Manny chased comets. He was big into comets. He told women at the casino that he had stars in his blood.
“It’s the family business.” He smiled. No family left out there in the mountains, only a log cabin and a tenant with a big black dog in the cabin next door. No women either, just old ladies. Cities of Gold Casino smoked all the others out after Buffalo Thunder Resort and Casino opened seven minutes down the road. “Good riddance,” Manny said, walking down the empty lanes of penny slots. “More chances for me.”
Chasing comets was chancy, too. Manny stayed up most nights staring at his computer for some flash on the satellite that meant a rock was on its way “from the moon or something” before he either flopped into bed in the pre-dawn light or hopped into his Jeep and chased that bit of space through the Pecos Wilderness and onto the Great Plains. Calling it a comet was more exciting than allowing it to remain a meteorite. It made the old ladies at Cities of Gold who bought his stones think of brilliant flashes and fiery impacts. They didn’t know the difference.
More often than not Manny had to drive southeast, close to the New Mexico-Texas border, on his quest to find them, setting up camp for two weeks at a time and combing the landscape for any meteorite his dad and granddad and countless others might have missed. Sometimes they were laughably easy to find, just lying there atop the sand as if tossed like litter from passersby. Sometimes not so much. So far, he’d paid about a dozen farmers in the area to save any rock they found when tilling the land. He even gave them a bucket to keep them in after one Texan farmer tossed him a plastic Safeway bag with a gash in its side. It wasn’t one in thirty that came up genuine meteorites—but when they did, when they emerged from foreign soil to sit quietly in Manny’s bucket like some bewildered animal, Manny could have swallowed them whole for joy.
Now the Perseids were on their way and Manny wouldn’t have to work so hard. Early in the evening, his online scanner beeped and he began to pack for his late-night drive south: one shovel, two coolers of Red Bull, a bag of Cliff Bars and Tostitos, bandages, gloves, an iron flask he’d fashioned a year ago that he now thought might be starting to poison him, one frozen water bottle, a pair of socks, one antiquated shotgun he’d never fired, a Cities of Gold Casino sweatshirt, two pairs of pants crumpled up and thrown in the back, one toothbrush.
The summer night air was still fresh from its afternoon monsoon and Manny sucked in a breath as he tossed the last of his items into the back of the Jeep. When he walked around to the driver’s side door, a dog barked. His tenant Geoff must be letting Jasmine out. The big black lab bounded the fifty yards from Geoff’s cabin to the Jeep and stepped on Manny’s foot.
Manny scratched the dog on the head and looked over at Geoff, who stood in the doorway, waving weakly at him with elbow-length yellow rubber gloves over his arms.
“Heading south for the week?”
Manny nodded, his mouth opening to answer, but he was stopped by the look on Geoff’s face. Instead he said, “You been—you been cleaning in there or something?”
Geoff stared at his gloved hand, which still hung in the air like a fading balloon. He paused. “Could you come over here quick before you leave?”
Manny shut the Jeep door and Jasmine sprinted back to his master. The quaver in the kid’s voice unnerved him. He hated having to rent out the extra cabin, but it wasn’t every day that he sold or even found a space rock, for all his searching. His land wasn’t too far from the university—maybe thirty miles—so some students and adjuncts preferred a pretend mountain life to living in a small town. The place was nice enough, but it attracted a certain type of tenant, one who didn’t mind that some long-withered headless doll was still nailed to a post at the corner where his dirt road met Route 518. Manny hadn’t bothered to take it down after buying the land fifteen years before. Since then Manny’d had a stream of tenants blinking through his life.
Geoff kept the cabin dark. The entryway smelled like pot and mold. The kid, maybe twenty-five or twenty-six, stood in the kitchen, pointing at the enormous industrial sink and staring at Manny with the widest owl eyes he’d ever seen.
Manny felt dread swirl into his stomach. The kid obviously wanted him to look into the sink, but he couldn’t bring himself to peer over the ceramic lip. Next to him the dog sighed, looking up at the two frozen people in the room. Manny had only ever felt this dark foreboding a few times before, usually when he was out in the woods. Once he’d gone cold at the sound of a rustling in the underbrush, but when he forced himself to stumble over, wooden-legged, to investigate, there was nothing there, nothing beneath the leaves at all. It somehow felt like a near miss.
He knew it couldn’t be something good in that sink. “What is it?” he asked Geoff. “What are you pointing at?”
Geoff shook his head, a jerk to the left, and didn’t answer.
Manny cleared his throat and unstuck his legs from the floor, sliding his shoes over the wood. A ball of hair came into view. From the size of it, Manny thought the hairball had to be a couple pounds. Was the kid washing his dog in this sink? How could so much hair exist in one spot? He grimaced when the smell hit him and slid forward some more, covering his nose with his hand.
But it was not a hairball—it was something else. He could see now that the stringy black hair was only on its outsides. An animal? He slid closer. The breeze from the open door shifted the hair and revealed the gentle curve of a—it had to be—was that?—a chin. And then when Manny saw the ribbing of torn flesh at one end he felt the corners of his eyes suddenly burning. He rubbed them with his palms until it passed and turned away.
The kid let out a low whine.
“Jesus Christ,” Manny whispered.
Geoff shook his head in quick jerks again. “I couldn’t just let Jasmine sit out there and gum on it. He could get a disease or something.”
Manny’s stomach churned and he couldn’t bring himself to look at the head. Instead he stared at Geoff’s shoes as the kid paced back and forth. “What the hell, kid? What the hell?” He put his hands on his thighs and leaned over.
“I didn’t know what to do. Jasmine found it in the woods when I let him out earlier.”
Manny sure hoped so. He shook his head. He thought he knew this kid pretty well, but who’s to say? He’d only been there for about six months, him and the dog. Geoff had come over to Manny’s shed a few times while Manny was manipulating the iron he bought on the cheap at the scrapyards. He liked to get stoned and watch Manny distort the metal into hundreds of tiny, chunky globs, and Manny liked the way Geoff whistled through his teeth when he compared a piece with a real meteorite and said he couldn’t tell the difference. Called him an artist. Told him to register for pottery classes at his university, like they did the same thing there all the time.
“Well what do you think you’re gonna do with this thing? Can’t call the cops.”
Geoff dropped the arm that was still pointing to the sink. It hit his hip and swayed his body.
“For Christssake, that thing stinks.”
“Why not call the cops?” Geoff bit his lower lip. “I get service on my cell phone if I go out to the road.”
Manny frowned. The kid hadn’t been here too long, moved from Denver the year before and thought it was the same place. “Because it’s a white lady. They’ll think you’re in with those bodies they found at Laguna de Agua last month.”
Geoff’s voice was shrill. “You mean this is part of that? This is part of that prostitution thing?”
Geoff’s panic barely reached Manny. He’d reacted in the same way when he was twelve and found out his dad brought much more than his son to deserts as far south as DeBaca, Roosevelt, and Chaves counties. His father called himself a “jumper,” a small-time smuggler of more than just meteorites. Manny knew that deserts could swallow people whole, but they vanished in these mountains just as frequently. It’s a different kind of person who can hide behind a tree, though. Once last summer Manny found a desiccated severed finger in an old bird’s nest in his gutter. The mountains can’t do that by themselves. The Mora County Sherriff’s office claimed a few years ago they were cracking down on human trafficking in their jurisdiction after a shallow grave of bodies up near Taos unleashed a rash of panic throughout the area, as if it would be impossible for the women to be shuffled around their shrimpy borders. Last month the Las Vegas Optic ran a special update on the Sherriff’s promises after a nine year-old girl tripped over the exposed foot of the first of three bodies buried in a similar shallow grave near Laguna de Agua.
It wasn’t worth involving the cops, Manny knew. They wouldn’t trust Manny after they looked up his record in Pojoaque and they definitely wouldn’t trust Geoff full stop, not a white kid from the suburbs. It was more than just not having a business license for selling meteorites to the women in Pojoaque. It had been a few years now since he’d weaned himself off jumping like his dad, who always said that time didn’t make a difference to the police. But now the kid had him involved. He swallowed the shock down deep into his stomach. He’d be taking a drive after all.
An hour later, after locking Jasmine in the cabin and convincing Geoff to take off the rubber gloves, Manny drove his Jeep down the familiar road southeast. He wished he were only following the blip on the radar that popped out at him hours ago. He could have been halfway downstate by now. The night sky shone purple and black like a bruise in his windshield. No clouds, only stars. He wished Geoff had driven so he could watch for the bright flashes of his industry, but the kid sat with his legs crossed in the passenger seat, clicking his fingernail rapidly against the door handle. The wind roared by and washed out everything else—the crow calling, the whispery fall of leaves around them. These were the sounds of silence, of solitude. Geoff kept peeking at where they’d stashed the head: behind the driver’s seat, wrapped in a plastic bag and shoved into one of the small coolers that once held Red Bull. That solitude was probably why she ended up out here. What better place to stash a body than an Old West that easterners thought had been abandoned to the desert long ago.
“Where are we going?”
Geoff looked out the window at the thinning forest. “Is it far?”
“You want this thing to be close by?”
The kid shifted in his seat. Manny punched the FM button, but the stations kept cutting to static so he turned it off. His cabin sat nestled in the southernmost tip of the Rockies in the north of New Mexico. By the time he’d gone east enough to hit the freeway, the land shook out the mountains and flattened itself out. Just south of the mountains were mesas that divided the state into the chunks of mountain and desert it was. They stood as the gateway to the desert below, dusty sentinels of red and black and green, keeping watch over the hot breath that the Chihuahua Desert blew in their direction.
“We used to drive through here on our way to Santa Fe. Me and my family.” Geoff pushed in the lock to the door and pulled it back out with his fingertips.
Manny glanced at him. Geoff’s tone made him want to pat the kid on the head. “It’s nice, yeah?”
“We stopped once off I-25 in Vegas because Ashley had to go to the bathroom and she came out screaming because there was a cricket on the toilet seat.”
“She your sister?”
Geoff nodded. “My little sister. She ran off a few months before I came to school here, just after she turned thirteen.”
Manny didn’t know what to say. He switched his left hand to the steering wheel and leaned his elbow on the center console. The movement made Geoff glance at the cooler behind him again.
“She loved Jasmine, man. That dog was her dog before he was mine, that’s for sure. When we got him she begged to name him after a princess. He was always finding her, bringing her back. We’d play hide and seek and I’d get Jasmine all riled up and he’d sniff her out.” Geoff smiled and popped the lock back into the door. “Whenever she told my parents that she was running away to the neighbor’s house, we just let Jasmine trot after her an hour later. Sure enough she’d be chatting him up on the sidewalk in front of our house pretty soon after that.”
Manny cleared his throat. He never had any siblings. He thought that having a younger sister might be a little like having a pet, at least until she had a personality. How long did that take? Eighteen years?
“Always bringing her back.” Geoff’s eyes flickered to the head behind Manny and then to Manny himself, whose eyes were fixed half on the sky and half on the path to the Turkey Mountains. They weren’t far now. The thinning forest thickened once more and the dirt road climbed. “She called the day before I moved out and said she’d found a ride to Los Angeles and that we shouldn’t worry. I don’t think she was telling the truth though. We have an aunt in Sacramento so that’s probably where she is.”
“California’s a real distance for a thirteen year old.” Manny steered the Jeep off the road and navigated through trees for a while in the dark, spooking animals that flittered away in the underbrush. He didn’t know why Geoff was telling him this, not that night anyway. “That’s too bad.”
When the Jeep stopped, Geoff roused himself. He sighed and cracked his knuckles, but that sharp trill to his voice returned when Manny told him he’d have to carry the cooler.
“It’s not my head. It’s your dog’s head.”
Geoff’s face twisted, the corner of his mouth pinched. “I didn’t bring my gloves.”
“Just pick up the cooler.”
Manny reached into the back of the Jeep and pulled out the shovel and the shotgun. His father had always told him to stick to the shovel if he had to choose, but if possible take both.
They marched into the forest a long ways from the Jeep. The Turkey Mountains had few visitors, and even those only came to the highest point through the well-worn paths of tourists before them. Manny knew no one ever explored the area—it wasn’t near water and wasn’t as picturesque as other places people went to around there. Wasn’t even a mesa. Geoff shuffled along behind him with the cooler held outstretched like an offering in his palms.
Jasmine had brought back other things before—a calf’s femur, the delicate spine of a towhee, the coyote skull Geoff had boiled clean and placed on the mantle. The lab sprinted around the shabby log cabin every morning, checking for signs of bears and relieving himself on certain trees before following his nose into the woods.
Never this before, though. Never something so raw, recent. Manny wondered how much digging, how much pulling Jasmine had to do to unearth it. If the stench was so alluring that the dog didn’t mind the radioactive rabbitbrush, the hairy mahogany leaves, just kept digging, pulling, scratching, until more than just the woman’s hair came unplanted, her skin bulbous as a new potato.
“Here, this is good enough.” Manny stopped and pointed to some trees more densely clustered than the rest. When Geoff put the cooler down Manny handed him the shovel and leaned the shotgun against a tree. “Dig it deep. I’ll go find some rocks.”
“Rocks?” Geoff took the shovel absently, his eyes darting about in the dark.
“To put in the top of the hole,” Manny said, “so the animals don’t dig it up.” He pointed to the clump of trees. “Over there, but not too close, okay?”
Geoff nodded and took a step, but his foot kicked the cooler and he stumbled. The woman’s head went sprawling from the plastic bag and the kid let out a cry. The head rolled over in the dirt, a pine needle peeling off a filmy open eyeball. The needle landed with a whisper on the night blue soil.
Manny had to cover his mouth with his sleeve to stop himself from gagging. As Geoff stood, he went off in search of the heaviest rocks he could find on the slope. Why just the head? He wondered who’d go through such trouble to do that to a person. Unless it was Jasmine who’d somehow ripped it from the rest of the body to bring it back to Geoff like a deflated basketball, he didn’t see what could possess someone to do what had been done to her. Had it been an accident? Or had the murderer really been so enraged as to remove her head from her body?
He stooped to pick up a rock and made a basket with his shirt. Manny had never been violent, could never do that to a person, but he’d always been protective of his comets. They might be international property up in space, but down here on earth it was first come first served. Once when he was twelve and went south with his dad they’d had a scuffle with a white lady over some marble-sized silicate mineral meteorite. She’d popped up behind Manny like a gopher and knocked him over, grasping at the rock. His dad rushed at her with the shotgun and she lurched off him. Manny remembered clinging to that meteorite like it were part of his body. He would’ve scraped at the woman for hours to keep it.
“Where’d she come from?” he’d asked. “We’re in the middle of nowhere.”
His dad shrugged, frowning into the sun at the woman’s back, sweat dripping through his white hair behind his ear. Didn’t know where she went, just stumbled off jarred and confused and disappeared like a mote in the eye. On the borderland of the borderlands, the northern tendrils of the Chihuahua desert. They should’ve just let her have it. The silicate meteorites were the hardest to sell. The old ladies at Cities of Gold said they were too pretty to be from space.
“Why should you move out to Mora? There aren’t skies out there,” his dad said years later. “Too many trees. You need to see what’s going on above you. Stay here with me.”
A year after that his dad died and Manny bought mountain land, only going back to Pojoaque for the casino. Why move to where leaves obstructed the sky? Why keep selling at the poor casino that made more money from its bowling alley than the penny slots? He didn’t know. Why should he know? Comets exploded through space, expelled from the sun in our solar system and lassoed round and round in the sun’s gravitational pull. Maybe that same gravity pushed him into the forest. Maybe Pojoaque was his sun.
A tinny echo swept through the trees. Manny watched as Geoff swung the shovel down against the topsoil. In the deep hole was the head, a layer of the biggest rocks Manny could find, and soil from the leftover pile. They’d have to spread foliage over the top to make it look less like buried treasure.
Geoff frowned as he took the last of the unearthed dirt and kicked it around with his shoes. “This is the worst thing I’ve ever done,” he said.
Manny shrugged, as if to say there wasn’t any help for it. He squinted into the trees around them for any movement. They were making a lot of noise and it would be dawn in an hour or two. When he looked back at Geoff and the grave, he nodded. “Looks good,” he said. “Grab some leaves and brush and we’ll camouflage it a bit more. But we should get out of here soon.”
Dawn hit when the Jeep turned onto the 25. Manny cracked a window and the air that spilled through was so dry it hurt his nostrils. They only encountered two other early-morning drivers. When passing one of them Manny peered into the car to see who was up at that hour, only to see an old man with short white hair peering back at him. His bleep from the satellite was long gone now. It had been a slim chance that’d he’d even track the new arrival down anyway. There was too much vast, open space down south. Navigating through it was like taking his Jeep into the dreams of whales—driving over rolling hills that sprawled like a paper-thin yellow ocean floor beneath a sea of brilliant blue sky. No wonder his father loved it. It had been more than just a place to jump for him. Maybe he’d go south next weekend instead, spend time waiting for the Perseids by making fake iron meteorites in his shed. Today he could catch the early-morning crowd at Cities of Gold Casino, see if he could get an old lady to commission a comet ring or something.
“I should’ve looked for her.”
Manny blinked. “What?”
Manny cleared his throat and reached into the back of the Jeep, feeling around for the second cooler of Red Bull that hadn’t been dumped the night before. His fingers brushed the dirt still on the shovel and the barrel of the shotgun, both cold and clinging on his skin. He found the cooler, pulled one of the drinks from it, and handed it to Geoff. “Yeah maybe,” he said. Then he grabbed a drink for himself and the cooler squealed shut.
Geoff gripped the drink and open-shut his mouth like a fish, staring at the long stretch of brightening road before them.
“You have classes today?”
The kid shook his head. “It’s Saturday.”
Manny nodded. “Right.” He wished the radio worked, took sips of Red Bull just to do something at all. The shock from that evening had faded into a dull throb, into something pulling him by the navel back home. “Thinking about going into Pojoaque, if you want to come. Going to the casino.”
Geoff tapped at the top of his unopened can.
“Maybe you could gamble your way into money that’d get you to California.”
At this suggestion Geoff’s eyebrows knitted together and he turned to stare at Manny. “I don’t know where she is, man.”
They were quiet for the rest of the ride. The sun was fully up when they arrived at the cabins. Manny hopped out of the Jeep and walked around to his shed and packed together a few bits of iron to bring with him to Cities of Gold. On his way back to the Jeep, he saw Geoff rooted to the spot ten feet from the cabin, standing with his back to Manny. He still held the unopened Red Bull in his left hand. In the window Manny could see Jasmine huffing and pacing to be let out. How much longer would he stay? Long ago the distance between Texas and California was only space that got you to Texas or California. It was just landscape to get through, to survive. Horses and mules dropped along the overland trail west from beneath travelers for whom the allure of gold mines in California was enough to risk their lives. Manny imagined them stumbling off their dead animals and walking onward, pushing forward, always walking west, past dead bodies that the dry desert refused to decompose littered along the trail. The aridity preserved them, sucking their lips to their jaws and baring their pristine animal teeth as mile markers and glints of light in the night. He wondered if Geoff would go West, too, how much longer he’d stay here in the Pecos Wilderness. Five years from now when Manny stands in line at Safeway with toilet paper and ground beef in his basket he’ll have a flash of that night they drove to the Turkey Mountains but only be able to remember the dog at first, not the kid. Just another in a long line of tenants paying rent under the table. But then the head will come in a flash, the scrap of hair and flesh in the sink, and Geoff’s panicked face will pass behind his eyes in a blink.
The drive to Pojoaque was swift. His gear was still loaded in the back of the Jeep and it rattled as he pulled into the Cities of Gold parking lot. A few familiar cars, the same electric buzz when the automatic doors whirred open. As he walked down the line of penny slots, he saw the old ladies perched in front of them, twelve in a row. He wondered if he looked to Geoff like they looked to him—unchanging in a life where so much had suddenly altered.
“There you are, sweet cheeks,” said the woman on the end, dismissing her machine with a wave. Her voice was rough next to the dull hum of the lights. “The luck’s all dried up here. Come give me a kiss.”
A few looked up at him as he passed, giving Manny an absent smile and maybe a yawn, glints of silver at their throats from the delicate ribbon that supported their personalized meteorites. To have traveled such a distance, jumped all alone from there to here, only to become comets looped around chains on twelve necks.
Melanie J. Cordova has stories out or forthcoming with Red Savina Review, Whitefish Review, The Oklahoma Review, Yemassee, and various others. In addition to reviewing books for the Santa Fe Writers Project and IndieReader, Melanie also serves as Editor-in-Chief to Harpur Palate.
Photography by William J. Stribling.