Kevin P. Keating

The July Editor's Pick Writer is Kevin P. Keating

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by Kevin P. Keating

It took them three days by car before they reached the desert. Towards nightfall, in a dusty little town in the high Utah plateau, they passed the Wishing Well, a store that, according to the weather-beaten sign, specialized in used and rare books.

Tabby asked if they could stop, and Scott, against his better judgment, said yes. During their journey she’d gone through three coloring books, and he had tried his best to ignore the strange modifications she’d made to each drawing. Sometimes, though, she insisted he look at her work and praise her for her creativity.

Behind the sales counter, enthroned in a lawn chair with faded blue webbing, the proprietor sat with his hands on the armrests and the heels of his snakeskin boots resting on a makeshift footstool of antiquated law books. A man late in middle age with wild white hair spilling over his shoulders, he looked part librarian, part gunslinger, definitely drunk, not very happy to see anyone intruding upon his isolated world within the world—but then strangers are resented everywhere. He did not say hello as the screen door closed and he did not ask his customers if they were looking for anything in particular.

Scott wandered the narrow aisles, searching the cluttered shelves for something on UFOs, the paranormal, spirit animals, but the haphazardly arranged books seemed only to be about pioneer families who’d settled the Old West. On the floor, near a lopsided stack of National Geographics, he found a paperback about a prospector named Jeffries who'd lost his way in the Great Anvil Valley, about one hundred miles of here. His mummified corpse wasn’t discovered until months later. Before dying of thirst, he’d crawled under his wagon, maybe hoping the vultures wouldn’t pick his corpse clean, and clutched a well-thumbed bible to his lonesome heart.

The paperback said nothing about Jeffries’s horse. Likely he’d cut it loose. Animals were much more resourceful than greedy human beings who’d made serious errors in judgment. Probably the horse had survived. Scott considered buying the book merely out of politeness, but the proprietor didn’t strike him as the type of man who would care one way or another. 

Tabby tugged on his sleeve and showed him a coloring book and a box of colored pencils with a built-in sharpener.

“Can I have it?”

“Sure,” he said.

They approached the sales counter.

“Where headed?” asked the proprietor without rising from his chair. “East or west?”

“South,” Scott answered.

“South…” The man leaned forward and brushed a piece of grit from the toe of one boot. “Dark that way. No towns. No paved roads. Only thing you’ll find is the rim of the Black Coals Canyon and then…”

He whistled and made a hand gesture like a car flying into the abyss.

“We know what’s out there,” Tabby said.

“No, sweetie, I don’t think you do.”

“Don’t call me sweetie.”

“Well!” The man slapped a hand on the armrest. “That little girl of yours has a sharp tongue.”

Tabby crossed her arms and gave the proprietor an indignant look. “What makes you think I’m his little girl?”

The man squinted. His face changed a bit, his red-rimmed eyes becoming suddenly sober.

Scott reached into his back pocket. “How much do I owe you?”

“Five dollars,” he said, never taking his eyes from Tabby.

Scott tossed some bills on the counter. “We better keep moving.”

“Long journey ahead, eh?” The proprietor folded the bills without counting them and placed them in his shirt pocket. “Watch for the quicksand now. The roads, if you can call them roads, aren’t paved and we’ve had some heavy rains.”

He eased back into his chair, his face once again taking on the jaundiced pallor of a defeated man deep in drink. The bottle must have been close by. Scott could smell the whiskey on his breath.

“Appreciate the advice.”

Scott led Tabby back to the car, a huge Plymouth bought on a used car lot somewhere in Kansas. Knowing he’d said too much, he looked over his shoulder to make sure the man wasn’t watching them from the doorway and jotting down their license plate number. Scott said they probably shouldn’t risk stopping again, not until they reached their destination.

“Yes,” Tabby agreed, “that sounds like a wise idea.”

She climbed into the backseat and studied the drawings in her used coloring book, trying to decide which one to color first. There were rodeo clowns and cowboys and covered wagons trundling beneath magisterial mesas and surreal hoodoos.

Scott glanced at her in the rearview mirror. “We’ll be there soon, right?”

Tabby opened the box of pencils and counted them. “Another hour or two.”

“And then he’ll come for us?”

“I told you he would,” Tabby said irritably. “Just drive.”

“Okay, okay.” 

She selected a pencil and began to sharpen it. “Purple is my favorite,” she said. “I think I’ll add a purple bird to this page. It needs a bird, don’t you think?”

“That would be nice,” Scott said with a small shudder. He didn’t want to see any more of her drawings and focused on the vast landscape before him. The desert was now painted in the magnificent colors of summer twilight, subtle shades of pink and red he’d never seen in the perpetually gray city of his birth.

As they pulled away from the Wishing Well, Tabby leaned forward and whispered in his ear, “That man didn’t know what he was talking about. There’s no quicksand where we’re going. And there hasn’t been any rain. Not around here. Not in a very long time.”


Thirty minutes later the road became little more than an unmarked trail that vanished just beyond the headlights. There didn’t seem to be anything out here but black sand and a distant row of slender cacti. The car dipped and swayed across the rough and rutted landscape. Scott gripped the wheel with both hands, trying to control the Grand Voyager as it plowed through sage and heavy clumps of red sandstone. Tabby smiled and her eyes gleamed weirdly in the green dashboard lights. She couldn’t color anymore, not in the dark, and definitely not with the car jerking and bouncing like this.

“Almost empty,” Scott said. “I should have filled up at the last gas station.”

“We’re fine.”

“You keep saying that.” He scratched his chin. He hadn’t shaved since leaving Ohio. “We’re heading in the right direction?”

“Yes, keep going straight.”

“He knows we’re coming?”

“You’re scared, aren’t you?”

“Why would I be scared?”

“You sound scared.” She pointed a penlight at him, its bright blue beam paling his already pale face. “You look scared, too.”

He shielded his eyes with one hand. “Put that thing away.”

She switched off the penlight and tossed it to the floor. “Your wife must know by now. That we’re gone, I mean. It’s been three days. Almost four.”

“Probably not. We’ve been divorced for over a year. And she doesn’t check on me.” 

“How sad. Your boss then. He must be concerned. You have a job?”

“If you can call it a job.”

“You’re a teacher, aren’t you?”

“Sort of. Adjunct.”

“Adjunct…” She shook her head. “What does that mean?”

“It means I’m disposable.”

“Most people in this world are. But all of that will change.”

“He’ll keep his promise?”

She sat with her hands folded in her lap and stared into the darkness. “He always keeps his promises. You’ll see. You’ll see.”

They drove for another hour, slowly, through sage flats and over rough terrain made nearly impassible by deep depressions and ancient deadfalls of petrified wood. When the vehicle began to list suddenly to the left, Scott killed the engine and hopped out.

“Bring the flashlight,” he said.

Tabby met him beside the front driver’s side tire.

“A flat!” she cried.

Scott popped the trunk and moaned.

“I don’t believe it,” he said. “There’s no spare.”

Tabby swept the light back and forth across the empty trunk. “We should have checked when we traded for it in Kansas.” 
“I guess so.”

“Well,” she said, “we’ll just have to walk from here.”


“Only a little further,” she assured him and marched ahead without waiting for him.

He hurried after her, afraid she might plummet into the rimrock canyon. He wasn’t wearing the proper shoes for hiking, and every few yards a fragment of stone worked its way into his soles. They trod across the fossilized bones of giant lizards millions of years dead. There had been a forest here once, and before that an inland sea.

Scott looked up, astonished by the number of stars in the sky, but could only identify a tiny fraction of constellations. He was from an old industrial city in the Midwest and he’d never known anything but yellow streetlights blazing away from dusk until dawn. Now he could sense the Earth spinning through the Milky Way, and for the first time in his life he understood how ignorant he was about the cosmos, how small and inconsequential and ridiculously petty he was. He wondered what intelligences existed up there in the Heavens, unknown, unseen.   

“Stop here,” said Tabby.


“Look! It’s him!”

Scott saw no one. It was cold out here at night and he began to tremble. For a minute he heard only the wind and the distant chirping of unfamiliar insects.

Then he detected the sound of approaching footsteps. Their irregular rhythm suggested they were produced by something other than a human. Scott wanted to run and briefly considered abandoning the girl in the middle of the desert.

Tabby put her hands at her side and gracefully bowed.

Scott saw it then, a bighorn sheep standing beside a basalt pillar ten feet high. The ram looked at them with wide-set eyes and snorted. Then it walked back into the darkness.

Tabby took Scott by the hand. “He says to follow him.”

“It did?”

“I said him. He says everything is prepared and waiting for us.”

They made sure to keep the ram within sight and listened for its hooves crunching against the sun-hammered earth. They continued walking for another ten minutes until they came to a place where the moonlight was so intense it blotted out the stars. In a clearing they found a stone altar, roughly rectangular in shape and four feet in height.

Just beyond the hazy ring of moonlight, other creatures had gathered to bear witness to the act. Scott thought he saw an owl the size of a full grown man, and something vaguely amphibious, a newt or salamander, orange and bug-eyed and freakishly large.

Tabby approached the altar. “You don’t have to tie me down.” She lifted a long glimmering blade from the altar and handed it to him. “Use it any way you think best.”

He held the knife by its jade handle and thought of all the wild promises this girl had made to him—a beautiful wife, a lovely suburban home with a swimming pool, a full professorship at a prestigious university. Things he couldn’t begin to imagine earning on his own. But why had she chosen him? Why had she shown up at his apartment door with this news and persuaded him that she was speaking the truth?  

“You know what you must do,” she explained him with a sardonic smile. “It will allow me to do what I must, too.”

At the head of the altar, the ram stood and stamped its hooves.

Scott hovered over the little girl, knife lifted to eye level, the polished blade shining in the lunar cold. He could hear the other creatures shifting and breathing. Behind him a panting figure watched and waited.

The silhouette of a giant bat ascended into the sky and corkscrewed across the stars.

Scott looked a final time at the girl’s ghastly doll’s face and nearly recoiled as her features transformed into something more recognizable, almost familiar.

He waited for an angel to shout his name and stay his hand. But there were no angels here. Because this was not a girl.

Then he raised the knife high above his head.


Hours later, when the first hints of sunlight touched the high cirrus clouds drifting above the desert plain, Scott pulled the collar of his flannel shirt close to his throat and took care not to look behind him. By walking due north he hoped to find the car. He followed the sun as it traversed the sky but decided he’d drifted too far west and made a correction.

As the morning wore on, the desert very quickly grew warm and then unbearably hot. He removed his shirt and tied it around his waist. An hour later, when the barren landscape was ablaze with white light, he removed his filthy t-shirt and tied it around his head. He hadn’t thought to bring a change of clothes with him when he’d left his studio apartment, and he knew, rather shamefully, that he must have smelled foul.

For a moment he was so focused on his failures that he didn’t notice the changes to his body. He was now lean and muscular, as he had been during his college days on the rowing team, and the stubborn layer of fat around his torso had vanished completely. Suddenly he felt lighter on his feet and could breathe without rasping. It was as though he’d never smoked a cigarette, or ten thousand of them, and had never touched a drop of booze.

He felt the top of his head and was strangely unsurprised by the thick hair he found there. He looked down and saw he was wearing a pair of high-end shoes, tailor-made for hiking across technical terrain. He paused and reached into his back pocket.

Tabby hadn’t lied. His wallet was stuffed with hundred dollar bills. His life had changed—or was about to change forever. For now there was the small matter of the Plymouth. He fully expected to see a spotless new sports car waiting for him, but the desert appeared flat and empty with no vehicle in sight.

By noon the sky was chrome-bright. The white heat on the horizon seemed to make a low rumbling sound. His skin began to burn and his shoulders blister. He put his flannel shirt back on and checked the new wristwatch ticking away with Swiss precision. Though he now possessed an opulent diamond-studded watch, he had no food or water. Lack of sleep was also beginning to take its toll on him. He’d barely slept during the three-day journey to the desert, and last night, as he performed the unspeakable ritual, he hadn’t slept at all. He couldn’t be sure, but he suspected that, after he’d left the altar, the creatures had eaten the flesh and drank the blood.

He looked for a place to hide from the sun, a hill, a cave, a joshua tree tall enough to shelter him in its slender shade. He crouched low to the ground, thinking this might help for some reason, but he may as well have been crawling across the middle of a blacktop parking lot. He wondered how long he could continue like this and decided he had no options but to keep going. Tabby wouldn’t have led him into this waste just to let him die.


It was nearly dusk when the car finally came into view.

Insane with thirst, his lips cracked and bleeding, he limped toward the vehicle and drew the keys from his pocket. The flashy red sports car wasn’t there, only the used Plymouth with nearly 200,000 miles on the odometer, but by then he was so out of his mind that he didn’t stop to think about it—couldn’t think. 

A massive bird, its feathers so black they were almost purple, perched like a demented hood ornament on the rusted front bumper. It watched him and made strange gurgling sounds and picked at the lice buried deep in its feathers. At Scott’s approach, itlifted its wings and landed a safe distance away near a small pile of stones.

Scott opened the car door and collapsed in the front seat. There was no water inside, but he somehow managed to muster the strength to put the keys in the ignition and start the car. He cranked the air conditioning. Hot air blasted from the vents, but after a few minutes the interior began to cool. For a long time he believed he was going to lose consciousness. Still, he put the car in drive and pressed the gas. The car jerked forward, listing even further to the left

That was when he remembered the flat tire. “I’ll just have to take it slow, that’s all.”

At some point, though it might take him all night, he would reach civilization. All he had to do was follow his own tire tracks back to the main road. The car barely began rolling when the engine started to shudder and then stalled. The gas gage read EMPTY.

Scott laughed and then screamed. It hurt his throat to scream so he stopped.

The black bird circled three times above the car.

Scott crammed a fist into his mouth and bit down hard. If he passed out inside the car, which given his dehydration was highly probable, he would run the risk of boiling alive once the sun began to rise in the morning. After giving the matter a great deal of thought he decided to spend the night beneath the Plymouth. At least that way, if he did lose consciousness, he would be safe in the shade while he waited for someone to come along and rescue him.

Before exiting the vehicle, he grabbed the coloring book and looked at the nightmare images Tabby had drawn there. He flipped through the pages, and on the final page he saw a picture of a purple bird tugging at the putrefied flesh of a hand next to a wagon wheel. Just below the bloated fingers, in her bold childish hand, she had written the word “Daddy.”

Kevin P. Keating’s first novel, The Natural Order of Things (Vintage 2013), was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes/First Fiction award and received starred review from Publishers Weekly and Booklist. His second novel, The Captive Condition (Pantheon 2015), was launched at the San Diego Comic Con International and received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Library Journal. Last summer, he was named the James Thurber House Writer-in-Residence. He is the recipient of the Cleveland Arts Prize and a Creative Workforce Fellowship. He is now working a new cycle of dark short fiction of which “Visitation” is the first in the series.