A lot of stories start out with “it was a normal day, just like any other”. This wasn’t.
Saturday night, my friend Emily and I were hanging out at her place, relaxing. She was reading, I was writing. We live in a pretty party-oriented section of San Francisco; going out and getting fucked up is the norm, and used to be my go-to for the weekend. However, after a few tumultuous times out in the last few months, I decided to take a break.
Anyway, we’re quietly sitting there, and she turns to me, a hopeful glimmer of adventure resting in her eye. “Wanna go somewhere tomorrow?”
I half-jokingly replied “The desert sounds good”.
“Alright, let’s go.”
We’re both pretty spontaneous people, so a joke turning into a 300+ mile roadtrip wasn’t too far out of the ordinary. It was about 1AM by that point, so we decided to crash for a few hours and start driving at 4. As per usual with spontaneity, things didn’t go quite according to plan; we stayed up until 3 talking about where to go, crashed, got up at 5, and took off.
Those types of drives are my favorite; it’s the time of day when the whole world feels dead, like you could be the last person on earth and you’re just nosing your apocalyptic steed into oblivion. Dawn broke, and so did that playful illusion.
The trip took longer than expected, but I don’t think I’ve ever been on a roadtrip where I went straight through. Half the fun lies in the weird little dusty nooks and crannies of the land that sits between you and your destination. We made the obligatory stop at a Denny’s for the tongue-scalding sinkwater they call coffee, pulled over at the edge of a misty cliff somewhere in the forest comprising CA state route 116 (“I wonder which Old Ones sit at the bottom,” Em had muttered, staring into the gaping white abyss), and made it to the depressing shithole that is Reno by 10 AM.
When I say Reno is depressing, I do so with the reverence that comes from someone who appreciates the best and worst of places filtered through the lens of discovery.
Ever-wanting to pull attention from older brother Vegas, its desperate attempts to make parent Nevada proud end in futility. Reno is where the state’s hopes and dreams go to cook meth and die.
Its buildings sit loud and gaudy against the widest sky you’ve ever seen, sucking color hard from the landscape. Greys and browns and pale greens tuck themselves under flashing signs that probably look spectacular in the gentle excuse of nightfall but appear sad and flaccid in day’s abrasive light, and the throngs of people begin and end in hidden misery.
Along with the natural urban wasteland that is the heart of the city, Sunday happened to have a mini-festival thrown into the mix. I looked it up: the Eldorado Great Italian Festival.
The streets were thick with the smell of simmering meats and the sound of bands playing traditional songs poured from five different stages. Not exactly my cup of marinara, but I had to hand it to these people, they knew how to show pride in the middle of the most populated ghost town I’ve ever seen.
We stopped at a factory of smokey slot machines and diarrhea-inducing food known to locals as The Famous Little Nugget Diner, apparently renowned for their “Awful Awful burger”. Unfortunately, the food lived up to its name. Em ordered a ham omelette, describing its texture and flavor as “boiled boot”.
After potentially contracting something from the air, the food, or the shit-smeared bathrooms (maybe a hypervirus from all three), we took off with rock-heavy stomachs for the Great Basin. As the cartoonish blip that is Reno sank farther and farther into the hungry eye of the rearview, we passed the twisted metallic graveyard of a demolished building; a pockmarked, barely-clothed figure darted out of an alley, snatched a dirty plastic bag from a bench, and threw a furtive glance towards the sky before returning to whatever hole they’d crawled out of.
The outskirts of the Basin sit hot and angry and enormous under the sun’s all-encompassing touch. You experience alien depth on the habitable earth nowhere else like you do with the desert. Devouring another 100 miles of barren road, turning from maintained asphalt to sandy trenches of cracked rubble, we eventually found ourselves somewhere so deep no radio signal could reach us. Giving up on the GPS, I let intuition take over. A dozen or so twists and turns and backtracks later, we made it to a gorgeous kiln of nature named Pyramid Lake.
I drove the car as far as it could take us and parked at the edge of a huge precipice overlooking a cavern of trees and burnt brush.
Em and I had a well-needed stretch, collected our things, and drank in the landscape before us.
I took a deep breath and whistled. “Smells like nothing and everything at the same time.”
“Smells like death and sunshine.”
A jackrabbit burst into view and jumped over the edge of the hillock, leaving behind a swirl of dust.
There wasn’t much around us that betrayed the presence of human life. An abandoned building sat a mile or so off to the right, its facade lined with faded brick and tall mirrors. The mirrors gave off a dreamlike quality; disorienting, especially under the blazing sun. Tearing my eyes away from the bolts of light bouncing off the walls, I randomly chose a direction and started walking. After about 20 minutes, we found the lake.
Clear, cerulean water gently flowed over a shallow embankment and all manner of insects flitted back and forth across the surface. I came upon a felled tree a few yards long and about thick around as my body; the perfect place to write. Wanting a reprieve from the heat, Em took a dip in the lake.
Well into a new story, I took a cigarette break.
There’s something defiantly magical about sipping the cleanest air you’ve ever tasted in one breath and filling your lungs with smoke in the next. Wanting to get away from the laptop for a bit, I decided to explore the surrounding area, heading for a treeline about 20 yards away.
I walked through the trailless brush until I could no longer see the hazy orb of the sun peeking through where I’d entered. I’ve always been the type of person to get lost on purpose. Deep woods can be disorienting; one second, you have a good sense of direction and the next you’re staring at a hundred trees that all look exactly same. Fortunately, the ones surrounding me all seemed to hold their own sense of originality. Branches laid in scattered piles, forming queer knots in the otherwise thick curtain of tall bushes and leaves. It looked like something large had bulled through here some time ago, leaving a clearcut path of destruction in its wake.
This didn’t strike me as odd; this was the desert. You’ve got to think that there are things like bears and big cats out here. Who knows what animals do when left to their own devices and unperturbed by human intervention.
Pushing deeper, I found something that shook me from the dreamy comfort I’d fallen into. Coming up on a small clearing with a sparse line of trees, I noticed something different about this group; it looked like they’d all been marked with a large X, the type you’d see in a logging area. So far removed from any sense of urbanization, I was confused. Moving closer to the line, I realized that they weren’t painted on, but scorched into the bark.
My fingers were beginning to tingle from my cigarette, so I stubbed it out on my boot and pocketed the butt. I brought a hand up to the nearest tree. The surface of the mark was soft and wet, yielding to my touch. As soon as my fingers brushed against the dark indent, a sense of uneasiness washed over my entire body and I broke out in a cold sweat. It was around 80 degrees, even under the cover of the trees. Now, I was shivering.
From somewhere behind me, I heard a deep rumbling noise. I whipped around to find nothing but nature staring back. I shrugged it off. Nature has a way of settling, the same as old houses. Gentle subsidence.
Then, I heard the noise again; louder, fuller. Again, behind me. This time, I slowly turned my head, trying to peer out the corner of my eye. And again, the forest silently waved back, leaves glittering like dull jewels in the sun.
I’m not easily unsettled, but the phantom noise mixed with the marked trees was enough to push me into the realm of “something’s not right”.
Then, the sound returned, without its coyness. From underneath the gentle whine of the earth’s steady breathing came the low tone of heavy, deep movement, something of innumerable echoing mass, like boulders cascading into the mouth of a vast canyon. It didn’t seem to be coming from any direct point near me, but rather everywhere.
I whipped around, trying to find the point of origin. The sound was swelling, growing with each passing second. In a moment’s notice, it had gone from a barely-there tremble to a cacophonous throaty wail. As it reached a pitch of near obscenity, moaning like a pleasured behemoth, a blinding lighted pulsed through the air, filling my head with agonizing pain. Right before I blacked out, I could feel cool air rush down on me as though blown from massive lungs.
When I came to, the ground was humming. Soft, aching noises seemed to permeate every conceivable space, like the earth was trying to relay its deepest secrets. It was dark out now, a purplish-black hue coating my vision, and I could barely see my hand in front of my face. Panicking, I jumped up on unsteady feet, stumbling and losing my balance. There was nothing around me save for tree trunks. Grabbing for my phone, I cut my finger. I winced and gently removed it from my pocket, a dot of blood forming on my fingertip. The screen was shattered. I must’ve hit a rock on the way down.
I picked a direction and started running as fast as my jellied legs would take me. The rumbling sound was gone, replaced with hushed, mouthless whispers. By some unknown grace, I managed to find my way out of the wooded pocket, bursting through the treeline with only a few scratches to show for my troubles. The scene I found, however, was less fortunate.
Corpses of animals littered the ground, a carnival of carnage interrupting the peaceful landscape. Moonlight glinted off of tiny white bones, glowing with an unearthly radiance. Rabbits, squirrels, and other small mammals were lying in small mounds, gutted, turned inside out and painted with their own wasted blood.
I gagged, choking on the thick scent of copper in the air. It was like a warm, meaty blanket, coating every particle of each gasping breath I took. Overpowering, all-consuming, like some massive stomach had been poured out onto the ground around me. I took a step back and almost slipped. Looking down, I saw that my boot was in the middle of a destroyed body. Gopher, rabbit, I wasn’t sure, but its teeth laid in a prickled white circle around its caved-in skull.
My head pulsed, both in pain and confusion; what could possibly have done this?
Then, I remembered Em.
Blood running cold, I jumped up and broke into a sprint, heading towards the bank of the lake where she’d been swimming when I went off on my walk. The heartbeat resounding in my head was an unsteady tattoo of self-admonishment. A notion rang ridiculous and loud in the still night air: I shouldn’t have left her by herself.
I reached the lake, and stopped dead in my tracks. Where previously there had been a full, beautiful pool of sparking water, now laid a barren bowl of dust and dirt. Dozens of fish and frogs were strewn across the bottom of the now empty hole, their wrecked bodies mirroring the ones on the land.
“Emily?” My voice was small, quivering, almost silent in the wasteland of shadows before me. I cleared my throat and tried again.
“EM!” The sound boomed and echoed across the dark plains and stopped somewhere out of sight.
I whipped my head back and forth, trying to pick up a sign of her somewhere, anywhere. Then, I caught sight of a small lump on the other side of the lake bed. I jumped down the embankment, avoiding the fresh graveyard as best as I could, and clamored up the other side.
It was Em. Alive, breathing.
Her mouth, wide open in a silent scream, was smeared with blood and more of it was spilled down the front of her body in a slick apron. I couldn’t find any injuries.
I shook her shoulders. She moaned something, soft and incomprehensible. I shook harder, and she breathed the words again, a bit louder.
“Too hoo bah ah meh ha”. It didn’t sound like any language I knew.
A slap across the face brought her to consciousness, sputtering and shaking and confused, but awake. She stared at me, wide-eyed, and began to speak, but was cut short by a howling scream from somewhere hundreds of feet ahead. We both jumped. I looked up; a million objects sat small and still against the backdrop of the night.
Then, another scream tore across the silence of the land, this time from behind me. The two sounds seemed to rush towards us, meeting their mark as they found us in the center. They sounded inhuman, higher pitched than anything I’d heard from nature and fiercer than a coyote’s injured yip or the warning scream of a mountain lion.
As a third, fourth, and fifth started to swell out of the surrounding dark, I didn’t stop to ponder them further; grabbing Emily’s red-soaked arm, I yanked her to her feet and we bolted back to where we’d parked.
The sounds followed, not growing any louder, but keeping a steady distance and volume. What had seemed like less than a mile between the car and the trailhead that’d led us to the lake was now a gaping, cavernous trek through a sea of invisible nightmarish landmines.
In the distance, I saw the dull grey of the bumper in the open moonlight pouring down on us. We picked up speed, breaking out across the gap. Thankfully, the car was still there and seemingly unharmed. Wrenching open the back passenger door, I threw our bags inside. I ran around the back and, in an attempt to steady my spasming body, gripped the hood as I fumbled with the keys. My palm met something warm and sticky.
I looked down and screamed. A body – if you could still call it that – which I think may have once belonged to a deer, was stretched across the hood of the car, its broken limbs marking the metal in a large X. Even in the pale light of the moon I could tell that the torn flesh and organs were steaming, as though razed from the bones mere seconds before we arrived. Then, I realized that there were no bones, and its head was likewise missing, leaving a bulbous smear of wet, pulpy viscera.
From the other side of the car, Emily began pounding on the roof, shouting for me to open it, her head twisted around on her shoulders as she stared into the gaping maw of darkness just past the hillock’s edge. The screams, having multiplied and grown in volume, sounded as though they now had us surrounded.
Wiping my hand on my pants, I finally got the doors open. The engine roared to life, and the stereo blared alongside it, a burst of radio static crashing into us like a capsizing wave. I flicked the volume knob down, threw the car into drive, and peeled out onto the long road back to civilization, the tires squealing against rough earth and kicking up a sheet of dust and pebbles in their wake. The skin stretched across the hood flapped wildly in the newfound wind and small bits of matter began crawling up the windshield; I flipped on the wipers, watching the ooze wave back and forth.
Em was bent over in the passenger seat, blood and dirt smeared hands covering her eyes and hyperventilating. I leaned into the accelerator, pushing the old car to its limits, and tore through the arid flatland begging to swallow us up.
Seeing the black face of buildings in the distance, hope replaced the fear begging to free itself from my chest like a frantic bird. Just as we rounded one of the final corners in the road before we hit asphalt again, the headlights revealed an object, sitting brazen and defiant against the otherwise empty space.
As we drew closer to it, I realized it was the missing head of our stowaway passenger. What it used to be, I can’t be certain; the skull had been picked clean of muscle and flesh. Antlers sprouted from the cracked bone like thin spires of death.
After what seemed like endless twists and turns, I found the interstate heading back to California.
The ride was filled with an empty, harrowing silence that clung to the air like a poisonous gas. Emily stared out the passenger window. I kept my eyes fixed on the road, vigilant and waiting for blood-soaked monsters or madmen leaping from the twin walls of gloom that comprised the edges of the highway. Neither of us said a word.
A few miles from the Em’s place, I found a 24/7 self-operated car wash. Silently thanking whatever deity might be listening, I pulled into the empty lot and managed to scrub the mess off, watching it swirl down the drain. The thicker chunks got caught in the steel grate, watching me with dozens of accusatory, empty eyes. The hollow feeling that’d been blossoming deep in my stomach was now churning, taking over my entire frame.
We finally arrived back at the apartment just past 2 AM. Fortunately, neither of us had work in the morning, and Emily’s roommate was out of town for the week. With the pervasive adrenaline sucked away, shedding from every limb, and exhaustion drugging every movement, we collapsed in the living room. I succumbed gratefully to a deep, dreamless sleep.
I awoke with a start, the clockface below the TV blinking 3:07. Not sure what had stirred me, I opened my eyes and peered around the room.
Emily was standing, with shoulders hunched and hands planted against the windowsill, staring up into the night sky; she was humming.
Keeping as silent and still as I could, I listened harder. What had seemed like wordless noise now revealed itself as a soft chant; the same foreign words she’d breathed on the lake’s bank when I’d found her.
A chill broke out over my skin. I watched her for what felt like ages, but the clock betrayed that notion; at exactly 3:30, she stopped, dropping the chant mid-sentence, and moved silently over to the couch, falling onto it. Within seconds, she was asleep.
I waited, barely moving, for another half hour just to be sure, my blood pounding through my veins like a freight engine. She didn’t budge once, aside from the gentle rise and fall of her chest as she breathed.
She woke up at exactly 9 AM this morning, bolting up and wordlessly going to sit down at the kitchen table. Every movement was rigid and emotionless. I didn’t sleep the rest of the night, sitting and recounting everything that’d happened with as much clarity as I could muster.
I had an appointment at 11 AM. When I left, she hadn’t moved from her spot at the kitchen table, hands folded in her lap, staring blankly ahead and ignoring any attempt I made at rousing her.
I’m not sure what came back with me, but I don’t think it’s entirely Em. The sound of the desert’s screams still linger in my head, its hungry breath hot and wet on the nape of my neck, and I can taste the heavy throb of blood at the back of my throat every time I take a breath.