Cover Carly Larsson
Suicide Without Dying
Socks and the City
Wendy S. Palmer
G J Johnson
Other Oceans, Other Motions
A Puma for Lucille
The light in the distance held him on the railroad tracks. Silver rays, elastic and blurred in the darkness, tickled his skin. The small orb of light pulsed brighter in some places, changing its shape and dancing through the air.
There was warmth in that light, Kris thought. Not like the sear of New Mexico’s high desert sun, it was the soothing glow that radiates from a blanket steeped in the body heat of a good night’s sleep. It made you forget; made you feel safe.
He’d seen a similar light before—on the road not far from the tracks. Seen it break through the persistent orange strokes of the summer sun. And it had held his gaze then, too. He hadn’t moved quickly enough that day—the day of the accident.
That day, he’d been playing with the boy on the road near the mile marker sign—number 49. The boy was on his bicycle and Kris chased from behind. The light had twinkled at the road’s bend. A flash bouncing off the sign’s reflective border and numbers, but it was enough to get his attention. He had to listen to what he saw, what he felt and smelled, more closely than other people. For more than thirty years now, he’d studied the silent world around him, sifting through what his other senses offered. So, he’d stopped and turned toward the light.
It reached out for him in white spikes. Blue-orange bright spots bled through, and then brown and gray and black, until he could see a car breaking through the glare. The light grasped for him from the windshield and silvery chrome of a bumper and grill. The colors and shapes weaved back and forth, as the car gently swerved between lanes. The rocking motion was soothing. But the angles grew extreme and jerky as the car closed the distance.
Kris turned from the approaching car and saw the boy pedaling away, not looking back.
He didn’t know the boy’s name. It couldn’t be communicated between them. But Kris thought of him as “Little Bear,” because of how he’d torn through the bushes and brush to get to his mother for safety.
The day they’d met had been bright also. Everything was renewed in spring’s groggy warmth. Sprigs of wheatgrass clawed their way from the ground. Green nubs punched through the cottonwood limbs. Everything smelled leafy and green. Kris had been walking up the hill along the Rio Grande, coming from the where the farmer kept his bees.
The bees were a favorite place for him. The farmer kept a regular schedule, checking the hives in the early morning hours when they were less active. The boxes were handmade and rough, white with cheap paint that never lasted more than a couple seasons. They rested among the wild chamisa and sagebrush, across the dirt road from the chile pepper fields. Spaced a few feet apart, they looked like forgotten headstones in an old graveyard.
After the farmer left, Kris had visited. He didn’t have the farmer’s bulky coveralls or hat and net to protect from their stings. In fact, he liked to take off his coat and shirt to walk among the hives, his arms stretched out, eager to feel the murmur of the bee’s wings and their tiny legs dancing on his skin. The teeming insects covered him, hugging him in a mass. There was the occasional sting, but Kris forgave them, seeing it as an excited mistake. And he knew they didn’t survive the attack, as he often found a dead bee still attached to his skin by its small barb.
He opened a box and slid out a flat. He drew a finger along the musky honey and sucked it into his mouth. Grainy on his tongue, the honey was sweet but with a hint of the nearby chiles. He never took more than a finger. The honey belonged to the bees. They slaved through the hot days to produce the delicacy and the theft left him a little sad.
After, he walked to the river, weaving between the bank and the budding cottonwoods. There was a house ahead, set back from the road and nestled into the bosque. He usually skirted the property, staying as close to the river as possible. But gazing up at how the sun filtered through the trees without their fully developed leaves, he strayed.
Little Bear burst from a stretch of sagebrush, chasing a dog. The dog, a young German shepherd, ran to Kris and nudged his knee with a wet nose. The boy froze twenty yards off, as still as the two cottonwood trunks on either side of him. Then, he turned and charged off in the direction of the house. The boy’s black, coarse hair furled out behind him, the sun bouncing off it in a glimmering symphony. Without thinking, Kris followed.
The dog stuck its head between Kris’s legs, tripping him on the edge of the property. He felt the dog’s warm, sand-papery tongue and the cold slime of its nose on his neck as it prodded him to get up and run again. He raised his head and saw Little Bear standing at the back door in a frightened woman’s arms.
Her black hair, streaked with morning-sky-silver, was gathered up in a bun, loose strands flapping all around. Wild eyes glared from her thin, angular face. Her mouth pistoned up and down in a vicious rhythm as she clutched her child.
Kris had seen faces like hers before. It was why he spent so much time wandering the Pueblo and desert alone. Maybe people thought he was crazy. Or maybe they reacted that way from fear. He was a striking figure—stocky and naturally dark from his Indian ancestry, but more so from the grime of living rough. Long, wavy hair rioted from his head, obscuring a thick bearded face. What people said was lost on him. But reading people was different from hearing them, and this woman was scared and angry.
He hadn’t chased the boy out of meanness. It was instinct, like the dog’s instinct for a game in the chase. But he didn’t have any way to explain, at least not in the typical sense. So, he acted on instinct again.
Raising himself to his hands and knees, he crawled over to the woman and boy. He laid himself down, his entire body flat on the ground at her feet. He stretched his arms out to the side and opened his hands palms down. Legs straight and feet together, the soles of his shoes pointed upward. He put his face in the dirt. And he didn’t move. Not until he felt the woman’s warm hands cover his cheeks and ears.
She turned his face to one side so that he could see her out of one eye. Her face had softened and her mouth was no longer moving. The once harsh eyes were thick with tears. Up close, she smelled like the wild mint he picked and chewed as a treat in the summer. Using her hands, the woman moved him until he was seated in the dirt, facing her. She knelt in front of him and held his gaze with an intensity and compassion that made him almost as uncomfortable as the normal reactions from people.
The woman placed her hands over her own ears. She shook her head slowly and then placed her hands over Kris’s ears, continuing to shake her head. Her soft hands on his face were comforting, like the bees’ delicate skittering legs. Behind her, Little Bear mimicked his mother with his own hands and ears. The woman removed her hands from Kris’s ears and put them over her mouth, one atop the other. This time, Kris placed his own hands over his mouth, and shook his head to the same cadence that the boy and the woman were shaking theirs.
It was the first time understanding had come so quickly and easily; the most intimate human interaction he’d had in years.
For weeks after their meeting, the woman tried to communicate with him. She brought out books and pointed at pictures. One time, she swept her hands in the air. At first, he thought she was trying to spook him away. But he realized that she was using the movements from that school up north where his parents had left him for a time when he was young.
Another time, she gave Kris a present—a necklace with a cross. The cross had double bars, a mixture of the Isleta traditional dragonfly symbol and the cross of Christ. Below the bars was a silver bird, wings raised in flight as though it might carry the necklace away. It was like the ones he had seen his grandfather make. The kind his family sold in the diner, where the smoky green chiles on the burgers roasted his tongue. Taking the chain from around her neck, she placed it in his open hand and closed his fingers around the pendant with her own.
A few days later, he walked up from the front of their house, a route he didn’t normally take because it took him from the safety of the trees. The garage door was raised and a man was bent over a rough-hewn bench. Little Bear was standing on a crate next to the man. Kris stopped at the garage’s threshold and stood there quietly, waiting for the boy to turn. But it was the man who sensed him.
When the man turned, he was hard in all the places where the woman was soft. Leathered, crevassed skin twitched on his face. Steely gray eyes burned over a mouth that started gnashing up and down. As Kris backed away, the boy ran to him and stood between the two. The woman appeared from the house and ran to take up a place next to the boy. With her back to him, Kris couldn’t see what happened. But eventually, the color in the man’s face reduced to a soft pink. The woman led Kris from the garage. When they were out of the hard man’s sight, she pointed back toward the garage and shook her head.
The woman trusted Kris with Little Bear, in whom he sensed a kindred remoteness. Their play was simple, usually involving a chase, the dog harrying them at every step. When the boy grew bored, he followed Kris through the bosque. They leaned over the river, minnows and catfish caressing their hands buried in the water. They sat in cottonwood trees, playing with the lengthening cotton beards hanging from pods. When coyote scent alerted Kris to a den, he showed the boy where glimmering yellow eyes peered out from a dark hollow. And Kris tried to point to the differences in the sun’s light as it reflected off something.
Such a reflection caught Kris’s attention the day of the accident as the car swerved up Highway 67 toward Little Bear. No longer playing a game, Kris ran like never before. But the boy saw it as a new challenge, looking over his shoulder just enough to see his pursuer but not the approaching car. Pumping his little legs at the pedals with a new urgency, his wild dark hair fluttered in the wind. The sticky asphalt, softening in the summer heat, grabbed at Kris’s feet and the dog nipped and nudged him.
He had pulled even with the bicycle and was reaching out to grab the boy, when he felt the air around him change. There is a vacuum that surrounds a collision, as though the atmosphere is inhaling in anticipation.
The bicycle crumpled and Little Bear was pulled down out of reach. Kris stepped back as the car slid around him, the driver’s eyes bulging at him through the car’s side window.
Before the car skidded to rest on the dusty shoulder, Kris was already hiding in the trees. The driver pushed himself out of the car and scowled at the dog which stood at the rear bumper, its scruff standing up like a mane. After the driver looked at the crumpled bicycle in front of the car, he inched his way to the back.
From the trees, Kris saw Little Bear stuck underneath a back tire. Red oozed from him in a variety of shades. Gummy, pink liquid seeped down his head. Some snailed down his lumpy, twisted neck. A chile-red flow soaked through a tear in his shirt. The brightest blood rhythmically spurted from the boys left leg where a sharp bone pierced through the flesh. A puddle collected: apple-red at the edges where it was freshest, drying in the middle to a strawberry shade before turning rusty brown, like the volcanic rocks across the road near the tracks. The spurts hungrily reached out for Kris, but the tempo slowed and reduced to a drip before stopping altogether.
The driver knelt, peered under the car, and returned to his door. But he didn’t get inside right away. He rummaged a small bottle from a bag on the seat and shook a pill from it. He put it into his mouth and arched his head back, swallowing. Then, he got into the car and drove, dragging the body a few feet in the soft dirt before it broke free and rolled into a heap. The dog padded over, circled the body, and lay down.
Kris ran out of the trees after the car. He stopped at the mile marker sign. Watery legs and shaking, he held on to the sign, surveying the car’s path. Never speeding or swerving, it lazed around the bend in the road and down the hill toward the Pueblo.
There had been nothing special about the driver. He was average in every way, in build and height and weight. His hair was the color of brown that goes unnoticed, neatly cut but not too short. His skin was brown, but not dark like Kris’s. He was wearing a pale green shirt, like the ones people wore at the Pueblo clinic. He was so average as to avoid notice altogether. But Kris would recognize the driver from that day on, walking or hitchhiking—never driving—this same stretch of road.
Over the following months, Kris wondered whether the driver purposely walked this road looking for him. Maybe he wanted to kill Kris so that no one else would know. Or maybe he blamed Kris. Whatever the reason, the driver continued walking through the place, sometimes breaking into a run until he got past the mile marker.
Now, standing on the train tracks in the warm summer night, the bright, white orb continued to approach. Kris could see the dirt shoulder across the road where the boy’s body had finally come to rest. A wooden cross was now sticking from the dirt, marking the spot. Like the cross he wore, it had two bars. And he had watched the hard man from the boy’s garage, build the cross and put it into the ground there earlier this afternoon. From the edge of the trees, he had watched the man work, pausing occasionally to weep.
Kris knew the man’s grief. He’d seen it stream over the man’s hard, red face the only other time he’d seen him—when Kris had tried to confess. Many times after the accident he had watched the house from afar, looking in through the open garage. Eventually, his guilt outpaced his fear of the hard man, and he walked into the garage again.
Perhaps it was Kris’s smell that announced him, or the movement of his shadow stretching up the garage’s back wall. The hard man turned and stared. Kris reached into his shirt and pulled out the cross. He let the cross swing on the chain, giving flight to the bird’s wings. The man snatched the cross and pulled it toward him as far as the chain would allow.
Kris grabbed the man’s arm and pulled him, urging him to follow. When the man refused to move, Kris summoned up what courage he had left and tried to speak. It was one syllable, but it sounded like several.
“Bwwwuuuudaa” was what the hard man heard.
Kris groaned the word several more times and waved his hands in time with the sounds, until the man’s shoulders began to shudder. With the effort of speaking, tears streamed down Kris’s face, too. With each iteration of the word, Kris pulled the man with more urgency, willing him to follow. If he could bring the man out to the road where Little Bear died, he thought he might be able to communicate what happened there.
Eventually, the hard man’s knees buckled him into a kneel. His whole body shook, and he wept.
That was the last time Kris had seen him until this afternoon when he watched the man make the cross and put it in the ground. Kris had not been the only one watching, though. The driver was there, too.
Running up the road from the Pueblo, the driver disappeared behind the rocks on the opposite side of the road, popping out on the mesa above. He sat down with his feet dangling over the edge to watch.
The hard man dug in the ground with a large tool, stopping only when a dirt devil chased him away from the hole at his feet. Little Bear’s dog, who’d come with the man, dashed through the flying dust, and bounded into the trees where Kris was kneeling. It circled him and nudged him, trying to get him up and running, the way they had run with the boy. But the dog lost interest when Kris didn’t respond and followed its nose somewhere else.
With the cross in the ground, the hard man knelt and prayed like Kris had seen people in the old Pueblo church praying, with his head bowed completely to the ground.
Watching from the trees, Kris began to think that he might finally be able to unburden himself. In this place, with the man praying at the cross that stood where Little Bear had bled, and the driver looking down on them from above, maybe he could be understood. But before he made the tree line, another dirt devil swept through. It knocked Kris back to his knees and the hard man to the ground, pushing across the road and up onto the mesa, battering the driver onto his back.
When the dust cleared, the man loaded his tools into his truck, collected the dog, and drove away. Kris ran across the road and climbed the mesa. He could taste the metallic dust from the brittle, sharp rocks as they crumbled under his feet. When he crested the mesa’s ridge, the driver was laying back on the edge of the mesa. Kris waited until the driver sat up, watching him put something in his mouth and arch his neck the way he’d done before.
Approaching from behind, Kris wasn’t sure what to do. Maybe he would try to speak again. The driver would understand how Kris felt, how nothing mattered but the mounting weight of the boy’s blood. Kris could bring the driver down from the mesa to the cross the hard man had built and they could commune, if only in their sin.
Having closed all but the last few feet, Kris smelled the driver’s sour sweat. An internal heat, not from the sun, pulsed from the driver’s slick skin. Blood oozed from scratches on his neck and shoulders, mixing with sweat and red, black dust. It was not the bright, accusing color that had flowed from Little Bear but a dull brown color—it already looked dead.
As Kris stretched out a hand, the driver’s head dropped to his chest. The weight carried the driver forward and he tumbled off the mesa. Kris shuffled up to the edge of the mesa. Below, the driver was on his back, looking up and rapidly blinking.
Kris went down the mesa into the rocks.
The driver’s body was draped backwards over a boulder, arms and legs hanging slack and still. His eyes were milky, like in dead animals that had lain out for a few days.
Kris took the necklace from his neck, laid it on the driver’s chest, and then sat down among the rocks.
No one would ever understand now. He had tried with the hard man. But, beyond their shared grief, there was no context for what he had tried to communicate. And now the only other person who could understand was gone. The finality of it held him motionless as layers of purple and blue and gray pushed the sun into darkness.
He had remained there until the orb winked at him in the distance. The warmth it promised pulled him out to stand between the rails in anticipation. He sensed restoration in that light, a place of release. He watched it dance closer and closer.
By the time the orb had grown large enough to swallow him, his body was singing. The hair on his head blew back in waves with the rushing wind. The tiny hairs on his arms and legs tingled with electricity. The ground rumbled, rocks and dirt bubbling on the surface. The greasy, rail tie on which he stood tried to buck free, like an untamed animal. The air was heavy with soot. Diesel and oil fumes snaked up his nose, filling the back of his mouth with an acrid taste.
But the light was beautiful up close. A kaleidoscope swam in his eyes, breaking into thousands of colors and pirouetting in perfect time. Blues spun around reds, and greens twirled in the hands of oranges, until they all fractured into new shapes and began anew with a faster rhythm. Kris longed to dance in that light, to feel the colors whirl around him, wanted to feel the push and pull as they carried him along in the measures of their song.
He reached out to touch the light, hoping to feel the warmth clasp his hands and pull him in.
Constant reading inspired Mac McCaskill to write his own stories, but he came to it late. Instead of practicing law after graduating law school, he enlisted in the US Army as a bomb tech. Then, he joined the FBI and has been a Special Agent for almost 18 years. This is his first publication.