Sierra Garcia, the bastard albino girl, can’t hold still today. At church, she rubs her tongue against the roof of her mouth and feels a bitter aftertaste rising from her throat. She grips the pew to stay steady while to her left Mrs. Donoghue grinds her teeth disapprovingly. The reverend’s words reverberate across the chapel. No one is listening. Everyone is like her: shocked and regretful. Silent and remorseful.
Someone stole his roadside memorial yesterday. It’s been all over the news. No one can stop talking about it. The one near the old oak off I-10. It was nothing special, though. A haphazard wooden cross, scattered flowers, and a laminated poster with his name italicized in green sans serif that had been printed at the library for eleven dollars. We Will Always Love You, Andrew! Kind of cheesy, if you want the truth. But someone stole it, and the town’s been skittish ever since.
Even today all about anyone can handle are the background noises. These are the moments that keep them alive. While Sierra’s mother keeps her eyes on the reverend, Sierra’s younger sisters write each other notes and create makeshift origami out of the church bulletins. To their right a toddler tugs at his mother, complaining that he’s about to wet his pants. Nervously, she shuffles him out of the church. The door slams on their way out, and for a few graceful seconds, the churchgoers strain their heads to hear the wind whistling gently. Nothing like those guttural howls that have continued to echo in their minds even after that cruel day.
More minutes tick by. Someone yawns. In front of Sierra two girls, maybe twelve, whisper; they’re wondering if it was a sign from God. The missing cross, perhaps even the storm itself. No one tries to shush them. Everyone’s asking the same questions.
Diana, Andrew’s mother, noticed the sign missing last Thursday night on her way home from her work as an emergency room receptionist. She was livid, and got stopped on her way to report it at the sheriff’s office for going 60 in a 45 zone. “Now, we don’t want a repeat,” officer Lindy West murmured nervously when she saw Diana's quivering lips. Everyone knew Diana as the lady with the straight face. The one who handles the first line of paperwork for deadbeat motorcycle accidents and Russian Roulette on a Saturday, the one who paints her cheeks a ruddy pink she buys in bulk from the local pharmacy to hide the strain of twelve-hour shifts and pinch-faced nurses addicted to Adderall. But when the officer saw her, she was sitting stock-still, stone-faced, except for the lips. White as a sheet, Lindy told everyone later that night at El Conejito.
Diana had been visiting the memorial every day at the stroke of daylight. While her decade-old Corolla spun quietly in neutral, she stared past the morning mist that crept over Azula Peak and shook. Never get out. Never say a word. Keep the radio on. All you’d hear was static. White noise. But she laid her head against the steering wheel, straining. Straining to hear pieces of his voice, she tried to explain when Lindy frowned at her suspiciously. But someone stole it. It’s missing. It’s gone. He’s gone.
Lindy didn’t know whether to issue a speeding ticket or send out a report.
They say it wasn’t his fault. It was a late night. A jagged two-lane highway. And the storm had everyone blinded that evening.
That whole day was sketched out like a mistake. Lacking any sort of whimsical or impressionistic gesture, thunderclouds hung over the mountains in thick, menacing clusters, and the heat lingered steadily until it tore through everyone’s ability to make small talk. Stores closed early with flimsy cardboard signs that failed to offer any sort of consolation to Friday night regulars. Birds swooped across the sky and Sierra imagined them falling, their small silhouettes overtaking the horizon. And then suddenly gravity felt like a dead weight. You couldn’t get inside fast enough. Families locked their gates and slammed their porch screen doors hard enough to pop some screws. Those lucky enough to have basements didn’t hesitate to look for the family dog first. And then there was Andrew, driving back from seeing her.
Sierra can’t calm down. Abruptly, she stands up. Her knees crack, and they sound like thunder. Even this is enough to alarm everyone. The reverend stops talking for a pointed second, and that’s all it takes for all eyes to notice her. She pulls her black hood up to hide her stricken face and walks down the aisle to the back of the church. She reaches out to push open the heavy wooden doors, but a mother and her son open them from the other side first. The woman mutters an apology while the toddler giggles at Sierra’s startled expression. Then they walk past, and the churchgoers resume their haughty stares.
Outside there is neither judgment nor appraisal, and today the sky is as deep as Sierra imagines an ocean to be; she has never really seen one before. If she could dive into it and drown herself to be with Andrew, she knows she just might.
It’s dramatic, she knows. Trust her. But when she thinks of him, it is easy to forget that he did not belong to her. Sierra finds solace in thinking of their time together, like the Saturday before the storm when she invited him over to watch the meteor shower. She could not tear her eyes away from the drip of sweat that lingered above his upper lip as he sat beside her while she set up her grandfather’s old telescope. She couldn’t even concentrate hard enough to find the Perseus constellation.
Sierra distracted herself by telling him old folk stories. Her family had lived here for generations. She knew them all. The Indian woman whose ghost was said to light a fire at the top of the blue mountains each night to pine for her soldier lover who had been killed by her own people—the Apaches. Throughout her life, she existed between two worlds, Sierra explained. A widow at the fort took her in after she was wounded in a battle, and later the girl fell in love with the widow’s lieutenant son. But the son betrayed her for her dark skin and curious eyes. She was too wild for her own good. So, heartbroken, she returned to her tribe. Later when the Apaches planned an attack on the fort, she lit a lantern and ran to save him only to be shot herself. Perhaps, she died in his arms. Perhaps, she died alone. But somehow her story endured and her ghost prevailed.
“Indian Emily,” Sierra whispered, and then straining her neck, she confessed, “I like to think of her as the Morning Star as it rises over the peaks of those mountaintops.”
As the two dipped their heads to trace imaginary constellations, Sierra spilt words and spun worlds that split the tension when their fingers brushed. And in the dark, when the drop of sweat finally fell, she caught it in her palm and then could not wait any longer. And later when they escaped the dark because she was afraid that her tales might finally take shape, Sierra wanted there to be flames because, if that were true, so might they be.
The mountains usually cradled the town when storms arrived. The worst they ever encountered was golfball-sized hail, but even then, the arrival of rain made the damage bearable. Celebrated, even. The location of the fort that had preceded their existence was well chosen, and the town often confused its own long and winding history with that of the land. It was an unforgiving history, though, and many were quick to forget the many deaths caused in the name of Manifest Destiny. Instead, they called their town sacred. Pure. Nothing like it. But that day the land turned on them, and even Sierra, who had spent so many years intertwining pagan spells with prayer, could not save him.
The wind has begun to pick up. Its howls seep through the tin houses. The courthouse clock begins to strike, and church will be out soon. Inside the church, the townsfolk get antsy and think of what they might have for lunch, if there hasn’t already been a pot roast prepared. For now, though, everything is quiet. Restaurants still closed except for Ronnie May’s, and so that’s where Sierra heads, and sure enough, there’s not a soul in sight.
Ronnie spots her and narrows her eyes against the hazy light of the coffee house. “That you, Sierra?”
“The one and only.” Sierra takes a seat at the bar and pulls down her hood.
“Your momma know you’re skipping out on church? If I recall right, today’s Communion.”
“That’s right, but I’m not missing much. Just some of the older folks trying to squeeze in a few more last-minute prayers,” Sierra says. “It’s so hot in there. Had to get out.”
“Well might as well take it here.” Ronnie pours Sierra a cup of coffee, and Sierra takes a hearty sip, grateful for the caffeine—and for Ronnie’s mild lack of judgment.
Like most of the town, Sierra grew up here and took refuge in what the mountains could offer. As a child, she went without shoes, letting the rocks carve their histories into her flat feet. She pretended to be an Indian even though she blistered easily in the hot, dry sun. She was cursed with the Devil’s ruby eyes and flesh that was not afraid to reveal her mortality. Skin that revealed her very life lines. But she didn’t mind. She blanketed herself with her mother’s scarves and thrift store trench coats so she could embrace the outdoors. She filled her head with stories of the fort days, although it was a time when she would have been further ostracized.
The future teased her as well. She dreamed of one day owning a horse and ranch, but her family lived on the wrong side of the tracks in a three-bedroom doublewide that housed seven people. It hadn’t always been that way. Her great-grandmother Katherine Stocker was directly related to the first settlers and took pride in the amount of land her family owned. But she fell in love with a Mexican boy. When she married him, her parents disowned her. They say she renamed herself Mara. She was the bitter one—or the determined? Who can really tell? In the pictures, she looks as wicked as Sierra. Hands knotted in fists at her side. An unflinching gaze. Even though her irises were dark while Sierra’s spill light, there is the same resilience. Refusal. Sierra can’t help but ask herself, refuse what exactly? She hasn’t chosen this life.
As a child, Sierra often escaped the claustrophobia of her crowded home by setting up a tent beside the garage. Later, when her family was forced to sell the tent after her mother was laid off as a hotel manager, she slept in old jalopies half sunken in a nearby landfill. She longed for the same lives that her classmates had inherited. Their excuses for not doing homework were justified by weekend obligations to herd cattle and compete in rodeos and livestock shows. After they came back, they showcased new Stetsons and pretty blue ribbons. Behind her they tittered about her translucent skin and tendency to stutter. Their relationship to the land was entitled, whereas she was cast here and forced to bear it like a cross.
“It’s been dead all week,” Ronnie says, and then she winces. “Sorry, don’t mean to use that word with everything that’s been happening with that boy’s passing…Well, pardon me again, but it really did just about kill the whole town. Haven’t seen anything like it in all my years.”
Sierra sits as still as she can, unwilling to engage, but Ronnie doesn’t seem to notice. “Such a handsome kid, and boy did he know how to throw a ball! I heard someone stole that cross they put up next to the highway. Some punk prank. Well, if it weren’t the javelinas, that is. What do you think? Did you ever know him?”
“A little.” Sierra can’t help but smile.
When Sierra first met Andrew, he asked her if she had ever seen a Texas firefly and then flicked his cigarette at her. She was only twelve years old then. But she would later remember him for how he once saved her. Sierra can’t fully admit it, but there was once a time she tried to drown herself. Ran, bare beneath a giant black fur coat, to the only pool in town at the Agave Inn. But before she could even make the leap, he found her crying. At first, he couldn’t tell if she was trying to swim or drown, but when he saw her wild eyes, he wrestled her to the ground.
“You crazy bitch,” he called her, when she struggled. “What the hell are you doing?”
“Dying, dying, I want to die,” she said.
He laughed. He called her stupid. “You’re insane,” he said, gesturing wildly. But still, he refused to leave until she promised she wouldn’t jump. And he didn’t call the police.
“Goddamn. Of course I won’t tell anyone,” he said, rolling his eyes.
And then he walked her home, his arm gripped firmly around the coat. She had never felt so naked, and even before she reached her neighborhood, she knew. She knew she wouldn’t forget. She felt as emblazoned as she would have been had she faced the sun. How could she not have realized? Andrew was the only boy who hadn’t grown up here, who had a past beyond the town. And now he was the only boy who had ever even done anything to her.
Eventually she was the one who showed him how to adapt to the desert. She started by teaching him how to identify the vegetation and make baskets out of lechuguilla. Once, she took him to a part of the desert cliffs where the dirt resembled dried blood. There, she made him take off his shirt and painted over his skin with moist red clay. “You’re crazy,” he said, but he laughed. The dried patterns were rudimentary; Sierra was no artist. As the clay hardened, he laid in the sun while she hid under the shade to protect her delicate skin. The crisscrossed tan that appeared after he showered looked indigenous, like a pair of red racers, and when he showed Sierra, she had to force herself not to touch him.
“They say it was it was his own girlfriend who discovered the body. On her way back from messing around with Tommy Crandall,” Ronnie continues, her eyes lit with the possibility of scandal.
“In a town like this, everyone’s on their way from somewhere,” a voice calls out, and Ronnie jumps with a startle. The cashier bell rings, and Diana, another one who can’t be bothered with sin and salvation, leans over the counter and taps her fingers impatiently. She casts a dubious sidelong glance at Sierra, but her irritation is feigned. Her puffy red eyes reveal her grief. Sierra gasps and wonders if this is what people think when they see her.
“Oh, Ms. Rothwell! How—how can I help you today?” Ronnie takes out her notepad and busies herself with jotting down fake orders. Nervous, now. Caught.
Diana can’t be fooled. “Slut,” she mutters. “Charlotte thought she could get away with anything. It’s that little dancer’s body. Can she even bear children with hips like that?”
Diana never approved of Charlotte, and Charlotte wasn’t supposed to be with Tommy that night—or any night, for that matter. She got off lucky. It was the same night as her summer recital. Later, Charlotte used this as her alibi. Not for the police, but for her parents. Hell, for the whole town, even though everyone probably knew. Diana always warned Andrew, too.
But Andrew didn’t mind. "Cutest Couple" two times strong in the yearbook, Sierra remembers glumly. And Charlotte didn’t even know it was his body at first. Not till later. No one had ever seen Charlotte cry before. Her long, horse face all scrunched up. They had only ever seen her that tense at her ballet recitals in Durmouth, the neighboring college town. Those long, thin legs extended in tight, precise movements. Such calculation. Sacrifice. It was not beautiful.
Anxious to leave, Sierra gulps down her coffee. She can’t handle the tension that radiates from Diana, and now Ronnie can’t stop raving about the weather.
“What are you in a hurry for?” Diana asks and plops herself on the stool next to her. “Sierra Garcia, I remember you. Got somewhere to be? Is there a fire?”
“I’m…I’m not in a hurry,” Sierra says, but her empty mug tells a different story.
“You think I didn’t notice you around my son? I saw the way you always eyed him.”
Sierra starts and drops her mug, squeezing her eyes shut to avoid the shatter. But it’s a sharp sound all the same, and Diana clucks knowingly, as if this is the evidence she’s been waiting for.
But in a swift second Ronnie intervenes with a broom. “Oh, I got it. Don’t you worry, kiddo. Just watch out for those sharp pieces,” she helps Sierra off her seat and then looks at Diana straight in the eye, both curious and afraid. “I bet all the girls had a crush on your son, Ms. Rothwell. Too bad he was taken. And you know, Charlotte wasn’t half bad, really, ma’am. Sweet girl, actually.”
“Oh, yeah. Charlotte was like sugar. After it gets wet.”
Sierra wonders if Diana’s been drinking. She remembers now that Andrew was never at a loss for alcohol. He was the first one to introduce her to whiskey shots. “My mom won’t notice,” he’d always say. It never occurred to Sierra why Diana wouldn’t.
“Sierra is special though. She doesn’t let anything get in her way, huh?” Diana grabs Sierra’s shoulder and digs her nails into the coarse fabric of her jacket. Sierra can feel Diana’s breath on her cheek, and sure enough, she catches a faint scent of something sickeningly cherry sweet.
“I...I really don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m sorry, I’m sorry. It’s terrible. It really is,” Sierra says and pushes herself away from Diana. She tosses a dollar on the counter and looks helplessly towards Ronnie.
“I have to go now. I have to meet my family for lunch,” she says. Ronnie nods, full of understanding.
Diana offers a harsh laugh. “Yeah, yeah, you better. Hey, you don’t know where it is, do you?”
“Know where what is?”
But Diana doesn’t answer. Instead, her eyes pierce into Sierra, searching, unraveling, needing. Sierra can barely breathe as she backs out of the coffee shop.
Anxious not to be seen by anyone else, Sierra strolls past the crowded dirt parking lot to the fork road that connects to the highway. Someone, take me away from her, she thinks. She has only the faintest idea where the rest of the road goes. She’s never been more than a hundred miles away from the town. Yet, as she hears the sounds of cars passing by, she begins to wonder what it would be like to be so far from what you know, in a city full of strangers and shadows. How do you meet everyone? Andrew’s sardonic voice plays in her head. You don’t. It's hard to imagine it, but the strange idea of leaving cradles her as she walks home.
Charlotte’s dark eyes and hair, which perfectly framed her face, should have been a familiar sight in a border town like this, but she looked more exotic than the albino girl herself. She was the town’s beautiful sunset girl. Sierra’s paleness, which Andrew had once told her made her appear as if she was made of light, seemed plain in contrast.
Sierra thinks of the dark clay. Her sunburn. His red, raw body. She wishes she could have been the one to feel it with her hands. She would have known the body was his.
For years, she was alone in the desert. It used to calm her, but since the storm, she’s been afraid. She stays inside and now goes to class every day. She even speaks to Charlotte in the hallways after lunch. And Charlotte isn’t afraid to embrace her anymore. Sierra’s alien features seem familiar now; she’s solace, the sun.
But when Sierra dreams, she dreams she exists in another time. She is young and brash. Her hair no longer resembles the sun; it's the color of cinder. She’s Emily, the poor Indian girl, and in front of her stands Andrew, her lover. The two overlook the town, holding matches, and though she does not trust what they are about to do, she will do it for him. For a moment, she is caught in his eyes. For a moment, a part of her forgets that he is dead, that this is a dream, and she is only a girl. A wildfire dances before her closed eyelids, taking away everything in its path.
When Sierra’s family returns from church, they anxiously turn on the TV, and she watches them as they hunch over the screen nervously. The glaring headline is there again. "MISSING. MISSING. GONE." It’s as if the disappearance of the memorial has shocked everyone even more than the reality of Andrew’s death.
“What do you think happened?” they ask, knowing he was in Sierra’s grade.
Sierra shrugs. “Maybe the wind took it.”
They laugh. Her dark sisters resemble a pair of dancing shadows.
Sierra has become obsessed with chasing after Andrew's ghost. Sometimes when the sun shines bright like a yolk and the clouds group over it, she swears she can feel him with her. Albeit its fervent rejection of her, she still knows the desert better than most. She’s seen the spirits and she knows it is only a matter of time before she sees his.
Their love was short-lived. Sierra always knew it would be. But there are still moments she cannot forget. She clutches onto the memory of when she taught Andrew how to eat a prickly pear. It was a ritual, a sacrifice—the way her hands moved so deftly. The peeled red fruit looked like an organ. It stained their clothing, their nails, their teeth. And then, the small spines, which she had been so careful to dislodge from the fleshy skin, pierced their fingers. Sierra had spines stuck in her hands for days, and for weeks after, Andrew said his throat wouldn’t stop itching.
Now when she dreams, she is a spirit. She is the storm. She is the past. Silent and grainy wisps of images appear at first. Fuzzy touches of memories, then desires, and finally, the town’s fears. They appear as moments they never had and then everything they’ve ever loved.
Sierra dreams in the fierce torrent of the past present.
She dreams she is with Andrew on that bridge, but that consequences don’t exist. They mistake the fumes that engulf the windshield for snow and crush remnants of a shrunken sky under their blistered, cracked heels. The night blinds their remorse.
Some dreams seduce her, breathing hotly down her neck. Some threaten her life; the smell of iron—is it metal or blood? Tight grips and a choking smile. Wild horses, bare flesh.
“Live a million different lives in one,” he whispers, his breath close, dank.
Some nights, she dreams of the dense rocks she climbed as a child or of the empty arroyos where she fantasized about tanning like a dead fish. Sometimes she dreams of a place where they could have been free. She is in his arms, in his eyes. She is cold-blooded and bare-boned and ready.
And then they fall. The air grows thinner. It feels like an itch. A slight unhinging. There is nothing to stop them but consciousness. The seatbelt dangles over him; it saved his life, but still, he had only wanted to jump.
When she wakes up, she continues to lie still, wanting to dream for a moment longer, and behind her headboard the wooden cross also lies, as if it, too, is waiting.
Winona Leon is a writer and artist living in Los Angeles, California. She currently works in publishing and serves as Fiction Editor and Co-Founder of Fractal Literary Magazine. Originally from West Texas, she grew up with a sky full of stars and a need to know all the words to describe it.