There’s this road she takes, on the drive back from her sister’s house, that doesn’t look or feel like it was made to be driven on by the kind of human being she knows. It’s not a bad road, by any means, but she doesn’t like driving on highways, even at night, and it’s the straightest path coming back and forth from her sister’s place to her apartment, so she takes it.
It hasn’t been paved in a long while, that’s clear, and in her small car, the rattling of the asphalt makes her feel like her car is moments away from shaking itself apart.
The road is divided strangely—wide enough to be four lanes, like any good Arizona road, but actually divided into three too-wide lanes, a turning lane in the middle for the entire length. A fault where the asphalt warped at the middle of the lane tilts one side lower than the other, so that it feels like your car is always pitching right towards the shoulder of the road. To one side is a long concrete wall. To the other is open prairie.
The result of this is that, while the road is long and straight and easy, you can never relax your eyes while driving it, always staying at a medium consciousness of your surroundings, which makes the drive always feel much longer than twenty minutes. On the rare occasion when another car floats on ahead of her, she can watch the driver slide their vehicle from one side of the wide lane to another, twitching and swaying like a bumblebee trying to get through a pane of glass. It was only in watching them bop around that she noticed herself doing it, trembling her little car from side to side along the road. One could never truly relax on this road.
The fact that she had no recollection of picking up a hitchhiker, despite there now being one in her car, did not help things.
He’s sitting shotgun to her, not saying a word and certainly not wearing a mask, cloth or otherwise, just fiddling with the glove compartment, opening and closing it over and over again. Now, she’s a proper Arizona driver, in her little four-seater car, and she knows better than to acknowledge a passenger she has no memory of picking up, so she ignores him.
She stops to refuel her tank at a Shell station outside of Scottsdale, tugging her mask on and tucking her hand sanitizer into her front pocket. She still has half a tank left, but she doesn’t know how long it’ll be before she comes back this way again, how long it’ll be before she sees her brother and sister again, so she fills the tank back up all the way and leans against the car door as the clicking of the pouring gasoline sounds.
“Excuse me,” she hears, from somewhere near her feet.
She glances down. A blonde, hoary tarantula is climbing over her shoe and up onto her pant leg, in a slow, wobbly scale. “Good evening,” she says.
“Hi,” the spider replies. “Jacob Waltz, pleasure to make your acquaintance. Mind if I bothered you for yours?”
“Call me Sleeper Car,” she says. She lowers a hand for him, and Jacob Waltz climbs into the center of her palm, whereupon he continues to walk, letting her pass him from one hand to another, in a slow, conversational pace.
“Sleeper Car,” he says. “Heading to the Underworld, are you?”
“How can you tell?”
Eight eyes grouped in two columns turn to the shotgun seat of her four-seater Hyundai, but Jacob Waltz does not acknowledge the passenger either. The hitchhiker, faceless and wordless, takes his phone out of his pocket and begins to pick at the touch screen without intent, uncomfortable.
She conceded the point. “Alright,” she said, “where’s the Underworld, then, Jacob Waltz?”
“Near Kingman, of course,” he says, “where else? Across the Salt River.”
She says, “The Salt River doesn’t cross Kingman.”
She thinks on it, and finds she’s not so sure. It’s not as though she’s walked the length and breadth of the Gila and all its tributaries to see where each trail does and doesn’t go. “Then I’ll go to Kingman, and I’ll cross the Salt River. And you’re coming with me, Jacob Waltz.”
“Of course I am,” says Jacob Walt, “it’s a long way to the edge of the state, and you are in need of a guide.”
“I have Waze on my phone,” she says.
“Yeah, go ahead and type in The Underworld on Waze, Sleeper. No, go on. I’ll wait.”
Yielding the point, she places Jacob Waltz on her right shoulder to finish paying for her gas. Once she ducks back into the driver’s seat, the tarantula ambles down the length of her arm, up the steering wheel, and settles at the dashboard, making himself comfortable there.
“And we’re off,” he says, and they were.
By all accounts, she ought’ve been in Kingman hours ago.
If you check the map, it should only be about three hours to cross the state lines from Arizona to California, maybe four hours, maybe five. But she once tried to drive to California, in her little Hyundai, pushing hard against the desert and winds, and once she saw the bloodied star of Arizona’s state flag waving over the state lines, having spent a week weathering God, her engine had overheated, and she’d given up leaving then and there.
And she hates driving on highways, anyway. It’s the way the road knows you’re trying to race out of somewhere, and it has ways of punishing you for it. It’ll take them three days, Jacob Waltz says, maybe four, maybe five.
“Have you ever been to California?” she asks him, on account of her phone recharging and the radio stations being shit.
“Once,” he says, “on the great ambling route that all male tarantulas make, coming down the mountain to celebrate before climbing back up the mountain to fuck prodigiously and die.”
She says, “You seem very much alive.”
Jacob Waltz seems humbled by that, and he makes a bashful turn about the dashboard. “Terribly alive, I am. In this lifetime, I’ve had twelve seasons, and the ground is full of my slings, hissing and throwing hairs as they should. But in twelve years, I’ve not known the pleasure of being killed by a lady I went courting, though I’ve lived it in previous lifespans.”
“You’ll have to forgive me for saying it, but I can’t say the sound of being killed while fucking appeals to me very much, Jacob Waltz.”
“That’s on account of you not being a spider,” he says, in a pitying tone. “To you, the air is quiet and full of sand. You do not feel the vibrations of prey on the breeze, nor the magnetic pull of the mountain, to dance, to hunt, to kill, to die. I have lived a thousand years, crawling on the desert earth, and I will live a thousand more, for as long as there is desert earth to crawl on, all for the chance to once again live, and to live is to feed the person you love with your own body if you must. This is a language you will never speak.”
She thinks on that, then she nods. “Fair enough.”
They drive in silence. The night turns to a milky, purpling dawn. She intended on sleeping, but she doesn’t feel tired at all. The desert warms up, hot and alive. God ascends on the world again, burning white hot on the horizon.
At a rest stop vending machine, she buys a bottle of water, a gun with three bullets, and an energy bar. She pays in a twenty dollar bill, and the machine spits her change back to her, two dollars in quarters. She turns the coins on their side, and finds that one is a Wyoming quarter, the back printed with a simple, elegant design of a rider atop a bucking bronco. Running her thumb across the shining coin, the brilliant insignia, she thinks all at once that it is the most beautiful thing she’s ever seen.
“Wyoming,” she says, to herself more than anything.
“Never been,” Jacob Waltz says. “I don’t believe it exists.”
“Yeah,” she agrees, pouring her quarters into her pocket, like glittering little stones, like the precious teeth of a copper mine.
On the night of the first day, which they resolved to drive through, there’s a monsoon. It’s late August, the time of all times for a monsoon, and this one snarls and bites and kicks like a canyon mule, and they drive through it.
“It’s a monsoon,” she says, yanking the steering wheel hard against the wind. A storm like this would be hell in a truck, but in a little four-seater, it makes the bones of her skull tremble, mandible, maxillary, zygomatic, temporal.
Steady on the dashboard, Jacob Waltz insists, “It’s a haboob.”
He’s been insisting that for the past hour, threatening that the storm will never break, explaining that this is the first layer of Hell, the howling winds of the undecided dead, who lived neither here nor there, who could neither help good nor hinder bad, and so abided bad in quiet, indecisive ways. The road here is badly paved. Three times, in his lecture, he nearly shook all the way off the dashboard.
“It’ll break,” she says.
In the passenger seat, her hitchhiker murmurs something. Every time he opens his mouth, a thunder rolls in the mountains and drowns him out, but he keeps prodding at his phone unhappily, checking the weather, checking the news. He opens the gloves box and compulsively palms at the emergency kit someone stored there, and nods to himself. She avoids making eye contact.
A truck passes them by, nearly running them off the road, and she just about cracks a tooth clenching her jaw. She reads the side of it as it moves past the window, sees the words, “GOD ENRICHES GOD ENRICHING GOD ENRICHED GOD—” before she turns her head back to the road.
God is nowhere to be seen. The cloud cover is too thick, and the air is hazy with red dust, the horizon a blurry orange, the road an Impressionist grey. “I hate highways,” she says, to no-one. The passenger opens his mouth, and a crack of lightning tears the stomach of the sky open like a haruspex. It rains fat, slow-moving droplets.
“See?” she says. “I told you it’s not a haboob.”
Jacob Waltz only says, “There’s something on the side of the road, there. There’s someone. Sleeper, pull off the road.”
She starts to say, “Nothing there,” but her hands obey the instructions of the guide without her input, turning the steering wheel towards the shoulder of the road. There, as she takes her foot off the gas pedal and slows down in little pulses on the breaks so as to not grind them to ash, she sees the glinting shape of the motorcycle, the black heap of the motorcyclist, the three dirt-colored vultures hopping and shuffling in a circle around the motorcyclist, and she puts her car in park.
The motorcyclist is dead, of course. She hardly needs to get out into the sand and kneel in the mud to tell, her helmet was cast off in the crash and lies maybe a yard away from her body, her arms put out to either side like a Saguaro, her neck bent painfully to the side. One of the vultures comes near, and she kicks some dirt at it so that it won’t keep pecking at the corpse.
“Lovely animals, vultures,” the corpse says. “They eat anthrax, you know?”
She thinks on that. “Like, for kicks?”
“No, they don’t—they don’t,” the motorcyclist gets up on her elbows, her dead, fogged-over eyes coming to pinch holes somewhere on either side of Sleeper Car’s shoulders. She’s doing her best to make eye-contact, despite her broken neck, her face all scraped up with road rash. “They don’t eat just the anthrax, they eat things that have anthrax in them, and then there’s no anthrax anymore. They get rid of it. Say, would you help me up?”
In the hand that isn’t scraped up to shit, the motorcyclist has a tattoo of a playing card, the deuce of clubs. Even with her mask pinned up to her face against the wind, she can make it out when she gives the dead woman a hand up. Not knowing what to say, really, she settles on, “You’re dead, in case you haven’t noticed.”
“I have noticed, yes,” she says, “on account of the neck, you know. But I appreciate you making sure.” After a moment, the motorcyclist seems to have caught enough control of her dazed eyes to look at the Hyundai, at the passenger seat and the dashboard. “Going to the Underworld?”
“I am,” Sleeper Car says.
Casting a dithering look at her wrecked bike, she says, “Mind if I catch a ride? I don’t think this one’s taking me any further, and I need to get to the Salt River.”
“To the Salt River? Yeah, I’ll take you.”
The dead motorcyclist tips her head in thanks and then takes a moment to fumble with the backseat, since there’s only a door on one side. She walks the long way around the front of the car, then goes ahead and takes a seat in the back.
“No mask? Jacob Waltz asks, in lieu of a how-do-you-do.
“Ah,” the dead woman says, very proud of herself, “can’t catch COVID, already dead.” and she taps the side of her nose twice with her index finger. “Name’s Show Low.”
“Show Low,” Jacob Waltz repeats. “I’m Jacob Waltz, that’s Sleeper Car. Do you speak any German, Show Low?”
“None,” Show Low says.
“Goddamn. Whole state full of foreigners and none of them speak any German. Spanish?”
Show Low makes an excited sound, and then the two of them spend the next hour or two speaking in Spanish while Sleeper Car gets back on the highway. Eventually, her head starts to nod against the steering wheel, the passenger reaching out as if to shake her awake every time, but she startles and refuses to acknowledge him or be acknowledged herself. This goes on until the sky turns a blue-black, speckled with stars you couldn’t see in Phoenix, Cassiopeia in her chair and the Puppis of Argo Navis, and Jacob Waltz tells her she ought to pull aside to sleep, she ought to pull aside and find a rest area so they can all sleep, and they do.
In the morning, the monsoon is all gone and so is the rest area.
It is the second day on the road, and instead of being on the road, she spends two precious hours of the morning searching all around them until she finds out that, based on the tracks and the location, a flash flood pulled their car in their sleep towards Winslow, far in the wrong direction.
“We’re closer to Four Peaks than to Kingman,” she says, which is probably an exaggeration. All along before them stretches out a yawning golf course, like the jaws of a green, artificial animal. She tries to take a step here and a step there, and it all feels forbidden to her, the grass too young and green to be stepped on.
“You ever been to New Mexico?” Jacob Waltz asks, skittering across a rock pitiably. He’s as confused about the change in scenery as she is.
Sleeper Car looks at him with a look of bald-faced offense so severe it could strip paint off a wall.
“Pardon,” he says.
“I have!” Show Low says, delighted. Sometime over the night, she bandaged her wounded side in what remains of her tattered leather jacket, and righted her broken neck, but she remains no less dead. “I’ve been to New Mexico and Colorado, but it was hell and a half to get the paperwork to go to Colorado. Had to email the Mine Inspector, you know.”
Jacob Waltz makes a disgusted sound. “Now there’s a guy who belongs here.”
An unrecognizable number calls her just then, and when she checks her phone, it warns her that it’s likely a teleprompter. She cancels the call as it comes and says, “I didn’t vote for him.”
“I didn’t vote for him either,” Show Low says, “Well, I didn’t vote for anyone. Thing is, I wanted to make an informed opinion, I wanted to research what I should do, and I did, but I just kept having late nights at work, and I never had the time, and then when I made up my mind, it was too late. I didn’t vote for anyone.”
Show Low looks appropriately bereaved about it. Above them, a small flock of red-eyed cowbirds, black and glinting like metal ingots, call to one another on the branches of an ironwood tree.
“Uncanny, wouldn’t you say?” Jacob Waltz says, cleaning the hairs of his eight legs one at a time.
“I wouldn’t,” she says.
“You wouldn’t, Sleeper?”
She says, “I wouldn’t say uncanny. It’s not familiar enough to be that—uncanny lives in the private and intimate. It’s a lover’s shape, lying in your bedsheets, unrecognizable to you. That,” she says, cupping a hand over her forehead to glare at the horizon against the harsh light of God, “is just fucking creepy. Where are we now?”
Looking at the red-eyed cowbirds, Jacob Waltz sighs and rolls his eyes, every hair on his hoary body prickling high and vicious. “These are the fields of the unrepentant, where the gluttonous souls of the living, who in their lives were parasites on their countrymen and, in their deaths, remain parasitic.”
The dozen or so cowbirds above them sing at one another mercilessly, seeing only their competitors. The golf course is barren, without even the diesel-fuel smell of a lawn mower, or the bumping, ricketing noise of golf carts bumbling along. It’s only them, the cowbirds, and, after a moment of looking, three javelinas lying together in the shade of a tree, easily mistaken for rocks.
“Good morning,” she says to the javelinas, out of politeness, who wake up one at a time, slow-moving in the cool morning and reluctant to rise. One yawns, revealing its cactus-eating tusks, its root-digging tusks, its coyote-goring tusks, and gets to its hooves with surprising elegance, its two siblings following in short order.
“What are you?” it asks.
“Who are you?” the second asks.
“Why are you?” the third asks.
She says, “Sleeper Car. I’m a driver. I’m here for the Underworld. You know the one.”
The javelinas look at each other suspiciously, apparently not satisfied with an answer of that nature. Having come to a silent consensus, they say, “Why are you going to the Underworld? / What will you give to get there? / What will you take with you when you leave?”
Finding those questions not as easy as the first batch, she allows herself a minute to ponder them, but only a minute, because javelinas are javelinas, and these are beginning to snort and huff uneasily. “I am going to the Underworld to find something I forgot. To get there, I will give as much as I need to get there and return, no more and no less. When I leave, I intend to leave with a little more than I came in with.”
These answers the three javelinas like a little better, and they jostle each other heartily, ready to start the day. The third says, “Then go to Meteor Crater, and walk into the mouth of Hell. It should be no small feat, keeping your mask on, but you have plenty of practice, descending into the deeper layers.”
Defensive, she demands, “How should I have that?”
Already on their way away, the javelinas hardly spare her a second glance as they wander off into the golf course, pausing only to say, “The deepest hell is for the living, Sleeper. That, you should already know.”
“Did you know there’s a town in Arizona called Carefree?” Show Low says, as they ascend up the steps to Meteor Crater, to look down into the mouth of hell. “Carefree and Surprise, I always liked that. There’s a town called Santa Claus, too. An unincorporated community.”
The mouth of hell looks like a meteor impact site, with the accordion folds of where different epochs, whole different ages of the world, were pressed together and sealed shut by the heat and pressure of a meteor collision, sealed tight and timeless like an unopened envelope. At the core of it, Sleeper Car thinks she can see a massive animal, but she uses one of the telescopes littered around the top of the meteor site to look below, and it’s only the metal shape of a pump. The passenger, standing right behind her, fidgets without saying a word until she lets him have a look too.
He’s very quiet, this passenger. She can’t bring herself to look at the void across his head where a face should be, except in brief glances, but when she does, she can maybe see a pair of eyes clearing up. He’s quiet, which is odd to her, even though she doesn’t know him. In places like this, everything has to be quiet to be heard at all, the way her lover says her name all slow and safe in the mornings, like a red cardinal at a bird feeder sings to his girl, saying: come eat, come eat, come eat.
Show Low continues talking. “Isn’t it strange that this place is called Meteor Crater? It ought to have a name, but it doesn’t really, it’s just named for what it is. They wanted to call it Barringer Crater, originally, but they don’t name meteor impact sites after people, they name them after landmarks, and well, there weren’t any. They named it after the nearest post office, and the post office was named after the meteor crater, so, well, Meteor Crater the meteor crater. Funny.”
She tries to look harder at the crater. Tries to find the seam between their world and the next, but can’t. Everything folds together like welded layers of sediment, too hot and pressurized to split apart. Her phone rings and she answers the call without looking at it. It’s a robot caller again, and as soon as she says, “Hello?” she can hear the call connecting.
“Hello?” the cheery recorded voice echoes. “Sleeper? Turn around. Turn around, Sleeper. Turn around.”
Sweat runs down the nape of her neck. She disconnects the call and holds her phone in her hand. The background of her lockscreen is a picture of herself and someone she doesn’t recognize, but his eyes seem familiar. They look happy together.
Jacob Waltz “Hey, what kind of phone is that?”
She says, “It’s a 9S.”
He says, “No such thing. It goes 8 Plus and then X. Don’t you know that?”
She says, “Mmhm. Hold on just a minute,” then she winds her arm back as far as it’ll go, and she throws her phone into the mouth of hell.
Show Low says, “Lots of unincorporated communities in Arizona with fun names, you know. There’s one called Rare Metals, there’s another called Three Way, and one called Boneyard. There’s a town called Hope. There’s a town called Why. There’s a town called God, Forgive Me. There’s a town called Please Forgive Me. There’s a town called, God, Please Forgive Me.”
After the Meteor Crater, they drive for another three, four, five hours, until God settles in the middle of the sky, so hot and burning that they’re all yawning in their seats, exhausted by the harsh light. There is a physical exhaustion to it, to being in the light for so long, like plants witling. She wishes she was a Saguaro now, big and amiable, with a barrel chest filled with water. Unyielding.
At four in the afternoon, a sand storm picks up. By five, visibility is so poor that they have to drive with their high beams on. By six, the light is starting to diminish, and even the high beams can’t help them, so she pulls off to the side of the road to wait it out. The car warning system complains incessantly that the two front tires are depressurized, and she sighs, and resigns herself to going to check on them, despite knowing it’s only the air pressure from the weather front causing the differentials.
She gets out of the car and checks the tires, seeing that they are as perfectly filled as always, and that there are no pins in the rubber, that the wheels are still far from getting thin and worn. She pats the side of the car reassuringly, saying, “See that? It’s all alright. Nothing to worry about.”
She has, then, a profound feeling of being seen. Not watched, exactly, but viewed, as if through a window dimly. When she turns her head over her shoulder to look, the sand storm is too thick to see anything but a faint glint on the horizon, and she makes towards it, letting go of the car and walking into the midst.
In the middle of the sand storm, there’s a translucent ghost of buildings that once stood there, squat concrete housing units, high fences, no watchtower to speak of. A revenant flag of Arizona waves in the wind, showing the blood-stained star, an amiable Saguaro growing from a mound of crawling flesh. She doesn’t need to recognize the specific compound to recognize the structure of the once-standing Gila River Internment Camp, having been torn to the ground long before. She imagines, if a ghost is made of the simmering anger and withering sadness after the human soul is long gone, than the same can happen to a building, and as she walks into the ghostly structure, she notices it idly moving, gliding aimlessly in the opposite direction of her, as though being dragged away by the winds, unmoored and unmourned. She sits down in the sand and watches it drift off, the walls and fences moving through her, unaffected, and she puts her head in her hands.
She loves the state of Arizona. There is no escaping the state of Arizona. The whole of it was built on blood and atrocities. It is beyond forgiving, to the very fine marrows.
There is another figure, sitting a distance away, vaguely human, with their head turned up to the star-studded sky, their mouth open wide without a sound coming out of it. She wishes she’d taken Jacob Waltz with her, to tell her what kind of circle this is, what layer of hell. She turns her back to the figure, even as she sees them, from the corner of her eyes, get up and walk towards her. Instead, she looks again at the stars, which are as many as she’s ever seen. She finds the three parts of Argo Navis, the ship of Odysseus, finds the hull, the deck, the sails, and looks at Canopus, the second-brightest star in the night sky. She thinks back. Tries to remember a time she was happy.
She knows the figure is right behind her by the breath on the nape of her neck, the feeling of damp warmth, the shape of an open mouth closing around the crown of her head, the flat ape teeth grinding down and gnawing wetly on her head, aiming to go down all the way to her skull. She doesn’t hesitate to bring up her hand, slowly, and the gun she got from the vending machine in it, and shoots the figure straight through their brain. It’s a very loud sound. Her ears pop.
Sleeper Car only lets herself look at the body once afterwards. It’s a withered, deprived figure, naked and rawboned, featureless as though sanded down with glasspaper. It’s shot-through face is a red blooming flour, a poppy, a carnation. She finds her car again and vomits while leaning against the driver door. She coughs twice. Spits out a bullet casing.
They start driving again as soon as they can see the road.
The next morning, the car engine overheats, and they spend an hour or so cooling it off on the side of the road.
“There’s your problem,” Jacob Waltz says, when she pours water off on the engine and it steams like a skillet. “It’s too fucking hot, that’s the problem.”
“I didn’t notice,” she says, dryly. She spends the next hour or so cooling the engine off to the best of her ability, pouring off coolant, checking the houses, venting the car, sweet-talking the engine like a dog with heat exhaustion, until it relaxes, and she can get back inside.
She hasn’t even had a chance to turn the car back on when a jogger shows up in the mirror, running their direction, right in the middle of the highway. He’s a column of smoke in the rear view mirror, billowing like a wildfire. When he approaches, he pauses only for a moment to lean down and look at her through her window, his face is all gone, or maybe he never had a face at all. His eyes are two black pinholes in a roaring pillar of red fire, waving like a flag.
“Heya,” he says, super friendly. “Do you guys need a hand over there? Do you need me to call triple A for you?”
“No, no thank you,” she says. “We had a bit of a hiccup in our giddyup, but we’re good to go now.”
“Oh, good!” the jogger says, genuinely elated. “Don’t be afraid to stop and ask for help, alright? You have a good one!” And then he merrily runs off, a single burning speck on the middle of the highway.
“Looks like we’re in the circle of traitors after all,” Jacob Waltz says, looking at where the jogger disappeared on the horizon. “Not that much longer to go.”
The circle of traitors, or so Jacob Waltz says, is full of fucking bugs.
“Why are there so many fucking bugs?” Show Low says, once they’ve taken a break at the hottest hours of the day to nap, clean the car windshields from said many fucking bugs, and sip a pair of cold-ish ciders that Show Low managed to procure from somewhere, the way Show Low does. “What do bugs do? Bugs can’t do treachery.”
“What about when you think there’s a bee in the house and you try to herd it out gently to make sure it’s safe, but then it just turns out to be a strange-looking fly?” Sleeper says.
Jacob Waltz, ambling curiously across the hood of the car merrily in search of a live meal, says, “What about when you think a butterfly is a poisonous monarch, but they’re actually a nice tasty snack for you, but they’re just mimicking the appearance of a monarch to scare you off?”
“I don’t really think either of those count as treachery,” Show Low says, but just about then, the passenger comes back from where he was off pissing in the bushes and picks up his bottle of cider again, which Show Low had handed to him earlier, Sleeper Car not daring to acknowledge his presence even now, and he puts his full lips to the mouth of the bottle, bats his full lashes over his full monolid eyes, and she lets herself look at him, just for a prolonged moment, before he blows air over the bottle, and it resonates beautifully.
Show Low laughs, and tries to do the same with hers, but her bottle is too full and it doesn’t resonate right, just blows hollow, but that just makes her laugh harder. Looking at her, she asks, “Show Low, if there was a passenger in the car with us, do you think I’d know them?”
Her grin turns confused, and she says, “What are you asking me for?” but the passenger blows across his bottle again, a happy, affirmative note
“Do you think, if there was a passenger in the car with us and I knew them, they’d be what I was going to the Underworld for?”
This time, Show Low doesn’t try to respond, but she nods, playing along, when the passenger repeats the note again, in agreement.
“And, d’you reckon, Show Low, that if there was a passenger in the car with us and I knew them, and they’d be what I was going to the Underworld for, they’d be dead?”
This time, Show Low frowns at the exact same time the passenger intentionally flubs his breath of air over the neck of the bottle, creating the same hollow sound Show Low made earlier. Show Low says, “I don’t think it’s a matter of live or dead, exactly. It’s katabasis. You go down to the Underworld because you wouldn’t be able to live with yourself if you didn’t try to. Because everyone deserves someone to go down to the Underworld for them.”
It takes them another fifteen, twenty minutes, maybe half an hour, to finish cleaning up the car until it’s decent enough to drive, and by that point, the ciders are done and she’s just sitting up in the driver seat with the door propped open, waiting to sober up, when Jacob Waltz hisses sharply and ducks behind the steering wheel, tucking himself against the speedometer. It takes her yet another moment to see it, the blue and red of the tarantula hawk crawling along the length of the car window, fluttering its wings.
It’s a beautiful insect, which is a strange thing to think, but it is. Its body is a keen metallic glint, cobalt like carbon steel, its wings vibrant red like a flesh wound, and at first she doesn’t think about protecting Jacob Waltz at all when she puts her hand out to it, she just thinks that it’s a beautiful thing, like a Wyoming quarter, and that she’d like to hold it. It crawls happily along into the fleshy pad of her thumb, and traces its limbs along her hand. The second thing she thinks about—still not defensive—is that tarantula hawk wasps rank pretty high on the Schmidt pain index. Short and electric was the way she’d heard it described. It would hurt tremendously, being stung by this creature.
Thirdly, she thinks about Jacob Waltz, cowering behind the steering wheel, sitting up on his back legs with his pedipalps raised and hissing, and she doesn’t even think again before crushing the tarantula hawk in her hand.
It stings—of course it stings, and she adds a correction to the Schmidt scale: short, electric, and intimate.
Once, when Sleeper Car was 14, she rode her bike out on the street in the bike lane on the way to the Sprouts—this was in the summer and her mom was at work—and a bank truck ran her off the road and into a cemented-over ditch. She broke her arm in three places, and for a while she lay down on the hot cement, getting burned by God, the white bone jutting out of the top layer of skin, like new teeth breaking through the gumline. It hurt so much it didn’t feel like anything at all.
There are 17,000 touch receptors and free nerves in the human palm, and as she walks out of the car and goes down on her knees in the sand, she thinks every single one of them is the face of a person she met on the street who later went on to die a horrible death, unbeknownst to her.
It only lasts five minutes, and she counts every second in her head, but even after the five minutes, the pain only becomes a background noise. She doesn’t think it’ll ever go away completely. When she can feel her arms again, she’s aware now that there are four hands caging her in place, that there’s the hot muzzle of a pistol held up above her head, and that she clipped a hole in Show Low’s side trying to shoot herself in the temple. On her other side, the passenger holds her gun hand in a trembling vice grip.
Show Low takes one hand off the back of her shoulder and uses her hand to tweak her ear. “It’s only a bullet,” she says, “I’m already gone.”
“Have you ever been to Mexico?” Show Low asks from the backseat, afterwards.
“No,” Sleeper Car says. She tried to, once, tried to cross over to Mexico, it wasn’t a long drive, but everybody knows that the border is where the Furies are, with their Harris’ hawk wings and their smiling, sharp-toothed faces who would eat the liver from your torso if they caught you trying to cross with doubt in your heart, and she was full of doubt and lost her nerve before she even saw the first shadow of a hawk above her Hyundai.
“It’s a beautiful place, Mexico,” Show Low says. “You should go. You should go sometime.”
“I want to apologize,” she says, a little while after that.
“What for?” Show Low asks, having stuffed a bunch of rolled-up napkins from the Chili’s into the unbleeding bullet hole in her side.
“Earlier,” Sleeper Car says, “I said Four Peaks. I meant to say Four Corners. Four Peaks is the name of a brewery.”
There is a long silence in the car, and then the passenger laughs. It’s the sound of rushing water.
The Salt River is a live artery in the body of the desert, fresh and green, dotted with the brown bodies of wild horses standing in the stream, the grey-brown bodies of wild burros chewing weeds around the banks. They are quiet and content as they park up next to the lip of the river, four burros rolling their eyes at them, not spooked in the least. She takes out the last bullet in her gun, lays it on the flat of her tongue, and swallows it.
Show Low is the first out of the car, going down on one knee in front of the Salt River and cupping up a handful of water with both hands to drink. When Sleeper Car looks at her, her eyes skip over her, like a bobcat hidden in the brush, she just blends into the surroundings.
“Show Low,” she says, and she looks up at her. Her face is relaxed.
“I think this is where I go,” she says. “Yeah. Yeah, this feels like where I go. It’s been a pleasure, Sleeper Car.”
The water is green and muddy brown, and Sleeper Car sees a human hand floating down it, then a whole person, their eyes closed and their lips moving soundlessly under the surface of the water. The horses do not mind the floating bodies, traveling downriver.
“It’s been a pleasure, Show Low.”
She gets into the water, then, all the way to her hips, and then lays down, folds her hands on her chest, and lets the gentle current take her. “It’s not so bad, you know,” Show Low says, in the moments before she becomes just another body peacefully floating down the Salt River. “It’s really not so bad at all.”
And then she’s gone.
“You know,” Jacob Waltz says, perched on her shoulder. “This is where we part, too. From here I go up the mountains, to find my kind, to court and be eaten and be born again. It’s been a fun ride, with you. I’m happy I went.”
“I’m happy, too.”
“Say, Sleeper. Have you ever been to Utah?”
Sleeper Car smiles. “I have once, not for very long. It’s a beautiful place, Utah. Nowhere like it.”
“Nowhere like it,” he echoes. “Not too late to turn around, after all. You can still go back in your car. Drive home.”
“Yeah,” she says. Then she puts Jacob Waltz down and goes back to her car, sits down in the driver’s seat. Turns the engine on and then off again.
“Forgot my keys,” she says, when she comes back to ther. “Didn’t want to be locked out, you know.”
“Fuck you,” Jacob Waltz says, laughing. “You’re such a fucking asshole.”
“Best of luck to you, Jacob Waltz. I hope you find what you’re looking for.”
“Best of luck to you, Sleeper Car. I hope you find what you’re looking for.”
She gets into the water while looking backwards at the car, and at the tarantula on the shoreline, letting herself fall into the current back-first. It seems a lot faster and a lot more violent when it carries her away.
She wakes up around a campfire she doesn’t remember lighting, sitting in front of an old mineshaft entry that goes steeply down into the Godless abyss. It’s night. There are three coyotes sitting on the other side of the fire. When she looks around, she’s otherwise alone, but a hand closes around her own, even if she can’t see the person it belongs to.
“Welcome to the lowest ring of Hell,” one coyote says. “You’ve made it pretty far down. Only down the mineshaft to go, you know, and there you will meet the King of the Mine.”
“Who are you?” she asks.
The second coyote says, “I am To Amble.”
The third says, “I am To Pace.”
The first says, “I am To Lope. We are the Hounds of Hell.”
“I didn’t think that was the traditional narrative purpose of coyotes. Seems out of place, if you don’t mind me saying.”
To Amble licks its paws and grins at her, cackling. “What do you know about the traditional narrative purpose of coyotes? You don’t know the real name of any landmark you’ve crossed on the way here.”
She turns her head down, abashed. To Lope looks to agree, but nips at To Amble’s ear. “You expected Hell to have hounds, and so, here we are. It’s not our usual purpose, but we go where we are needed.”
To Pace inches towards her on the fire. “There is a penance, you know. To go down to the hall of the King, you must pay a toll. We are hungry. Give me your right hand.”
Sleeper Car thinks on that. “I need it to drive back to Phoenix,” she says, “to change gears while I grip the steering wheel.”
To Pace considers this and asks again. “Give me your right foot, then.”
Again, she says, “I need it to drive back home, in order to press on the gas pedal.”
Finally, he growls, and asks, “Give me your right eye, then,” and she can’t think of an answer to that, so she lets To Pace circle around the campfire and come all the way to her face, and he pulls the eye from her skull and swallows it in one, then returns to sit amongst its siblings.
Then, To Amble says, “I am hungry also. Give me your right atrium, so I may eat it.”
She thinks about it, and says, “No, that would kill me, and I need it to keep going into the mineshaft.”
To Amble asks again, “Then give me your right lung, and I’ll eat that.”
With COVID still as prevalent as it is, she could use every lung she has. “No, I need that too, or I may collapse on the way back.”
Finally, To Amble yawns impatiently and says, “Then give me your right kidney.” And she can’t think of a way to contradict that fast enough, so To Amble also crosses around the campfire and walks behind her, to pull the red kidney from her back, taking it in its mouth and rejoining its siblings, happily gnawing on it.
Third and last, To Lope looks at her, looks through her straight to the other side. “I am also hungry,” To Lope says. “Give me your right mind, so I may eat it.”
She says, “I’ll need my right mind in order to make it down the mineshaft to meet the King. Take something else.”
“Fine,” To Lope says. “Give me your right way, then.”
“I’ll need my right way to make it home again at the end of my journey,” she says. “I can’t give that to you.”
Finally, To Lope snarls, and brings its face to the light of the fire, showing the unhinged yellow eyes of a wild animal. “Then give my your right place,” she says, and Sleeper Car can’t think of a response to that, so To Lope walks across the fire, through the flame, and eats the right place from her hands, leaving her feeling unmoored and unsteady, listing like a dead leaf.
“There,” To Lope says. “Now, you are dead to rights. You may go down the mineshaft to meet the King of Hell.”
The entry to the mine is a highway exit in the dark, only visible in loose shapes, the curve of their feet towards it and the urge to go where they are called. She hopes it’s their exit, and ducks her head down as she enters, even though it’s big enough to fit her. Every step she takes, another echoes behind her, and when she reaches her hand back, someone’s familiar hand wraps around hers. It’s the hand she’s seen chew fingernails, screw together IKEA furniture, hold tight to a phone to take smiling selfies, it is the passenger’s hand, who walks every step behind her.
The passenger, unseen, holds her hand all the way down. Without the light of God to shine their way, their only source of guidance is the occasional gas lamp, flickering above, though there is a definite feeling that they could not possibly be alone here. In the crevices of the mineshaft, eyes glint back, wet and red with mine dust, and though she can see no miner in the flesh, sometimes a gas lamp swings, revealing the playing silhouettes of workers decanting the earth in search of conductive metals, like shadow puppets. From down, down below, she can hear the squeaking of wheels and keeps walking down the mineshaft. It is too big for one person and too small for two, so she and the passenger keep hovering between walking side-by-side and walking one behind the other, finding themselves knocking shoulders and trembling like insects crawling up a car windshield.
It goes for a long, long time, then. The mineshaft gets hotter and more damp, like the wet gut of the earth unspooling to reveal miles of long intestine.
Near the very end of it, it stops looking like a mineshaft, and starts to look ancient and unrefined, the mouth of a burial cave cut with stone pickaxe. The flooring is too uneven for wheelbarrows, and when Sleeper Car’s foot knocks against an unpolished stone jutting out, the passenger behind her has to reach out to grab her arm. She says, unthinkingly, “Argo, Argo.”
She cannot see him in the dark of the cave, but she hears the sound of a burbling creek, a pot of water set to boil and just starting to murmur to itself. You don’t know the smell of fresh water until you’ve been deprived of it for a long time.
The end of the mineshaft curls into a poorly-lit dome, and there’s a man at the center, pushed against the wall. He’s sitting on a little stool, polishing his glasses with the oiled fabric of his mining shirt. He has a short beard, which is thick black with soot and appears tacky to the touch from sweat. To the side of him, he has a modest wooden cart full of copper ingots, completely in the raw and nowhere near done putrifying for casting into coins or shaping into computer wires. From the thigh down, his legs are that of a bighorn sheep, covered in coast beige fur and ending in short, mean-looking hooves. He looks busy, his face lined with wrinkles like an old denim shirt, but otherwise an amiable sort of man, with a friendly expression between his pinched eyebrows.
“Hm,” he says, not unfriendly. “Can I help you?”
“Are you the King of the Hell?” she asks.
“I am,” he says, humbly. “I am the plutocrat of precious metal, the Union Organizer of all copper miners, the barrowman of burrows, the Hewer of the Underworld. I’m the Brakesman of the winding engine, and I decide where each soul goes. What do you trouble me for? I have only a brief minute for lunch, and then I must get back to work. There are mines to be dug, there are miners to break, so speak quick.”
Not mincing any words, Sleeper Car says, “I am here to find someone who does not belong in your employ, and bring him back with me.”
“What is his name?” the King of Hell asks, and starts to palm about in his oily shirt, fishing out a fountain pen and a little checkered notebook, as though used to account for shifts taken and yet to be taken. He sets his glasses back on his face, none the cleaner for his careful treatment of them just before. He squints at his journal, then looks at her with an odd, sympathetic frown. “What is his name?” he asks.
“His name is The Argonaut.”
Again, the King of the Underworld looks, running his pen up and down the page methodically before clicking his tongue with displeasure. “I’m stumped,” he says. “The Argonaut is nowhere on here.”
“He is not anywhere on your list,” she says, “because he is not dead.”
The King of the Underworld looks at her, despondent, like he gets that kind of answer all the time. “Yes, I know,” he says, “the lower circles are for the living, after all, girl, and the dead are much harder to put to work. The dead, you know, demand lunch breaks, and pay raises, and to be treated like human beings. The living make no such demands of me.”
“Is he dead?”
“It doesn’t matter what he is, he’s mine.” The King of Hell laughs, and she imagines he must like that answer. “Well, alright,” he says. “Well, alright. If you can lead him out, you can take him with you, if he’s yours to begin with, I won’t stop you. But there’s a fee, you know—if you want something of your own, you must give me something of mine, and I will only give you the one chance.” And he puts out one dirty, smudged hand, one soot-covered hand, one wrinkled old handkerchief of a hand.
She doesn’t have to think about it. She takes the Wyoming quarter out of her pocket and deposits it in the King of Hell’s palm. He looks at it suspiciously. “This isn’t made in Arizona,” he says.
“No,” she says. “But it came from the earth, and it is beautiful. It’s a treasure, and it is yours, plutocrat.”
With that, he smiles once more, and puts the coin in his cart, with all of his copper ingots. “I should get back to work,” he says, something like fondness in his voice. “Don’t let my dogs catch you on the way out.”
They walk out of the mineshaft, hands clasped together. They walk out of the river. They walk out of the shore and back into the four-seater car, and they both collapse into their respective seats with a sigh. “God,” The Argonaut groans. “God, that was exhausting. Do you think we can stop in a hotel or something on the way back?”
“No, fuck that,” Sleeper Car says. “It’s only, what? Three hours? Let’s just go home.”
So they do.
Inbal Gilboa is a Jewish immigrant writer based in Arizona. In 2019 Gilboa’s short story “The Yearlong Lighthouse” was honored with the 1st Place in Fiction by the Glendon and Kathryn Swarthout Awards in Writing. She is an MFA candidate at Northern Arizona University where Gilboa continues to study and analyze Victorian-era literature from a postcolonial perspective. Gilboa was on the editorial staff of Thin Air Magazine and previously served as the poetry editor for Lux (Undergraduate Creative Review).