bolted to the earth.
"Let's do that," I rasped.
It was then that I heard the whishing through the darkness, as if oxygen was being pulled from the air, ending with a dull thwuck. Then another whishing, followed by the same thwuck. And then another. Dara cried, then doubled over and fell, her hands clutching the area just over her crotch. For several moments, paralyzed by fear and indecision, I stood and watched as she lay gasping on her side, curled in a fetal position. Then, I forced myself to kneel, gently took her by the shoulders, and slowly rolled her over. Her hands, balled into fists and clutching something, were slick with blood. In the darkness, I couldn't see the blood, but I could feel it and smell it. I dropped my knife, reached down and placed my right hand on her hands in an effort to find the wound and stop the bleeding. Moving her hands away, I felt my own hand graze pointed and metallic things, and I realized she had several wounds. I recognized the things, which had pieced all the way through her body. I decided I wouldn't remove the arrows and risk losing blood.
I glanced up the mountain. It was like looking into the sun. Clothed in flame, he stood sideways, front foot propped against a jagged rock for support, a tall man dressed completely in black, watching, the crossbow loaded and pointed at me. I could not move. For an instant, when my eyes met his, and I could see no thought, no feeling, no rage, just stony, ice-blue indifference that chilled me deeply. My teeth chattered, and my heart was ready to explode. Then, I recognized him: the angelic executioner that had haunted my dreams as a child.
I stared into ice-blue eyes, waiting for him to pull the trigger. After a time, he lowered the crossbow, released the trigger, said something in a tongue that I could not identify, turned, glided swiftly up the mountain, and vanished.
I looked down at Dara. Her eyes were open, locked with mine, and her mouth was parted, a crimson line trickling down her chin and onto her shirt.
"What we gonna do, Nicky?" she rasped. "Has Daddy Death come for me?"
"You're not gonna die, babe," I lied, picking her up in both arms. We had both dropped our knives on the ground, and I didn't pick them up. Instead, moving as fast as I could, I carried Dara, fast expiring, over the forest path and toward the car.
When I reached the road, the black Cadillac was gone. When I went around to the passenger door of my car and set Dara inside, I noticed the small black Bible on my seat. Dara saw it too and, though breathing with difficulty, she gasped, spat blood, and laughed, "A message from God, Stud?"
Her mocking words were like a foot in the gut, and suddenly the dark images that had filtered into my life--the dreams, the knives, the killing of the old couple, the black vehicles, my meeting and infatuation with Dara--pulled together like dying planets orbiting a nearly extinguished sun. I was locked in a dark cosmic dance.
V. And now darkness has fallen and the universe spins out of control as my car plunges through the night. The angel clings bat-like to my roof. I can hear it singing a dark overture. Unable to stop my hands from trembling, I manage to flip on the overhead light and look over at Dara. I have placed the small Bible on the dash in front of me.
The wound is grotesque and gaping. The area just above Dara's groin is thick and dark with clotting blood. Her coughing has ceased. Her shirt and seat are saturated. The air inside the car is thick with the gooey metallic smell of a wounded beast. I can no longer hear her breathing and realize that she has gone.
Guided by an unseen force, I know what I must do.
My head lights on bright, I slow the car until I find a dirt road taking off through the desert to my right. Though no other cars are on the highway, I dim my lights and turn onto the road. With no other options, I drive for miles, through gigantic ruts from a recent desert rain, even through a small creek, and finally down into a gully not visible from the main highway.
Shutting off the engine, putting on the parking brakes, and turning my headlights on bright, I open my door, step out, and walk slowly around to the other side. The desert breeze refreshes me a bit. "C'mon, angel," I whisper as I open the passenger door, grab Dara, and drag her out. Taking her feet, sobbing weakly, I drag her to a point about fifty feet in front of my car bathed in light. Then, I return to the car, open the trunk, and take out a small, collapsible shovel that I always carry on road trips. It takes about two hours to dig a grave in this hard soil.
Once I have covered up Dara's body, holding the shovel in one hand, I walk out of the light and look up at the night sky. The breeze whips around me. It's a moonless night, but the night air is so clear that I can see the Milky Way. I cannot feel, which is the way it was after I help bury the old couple. A star shoots across the sky, and, I wonder if praying would make a difference. I wonder about the God that Dara fled and about the obsidian angels. Is anybody there? I silently ask. In that instant, in a flicker of transcendence, I am reminded of those moments when it occurs to some of us that, given the sheer impossibility of existence, let alone the presence of an infinite and eternal universe, the cosmos is built up an elaborate, intricate design.
But I can hold the thought no longer than I can hold my breath. Besides, I tell myself, who the really cares? Drained of life, I head for my car, hoping the angel has gone away. I look at the roof of my car, see nothing, open the door, and throw the shovel into the back seat. The angel, rider of the night sky, will be back, clinging to my thoughts like a black bat.
A hard warm wind begins howling across the desert, but the wind could not be an answer. Nothing inhabits the lifeless wind, no more that motion through the void. Maybe, there are no answers, I tell myself, but that should not be my concern. It occurs to me as well that the death of one, ten, even one thousand really doesn't matter in the greater scheme of things; but, of course, my transcendent moment gone, I realize that there can be no greater scheme, the concept of which is surely an invention of cultures desperate to deny empty night.
I think about this revelation, actually imagine that I feel good about it as I start the car, remove the brake, and head for the highway. Maybe, I tell myself, flipping on the radio and hoping to find a classical music station to fill my own tangible emptiness, nothing matters at all.
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