Gila woodpeckers forged a hollow at the heart of a great saguaro. It was a water witch who first filched the three-eyed coyote skull and secreted it in the hole, nestling the smooth bones against the cactus’s spine. Knowledge of the skull’s whereabouts drifted along generations. The last witch was loose-lipped and formed a stitch-and-bitch style coven. The three-eyed skull became the stuff of urban legend and Reddit forums. There was a whiff of truth to all the chatter. Wishes granted. Riches. Glory. Revenge. The humans appropriated a magic they neither honored nor understood. The skull belongs to the coyotes. Humans forget that coyotes are tricksters.
An engine growls in the distance. Pressing her face against the stone wall, Laurel peers through a fist-sized gap. Why the hell did she answer that Craiglist ad? She could’ve just begged her sister to cover the rent. Plumes of dust rise along the horizon. Grave certainty that the black jeep is coming drags her to the dirt floor. A torn backpack rests at her feet. She’d tried apologizing, tried giving that thing back. The man with the vermillion eyes twirled a machete and informed her that it was too late. Ever quick on her feet, Laurel ran, crashing through the Sonoran desert. Now, black wings beat overhead.
The vultures are swirling.
An avid hiker, she knew the area. That’s why she got the gig, that and she needed the money enough not to ask questions. Now, strange men intend to kill her. Laurel curses her fidelity to Professor Canis’s demand: Tell no one. Her family will never know what happened.
In the high desert, cell signals are as elusive as chupacabras. If her phone held any bars she wouldn’t call 911. Only a hiker would know where to find her. The roofless tower, with its high circular walls, inspires much curiosity. The structure, man-built with layered stones in the style of Anasazi ruins, looks as if it’s stood since before the time of the missionaries. Yet, it is new. Just months ago campers claimed it appeared with the dawn. No one knew who built it or why.
The jeep is louder now, crunching over agave and devil’s claw. They’ll look in the tower—it’s an obvious hiding place—but panic choked the sense out of Laurel. Chunks of cholla bite into her skin and blood streaks down her bare legs. She can’t run anymore, and with no windows and only one doorway, she’s trapped under a darkening sky.
She thinks of her sister. Katy often claimed there are no Atheists in foxholes. Laurel doesn’t pray but scours her mind for ideas. She hopes to live. She wants to live, to tell her sister yes, one can face death and see only darkness.
If she lives, she’ll tell Katy how much she loves her. They’ll take that trip to Iceland they’d been planning since childhood. Laurel can’t die before seeing the aurora borealis. Her palms slap at the ground, seeking loose stones, anything to use as a weapon. She swallows a scream when an unsheathed snakeskin slips thru her fingers. The land vibrates, then stills. An engine cuts off. There’s nothing except for what’s in the canvas bag.
It was a lot of money for such a small thing. Go deep into the desert and obtain a hidden artifact. It’s not even stealing if you’re outside on public land, is it? Five thousand dollars seemed a high reward but Laurel said nothing as Professor Canis counted out ten one-hundred dollar bills to ensure the deal. He cautioned her that occultists guarded the site. Laurel hadn’t taken the warning seriously. She ran in eccentric circles and knew a Satanist, a Pagan, and a Chaos Magician. All three were pot-smoking sweethearts who wore a bit of black.
Laurel was halfway out of the canyon when the men with machetes came. They weren’t the Goths she’d expected. They were hunters.
Two doors slam. Humidity thickens the air. Laurel reaches into the bag and removes the ancient, three-eyed coyote skull. Symbols wrought in ash garnish the bleached bones. Twists of twine connect the jaw. It’s a smooth fit, interlocking like puzzle pieces. The long teeth have intricate carvings worked into them. The bones are impossibly light; not a weapon, but perhaps a bargaining chip. It’s what they want. They could let her go.
The long silver blade of a machete glides through the doorway.
Gripping the jaw so tight a tooth dislodges, Laurel does pray.
Let it be quick.
A boom quakes the earth and the sky erupts—a microburst. It’s monsoon season, the time of year when bone-dry canyons can fill and swell in the space of a few scattered heartbeats. Within seconds rain floods the floor of the tower. Laurel can’t see through the heavy slate curtain of water. The magnified sound of debris clacking downstream, riding on the wild currents of a flash flood rents the air.
Laurel huddles, gripping the three-eyed-skull. When she hears the rumble of the jeep’s ignition, tears of relief mix with the hot summer rain. Thick, muddy water rises past her hiking boots. Strobes of lightning and fierce thunder conceal the subtle shifting of stones as she moves to the opening.
Then, the tower crumbles.
Startled, she looks up—
—and falls as the first rock cracks her crown with swift efficiency.
The three-eyed-coyote skull journeys with the flows of water, drifting down the canyon path and slides into place at a cliff’s base. Layer upon layer of silt blankets the bones, ensuring they will remain hidden for another one hundred years of well-deserved rest.
A coral snake seeking a winter brumation is the first to rediscover the skull. The snake’s long form shudders as she realizes that she is slithering through an eye socket, a bad omen at best. Her body caresses the skull, the tip of her knocking against three sockets. She hurries away and hopes the coyotes forgive her trespass.
L.L. Madrid lives in Tucson where the rain smells like creosote. She resides with her four-year-old daughter, an antisocial cat, and on occasion, a scorpion or two. Her work can be found lurking in various corners of the internet and at llmadrid.weebly.com.