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The Skinwalker

By C.A. Cole

Elise was dreading the trees. Back East, where she had first learned to drive, she had nosed out into intersecting streets to peer over hedges. Graduate school in the West had been a relief, no more holding her breath as she made left turns. In Albuquerque the land was open to scrutiny. For the first time in her life things were clear, unobstructed.

“Sure you don’t want me to come?” Dennis asked as they raced toward the airport.

“It’s humid back there,” she said. Dennis believed the two of them were reincarnated Anasazi; certainly he wouldn’t like the trees.

At the security entrance, he opened his briefcase and held up a squash blossom necklace. Intertwined silver wires enclosed a stone of blue-green Royston turquoise flecked with brown matrix. He fastened it around her neck.

“It’s beautiful,” she murmured without meeting his eyes.

“Keep the skinwalkers away,” he said as she passed through security. All the way to her gate she could feel the heat of the stone radiating into her breastbone.

***

“That’s a beautiful necklace,” Sara said after giving Elise a welcoming hug. “You’ll have to wear it for Stone Soup.” Stone Soup was Sara’s August tradition. The two of them had grown up with the story of the three hungry soldiers and in high school had hung out with a band named after the tale. After Sara married the bass player, the picnic had become an annual party.

Only in the last six months had she and Sara reconnected through email. Sara had asked Elise to “trudge home” for the summer picnic, and here she was, enclosed by the trees and humidity of Pennsylvania.

“Tell me about Dennis,” Sara said now, flopping down on the guest room bed as Elise removed earrings and bracelets from her carry-on bag and laid them one next to the other.

“Dennis thinks I sprang from the New Mexico clay like the Navajo goddess Changing Woman. He doesn’t think I have a past. He gave me this right before I left.” She lifted the necklace off her shoulders and arranged it on the bed. She wanted to ask Sara about Austim, not talk about Dennis, but since they’d reconnected, Sara hadn’t mentioned her first love. Elise wasn’t about to bring him up. She didn’t want to be accused of not being over him, didn’t want to hear how she needed to get on with her life.

Sara stroked the center stone, the necklace’s naja, and then touched one of Elise’s bracelets. “This turquoise is all the same color.” She scraped the stone with her nail. “Why does it have dirt in it?”

“It’s all from the same mine. The dirt is called matrix.” Imperfections gave each rock its own identity, kept it from an undistinguished uniformity.

Elise unrolled a pair of maroon shorts, exposing the first of the Anaheim chilies she had packed for her contribution to the soup pot. All her clothes gave off the aroma of hot peppers roasting in the southwestern sun.

For the two days it took to get ready for Stone Soup, they baked bread and Sara asked to see pictures of Dennis. They drove to the grocery store. Sara quizzed her about her future. Elise shrugged. “He wants to get married, but I haven’t made up my mind.” Sara chattered about everyone but Austim, as if he’d been ripped from their past, and all references to the band’s drummer were stored away on their one recording and small photo album. Even when Elise snuck the album off the bottom of the coffee table, there were only smudges behind the drum set. The shape that had to be Austim had his back to the camera.

On the day of the get-together, Sara stirred a restaurant-sized pot of broth simmering on the built-in barbeque. “The band members will be here of course. Band members.” Sara’s laugh sounded half like a sneeze as she pointed at her husband setting up the volleyball net in the back yard. “His most musical maneuver these days is changing CDs.”

Sara’s husband had cut his hair and donned a tie for his position at the bank and no longer looked like the boy from the band. I haven’t changed much, Elise thought as she carried bowls out to the picnic table.

People arrived bearing carrots, lettuce, potatoes, string beans from a garden, herbs from a kitchen window. Whenever a blond head popped into sight, Elise squeezed the naja, willing skinwalkers, ghosts, Austim, to appear. She ladled out soup. “Want more?” she asked over and over as if she worked in a soup line.

“Make room.” Sara pushed through the crowd, raising a wooden platter of bread above her head. “Over there,” she shouted to Elise and cocked her head toward a group of late arrivals.

Even in a crowd, Reed, the band’s guitarist, was easy to spot. He’d been taller than the others, louder, handsomer. “Elise,” he said in her ear now. “Elise all grown up and beautiful.” Few men called her beautiful, and fewer made her believe it. He kissed her, his hands heavy on her shoulders. In the middle of her chest, the center stone pulsed.

The woman with him rolled her eyes and offered her hand. “I’m his wife, and this is Timmy.” A boy of about eight with hauntingly familiar eyes raised his hand and darted off, dragging his parents along.

The light took on a shallow tinge. She slapped at invisible insects prickling her skin, picked up some dirty bowls, and trailed Sara into the kitchen.

“Looks like enough for the whole winter,” Sara said, getting out her storage containers. Stone Soup she wrote on each container, looping the letters large, thick and black.

Elise raised the squash blossom off her shoulders. She touched the stone and it was as hot as a cast iron stove. She examined the tips of her fingers for a burn.

In quick staccato, the doorbell rang twice. “Get that,” Sara instructed, her chin on top of a pile of containers for the freezer. “But sometimes it rings when no one’s there.”

Elise yanked open the door, letting in a trickle of frigid air. Standing on the other side of the screen, outlined by the metal mesh as if haloed by the desert sun, was Austim. A slinky-haired, tanned blonde clung to his arm.

“Hello,” Elise murmured into the doorjamb. His eyes, down to the flecks of brown, mirrored the burning stone between her breasts.

“Hi.” His voice was soft, almost inaudible, early thunder. She remembered the ghostly feel of his fingers against her throat. “I am feeling your lifeblood,” he had whispered. “I am kissing your heartbeat.” He, his hands, had been so gentle compared to the ferociousness of his drumming. No one had been as romantic or innovative. No one.

“This is Gretchen.” He barely glanced at the girl. A strand of her long hair was caught in his top button. He pointed his unlit cigarette accusingly at Elise’s necklace. She moved aside. As he passed, his cold fingers brushed her bare arm.

“I’m starrrving, Tim.” The girl pulled him toward the back yard, snapping the rope of hair.

“No one there?” Sara asked when she returned to the kitchen as the late arrivals stepped out the back door. Elise narrowed her eyes, but Sara went on, her hand on the screen door. “Good. I didn’t want to have to reheat that soup. The doorbell does that. We joke it must be Tim,” she said. The screen door banged after her.

Elise lingered in the kitchen, wiping up crumbs and putting away slabs of butter. Tim. No one had called him Tim; he hadn’t allowed it. Tim was, he said, a frivolous name. He liked the distinctive Austim; it set him apart.

Outside, a spotlight lent a remnant of visibility to a volleyball game. At home, heat lightning illuminated the summer sky. Here she didn’t know east from west. Here the world was directionless, engulfed by trees.

Even Reed, his fist raised to serve the ball, had abandoned her. Everyone not playing was clumped on the lawn’s periphery, weaving stories in which she had no part. Only Austim’s date, nursing a bowl of un-melting ice cream, leaned against the rough edges of the redwood porch. Elise lowered herself carefully to the scruffy planks, her toes brushing the chilly grass.

Austim thwacked the ball toward Reed who stretched lazily, slamming it across the net and into the ground.

“Tim,” the girl squealed as he slipped on the dampening grass, sending the ball off on a skewed line.

Tim, Tim, it was as if they were speaking of a person unknown to her. No one had remarked on his absence that evening. Until he appeared at the front door, it had been as if he hadn’t existed. Even now the other players stood away from him, and each time the ball sailed in his direction, someone else leaped to hit it. The teams rotated. Austim shifted with the others as if their movements were chained together. He glanced toward the porch.

“I do like him.” The girl pointed her plastic spoon. “He keeps looking at me. We only ever slept together twice but he keeps good care of me.” She licked some ice cream from her spoon and shivered, her skin almost blue.

Elise resisted the impulse to position her thumbs on the girl’s cheeks and mold her formless, wavering face. Other than she looked young and cold, Elise couldn’t describe her. Her features seemed to change as if she wasn’t sure who she was.

One of Gretchen’s reptilian fingers grazed Elise’s cheek as she tugged a pendant earring away from Elise’s ear. “These are the color of his eyes.”

“His eyes are blue. These are turquoise.” She jerked her head, pulling the earring out of the girl’s grasp.

The volleyball arched into the night sky, a replacement moon, and hurdled down. With a small shove, Elise launched herself away from the deck. At the property’s edge, she slipped under the barbed wire fence and into a grove of trees.

Eventually, the thunk of the volleyball ceased. Voices shouting good-byes fluttered through the trees. The night air rustled. Gradually, crickets broke the silence. The screen door slammed. She pushed her way out of the sheltering pines.

Someone had turned off the spotlight.

“Elise.” Austim’s voice seeped across the yard as he emerged from the deep shadows of the porch. They met at the boundary of the kitchen’s light. “Elise.” He brushed her hair away from her eyes, traced her eyebrows with his fingertips, their coolness counteracting the heated stone at her breast.

He pulled her to him, placing his fingers lightly against the pulse under her jaw. His palms generated the mildest friction against her face, chilling her, and he kissed her, numbing her lips, making her forget the arid times between.

“Tim?” His date stood in the back door, blinking into the night.

“Christ,” he mumbled in Elise’s ear. The girl stepped out onto the deck and called again. He touched Elise’s cheek and sprinted up the steps.

“I want to go back.”

“Go.”

“You have to come with me.”

“In a minute.” He pushed her back in the door. “Find something warm to drink.”

Elise settled on the bottom step, facing the trees. Behind her Austim shook another cigarette out of a pack and sank down next to her.

“You still smoke.”

“Trying to quit.”

“Everyone calls you Tim.”

“Tim suits me now.” He held the cigarette near his mouth, as if asking her to light it.

“If you need to take her home...”

“She can take care of herself. Women.”

“She’s just a kid.”

“Girls, then. They’re all trouble. Even you,” he said, putting his frigid hand on her back and laughing as if to make his words into a joke. Although they were in the country, Elise could barely make out any stars; the night was running out.

Almost without pressure, he caressed her neck. “Did a male someone give this to you?” he asked, reaching toward the turquoise stone. His fingers stopped as if repulsed by the heat.

“I accepted it under false pretenses.”

The flecks in his eyes caught the available light. “That had nothing to do with me,” he said as if he were able to read her mind.

“You said you’d come back. All these years I waited because you said you cared.”

“I did care. I loved you.” Tentatively, with the tip of one finger, he touched the naja. His eyes were brighter than the stone around her neck, as if there were no depths to provide shadows.

“Then why did you leave me?” She could still forgive him if he provided the right answer, if he returned to who she thought he was.

He squinted off at the barely discernible grove of trees. “To set you free.”

For the moment she waited for him to go on, it felt as if the stars had circulated.

She reached behind her, undid the clasp, and held the necklace out in front of her. She dropped the necklace onto his lap. Even before he caught it, she had crossed the deck.

“Elise.”

“Keep it,” she said, letting the door slam behind her.

“Who were you talking to?” Sara asked, as she entered the kitchen.

“Austim.” She pressed her hand against her chest where the naja had been. “He’s on the back porch.”

Sara sighed. “I know he meant a lot to you.” She pushed the screen door open and Elise followed her out. “See, he’s not here. He never was. He couldn’t have been.”

“He was here with some golden blonde girl.” Elise stifled a giggle that was half way to tears. “She looked like she was about eighteen. Like she’d never grown up.”

“His wife was here, but she looks our age.”

“You didn’t tell me.” Of course she knew he’d married. Everyone did, eventually.

“Now she’s married to Reed. He’s raising the boy, too. Timmy. He’s got Austim’s eyes.”

A wind rattled the stones on the bottom step, making her shiver.

“Your necklace.” Sara scooped it up and dropped it into Elise’s cupped hands.

He’d extracted the warmth from the naja and discarded it. The girl, too, had vanished.

“No one told me he had a child. He didn’t talk to him.”

“He couldn’t have spoken to anyone. He couldn’t have been here,” Sara said. “I wrote you. Years ago. I thought that was why you stopped writing to me, as if it were my fault, the bearer of bad news.”

For a while, before email was so prevalent, Elise had wanted to write, but it hadn’t been her turn. She worried she’d said something to alienate Sara. “What was your fault?”

“He was married. You knew he got married.”

“Not to that girl.”

“The girl who got stuck in the car with him? No. Everyone thinks that’s why they froze to death, stuck out on that dirt road in a blizzard, because he didn’t want his wife to know. I can show you his grave if you don’t believe me.”

“No,” she said, stroking the ice cold stone and thinking of Dennis back in the New Mexico sun.

“No, it won’t be necessary.”

***

During the night, she heard the wind rushing through the pines and drifted into dreams of smashing turquoise. She swept the icy splinters into a heap, scooped up the blue shards, and with a sweep of her arm, cast them into the swaying trees.

 

C.A. Cole lives in Fort Collins, CO and has just finished an untitled novel.

Photo "Storm Tree" courtesy of Steve Knight, Ashurstwood, U.K.

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