Bourbon Penn 29

Constellation Burn

by Josh Rountree

Jordan was on the run again.

No fixed direction, just a fast escape from her life with Tad, and a hitched ride with a talkative long-haul driver on his way to El Paso. The driver pulled into a truck stop, bought her a charred hamburger and some black coffee, then left her to haunt the diesel pumps, a lost soul gone ghost white beneath the glow of industrial halides. Jordan sat on a duffel bag stuffed with everything she’d had time to pack. The earth beneath her shuddered every time a rig moved past on the interstate and blood accelerated in her veins with the adrenaline of what she’d done. She might have lingered there forever, letting the wind chew her away, but she noticed a pickup truck idling in front of her, the passenger door thrown open, and a man inside, offering a ride.

“I can keep you safe,” he said.

Jordan’s head pounded. Her last cigarette hung from her lips, burned nearly to the filter. The man’s words assumed things about her situation. He was good-looking, maybe five, ten years older than Jordan, a big man with work muscles and a moustache clipped short. A cowboy hat shaded half his face, but the dash lights still picked out his grin. He patted the seat in a manner he must have thought reassuring.

Jordan understood whatever the man was offering might not be better than what she was running from, but he didn’t ask her about the cooling yellow bruises on her arms, or the livid blue marks around her neck. The pickup engine idled and air brakes hissed from the diesel yard, but the man kept quiet, giving her the space to consider her diminishing options. Tad with his meth black teeth. The way his rough hands moved along her body and the blossoming pain. Jordan lived at the bottom of a grave, and if she didn’t keep moving, someone would shovel dirt on top of her.

“There are places in the world you can hide,” the man said. “Places nobody will ever find you, no matter how hard they look.”

Jordan took the last drag from her cigarette, tossed it into the gravel along the road. She hefted her duffel into the truck bed and climbed into the passenger seat.

The man’s name was Altus. His truck cabin smelled like oily rags and summer sweat, and the air conditioner chugged out thin granules of sand. Altus directed the truck onto the interstate, and a few miles later, turned off onto one of the farm roads. Darkness dropped around them, and the universe constricted. Not for the first time, Jordan felt herself being absorbed into someone else’s reality, and she realized a threshold had been crossed, some cosmic force had set her in motion, and she was just along for the ride. Already she was reconsidering her decision to climb into the stranger’s truck, but when he spoke, it was in a slow, kind drawl and he had an easy laugh. When he put his hand on her knee, she let it stay there.

For better or worse.

• • •

Altus had seven daughters. Each of them beautiful, and each of them so alike that Jordan had trouble telling one from another. Their bright eyes watched the truck arrive, and their delicate hands opened the passenger door, hefted Jordan’s duffel, grasped at her wrists and forearms and helped ease her from the cab like precious cargo. Seven mouths moved, lips whispering mother, mother, mother, and Jordan felt the ground shifting beneath her tennis shoes as the world urged her back into motion.

You might want to keep running, Jordan.

Altus had told her the truth. He carried Jordan somewhere nobody would ever find her. She stood surrounded by strangers in a caliche parking lot with nothing but the vast expanse of night in every direction. A low building ran the length of the property, some hybrid of a filling station, a convenience store, and a bar, all bathed in the dingy yellow light of an overhead sign that read ROUGHNECK ROOST. Outbuildings crowded in the near distance, Altus’s house and a pair of storage sheds. Beyond the compound’s dim perimeter, nothing was visible save for the lights of a few faraway drilling rigs, each of them flickering like cold constellations in the blackness of space.

Altus led Jordan around the bar and toward the house, a squat box with green aluminum siding and a metal roof. He steered her with one hand on the small of her back. His daughters followed, continuing to whisper mother, mother, mother until they reached the front door and Altus turned to position himself between Jordan and the hovering young women. The lights played tricks on Jordan’s eyes. The women looked wispy at the edges, like someone was pulling at their threads, unravelling their being.

“She’s not your mother.”

She most certainly wasn’t. The women appeared to be in their mid-twenties, nearly as old as Jordan. Altus wasn’t old enough to have children that age. But he introduced them as his daughters, naming them one by one in dizzying succession – Dauphine, Elspeth, Polly, Marisol, Pith, Sumner, and Fetch. They curtsied one after another, bowing their heads at the same precise angle, carbon copy beauties in yellow sundresses and cowboy boots. After this presentation, Altus suggested they be about their chores, and as a unit the women backed away, eyes still on Jordan as if she might disappear into memory if they lost sight of her.

Altus took hold of Jordan’s arm, pulled her inside the house, and turned the deadbolt.

They shared Altus’s bed, the sheets musty and knotted. Tattoos covered Altus’s chest, spirals and broken triangles and shapes of questionable geometry. The tattoos blurred in the blue darkness when Jordan tried to study them, and they eluded every attempt to trace them with her fingertips. An oscillating fan hummed, pushed heat around the bedroom. Jordan lay there with her heart hammering. This might be a worse situation than the one she’d fled.

Animals moved on the roof, claws clattering against metal. Something heavy shifted overhead. In Jordan’s mind, it was the seven sisters, clambering up the walls and sniffing around the eaves. Pressing themselves up against the roof, listening to her breathe and trying to read her thoughts. It was a crazy notion, but there was something off about the way the women moved and the intense way they watched her. Altus rolled on his side and stared at her, so close she could feel the heat of his breath. The sliver of a smile on his face confirmed every wild scenario she could conjure.

“Don’t let them girls get to you,” he said. “They like to mess around in your head. That’s their nature. But they belong to me. I won’t let them harm you.”

“They’re all your daughters?”

“That’s what I told you.”

That wasn’t exactly an answer, so Jordan persisted.

“Where’s their mother at?”

“There’s no mother could birth them girls.”

Jordan didn’t know what to make of that. Was he saying their mother had died in childbirth, or that they’d come to him by other means? Maybe Altus liked collecting strays. If that was the case, Jordan might be just another addition to his coterie.

But no, she didn’t believe that. Jordan might be a runaway from life, short on options, but those others were something else entirely. She didn’t have much choice but to endure the night, but Jordan decided the next morning she’d hitch back to the interstate.

As it happened, she stayed with Altus and his daughters for nearly a month.

• • •

Altus gave Jordan a job in the convenience store that was attached to the filling station – or more accurately, he installed her there behind the counter to pay for the food she ate and the roof she slept under. Altus hadn’t offered a paycheck, but Jordan figured this wasn’t a bad way to spin her wheels until she could figure out what direction she was headed. Altus kept her supplied with Winston Lights and Lone Star, and he was a softer touch than Tad. She was aware he’d caught her in a sort of trap, but she felt her chances of escape were good if she ever made up her mind to leave.

The mystery of his daughters is what really trapped her. No matter how hard Jordan tried to get a read on them, their story was written in a language she couldn’t understand.

The store had floor-to-ceiling windows that faced the endless flatlands of the West Texas oil patch. Jordan counted one day after another, surrounded by racks of candy bars and potato chips, yellow pints of motor oil and road maps collecting dust. Fried burritos and corn dogs grew stale beneath an orange heat lamp, covering everything in a constant layer of grease. Jordan read the tabloids, trying to ignore the cloying smell. On the hottest days, she’d stand at the Dr. Pepper cooler with the door open, breathe in the frosted air. Out beyond the gas pumps, the sun stormed against the earth. It was enough to discourage any idle notions of setting off on foot. Jordan scratched lottery tickets with a quarter, happy to be indoors.

Out there, the real world lurked in all its fury.

The customers were mostly highway patrolmen who stopped in for gas and chewing gum, or truckloads of rowdy men who worked the rigs. They arrived when the shifts changed, so regular you could set your watch. Roughnecks with steel-toed boots and filthy coveralls, hardhats left behind on the dashboards of oil field pickups. The same men who’d wander next door to the bar in the evenings for burgers, chicken wings, and shots of mezcal.

One afternoon, a regular named Hobie walked in, fresh off the rig and smelling like it. Every day was the same – a Miller Lite tallboy from the ice chest to down on his way over to the bar, and a packet of Red Man chew. Jordan figured he chose Red Man because she had to turn behind the counter and reach up high to get it off the shelf, giving him a nice long look at her ass. Hobie was the sort who let his eyes linger too long. Jordan had known plenty like him.

She placed the chewing tobacco on the counter next to his beer, watched as he pulled a wadded twenty-dollar bill from his pocket and straightened it.

“Thank you, darling,” he said.

“You need anything else?”

“There’s a whole lot I need, if you’re offering.”

“I’m not.”

“That’s a shame,” he said. “Awful lot of you I want.”

“Altus is liable to beat you with a lug wrench if he finds out you’re hitting on me.”

“Well, you ain’t going to tell him nothing.” Hobie smiled, stretching his homely face tight against his skull. Hobie was probably forty-five, but he looked sixty. Skin furrowed and red, enough hair left on his head to pretend he wasn’t an old man. When Jordan rang him up and passed his change back, he made sure to touch her fingers.

“I’m serious,” he said. “Rented me a house over in Pecos. Real nice. You come live with me you won’t be working in no filling station. I’ll take care of you.”

“How come everyone thinks I need taking care of?”

“I’m just offering.”

Jordan’s bones would grow restless again, but when she left this place, she promised herself it wouldn’t be to follow a man like Hobie.

The bell over the door rang, and one of Altus’s daughters moved into the store.

It was still hard for Jordan to tell them apart, but she was pretty sure it was Fetch. The woman sat down on the aluminum bar stool near the window, placed there for anyone who preferred to dine-in on their shitty gas station food. She waved, showing the tattoos running up her forearm. Same ones Altus had. Same ones they all had. The air around her looked like one of the heat waves that crawled along the blacktop, and Jordan felt the lightheaded sensation she’d come to associate with one of Altus’s daughters exerting her will.

Fetch crossed her ankles, stared at Hobie like she was studying him for a test.

Hobie forgot about Jordan straight away.

He locked in on Fetch, the color emptying from his face. Jordan had been on the receiving end of the kind of attention Fetch was giving him. Altus’s daughters had a way of burrowing inside your brain and picking at the things you wanted kept secret. Hobie stood still, barely breathing, and Jordan felt the air constrict as Fetch pulled out Hobie’s fears and showed them to him. Stray thoughts buzzed around like houseflies over a trashcan, and Jordan couldn’t help but catch a few of them.

Two months behind on that rent house. Bank calling about his pickup. A persistent pain in his left lung that he didn’t want to tell anyone about. A pure, adrenalized terror about what life was going to be like for him in five years. In ten. Working on a rig was fine when he was fresh out of high school, but fast forward thirty years and the finish line was coming like a freight train. What happens when his body breaks down and the only way he’s ever known to earn a living isn’t an option anymore? Pain chased through his back and his legs and worse, his hands, and there were a dozen new guys every year without the wear of age to slow them down.

Tears welled in Hobie’s red eyes.

When Fetch finally relented, Hobie grabbed his beer and tobacco from the counter, escaped out the front door like the devil was at his heels.

Fetch turned her eyes to Jordan and whispered the only thing she’d ever heard any of the daughters say – mother, mother, mother.

Jordan offered her the best smile she could muster, and Fetch smiled back, the corners of her mouth stretched out far too wide for a normal face.

This might have scared Jordan when she first arrived, but she knew Fetch didn’t have a problem with her.

The daughters had already mined Jordan’s secrets. They knew about what she’d done to Tad. Or at least what she was pretty sure she’d done. And they knew a whole lot more, besides. None of it seemed to matter to them, and as far as Jordan knew, they hadn’t said anything about it to Altus.

For that, Jordan was grateful.

• • •

Jordan had trouble sleeping, and oftentimes she’d head outside in the middle of the night to sit in one of the aluminum folding chairs that Altus kept by his oil drum barbeque smoker. The seven daughters would break apart from the shadows and join her. They’d perch awkwardly in one of the chairs or drop to the ground and sit cross-legged in the sticker burrs. Night air burned hot against Jordan’s skin, and she’d light a cigarette to chase away the sulfurous smell of the oil fields. She wondered where the daughters went at night, when she wasn’t around. They never came in the house. Jordan had asked Altus, and he said they did whatever the hell it was they wanted to do. According to him, he could manage them easier during the day, but in the deep darkness they were powerful. And they followed their own wills. Altus had given up trying to tame them.

Night held them all in sway. The daughters would stare into the black, seeking out something in the impossible distance or lost in their own thoughts. Jordan could never tell. She didn’t mind; she appreciated the silence. They weren’t there to ask anything of her. They had no advice to offer, or criticisms to level about the way she’d lived her life. And despite the fact one of them would occasionally whisper – mother, mother, mother – it seemed to Jordan they were looking after her, not the other way around. They seemed territorial when it came to Jordan, even deferring to her ahead of Altus sometimes, which rubbed him raw.

She had no idea how to solve the mystery of these women, but in the long hours before dawn, she was content to let them keep their secrets.

• • •

Altus was always up early, said he liked to watch the stars die. Sometimes Jordan would find him standing along the highway, naked with his arms in the air. Those tattoos moved along his body, never staying put. In the night sky, constellations crashed and spun in swirls of purple and green. They’d flare red and gold, like the stars were exploding a billion years ago. Altus moved his hands like a conductor, making like he was the one moving everything around. He’d howl at the sky and claim it was a sort of prayer. Sometimes his daughters would stand rigid and stare at the spectacle overhead. Other times they’d hide out until the sun came up. Altus’s ritual, if that’s what it was, always gave Jordan a queasy, drunk sort of feeling.

She wasn’t used to so much wide-open space. Jordan was born in Houston where you couldn’t see many stars, and the ones you could stayed put.

When the last traces of night ebbed, Altus would fall to his knees in the dirt. One morning, Jordan sat down there beside him, watched his chest heave as he tried to slow his breathing. Sweat sheened his skin and he had a wild look in his eyes, like his sanity was a slowly dimming lightbulb.

“This is a strange place.” Jordan sipped some instant coffee, leaving the cup against her lip for a second so she could take in the smell and the warmth.

Altus shook his head, like he was denying her assertion. “You’ll be safe here, Jordan. Nothing bad’s going to happen to you.”

“I wasn’t expecting it to.”

“Just saying you’re okay here.”

“You know I don’t plan to stay forever?”

Altus kept on shaking his head. “Where the hell would you go? Out there, the world is a noose getting pulled tight around your neck. Here in this place, you can breathe. I already told you, nobody can find you.”

“Nobody’s looking for me.”

“You sure about that?”

And Jordan understood.

All the things Altus’s daughters had plucked from her mind, they’d shared with him.

Jordan’s dad, swinging from his neck in the garage while his little girl watched. The hate that boiled between Jordan and her mother. Like she thought it was Jordan’s fault her husband decided being dead was better than staying in their marriage. The way Jordan snuck out of her home at seventeen and kept running from place to place with nowhere safe to light for long, until her older brother found her, beat her nearly half to death trying to get her to come home. But she kept on running. A blur of shitty jobs and half-ass boyfriends that culminated in Tad’s hands around her throat, squeezing her life away, and Jordan reaching into her pocket, pulling out the one-handed flip knife her Dad had given her to protect herself. And that knife, going deep into the side of Tad’s neck.

Jordan wasn’t sure whether she’d killed him. But he’d been still on the bedroom floor when she left, and there had been so much blood.

“Them girls belong to me. We ain’t got no secrets.”

Jordan knew that much wasn’t true. Fetch hadn’t told him anything about Hobie and his advances, for one thing.

Still, she couldn’t help but feel a little betrayed.

“Nobody belongs to you. You talk about them like they’re your pets or something.”

“Might as well be.”

“What an asshole you are.”

Jordan tried to stand, but Altus grabbed her forearm, pulled her back to the ground beside him. She’d finished her coffee, or she might have thrown the remains in his face. Her head was still spinning from the lightshow with the stars, and her heart was a runaway train in her chest.

“Sit your ass down and I’ll explain.”

“Let me go.”

He released her arm, but she knew if she tried to leave again, he’d pull her back down. Altus wasn’t the first man who thought he knew what was best for her. Not the first one who’d started going hard when she made it known she could figure that out for herself.

“The girls, they’re my fallen stars.”

“Listen to yourself, Altus.”

“Came down like rockets when they fell. Maybe they’re angels. I don’t know. But something up there sent them here.”

“There’s nobody up in the sky looking after this shitty patch of dirt,” Jordan said.

“You’re wrong about that.”

“Why would anyone care that much about this place?”

“I don’t know for sure. I’m thinking it’s not the place so much as the people. I was feeling empty inside, needed something to fill me up, and down they came from the sky. I love every one of them.”

“Seven sweet little angels sent to wait on you hand and foot? And me number eight, I guess.”

It was all so boring to Jordan. Another guy who figured he was the center of the universe. There was something about his daughters that was supernatural, if that’s what you wanted to call it, but that didn’t mean they’d been sent here to serve him.

“Just keep pissing for a fight,” he said. “You’re liable to get what you want.”

Jordan stood, dusted off her pants. “I got to open the store. I don’t have time for this.”

“I ain’t stopping you.”

She left him sitting alongside the road, eyes closed. Soaking up the sunlight beginning to blaze up over the oil fields.

Crazy motherfucker.

Or, at least, Jordan hoped he was.

• • •

The rig workers passed through the convenience store that morning like unquiet spirits, bleary and near silent, like the repetition of their lives had unmoored them from reality in some way. Jordan understood. She rang up their energy drinks, beef jerky, and breakfast tacos wrapped in aluminum foil. She chain-smoked and took their money with resigned thank yous. When the rush slowed, she slapped greasy playing cards down against the countertop. Her games of solitaire always seemed to come up a card or two short.

Elspeth came into the store that afternoon, stood at the counter and watched Jordan shuffle the cards. The beer cooler hummed. Desert wind boomed against the front windowpanes. Elspeth stood quiet, stone still, not even breathing. She watched Jordan play for a good half-hour, serious and attentive, like every flip of the cards meant life or death.

When she finally spoke, she didn’t say mother. And the voice coming from her mouth belonged to someone else.

“You’re the prettiest little girl I ever seen,” said Elspeth. “And smart as a whip. I love you more than anything, Jordan. Long as I’m around, you’ll always have someone to look after you. And I ain’t going nowhere.”

Jordan put down the playing cards. Blood pounded hot inside her head, and her breath caught in her throat. It was Elspeth in front of her, eyes still set on the seven of clubs, but her voice was a perfect mimic of Jordan’s dad.

“What are you doing?” asked Jordan.

Elspeth’s spoke again, and this time it was Jordan’s mother’s voice coming from her mouth. “None of what happened was your fault, honey. Sometimes life is hard, and things don’t work out. Ain’t nothing to do about it but pick up and go on. Try to find some better way to be. You keep doing that. Ain’t no doubt in my mind you’re meant for something better than what you started with. There’s always been something special about you.”

Elspeth didn’t look at Jordan, just kept talking, and her voice shifted, became Baker’s voice. Jordan’s brother.

“Listen, Jordan. I’m sorry. I’m an asshole, okay? No big revelation there. Go live your life however you want. Love you, little sister.”

“Please stop talking,” said Jordan.

Elspeth looked up from the cards, finally met Jordan’s stare. Her lips moved, and Tad’s voice emerged.

“Don’t worry about me. It’ll only drag you down. Everybody knows I needed killing. Ain’t no crime to give a man like that what he deserves.”

Jordan’s eyes flushed with tears. She recognized the voices, but not what they were saying.

None of this was real.

Elspeth meant this as a kindness. Jordan knew that much. But the sound of those voices, saying things they’d never have said in a million years, stirred up a storm of dread inside her.

“Elspeth. Please go.”

“If you didn’t kill me, I’d have killed you.”

Still Tad’s voice.

“Elspeth.” Jordan spoke in a whisper.

Elspeth backed away, hovered near the exit.

“This is when you really start living,” she said, in a voice Jordan mercifully could not recognize. Elspeth’s own voice, sounding out without reservation for the first time. “This is the beginning of everything.”

When Elspeth left, Jordan pulled a bottle of Shiner from the cooler, drank it down in one shot.

Followed that one with a couple more.

• • •

Jordan wandered next door to the bar when she closed the store. She joined Altus in the back-corner booth that he occupied most nights. The Formica tabletop was already wet with drink sweat, and a half-dozen empty shot glasses stood upside down in a row, like overturned tombstones. Altus tore the cellophane off a new pack of cigarettes, grinned at Jordan.

“Back for more?”

“I’m not in the mood to fight,” said Jordan.

Altus was breathing heavy and already sweating alcohol. He chewed at his thumbnail. Obviously still bent out of shape from that morning and wanting to make his displeasure known. “We ain’t fighting. We’re discussing.

Polly came out from behind the bar, placed a vodka tonic and a cocktail napkin in front of Jordan. Left another shot of tequila and a Lone Star chaser for Altus. Her face stretched into one of those too-wide smiles and then she was gone to another table.

All of Altus’s daughters worked in the bar – mixing drinks, wiping down tables, working the deep fryer – none of them ever saying a word. Just knowing what every customer wanted before they asked. Something in their nature compelled the patrons to accept this strangeness while they were in its grip. Neon red smoke, cramped booths with torn vinyl and broken springs, the kind of old-style country music Jordan’s dad used to like, lingering in the background like it had been there forever and would be there long after everyone was dead. All those tired, aching men thinking they’d have a shot at taking home one of the girls, but of course that was never going to happen. They’d pay their money, drink themselves into delirium, and the seven daughters would have the last stragglers booted to the parking lot before the clock struck five after two.

Next night, they’d do it all again.

“My girls are a sight, ain’t they?” Altus threw back the shot, slammed the glass down.

“Your daughters, you mean.”

“Yeah, my daughters then.”

“You let your daughters get treated like that?”

Jordan pointed at Hobie, who was seated at the bar. He put his hand on Marisol’s ass every time she walked past.

“Hobie’s alright,” said Altus.

“He’s an asshole.”

“Might be. But in my experience, that sort usually gets what’s coming to them. She’s liable to slap him.”

Something Elspeth said crawled through Jordan’s mind. Ain’t no crime to give a man like that what he deserves.

That sort, huh.”

Altus took a swig of beer, pointed the mouth of the bottle at Jordan when he spoke. “I ain’t never been nothing but sweet to you. Don’t try to say otherwise. I told you I’d keep you safe, and I hid you out here in the safest place there is. I brought you here and gave you a family.”

“We’re a family then?”

Polly delivered another shot and Altus sipped it this time. “For now, at least. We play the parts they expect us to. I’m the father, you’re the mother.”

“I’m not anybody’s mother.”

“Maybe, maybe not.”

“Quit pretending like you have any idea why they’re here. You’re just as lost as me.”

“Why don’t you fuck off, Jordan?”

“I’ll get right on that,” she said. “Just let me finish my drink first.”

Altus grabbed the back of her neck, squeezed hard. Jordan jerked loose, but he grabbed her again and forced her to look at him.

“You’re a real bitch tonight, ain’t you?”

Altus’s eyes took on a brittle, glassy look, one Jordan had seen in men’s eyes too many times. Like the civilized part of his nature had been caged up, and the animal left free to hunt. Jordan wondered if he might try to hit her, but she stared at him in silence until the weight of his own intentions bore down. Half the bar watched them while pretending to sip at their drinks, and all seven daughters gathered together, joined their voices – mother, mother, mother – until finally Altus let go of Jordan, finished off his shot and signaled for another.

Altus exhaled through his teeth. “You ain’t as smart as you think, Jordan. You’re only here because they wanted you here. I didn’t find you by accident.”

Jordan drank her anger into a corner, found a warm, safe place inside herself to avoid any more of Altus’s paranoid bullshit. Maybe something had lured her here for a reason, but that didn’t mean she had to give up and go with the flow. Altus was rooted in this spot, willing to let himself be maneuvered like a game piece on a playing board. But Jordan was a mover. She could quit this place whenever she wanted, whether she’d finished playing her part in the game or not.

But her destructive side wanted to see it through.

The night wore on to the edge of closing time, until it was just Hobie left, warming a bottle of beer in his hands, eyes cruising the room in pursuit of the daughters as they wiped down tabletops and stacked chairs. Marisol came up beside him to gather his empties from the bar, put them on a tray. Hobie said something to her, but the jukebox was cranking out Faron Young – Live Fast, Love Hard, Die Young – and Jordan couldn’t make out what he said. Marisol, of course, didn’t respond. She kept plucking those empties like weeds from the garden. Hobie said something else, put one hand on her back, the other up her shirt, went in for a kiss. Altus watched it all go down, eyes flooded with booze. He might as well have been watching it happen to strangers on a television screen.

Jordan shoved past him, out of the booth, realized how unsteady she was on her feet. Altus wasn’t the only one who’d drank too much.

No matter. Marisol didn’t require any help.

She put her hands on either side of Hobie’s head, fingers running deep in that oily hair. Marisol let him keep kissing her for a few seconds.

Then she spun his head off like a bottle cap.

Jesus, the blood.

Jordan felt her legs give out, nearly fell but caught herself on the edge of the booth. Hobie’s body tumbled off the barstool and onto the floor. Marisol knelt down beside him, hands and knees in the blood, slicked her palm with the stuff and put it in her mouth. She looked up at Jordan and her face was nothing but burning white light, a sun in miniature. The other six daughters converged on the body, dug in deep, hand and tooth.

One by one, their faces lit up like stars.

Jordan realized she was walking toward them, lured by the light.

Not for the first time, Jordan considered that living in this place was like being thrown in the deep end of the pool, where her feet couldn’t touch.

Hell of a thing though, she was learning to swim.

Mother, mother, mother.

Jordan sat down next to what remained of Hobie, the blood hot on her hands and soaking her clothes. The sisters pressed in around her, invited her into their communion. Bloody grins split their faces ear to ear. Jordan felt like she was on fire, and she wasn’t sure if the heat was coming from their burning faces, or from somewhere inside herself. The bar was gone, and night spun around her in a slow, hazy circle. The stars above were alive and pulsing, and the moon was thin, like the blade of a knife. A drone, low and eternal, settled into her bones, into her teeth. She pressed her eyes closed, afraid the light screaming off the seven daughters might blind her. But there was no fear. No uncertainty. They didn’t mean Jordan any harm. The daughters lifted her up, twirled her about in the forever dark, leading her along in a dance as old as the universe itself. Jordan laughed, drank deep, tasted copper in her throat. The blood was alive, and the blood was all that mattered. Every shitty choice Jordan had made, every one that had been forced upon her, they’d all been worth it. They’d all brought her to this place, right here, right now. The women were singing, and the song was meant only for her. They hadn’t come down from the heavens because Altus called them.

They were here for Jordan.

They were here to answer her prayers.

I didn’t find you by accident.

When everything around her eventually stilled, Jordan worked up the nerve to open her eyes. The bar was back, and she was alone. No Altus. No seven daughters. Hobie’s remains had gone cold.

How long had she been out?

She stumbled over to the house, found Altus in bed and crawled under the covers beside him, sticky with blood and drunk on impossibilities. Altus kept his distance, tried to pretend he was asleep.

Jordan laughed, closed her eyes.

Dreamed about her daughters.

• • •

Jordan slept all through the next day, woke to a dying red sliver of sun sneaking in between the curtain and the windowsill. She got up, showered. Threw her things into her duffle and headed out past the gas pumps to the highway. She stood deep in the darkness with nothing but blue swaths of starlight overhead. The old restlessness had settled back in, but Jordan understood herself better now. Understood a whole lot of things that had puzzled her before. The wind lifted up granules of sand, scattered them against the bar’s aluminum roof with a clatter. Roughneck Roost heaved and sighed, leaning and broken and giving way to the elements. The yellowed sign was dark, and the bar was padlocked. This blasted spot of earth had been forgotten by every living thing. The seven daughters had gone away sometime in the night. Jordan could feel their absence in the way reality had firmed up around her. There was no mystery left here, just a brittle, dying landscape she couldn’t wait to escape. Altus was here somewhere, but Jordan didn’t figure she owed him a goodbye, and she was pretty sure he was keeping himself hidden until she left.

Jordan hit the highway, started walking. Five miles to the interstate and then she’d find a way to deal with whatever came at her next.

She always did.

A new constellation burned white in the sky, seven stars – seven daughters – sent to guide her way. Jordan knew they wouldn’t lead her astray. They might have raided her secrets, but last night they’d left her some of their own. Tattoos chased themselves up and down Jordan’s arms, complex patterns that told her evertying she needed to know about where she’d been, and where she was going.

This is the beginning of everything.

Something squirmed inside her, kicked.

Mother, mother, mother.

Well, it was definitely the beginning of something.

Josh Rountree has published short fiction in a wide variety of magazines and anthologies, including Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Realms of Fantasy, The Deadlands, Bourbon Penn, PseudoPod, Weird Horror, and Found: An Anthology of Found Footage Horror. His latest short fiction collection is Fantastic Americana from Fairwood Press. His novel The Legend of Charlie Fish will be published by Tachyon Publications in July 2023. Your can get the whole scoop at his website: