She remembered dancing in the desert. She remembered stars. It was a dream, but one that felt vivid and made her giddy, her head bubbly. She’d been light as wind, a part of the nightscape whispering over the hills.
Focus, Gemma thought. Time to focus. She pushed the dream to the back of her mind and found a seat near the front of the empty classroom, which despite the early hour had already turned into an oven. On the board were the words: Summer School: Grade 8, EARTH SCIENCE and MATH.
Gemma had never been in a classroom. She’d been home-schooled in what Pap called “the compound,” the family’s desert stronghold composed of four double-wides welded together in a donut shape with a central “courtyard” where Pap and Jeanie modified guns and barbecued ribs and drank beer in busted lawn chairs. The compound lay thirty miles southwest of Las Vegas as the crow flies, though it took far longer by vehicle to hit the web of unpaved and unnamed roads that led to its front gate and its security fence rimmed with razor wire.
Excitement crackled through Gemma’s every nerve. Her dream had, she knew, been brought on by her anticipation of this very morning, the freeing feeling of soon having friends her own age, talking about anything other than muzzle velocities and auto sears.
She smiled hopefully at two girls who entered and stood on either side of her. The first girl was tall and pretty. Her hair was a lustrous brown. Her pale skin was white as paper and she smelled like fancy lotion.
“Why are your jeans so dirty?” she asked Gemma.
“Why do you smell so bad?” said the second girl. The girl had large breasts for her age. She looked older, like a woman, Gemma thought.
“Nice zits,” said the tall girl.
“You smell like” — the busty girl lowered her voice — “poop.”
The word sounded childish to Gemma, but it was a sharp-edged thing slipped from the girl’s smile like a dagger. Gemma lowered her eyes and stared at her desk.
Two boys took seats in the back and began pelting Gemma with bits of broken pencil. The girls seated themselves two rows away and snickered. The girl who’d said “poop” told everyone filing in they “might want to stay on this side of the room” if they wanted to breathe.
The teacher trudged in and took attendance.
Gemma waited until she was certain none of the other students were looking, then ducked her head and took the slightest whiff of her shirt.
That night she gazed out at the desert from the rickety steps of the compound. To the northeast, Las Vegas shot the night sky with its bullying lights. The stars had long since died of shame in that part of the sky, and electric now lanced the once black dome of heaven. The desert burned a hot blue. The tin roofs had been baked like hot teal cookie sheets. The hot sand spread out in a brilliant cerulean littered with midnight-tinged saltbush and cacti and funny-armed Joshua trees silhouetted and menacing as men lurking against the horizon. The corrugated walls of the trailer, which were a glaring white by day, were smeared with that awful blue, that polluted color of the wrecked night sky. All of it blue. So blue it hurt your heart.
She spread her arms out before her. Blue skin. Blue nails. Blue stupid wart on her thumb. Before February, life had been simple. Jeanie and Pap dealt guns, mainly through vets Pap knew from Korea days. The vets brought bikers and survivalist groups, but only buyers approved by Pap. Pap had strict rules. One was Gemma had to be homeschooled because, in his words, people who went to public schools were “domesticated animals.”
“They tag you like cattle,” he said. “Records. Tests. Names. Addresses. The rest of your life, you’re identified.” But Pap died of a heart attack, and since then Jeanie, Gemma’s mother, had been looking for a man to take over as head of the “business.”
“Our customers don’t respect a woman,” she said. “And I don’t need you under foot.” She shipped Gemma off to an assessment test in Pahrump, the nearest town, and lied about their address to qualify Gemma for school there. The test told Gemma she needed summer school to catch up.
Gemma smelled her shirt for the thousandth time. It was the smell of chickens and feces and dust and feathers. Ever since Pap died, it was Gemma’s job to feed and protect the chickens. She remembered the night when she was very young that he’d taken her outside. The world around them had been that ubiquitous indigo, like walking at the bottom of the ocean. The chickens were a defiant white as they clucked in their coops.
“You’re young, so you wouldn’t know,” Pap had said. “The darkness—the real darkness—has a way of making you keen.” He spit in the direction of Vegas. “Before the city and those damn lights, you had to work by starlight. You had to smell. You had to sharpen your claws. You had to listen.”
He held his Smith & Wesson 500. The revolver was enormous, all chrome and steel, so it shimmered a flashy blue against Pap’s dark skin. “Forget Dirty Harry,” he said. “This thing takes fifty-caliber rounds. This is the real most powerful handgun in the world. I’m the real Dirty Harry.”
He pointed to the hills. “Now look there.”
Gemma squinted her eyes. The four-legged shapes unfolded from the land like shadows with minds of their own. The coyotes’ blue pelts bristled as they slunk down the embankment and dug at the ground. They sniffed the air.
“They scent us,” Pap said, “but they don’t care. They care about them chickens. They’re hungry and mean. Just like people. But we have to protect our own. In the end of days, we have to kill if need be.”
He waited for the coyotes to reach the fence.
They sat in the cafeteria. Four other girls had joined their pack.
“You haven’t had your period?” the busty one said to Gemma. “What are you, like eight years old?”
“I’m fourteen,” Gemma said. She looked for anywhere else to go, but the school had provided only two lunch tables because so few students attended summer school. The other table was occupied by the pencil boys.
“She’s probably got a penis,” the tall, pretty one said. “She probably didn’t get her period because she’s a guy.”
“She looks like a guy. Except uglier.”
“And fatter,” said someone else.
Gemma stood up and considered the boys’ table. One of the boys flipped her off. She sat back down. “Mom says I’ll be thankful I didn’t bleed and breed too early.”
The girls shrieked in laughter. They covered their mouths.
“What … a … freak,” the busty one said.
“Come on,” said another girl. “Let’s see your penis.”
“I bet it’s gross,” said another.
“I bet it’s hairy,” said the tall one.
A lump like a stone grew in Gemma’s throat. Fearing she might cry, she flashed the tall girl a scowl. It seemed to work. The tall girl grew quiet. Her expression softened. It seemed like she might say something. She opened her mouth.
Then the other girls moved on to Gemma’s fat thighs, her busted shoes, and her pale eyes. Eyes like a dog, they said. And the tall girl said nothing.
The men that came to the compound looked at Gemma with a strange coldness. Gemma had asked Jeanie one day why the men didn’t speak to her. That’s when Jeanie had said, “Don’t be in a rush to get men to notice you. You’ll thank the Lord someday how late you started bleeding and breeding. I don’t know what I’ll do with you then.”
What Jeanie hadn’t said, and what Gemma suspected, was that she was simply an ugly girl. That men would never want to talk to her. Her hair was the color of sediment in flood water. Her jaw was too round, her stomach a bit wider than her undeveloped breasts. She pinched the fat on her arms. Her skin was splotchy and untanned. She hated her nose. Now the other girls at school had confirmed her suspicions.
She was ugly.
On Tuesday of the second week, Gemma returned from the restroom to find snot and spit gluing the first few pages of her notebook together. She did not know who’d done it, but all of the others were laughing.
Pap would have told her that, come the final showdown, those other kids would be the first to burn in a flash of atomic light. They’d moan and beg like lepers. Their skin would boil up and peel back. Their blind eyes would rot in their skulls. They’d die while Gemma and Jeanie and Pap holed up in the compound eating beans in the underground bunker. But Pap had died too early. All he’d left behind were his handwritten instructions on how to divide up his things in case he was killed by other survivors of the apocalypse: TO GEMA – my fiftie cal. Defend yerself.
That enormous gun now slept in a shoe box in her underwear drawer.
Gemma sat on the back steps of compound, her hair drying from her shower, and listened to the blue coyotes sniffing along the perimeter. She could sense their hunger, their keen eyes on the lookout for Pap’s silver gun. She wondered what it would feel like to kill them.
On Thursday of the third week, Gemma heard the busty girl talking about her period again. Gemma stopped the girl in the hall and tried to tell her that she expected to get her period, too, very soon.
“I feel like I’m about to change,” she stammered. She even touched the girl’s arm, hoping they’d make a connection. “I’m becoming a woman, too.”
“Don’t touch me,” the girl said. “I hate you.”
The next day in the girl’s restroom, while Gemma was taking a leak, the girl with large breasts threw a bloody tampon over the stall door.
“This is what being a woman looks like, you stupid, fat piece of crap.”
The tampon struck Gemma’s shoulder and landed in her lap before rolling between her thighs and plunking into the water.
“Direct hit,” the girl squealed.
A moment with David Armstrong
What were the origins of “Coyotes of the Apocalypse”? I was reading about light pollution and how it affected the biorhythms of animals when I heard about the suicide of a young local girl. That our children take this step, and with regularity, says to me that we as a society are failing to understand the ways in which the most vulnerable among us suffer. “Coyotes of the Apocalypse” became a story about gestures of empathy on the smallest and largest scales. I’d like to believe — in order to save one girl’s life — if it came down to shutting off all the lights in Las Vegas, we would find a way to do it. Is there a book that you’d recommend to people who want to read something meaningful about Vegas? The most powerful work I’ve read set in Las Vegas is actually a short story by Darrell Spencer entitled “Squeeze Me, I Sing,” about a father who treks the city with his handicapped child (Georgia Review, Spring 2012). Your best tip for beating the summer heat? Move slowly. Drink water.
Shrieks of laughter erupted from at least three other voices. Their sneakers squelched and skidded as they banged out the door. Their cackles careened down the hall. But Gemma still heard a single set of feet shuffling nearby.
“Hello?” she said. She didn’t know if she should curse the girl or plead. She cringed thinking about what things might still be hurled over the divide.
Please don’t, she thought. Please. Don’t.
Tears boiled up, and she felt herself beginning to sob.
Then an eye looked straight through the gap between the door and stall. Gemma could tell it was the tall girl. Her eye was near the top hinge. The girl said nothing, but slid a sealed envelope through the gap. The envelope landed on the floor. It had Gemma’s name on it written in blue pen.
Gemma picked up the envelope, no doubt containing a smear of excrement or a comprehensive list of her faults, more reasons she should die.
When she looked up again, the eye was gone.
Gemma folded the envelope and placed it in her pocket so that no one else could read it.
On Monday of the fourth week, she took Pap’s gun in her backpack. It was heavier than she remembered. The muzzle pushed the bottom of the bag down in a conspicuous point. She rearranged her books to accommodate the gun’s bulk.
She sat through the morning math sessions thinking of the hammer, the grip, the sight, the breath, the slow squeeze, all the things Pap taught her, all the ways to survive. The problem, Pap had said, was that the real darkness never returned to this part of the desert to scrub it all clean of the old sins of the day. Because of the lights, because of sin, because of Sin City, the blue built up like a residue. It sunk into you, bubbled up in your brain like dreams of death. You never went to sleep clean.
In the girl’s restroom, Gemma took her backpack to the same stall where she’d been sitting the day before. She sat on the toilet with her pants still up, waiting. The massive gun lay in her lap like a sleeping cat. She toyed with the trigger, gauging the amount of pressure required to pull it back.
But no one came.
“I’m ugly,” she whispered. An ugly girl with her guts and heart dyed blue from all those nights sitting alone. She cocked the hammer. She thought about cutting herself to see her ugly blue blood spill onto the floor, but she had nothing but the gun.
She waited and waited, but there was no one, and finally she returned to class with the gun hidden once more beneath her books.
On the long drive home, as Jeanie turned the pickup onto the first nameless road, Gemma felt a wave of nausea roll through her stomach. She knew it had happened. She said nothing. At the compound, she hustled to the bathroom and wadded up as much toilet paper as she could. She shoved it into her underwear without looking.
She waited until late into the night when Jeanie was asleep before she rose again and felt her way along the hall. Through the windows and beyond the razor wire was the blue sky and the shimmering city. She left the light out in the bathroom and removed her clothes. On the floor the soaked tissue paper in her underwear was too dark. Not red, but the darkest blue the world had ever known.
She showered in the darkness, hoping the blood would rinse clean in one go, that her fat body would erode and become shapely. That she would look like the busty girl. But when she looked down, all she could see was the blue running down her legs and swirling in the drain.
I hate you, Gemma thought.
She had no doubt that if she filled the bath and ran a razor blade over the veins in her wrists that her mother would find in the morning her pale body immersed in what looked like a tub full of ink.
She didn’t intend to use razor blades though. As Pap always said, Guns make statements. Everything else is just whispers.
Gemma returned to her bedroom, closed the door, and licked the muzzle of the revolver, just to taste it. The taste was familiar, and she knew why. Its deep metallic flavor matched the smell of the tampon blood that had stained her shirt the week before.
She put the gun into her mouth, resting it against her teeth. She wiggled it just to feel the sound of it, clickety-click.
She toyed with the hammer. Clickety-click.
Don’t you chicken out, she thought.
She felt herself swirling, descending into such sadness she felt paralyzed.
Pull the trigger, you fat piece of crap. Just do it.
She needed to push herself over the edge. She set the gun down—it sank into the mattress—and found beneath her pillow the envelope that the tall girl had dropped in the bathroom. She tore the seal and found a piece of notebook paper tri-folded, formal, like a business letter.
I am sorry, it said, for being mean to you. I didn’t get to know you at all. I thought a lot about it. You seem like a good person. You are somebody I could be friends with. So I promise to make it stop. Then we can start again and . . .
The thought was left unfinished, as if the girl had hoped Gemma might be able to fill in the rest. The tall girl had not signed her name. Just drawn a heart and a smiley face that, though crooked and perhaps hasty, looked pleadingly up at her.
For a moment, the letter pulled her back. It promised something. Gemma remembered her dream before the first day of school. Of dancing in the desert under stars. She imagined the tall girl dancing with her, the two of them laughing.
No, she thought. The letter was a trap. Pap had warned her. “In the end of days, we’re all on our own.”
Gemma carried the gun outside. She sat on the steps and faced the relentless blue monster that had eaten the sky.
She put the gun in her mouth—clickety-click.
And everything went dark.
Thirteen seconds passed before Jeanie flung the door open and looked down at Gemma. “What the hell is going on?”
“The lights went out,” Gemma said.
A blue glow smoldered at the bottom of the horizon in the direction of Las Vegas, then died out completely. The black veil above was restored. Stars crowded the desert air.
“This is it,” Jeanie said. “This the big one. You see an explosion?”
Gemma shook her head.
Jeanie saw the gun in Gemma’s hand. “Good thinking. Grab the automatics in the back room and get to the bunker.” She retreated inside.
But Gemma knew it wasn’t the end. She knew somehow the tall girl had done it. She’d made it all stop, like she promised. The desert was no longer the dull and poisonous blue of Gemma’s entire life. It was like her dream, a deep black and star-drunk. Across the landscape she could feel the dark world remembering itself and the clarity of its soul. She felt saved.
She dropped the gun in the dirt and walked out beyond the security fence, surrounded by all that magic, the wind sliding silently across her pale skin. She closed her eyes, listening. Just listening, as coyotes howled and asked forgiveness from the moon.
David Armstrong has a Ph.D. in Creative Writing from UNLV and is the author of two short story collections, Going Anywhere and Reiterations (forthcoming in 2016).