Esther told herself that God was just taking everyone away one-by-one as an early payment for the rain. That maybe a few more swallowed hearts would appease the empty skies and let the lightning strike with spray. Only then would He let it rain, so that wilted hands and brittle branches would no longer have to claw at the horizon, waiting for the storms, searching for the Lord. Staring stone-eyed at the sun, wondering if He was still there, still listening, still cared about them at all.
The first to go missing was Pooki. Then Daisy, and Sapphire, and a few days later Duke. Soon after was Amanda Walford, a cute six-year old girl, followed by Donna, Amanda’s six-year-old Cocker Spaniel. Rocky was gone in a flash, disappearing shortly after Rex and Joan Crawley. A funeral was held for Amanda Walford the same day that Jackson Everest vanished from his bedroom, along with his Chocolate Lab, Abraham.
No bones ever turned up, no lost dogs were ever seen at the shelter or spread in gore on the shoulder of the road. Search parties were sent out into the desert looking for little Amanda, little Jackson, Mrs. Crawley, and at least 20 others who had seemed to climb into the sky, gone without warning. Here and there were paw prints or dog terds or other ominous signs scattered in the sand amongst the ancient cacti. Sometimes the wind blew so fast and hard that someone would joke that the missing might’ve blown away. It was the kind of rye humor that was solid enough to laugh at to break the silence of the dunes, but within the thought there was no real cheer. The only kind of humor that seemed to be left in West Riarena.
Life in West Riarena was no longer like a river, with sways and eclipses and swiftness of passage and dull shine. It was no longer predictable or patterned except in the fact that one was either dead or alive. Life in West Riarena was now sharp traffic; dodging collections of nearly-tragic passers-by. One either filled a coffin from death by drought and the starvation and the thirst it so venomously gave; or an empty wooden casket was laid deep enough for the dirt to devour it, but close enough to the open air that it could be removed. For good cause or for worse. For lost-and-found or the increased need for graveyard ground.
Esther had buried her older brother two months ago, Adam filling the coffin that’d been bought years earlier like a baby in a bathtub. His best suit was three sizes too loose, tie looking more like a noose in how it was draped and strung around his thin neck. Her only brother was dead, this brother that had refused meat, even in starvation for his sad suffrage of vegetarianism. When all of the plants died amidst the dust and sunshine so did such a fragile friend of Mother Nature’s. Everyone said that maybe God had murdered Mother Nature. Another rye joke in a town too dry for comedians. Esther didn’t want to believe it because then that meant that God had murdered Adam.
Esther told herself that God hadn’t really killed Mother Nature, that She was only sleeping. And when She’d wake up He’d send the rain, and the flowers would grow and the leaves would green and Adam would wake up and eat corn-on-the-cob like always before. Esther told herself that she wasn’t alone.
Parents didn’t live as long as usual in West Riarena, before or during the drought. There were too many black widows, rattlesnakes, vipers, poisonous lizards; too much skin cancer, dementia, influenza, malnutrition, fatalistic injury, too many countless ways to die at 50. But Esther had her mutts, all 10 of them, though their numbers had begun to diminish.
Esther liked to give her mutts human names, like Roger and Andrew. There was also Jennifer, Michael, William, Meghan, Kevin, Keith, Robert, and Richard. All mutts in West Riarena were really purebreds, but there was simply no better word at the time for the hounds. It seemed with many of Esther’s neighbors that as the drought stole their weight and their health and their families the mutts were allowed to run free on the streets. Shih-Tzu’s and Dalmatians crowded the sidewalks, Dobermans terrorizing the few remaining children as they’d try to get to school. But this was not the case with Esther’s mutts. They were all she had. So every mutt had their own room in her parent’s empty mansion, where they were kept for the night in safety and love.
But around two weeks after little Amanda Walford’s funeral, Meghan went missing. While searching for her lost friend, Esther could barely recognize the place she had called home. She felt like she lived in a town with zombies, everyone calling her crazy as she hung up ‘Missing Collie’ signs on lampposts. They acted as if she was supposed to give up on recovery because the wave of death was so immense.
“My daughter Jackie Lynn’s been missing for a month. And you care more about your mutt?”
All Esther could do was announce apologies and keep walking, tacking the printed papers onto every phone pole in sight.
The next to vanish was the little Dachshund named William. His disappearance baffled Esther, as he stood only a foot from the ground. Meghan, she figured, could’ve jumped out the window or somehow opened the door. But William could barely even jump on the couch.
Almost like counting sheep in reverse, by the end of the month only four mutts were left. Phone poles were dressed in black and white pictures of six slobbering faces, Esther’s phone number re-stated and re-stated across every page. And now there were no children left to draw boobs or mustaches on her mutts’ images, so the papers clung in place through wind and sun, until they’d rip and blow away. They’d litter the sand and cling, punctured, on the cacti. It was as if the desert was a Siren’s abysmal arms, pulling away everything in sight.
* * *
Most of the townspeople couldn’t sleep out of fear that they’d be stolen away in the night. While parents would cradle their children in their arms through the darkness to protect them from the devouring night, the whole family would go missing instead. But there was never blood, never any sign of murder. Only bed sheets tossed about, belongings knocked flat against the floor. It was this vague means that really painted the town in dread.
But what kept Esther up at night were the eight empty rooms of her mansion. She’d moved Roger and Keith to her room, despite their seemingly newly developed inability to sleep. When there’d been four mutts still left in the house they’d all sit awake by their respective windows, howling at the black sky. In this world, this twisted time, there was only the moon. Cold and gray and alone in the sky. There were no other lights turned on to shine from the heart of Heaven.
As Roger and Keith howled at the new moon Esther lay shivering in bed, clutching her father’s pistol tighter. She always slept with a handgun now, one of the few people in West Riarena to even own one. Her house was closer to the desert and further from neighbors than most, once the site of an expansive soy farm. Coyotes had been an issue, but the void had eaten them as well. With the lifeless metal grip sticky in her palm she finally fell into sleep, serenaded by the tearing moans of her only two friends.
Esther didn’t awaken until the calls were ripping outside her door. In her delirious half-dream the howls were just the multiplicative echoes of Roger and Keith, bouncing off the high ceilings. As she awoke a little more she figured it was coyotes, no threat, just an annoyance to her and her mutts. But as claws scraped up against the brick under her bedroom windows and slobber sprayed the air with gnarling gums, Esther was anything but asleep. She shot up and readied her weapon, stalking slowly towards the window. As she opened it and peered out she stood in the trap, ignorant of the growling shadow confined to the corner of the room.
In a flash Roger shot out from under the bed and Keith from the corner, each digging their teeth deep into Esther’s legs. She didn’t so much scream as she did lose half her heart amongst the sound of a tree set on fire. Her pain was not an echoing single shot of resonance into the desert night, but instead a deep sickness like nails grating against chalkboard bones.
Roger was a Yellow Lab, supposedly the picture of family-friendly perfection. But now there was blood on his muzzle, only the reflection of the gray moonlight in his eyes. Keith was much the same, his strong jaw biting down deep enough for both his teeth to touch. But both were careful not to let a drop of blood hit the floor, lapping up all the spills they could as they dragged their master across the room.
Before she was tossed out the window, Esther could see a throng of mutts all roaring below her in the dirt, dragging their vicious paws down her red stone walls. As Keith and Roger dropped her down, Esther glimpsed Meghan, and Andrew, and every other mutt she’d called kin. But head-first against the gray stones at the edges of her garden, Esther fell into darkness, turning indecisively around between thick shrouds of glass shadows.
* * *
When Esther awoke the bleeding had stopped; her scalp burned and hurt, leading her to the assumption that she’d been dragged along by her hair for at least an hour. She was laying on her stomach, sand sticky and dirt thick on her face. The grains felt rough and tasted bitter in her mouth. She longed to roll over, to see the moon and search for God, but her body was too broken. So she lay, panting in the exhaustion of pain, too sick in the freezing, dry air to cry.
“You know what they’re doing, don’t you?”
Esther screamed and shook at the bite of another voice. There was no energy left in her body to control the polite reactions to anything. She tried her hardest to roll onto her side, to see who was there and whether she could reach the gun tucked into her panties.
“Oh no, sweetheart, I don’t want you to see me like this. Not on your last night. Maybe on the way up you’ll get to see the moon, at least.”
There were too many disasters in three simple sentences to understand at all. Esther just started crying, in an almost relieving way, though this just caused the sand to clump to her cheeks and eyes and freeze in the cold. She didn’t have anything to say to another human, so she simply whispered prayers through her tears and assumed they’d reach the sky.
“Don’t worry, you’ll be on your way up there soon enough.”
“Will you stop!”
Finally, some comment came. Shaking and cold and too low on blood to barely breathe Esther felt her face cake with more sandy tears. Straining once again to turn over and face her supposed last labor in life, Esther fell hard on her chin and bit through her lip, fresh trail of blood tainting the already tear-littered sand.
“The mutts haven’t taken me yet because my bones are too thin. They’ve taken my legs, my left arm; I figure they’ll be back for my right soon. Though whether I’ll be alive to see it happen is up in the air.”
Trying to understand the meaning behind the voice’s words was like trying to hear a tambourine through a thunder storm. Every other word would register with Esther and slowly compute. Mutts. They. Alive.
Spitting a bloody strand of hair out of her mouth, Esther tried her hardest to speak.
“What about the mutts? Who’s doing this to us? What’re they doing with your legs?”
The voice shuddered for a second and Esther wondered whether the heart behind it had died. But with the click of teeth and a sniffle it spoke flatly and without pause.
“The mutts are stealing every last soul for miles around this desert. Nile City, West Riarena, Mountville. Just about any place with enough hounds and people who don’t dare carry a gun.”
“But what for?”
In the urgent eyes of death, Esther had no patience for dawdling manners.
“They’re building a stairway of bones, up, up, up, so they can get to Heaven and ask God to give back the rain.”
Esther wanted to laugh that rye laugh that folks in West Riarena had grown so desperately fond of. But there was too much sand in her throat, too much blood in her lungs. She simply cried some more, lost under the suffocating weight of the night and death’s boot heel on her back. She cried into her lip blood, until finally she passed out again. Though the darkness of unconsciousness was brighter than real life seemed to be.
* * *
Esther moaned and hissed within her chest, withering with every echo.
“Hello? Where are you? Are you still here? Hello?”
She simply screamed in the silence. The blood of her body had pooled beneath her, ruined the pattern of her lovely black and white polka dot nightie. There was still no moving, right arm asleep under her stomach, left arm twisted and bruised and too tired to move. Her legs looked like a tree after a woodpecker had been at it. Covered in holes and seeping sap into the dirt.
Four legs had a much more recognizable sound than Esther could remember. Then came four more, and four more, and finally too many to keep track. There was no nostalgia to the panting and hot breath at Esther’s neck, only savagery and the flavors of a beast she did not know. Finally under the club-like paws of an enormous Saint Bernard Esther was turned over onto her back, dead new moon still trying it’s hardest to shine. Breathing the fresh air Esther had about a split second of peace, before once again her forehead shot with pain and an unknown animal dragged her behind them like a toy. Part of her wanted to pass out, but she kept herself awake in fear that if she dived down she’d never swim back up.
For a while the terrain against her broken legs and ripped-up back was the soft of sand, brittle at its worst. But as a collective howling grew in strength and dissonance, a new texture tortured Esther’s body. It was not rocks, it was not stone, or pebbles, or hard earth. Squinting across her peripherals as best she could Esther began her shaking again, and bit her lip right back open with shock. Bones. Hundreds of thousands of bones laying chewed and stripped and bleached by the desert sun, one atop another atop another. Skulls, ribs, femurs, and feet. The third layer of filth fashioned itself smugly onto Esther. Aside the dirty sand and the blood there was now the stink flesh of her dead neighbors. But she didn’t just take away their grime; for as the mutts pulled her up their mountain the sharp corners tore open her skin and made a path like baby ruby waterfalls.
Esther’s eyes and mind acted like strobe. There was too much terror to see everything straight or clearly. So instead her vision shot in and out, unfocused as her head throbbed with lightening static. But for minutes yet she didn’t die, only climbed on her back with fangs in her hair. It carried on for what could’ve been hours.
There was no making sense of the thin air all around her. One mutt would trade off with another, indicating that this was quite the long trek. And the bones kept piling. Esther couldn’t focus on very much, but her mind decided to torture her with visions of the deceased. How many towns now lay empty? How many parents without daughters and sons? She start to cry but exhaustion would scold and she’d slip out but force her way back in. It was World War Three, all within her mind and there would be no survivors to write the history.
Suddenly everything steadied. Esther’s head was dropped, and let fall against a freshly peeled skull. Esther opened her eyes, lashes so thick with blood and tears that they seemed to weigh more than her bloodless body might. She could only feel the cold at this second. The cold of the black sky above, the cold of the gun which still somehow was tucked into her underwear, and most unrealistically the cold of the moon, directly at level with where Esther and the dogs stood. She gazed with eyes like holes that were trying to steal the moon away from the sun, the gray light her only illumination for the miles of her heart. Without warning her soul felt shock, and unconsciousness came again.
* * *
As had happened in bed, strict barking awoke Esther from her narrow, dreamless din. For a second of eternal optimism she hoped that this was all a dream and she’d wake up to Roger and Keith barking at the morning sun.
The blood in her mouth told the truth.
But when Esther opened her eyes she swore it was to more of a dream than the abyss she’d escaped. Far below she could see the moon, like the beam of a flashlight from so far away. In agony she turned her neck upwards, and felt her stomach pull inside itself. The black space above was rippling in envious blues, glistening as it caught the moonlight. A huge lake, as far as the eye could see, suspended in space. The mutts had finally found the rain.
But they simply barked at the lake, confused by the fact that they were not reflected. Within the depths there were no wagging tails or bloody muzzles. And there was no God above to explain. For each canine face that eyed the rippling plane, only a word dazzled back.
Esther considered this for a moment, feeling like she only had a bean-sized amount of brain left to think with. If every reflection is its original image backwards, was the lake suggesting that the mutts were God? The dogs were Gods? But through it all she wondered where God was. Where was the Lord. Was he hidden in the water, far beyond the surface? Or vanished altogether. Esther’s time to ponder this was cut short by her being pulled up to the top of the mountain by her hair, stuck in the center of a circle of dogs all barking at her. Each looking ready to lunge and rip her apart for their case.
From her new view the truth occurred to Esther. Laying underneath the shining pool, she was truly reflected. Her own image, plastered against the boundaries of Heaven. In the absence of God, we are all divine. The soul is as heavy a poem as a thousand scriptures and psalms.
Such bliss was short-lived as one dog stepped forwards, gnashing his teeth and growling wildly at Esther. And at that moment her heart screamed ‘not here, not tonight’, her veins pumping fire and the blue gleam of the water above. She reached into her panties, pulled out the hand gun, and started firing.
Two dogs fell to the boney ground, another whimpered as a bullet graced its hind leg and it toppled down the side of the mountain. Esther kept shooting as long as the adrenaline had her, though not as many dogs falling as it seemed should.
In the smoke and shatter she managed to catch a glimpse of two dogs coiled around one another, biting at shoulders and throats and bellies. It was Meghan, taking on a Greyhound twice her size. And to the left was Andrew, pinning a Pomeranian with a single paw. All of Esther’s own dogs were fighting by her side, against at least a 100 other mutts. A battle in which they had no chance.
Bullet after bullet after bullet the mass of blood and fur and bones shrunk and threw itself in circles. Esther managed to lean against a stack of skulls and shoot, useless legs tucked haphazardly under her dress. But out of the depths of the fervor came a big white Pyrnees, leaping on top of Esther before the bullet left the barrel. Biting at her firing arm the gun was directed upwards, shot speeding up to the water, striking the depths in silence.
Until there was a rush louder than thunder.
The dogs froze, tails curled and ears peeled back. The thunder grew, and grew, and grew, cracks appearing in the most abstract motion across the calm surface. Until it all collapsed. Miles of water fell down in drizzle and pour on the stairway of bones, the barbarian god dogs, and the one divine light, as she bled beneath the Pyrenees.
Esther’s captor didn’t cease for long as the rain fell, grabbing her by the leg and dragging her to the rest of the dogs. Hungrily they ripped her polka dot dress, tore her hair from her head. She screamed and cried and punched blindly with her arms and legs in the rain, trying in vain to save herself. But the dogs persisted. But the dogs were blind.
The filth of the evening washed away in the rain. The sand dripped down the slopes, the blood wrung clean from Esther’s skin and clothes. Her tears were replaced with warm water, hands of calm and softness. The rain all came down quick, and Esther began to rise.
Her ripped polka dot dress was sucked away, her hair lifted from the soiled earth. As the dogs viciously tore her limbs apart and warped her body from the beauty it had been, the pieces floated into the air like dandelion seeds. Jennifer the dog and William the dog watched confusedly as the little bits of cleansed self drifted up, and up, and up, never disappearing but too far away to tell their height. They shone so bright in their loveliness, white and blue light dust on the remnants of Heaven.
And there was no more rain to pray for, no more God to find. The dogs quit biting at the empty air, some angered by the enviable escape, others distressed by their own sick ways.
A few still howl at the sky at night, staring at the stars that are the skin and soul of a makeshift God. Her enemies will chew their bones, plotting some revenge and breaking the chance for her to end it all safely. They want to pull her down and see themselves reflected, watch her fall and burn at dark. But her friends will dig holes and bury innocent bones, in hopes that someday they can climb back up to Heaven and save her before she comes crashing down. No one can play God for so long; no one could stay so perfect forever.
Esther told herself that stars only shine so lonely for a little while anyway. The rain would come to tear her down, and Heaven would be just gray and dust and night. And everyone would search the skies, asking where She’d gone. Was there anyone up there to listen, or watch, or blame. Everyone’s really just alone with themselves, in the end of it all, after all, unenviable.
About Maggie: Every story Maggie writes is a culmination of all her temporary or current interests. Ghosts, incense, Robert Smith, or girls with too much cake. She aspires to bend the world, never break it, maybe just over-season it a bit. She hates apples, 80’s beach music, and skeletons. She loves macaroni, steam, and Bob Dylan. She loves when you love the things she writes. Maggie is nineteen and resides in Southeastern Pennsylvania.