She wasn’t at his funeral, so I took the van around to where I knew she was staying while she was in town. He always taught us to stick close to our home. It was her ex’s place, a rundown one-story with dead grass and an old plastic playground for some forgotten children. Maria and her friends used to hang on it, passing sticky, smelly joints between them until they were pissed with laughter and fondling each other; I watched through a chain link fence as Maria fed.
Maria came out at the sound of my tires on the gravel. It wasn’t late, but she was in her pajamas, her eyes and clothes sagging. I get that. Grief like ours weighs different in the belly. It’s not a rock but a hole.
“It was today,” I said as she came out to the fence. “They buried him today. Where were you?”
Maria let her eyes fall to the ground. “Busy.”
She’d been “busy” for almost eight years, off somewhere with her hooks in some poor sap while I stayed here. Waiting.
“You ain’t busy now, so let’s go,” I said, opening the fence and stepping toward her.
“Don’t play like that. You know exactly where.”
Her eyes darted up to mine. “Go home, Mal.”
I shook my head. I was home. “We settle this now.”
Maria turned from me, from my hunger, to cover her ears. But in the soft yellow light from the porch, her fingers slipped in shape, showing her second tongues. I hoped my bitter acid burned her.
“Everything all right out here?” Earl stepped onto his rickety wooden porch, shirtless, in dingy grey shorts. “Is that little Mal?”
“Hi, Earl.” My eyes stayed on Maria, her fingers sliding back to their original form.
“Little Mal, I haven’t seen you in years. I’m so sorry about your dad.” He wrapped Maria in his arms. Just from the movement, I caught a whiff of his old, humid flesh. “I’m glad it’s brought Maria back to me, though.”
Yeah, right. Maria was here for the same reason I was. It wasn’t to bury the man who claimed to be our father for all these years; it was to hunt down the real one. Like turtles to the dark waves, we were driven to him. The father who raised us was rotting beneath the earth under a tombstone with a false name—a hunter, planted in our home when we were only teens, with the sole purpose of trapping our birth father and doing what only we could.
“Yeah, I’ve actually gotta talk to my sister about something. You don’t mind if I steal her away for a little?”
Earl pushed Maria away from his body to stare down at her face.
“It’s okay.” The autumn wind carried her voice with the leaves. “I’ll be back. I promise.”
Without going inside or changing, Maria left Earl and got into the van, stale smell, crusty eyes, and all. For a moment, we were younger, hiding out from our fake father. There was always one car or another left unlocked along the grey curbs of our town. We’d crawl inside and snuggle up beneath our jackets, YouTube videos playing and music blasting until our phones died, or the owners of the cars came back, surprised and stunned to find two hungry Black girls waiting in their vehicle.
“You didn’t steal this, did you?” Maria asked while I drove us out of the city limits.
“I can’t believe you went back to that guy,” I said, adjusting the rearview mirror away from what was behind us to see Maria’s eyes, her face. “He’s a joke.”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
She was older. A lot older. But of course she was. We all were. Older and emptier.
I sighed, rolling my eyes. “Bought this fair and square off a contact.”
“A contact? Is that how your type says friend?”
“My type?” I laughed. “Bitch, you are my type. Same as dad. Same as mom. Being gone in fuck-off country must have made you forget that.”
Maria silently studied the sunset before turning to me. She tossed a heavy brown leather wallet bursting with cash onto the dashboard. At a stop sign, I thumbed through it. The license, credit cards, and pictures of kids inside belonged to a Helena Arnold. Age 53.
“When I first got in for the funeral, I took an Uber. That was my driver. The smell in her car was . . . ” Maria’s voice trailed off. “It flooded me. Images of her: knees bent, legs thrust back like some fucking insect. A grunting, sweating guy on her ass, grinding out his cum. Next thing, I’ve got my hands around her, and she’s dead.”
The road was dark. Somehow Maria shone in the passenger seat.
“That the first time you’ve fed since you left?” I asked, tossing the wallet into her lap and rolling forward.
She shook her head. “I eat what I can during dates and random hook-ups. Never go too far, though, just enough to keep me alive.”
“I understand.” I pulled off toward the road that connected the town with the major freeway.
“I thought you’d call me fake-skin.”
“Nothing fake about you. Except the way you hang onto that Earl guy.”
“He knows about me. About the family. What we are. He doesn’t care. Lets me feed off him when I need a bite.”
I sucked my teeth. “Don’t fall in love where you eat. That’s what dad always said.”
“If he followed his own advice, we wouldn’t exist.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “And we wouldn’t be hunting him down.”
We drove on, welcoming the moonless night out on the highway where only flyers, dreamers, and 18-wheel steamers dare cruise. There was one clue to where our dad had gone: one of those newer polaroid pictures made to look vintage stuck to our fake father’s bathroom mirror of our dad standing at the edge of a grand dune.
The Badlands scribbled in red on the upper left corner.
The name fits the man who left us as kids with a known killer as bait, some sick trade. No matter how mean or violent fake-dad got, he was never as bad as the man I remember.
Miles outside of town and we were just another dot of lights on the black and white of the highway. Maria spoke again. After all these years, I missed her voice. Missed it so much that her words slipped away from me. I had no idea what she was on about at first. I was just happy she was on; she was here and talking to me. Each word out of her mouth, whatever it was, stung my eyes—a blistering wind on a windless night. Did our father sense our woe, out here searching for him? He must. He had to. Something in him sensed us, knew we existed, and that we were coming.
We drove until dawn. That’s when Maria filled me in on the fact that she couldn’t drive. There was no way we’d cover the ground that we needed to with just one driver, so I found us a vacant spot out in the desert in the shadow of a few rock formations.
“It’s easy enough once you get the hang of it.” I crawled over her lap to switch seats with her and she slid in, awkward, to the driver’s side, gripping the wheel far too tight.
“Ease up. Take it slow at first, until you figure out the weight of your foot. You’ll probably be heavy-footed like me and dad.”
“You mean fake-father. Shouldn’t we buckle up first or something?”
I shrugged. “It’s like hiding under a desk during a nuclear attack. More for peace of mind than anything else.”
In the desert, we were small stones in a small hot van. I wanted us to be flying through this country on the trail of our dad. Instead, here we were, broiling while I tried to teach my big sister how to drive.
“Just press your foot against the brake and use that to put it into drive—the D,” I said, pointing to where everything was.
“Don’t laugh at me,” she said, easing the van into a death crawl.
She picked up her speed.
“Just don’t do anything funny,” I added.
She wasn’t bad, just overly cautious, like most first-time drivers.
“It’s good you were always the mature one.” Maria turned the wheel like a nana heading to Sunday service. “I wouldn’t have the patience to teach you.”
“There’s lots you wouldn’t do if things were switched.”
The van came to a halt, sending dust to obscure us.
“If you have something to say, say it. It’ll make this trip 100 percent better.”
We were near the border of the shadow. Here was heaven. There was hell.
“This isn’t a trip.”
Her eyes closed slowly and stayed shut.
“This is a hunt, not a trip,” I repeated. “We are hunting. We are hunting our father. Why? To kill him. Because that’s what we do. We eat and we eat and we eat until there’s nothing left. You remember that, right?”
“Don’t tell me shit I already know.” Maria’s eyes opened.
I hated our similarities; up close, they looked like imperfections.
Mine were always the biggest. “I’m only telling you because, for you, it’s been years. This is my life. I never left. I stayed with the man who wasn’t our father until his last breath, and then I stayed even longer until he was in the ground, and now, I’m going to find our real father to do what needs doing. He needs to die. He needs to die for who we are and for leaving us.”
After nodding her head, Maria hopped out of the van without putting it into park. I stopped it from rolling forward into the sun and climbed out of my side into the hot heat.
“That’s what this is about,” Maria said.
I met her in front of the van. “It’s about you not taking this serious.”
“No, it’s about me leaving you behind.” At some point between getting out of the van and now, Maria’s eyes had changed from walnut to obsidian. “I left you just like he did, right?”
“You don’t get it.”
“Say it!” Her voice cracked. “Let me have it. We’re supposed to eat, right?” She grabbed my arms. At her full height, she leaned over me like a cliff I clung to. “Let me have it then. Give me your hate.” With her so close, the stale sweat formed into a perfume of an old home.
The words started to develop in my mouth. Why wasn’t I good enough for you to stay? For you to call, even just to say, “I miss you.”
There was no divide between want and hate, desire and despair.
I hated you.
I hated you because I needed you, and you never needed me until now.
All those words came, but nothing left my mouth. How do you shape such soft sounds into something sharp enough to hurt?
Maria shoved me away from her. “Keep telling yourself you’re special because it makes you feel better about never getting out. But don’t ever act like I haven’t bled for my family, for what I am.”
With her back turned, my words found a home. “You can pretend like you don’t know what it was like for me, after you left.”
For a moment, just a second, she stalled at the door, before slipping in and letting it click closed behind her.
That night, I woke up from dreams of drowning alone in the dark to my whole body in a terrible tremble. Beside me in the van, Maria was on her knees; her head bent back with her second hands in the air. Tentacles writhed from where her fingers used to be. She was hunting. When Maria wanted to find something, she did it with her whole body. I could sniff out a woman in heat with the best of them, but Maria homed in on the heart of the matter. She’d find the infidel in the sheets just by tapping into the unseen around her. She came down hard, crashing against the floor of the van. A cold sweat clung to her, and I was panting.
“He’s close,” was all she said before she passed out.
I didn’t wait for her to wake up. I crawled to the steering wheel and headed to the nearest town.
Fact: in every shithole in America, you can find yourself a person who is willing to hunt down anyone or anything you so desire, for the right price. I used all the cash from the wallet Maria had brought and shoved it at the leather-clad guy hanging outside a gas station right off the highway. Thanks, Helena Arnold. They got back to me in less than two hours with an address and a recent photo. I checked the address but kept the picture hidden in the envelope for when Maria woke up. That took the rest of the night and some of the morning, but eventually she crawled out of the back of the van to join me in the front seat. I had breakfast waiting for her.
“Thanks,” she grumbled, peeling the wrapper back on an egg sandwich.
There were six more in the bag just like it, and hash browns too, but it wouldn’t be enough to satiate her hunger. She needed him.
We were in a super shopping center parking lot a few miles away from the address. People bustled by with carts weighed down and creaky with next week’s throw-out.
“Well,” she said, chewing on the last of her second sandwich. “Where is he?”
I took the envelope off the dashboard and handed it to her. “There’s also a recent photo.”
Her sandwich fell back into the bag as she grabbed for the slip. “You look at it?”
“I waited for you.”
Inside the white envelope was a printout of a smiling Black man, wrinkles running along his face to show where he had grown. There was a light-skinned woman in his arms, and children at his feet. He had a large family surrounding him. Children and teens. Our younger siblings.
“He has a family.” Maria traced the outline of the small faces in the photo. “Another family.”
The screenshot was taken from a social media page; reactions were still attached. 753 hearts. Seven hundred and fifty-three. I had killed countless people since my father left. Hundreds, maybe even thousands. I never counted, never cared to. Now, I wanted 753 souls to find their deaths at my hands. I wanted Maria to hunt them down, eat their passion, and leave their remains for time to rot.
Maria folded the paper up and tucked it away. “Let’s get this over with.”
It would have been wise to wait until the dark came, but both of our hungers were nipping at our gums to get out. When we pulled up to the house painted in flickering silent arrays of blue, white, and red, cop cars, bright-lit cameras, big-haired newscasters, and neighbors littered the lawn. Beside the front door, a coroner’s van sat smothering the wilting flowers and dying grass. Its door hung open, wanting—hungry.
“Family annihilator,” a voice said from behind me.
My body was not wrapped in white like a napkin over a gash, and no one was pushing me on a gurney because I couldn’t move anymore, but somehow, I was outside of the van with Maria on someone’s lawn.
“What happened?” Maria growled. “To the man who lived there?”
A large Black woman in an apron and robe stood holding an empty cup. “Family annihilator,” she said again, blinking past us into the flashing, silent red and blue lights. Coroners carried out six bodies in white bags while a neighbor tried to speak. “I heard the shots. We all heard the shots—the screams. I just thought . . . ” Her voice trailed off.
Maria tugged me away from the woman and back toward the van.
“If you see this man, do not try to apprehend him,” a newscaster thundered into their blinding camera. “He’s considered armed and dangerous.”
Pushing me into the passenger seat, Maria mumbled, “Family annihilator. Sounds about right.”
Hungry in a way only we understood, we left, drove away. We kept rolling along the highway until Maria finally spoke. “I can’t do this anymore.”
And settled the van into a dark, abandoned fast-food restaurant parking lot.
Salt and the smell of fried fat hung in the air, but it was not what I wanted. My phone was on the dash; another part of me from the past controlled my wheel. Some old video played. One we used to watch when we were little and were waiting for a sap to shuffle back to their car to find us when no one was ever searching. Another video started up. Maybe I’ve seen it, maybe not. It was all just noise under the sound of my aching want.
Maria fished a jacket out of the back and placed it over my lap.
“We won’t stop. Not until he’s dead.” Maria pulled me into her, holding me close.
Somewhere out there, our father, the murderer, probably thought we had given up, scared away by the massacre masterpiece he had painted in bullets. But we weren’t. We were together; two lives, one purpose. He had changed, grown emptier, colder. But so had we.
“Annihilate him,” I said. “You’ll stay, right, until we find him?”
We were back on the road in the morning, each white line giving way to the endless black stretching away from us.