Evil Don't Look Like Anything , 3865 words.
...Rhett fancied himself a bit of a cowboy, with his John Wayne swagger and his Roy Rogers good looks; dusty blond hair and blue eyes that were often described as "soulful." (Soulful. It was enough to make you laugh.) He had the look down with an old cowboy hat he'd picked up at a costume shop while driving through Big Spring, and a faded denim shirt he'd scavenged out of a trash can during a rest stop in Odessa. No wannabe cowboy, however, would be complete without his pair of snakeskin cowboy boots. Rhett's were brand new and pinched at his toes; they made funny creaking noises when he first put them on, but he'd been wearing them for a while now, and they had finally begun to break in.
Rhett had been driving through dusty, barren West Texas towns for God only knows how long, Rhett himself having long since forgotten. (When you been on the road long as Rhett has, all the towns start to bleed into one another, until you can't tell one from the other.) A single tear of sweat ran down the back of his neck and Rhett leaned over to fiddle with the air conditioning; no dice, still busted. He sighed and turned the radio on instead.
Johnny Cash's gravelly baritone thumped out of the one working (shot a man in Reno just to watch him die) speaker, and Rhett tapped his thumbs against the steering column in rhythm to the driving beat. He pulled to a stop at the light and tapped his fingertips on the side mirror, impatient for the light to change, when something flashed at the hazy corner of his vision. Rhett adjusted the mirror and the ghost of a girl who'd caught his attention came into full focus.
The girl was a vision, simple as that. She had a thick rope of a braid coiled round her head like some displaced Swiss miss, and Rhett's eyes trailed inevitably lower, to the line of her slender white neck. She wore a billowy white peasant blouse that did nothing to flatter her figure, but the material was gauzy and while it did nothing to flatter her figure, it did nothing to hide it either; he could see the outline of a breast and the curve of hip silhouetted by the sun. Rhett ran his tongue over his bottom lip, allowed his eyes to drift lower, when an impatient motorist slammed on his horn.
Snapped to attention, Rhett jerked his truck out of "neutral" and pulled along the curb, leaning over and whistling to get the girl's attention. She held a bulky carpetbag to her chest and raised her eyebrows at him, inquiringly. She wore a dark skirt of flimsy material that contoured to her thighs appreciatively. Rhett finally managed to pull his eyes back to hers, and offered her a friendly, calculated smile.
"Hey," Rhett drawls, in his best Texas twang, "m'name's Rhett. And you are just the prettiest girl I ever seen." He lifts his hips off the cracked leather car seat and fishes a crumpled foil pack of Lucky Strikes out of his back pocket. He digs a cigarette out of the pack and rolls it between his fingers, tapping in code on the steering wheel.
The girl appears unfazed. "Mary," she says, dry as the desert, "Mary Magdalene."
Rhett laughs, still rolling and sliding the cigarette between his fingers. "Mary Magdalene. That can't be your Christian name - excuse the pun."
The corners of the girl's mouth curl up into a pretty half-moon of a smile, and she shifts the carpetbag in her arms. "And is Rhett your Christian name?" she asks sweetly, pulling that pretty red mouth into a wider smile.
Rhett glances at her carpetbag, and then at her bright, blue-sky eyes. "You, Mary Magdalene, look like you're gettin' away from somethin'. So'm I."
She regards him with a cool look, the only thing betraying her the curve of her lips. "Oh, do I now?"
"I'm headin' to El Paso. You're free to come along for the ride. If you want," he says, still tapping the cigarette against the steering column.
The girl studies him with a serious expression, as if sizing him up for a fight. "All right," she says, after a long while, "El Paso sounds good. Long as it ain't - Bumfuckville, Texas, it's fine by me."
Rhett leaned over and unlocked the passenger's side door, and the girl opened it, sticking the lumpy carpetbag between the seats. "What'cha got there?" he asked, reaching to touch it.
She knocked his hand away sharply, and gave him one of those sweet cherry-red smiles. " 'sa surprise," she said, with a wink, before climbing into the cab and shutting the door. She drew the frayed, faded seat belt across her front, and buckled herself in.
Rhett glanced her way and gave her his biggest, brightest Colgate grin. "I like surprises," he said, winking back. He shifted the battered baby-blue pickup into "drive" and eased away from the curb, sliding seamlessly back into the steady flow of cars out of town.
...Rhett pulled into a Ma and Pa diner a few miles outside El Paso, with the sun dipping low beyond the horizon. A cool desert chill settled over them, and the girl pulled a shawl out of her carpetbag, draping it about her slim shoulders. Rhett killed the engine and pocketed the keys, retrieving his crinkled pack of cigarettes. He fished one out and stuck it between his lips.
"So," he said around the cigarette, glancing sidelong at her, the fire of the setting sun tipping her profile in brilliant hues of red and orange, "you hungry?"
The girl looked at him, stray hair coming loose from the crown of her braid. Rhett drew in a breath. "Actually, I kinda am."
He reached out and palmed the loose curls of hair, tucking them back into place. Rhett smiled at her, another face-splitting grin, and fit his white cowboy hat on his head, drawing the brim low over his eyes. "Then let's go get somethin' to eat."
He got out of the truck and walked around to the passenger's side, boots crunching over the gravel, and opened the door for her, offering her his hand. The girl pushed her bag under the seat and swung her legs, skirts hushing. She fit her tiny white hand into his, and gave him a shy smile, before stepping out.
"Quite the gentleman," she said, reaching up to clasp her shawl closed.
Rhett tipped the brim of his hat at her and winked. "They don't call me the serial lady-killer for nothin', Miss Mary."
She laughed, high and bright like the peal of wedding church bells, head thrown back and her neck exposed. "And modest too."
Rhett slid hs hand to her waist and led her toward the diner. "Everybody's gonna be wonderin' who the lucky man is that gets to have you on his arm," he said, opening the door and holding it for her, a jangling of bells to announce their entrance.
She just laughed and stepped inside.
A jet of ice-cold air chilled Rhett to the bone and he sighed, tipping his head back and welcoming it. Hadn't felt cool air since he lost the AC traveling through Lubbock, on his way to - Bumfuckville, or wherever the hell it was he picked up the girl. (Does it even really matter? Out here, so close to the El Paso-Juárez border, nobody has a past or a name.) Rhett lingered, soaking it up, before following her into the diner.
An old country standard crackled from cobwebbed speakers mounted on the walls (always walkin' after midnight searchin' for you) and Rhett swallowed, parched, dust in his mouth. The girl curled cool, thin fingers around his wrist, and he jumped.
She twisted her cherry-red lips into a slow Cheshire grin. "Did I surprise you?" she teased, drawing her voice into a low purr.
Rhett raised his eyebrows.
She batted a hand against his shoulder, laughing, and held her shawl closed. The girl tugged on the sleeve of his shirt and gestured to the waitress waiting to seat them. "I don't think - " and here she paused to scan the woman's chipped plastic name tag, " - Lupe likes us very much."
The hovering waitress, a bulky, shapeless woman in a Pepto pink polyester uniform two sizes too small, pulled a chewed nub of a pencil and a notepad from her apron and gestured to them to follow after her, without words.
Rhett and the girl did so, following the mountain of a waitress to a secluded booth at the very back of the diner. The woman handed them shiny, laminated menus and retreated to the kitchen with nary a word.
Rhett flipped his open and scanned through appetizers and entrees while the girl played with the salt and pepper shakers. "I think I'm gonna have the jalapeño omelet. What'd you settle on?" he asked, glancing up at the girl.
She put the salt and pepper shakers back in place and began to fiddle with the sugar packets. "I don't know. I guess I'll have what you're havin'," she said, with a tilt of her head. A tendril of hair came loose from her braid, fell into her eyes. She pursed her lips and blew. The tendril of hair stayed in place.
Rhett cocked his head, studied her, the fullness of her bright red lips, and her blue-sky eyes. "Mistress Mary, quite contrary, tell me," he sang, affecting a singsong lilt, "how does your garden grow?"
Her smile curved and lightning flashed across those pretty blue eyes. "With silver bells and cockleshells - and handsome men all in a row."
The waitress emerged from the kitchen with glasses of ice water and set them down on the table. She raised her notepad and rested a meaty hand on her hip. Her slugs of fingers were thick, and Rhett could barely make out the shine of a cheap gold wedding band, the skin around it puffy and bloated. "You ready to order?" she asked, dark eyes darting from Rhett to the girl.
Rhett nodded, jerking his thumb in the girl's direction. "We'll both be having jalapeño omelets. I'd like extra tabasco sauce, please."
The waitress nodded at him and scratched their orders down on her notepad and bustled off to the kitchen, and Rhett took a sip of his water. The girl flicked her tongue out, trying to catch the straw in her mouth, to no avail.
Rhett smirked and steadied it for her; the girl curled her lips around it and returned the smirk. He watched the white plastic straw disappear past her red red lips, allowed his eyes to drift back to the line of her neck, lower still, to the swell of her young breast. Her blouse slipped and the curve of her bone-white shoulder emerged. Rhett reached out, trailed his fingertips over the wing of her collarbone, when the waitress announced her reappearance with a chainsaw of a cough.
The woman deflected her gaze and placed plates of steaming food in front of the two ravenous vagabonds.
"Thank you, Lupe," Rhett said, tipping the brim of his hat to her. The waitress just nodded, mouth drawn into a thin line, and left.
The girl leaned across the table and offered Rhett a conspiratorial wink, eyes glittering. "I really don't think she likes you much," the girl said in a comical stage whisper, big blue eyes, mouth drawn into an "O," cheeks hollowed.
"I want to pluck those sapphires right out of your eyes and give them to you as a gift," Rhett said, pulling her hand down away from her mouth, curling his hand over hers.
The girl bowed her head demurely, the apples of her cheeks pinking.
Rhett grinned and inclined his head, brushing his lips against her soft downy cheek, his touch delicate and featherlight. "You are still the prettiest girl I ever seen," he murmured into the hairs curling at the side of her neck. There he noticed a constellation of freckles like specks of dried blood and grazed his lips over the mostly milky white of her neck.
The girl dipped her head, slipping from his embrace, cheeks almost as red as her mouth. She picked up her plastic fork and knife and poked at her omelet. "Your food's gonna get cold if you let it go any longer," she said, voice low, pretty blue eyes shaded.
Rhett sank back into the cushioning of soft, fake leather, and looked at his meal, bland, greasy yellow omelet with flecks of red and green. "Any good?" he asked her, rolling out his napkin, plastic utensils clacking over the lacquered tabletop.
She tucked her napkin in her lap. "I'm too hungry to care how it tastes," she said, with a smirk and a laugh. She sliced up her omelet and forked a bit of it into her mouth.
Rhett ate a bite of omelet and pulled a face, taking a long swig of ice water to wash away the taste. "Any good?" he asked, grimacing at the aftertaste. "I'm thinkin' Lupe might've put something in mine." He winked at the girl.
She rolled her blue-sky eyes to the ceiling and sighed heavily. "Maybe you ought've told me about your persecution complex before I got in the truck with you," she teased, eating another forkful of omelet. "Mine tastes just fine."
Rhett took a second bite, but the omelet tasted just as bad after the first one, and he pushed it away, in disgust. "Guess I shouldn't be so surprised, damn greasy spoons," he spat, taking another sip of cool water, shuddering at the lingering taste. "Yuck."
The girl finished her omelet and dabbed her napkin to the corner of her mouth. "I don't s'pose Lupe'll be gettin' a big tip tonight," she drawled. The girl dropped her napkin on the table, a slash of red lipstick cutting across the white.
Rhett leaned forward and thumbed away a smear of red at the corner of her mouth. He retrieved his bulging wallet, cracked leather splitting at the seams, and dug out a few bills. "You ready to go?" he asked, tapping the steel toes of his cowboy boots on the tiles.
The girl nodded, fixing her crown of a braid and drawing her black shawl back around her shoulders. "I was born ready," she said, tucking back a tuft of hair at the nape of her neck.
Rhett grinned at her and dropped a crumpled wad of money next to their bill. "Think you'll miss this place," he asked, and Rhett was not quite sure if he meant the shitty diner or El Paso itself. (Think you'll miss this place, Mistress Mary?) He put aside a handful of change for Lupe's paltry tip. ('cause this place, it'll miss you, pretty Mary.)
She looked at him, star sapphire eyes shining, and nodded, red lips curled into a Mona Lisa sliver of a smile. "Don't think it matters much," she said, her voice a low purr. The girl clutched her shawl tightly. "Not gonna be comin' back here again."
Rhett grinned again, so wide that he thought his face might split, and took her by the hand, leading her out of the diner.
...Rhett drove down the darkened stretch of highway, wind scoring its fingers through his hair, full moon hovering over the pitch black horizon and tipping him in silver. He stole a glance at Mary; the girl was huddled against the passenger's door, eyelids twitching, caught in the throes of a dream. He looked back out the windshield at the open road winding before them. (Winding, twisting like black snakes, dashes of yellow striping down their backs.)
Mary murmured something indecipherable in her sleep as Rhett eased the truck into an abandoned parking lot, broken asphalt and tufts of yellowed grass poking up from cracks in the pavement. The abandoned lot sat beside a large rectangle of sickly looking sod; in a previous lifetime, the rectangle of anorexic grass was probably a soccer field.
Rhett killed the engine and dropped the keys on the dash, glanced over at Mary (pretty Mary, your very own sleeping beauty) and slid his palm over her shoulder to her arm, jostling her awake gently.
"Mm?" Mary raised her head and regarded him sleepily, the corners of her eyes drooping. She massaged her fingertips over sleep-creases on the sides of her pretty, chinadoll face.
He drew his hand back and dropped it in his lap, rolling a Lucky Strike between his index and middle fingers. "We're here," he murmured, sotto voce, even though he and Mary were the only ones there. (and God and God and God) He stuck the cigarette between his lips and leaned over the girl to dig in the glove compartment for his lighter.
Mary yawned and stretched her long, doe limbs, hair messy and tumbling out of her braid. Mary reached up and unpinned her hair, shaking it out, dark as the night sky when there are no stars out. (like tonight) She turned her darkened eyes on him and smiled. With the sky devoid of stars, her mouth appeared rust-red and smeared, like blood.
Rhett flicked open the lid of his lighter and raised it, cupped a hand around it to protect the flame, but his cigarette was gone, must have dropped it. He flipped the lid back on and dropped the lighter in the truck's cracked cup holder, reaching under his seat for the missing cigarette. His fingers brushed up against sticky duct tape on the underside of his seat, and he smiled; his knife was still in place. (mistress mary where do you bury the pretty things when they die) He raised his head and offered Mary an apologetic smile. "Dropped my cigarette."
Mary looked at him and just shrugged, big blue eyes gone neon, so bright Rhett almost went blind. Mary crossed her arms over her chest, black shawl slipping just enough to reveal a flash of skin. She says something that Rhett cannot make out.
"What?" He asked, losing her in the glow of her neon eyes.
Mary shifts, distorts, shifts again into something liquid, and then she is a white-clad princess with star sapphires for eyes and glittering rubies for a mouth. Her mouth moves, but he still cannot make out a single sound, and then her shawl slips down all the way and then suddenly, it is a flock of screaming bats.
Rhett shrieked, threw himself back against the seat, covered his face with his arms. He pulled frantically at his collar, mouth as dry as dust, and stabbed blindly at the AC dial. Flames lick at his fingertips and he yanks his hand back.
Then Mary is saying something, and Rhett strains to hear.
Mary has something in her hands, she's making an offering (a sacrifice) to him. He peers at the cup of her hands. In her hands are three small black seeds.
". . . in the garden," she says, but she has no mouth. "In the garden stands the tree of knowledge. In the garden of Good and Evil." She raises her hands to him. The cornucopia of her hands is overflowing with tiny seeds. Small and shriveled, black, like his heart.
Rhett looks at her and her mouth is back, but it is smeared with blood, and the knife is in his hands (how did that get there?) and it is smeared with blood too.
Her diaphanous white blouse has been slashed to pieces and he can see corresponding wounds, knife slashes beneath her breasts and across her ribs. Her fingernails have been chewed down to nubs, bleeding and frayed, caked with dirt. He looks at her face again. Her hair is tangled with broken twigs and brown, decaying leaves, matted like a rat's nest. Her once-red lips are as blue as her eyes were.
Before someone (or something) had plucked them out.
Rhett screams (andscreamsandscreams) until red explodes behind his eyelids.
And darkness fell a second time that night.
...He faded in.
". . . shouldn't even be alive."
"He's very lucky . . ."
" - been out of it for days."
He opened his eyes. Dark shadows hovered over him, with white, wolfish grins. He closed his eyes again. His head hurt too much to think. Opened his eyes, regarded the shadowy figures warily.
"Enough datura to kill a - "
"Doctor, I think he's awake." One of the dark figures emerges into the light. She turns a pretty red smile on him, blue eyes sparking with cold fire.
"Mary . . . " He wasn't sure if he said her name or if the wind did.
"Mistress Mary," she wears a crown of white bones atop her coiled snake of a braid, coiled snake waiting to strike, "where do you bury," and she smiles her blood-red wolf smile at him, "the pretty things," and her blue eyes glow neon, "when they die?"
He faded out.
...He faded in.
"I think he's coming back, doctor." A pretty nurse in a white cap and dress pulled a dark navy shawl over her shoulders. When she moved to the opposite side of him, her orthopedic shoes made soft noises on the linoleum.
The owner of the male voice hovered over him, and offered him a bright white Colgate grin. "Mr. Ransome, my name is - " (don't trust anyone with a colgate smile) " - Dr. Wolfe and I - "
"That's not my name," he said, "my name is Rhett. Rhett Mitchell."
The doctor hiked his eyebrows inquiringly. "Well, Mr. Ransome, our records indicate - "
"Your records are wrong. My name is Rhett Mitch - Mary! Mary, is she - did I - " His voice died, throat choking the words off. He clenched his hand down in the shabby comforter. "Did you find her body - when you found - "
"Mr. Ransome, officials found you not fifteen minutes from the El Paso-Juárez border, unconscious. Alone." Dr. Wolfe scribbled something on his clipboard and handed it off to the nurse, who attached it to the foot of the hospital bed. Dr. Wolfe looked at the nurse and offered her a slim smile. "Maggie, I'll need the results in my office when they're done."
"Of course, Dr. Wolfe." The nurse assented, bowing her head demurely, and the doctor left the room.
He looked at the nurse. ". . . what did he call you?"
"Maggie," she said, leaning over him to fix his pillow. "It is short for Magdalena." A tiny silver cross dangled on a chain around her slender white neck.
Rhett inevitably trailed his eyes lower. A constellation of freckles contoured over the dip where her collarbone melted into her shoulder.
The light and the dark began to swirl in a cyclone of color, until he could no longer see anything, except the neon of her eyes and the red red red of her lips.
He closed his eyes.
He faded out.