High above the farmlands of northeastern Oklahoma, above the red dirt roads and the swaying cottonwoods, atop the flat-peaked mesas that make up the Glass Mountains, lives a clan of moon worshipping off-gridders who harvest the selenite crystals and perform human sacrifices while dancing naked beneath the deep pull of a blood moon, their bodies bathed in the rich, sunburnt soil of the land, wailing like a pack of rabid wolves on a midnight hunt. Of course, those were the stories, the whispers passed from lip to ear on the school playground. Tales to sizzle the blood and raise the neck hair. Images to transform the heart into a bass drum, the fear into the mallet that beats against it.
Eventually, most everyone grew out of the fear, and the idea of the wild moon clan existing just miles from our small town became nothing more than fairytale, except to me. I’d lie awake at night, staring at the shadows on the popcorn ceiling of my family’s two-bedroom clapboard, and watch the spindly, dust-drenched bodies of the people twirling beneath the moonlight, chanting around a corpse, lifting shards of crystal to the sky dance above me; and the thump, thump against my sternum, the sizzle-pop of fear in my veins, comforted me. Soon, the wild moon clan became an obsession of mine, drawings in the margins of my schoolwork and writings on the clan. Then, once, in high school I let it slip that I believed, I was a believer and after that, the sick, ever-present laughter that can only be produced in a small town followed me everywhere, and I learned to keep my beliefs to myself.
After high school, when everyone ran off to college or work in the City, I continued on as a clerk at Village Mart grocery store and spent my days listening to Douglas, the manager, drone on about his three cats and parakeet while I leaned against the conveyor belt of my register and gazed out the window, at the crimson mesas on the far horizon, realizing that this would be my life. I would live and die in this town, scanning off-brand Dr. Pepper and nearly-expired steaks until I died, never having seen the wild moon clan with my own eyes.
Toward the end of my eighteenth summer, there was talk about a blood moon, a total lunar eclipse that would turn the moon red, and I wondered for weeks if the clan would take advantage of the phenomenon. Momma was the one who confirmed it on a hot August morning when I came into the kitchen, where she stood at the sink, working a soapy rag over chipped plates from Daddy’s breakfast, listening to the radio play church hymns.
“Did you hear, sweetheart?” Momma said, her bony shoulders pulsing against her cotton nightie as she turned the dish rag.
“Hear what?” I opened the fridge and tipped the orange juice carton to my lips, the slimy citrus splashing against my throat, thinking how when Momma wasn’t doing dishes, or waitressing, or communing at her church, she was gossiping.
“Misty Derricks,” Momma said, and the image of Misty’s brown hair, dyed skunk-like with thick strips of yellow, sprung to mind. “You remember her, don’t you?”
I put my head in the fridge, in the cool, and saw Misty laughing as she yanked my shorts down in tenth grade gym class and presented my bare ass to everyone, saying the savages could dance under that moon. The fridge went hot and when I popped upright, I said to Momma, “I don’t really remember her.”
“Well, she’s missing,” Momma said, wiping her forehead with the back of her hand, the house roasting, because Daddy wouldn’t let us run the air conditioning during the day.
“Missing?” I slid the OJ back into the fridge and shut the door up tight. My heartbeat slithered wildly through my body as I thought, this is it, Misty will be the moon clan’s sacrifice, and I will be there. I will finally see what I’ve always wanted to. Momma turned toward me, the blue and purple bulges beneath her eyes dark and prodding, not yet having been dredged in concealer.
“She was taken right out of her bed,” Momma said. “From the apartment complex by the water tower, you know the one.”
“That’s . . .” I searched for a word to make Momma happy. “Horrible.”
“I want you to be careful out there today, Karen. It’s a full moon. Crazy comes out of the wood work during a full moon.”
“Blood moon,” I corrected.
“I swear these are end times,” Momma said, swiveling back around and scrubbing the dishes harder, her fingernails scraping against the surface of the plates every few strokes.
“Misty Derricks probably has a straw in a drink at some party in the City,” I said, taking a step forward and leaning in to peck a kiss on Momma’s cheek. She touched my elbow lightly, dampening my dry skin, and I forced my voice to go soft and I told her, “Don’t worry about it. She’ll turn up somewhere.”
I took exactly five steps across the living room and was outside. That morning, the town was quiet, inside-of-a-coffin-buried-twenty-feet-deep-quiet and as I walked the nine blocks from my house to Village Mart, the lack of noise gave my mind time to wander. I thought of how Misty Derricks used to sit behind me in Biology, tapping one of her pink polished fingernails against my shoulder before she whispered psychopath in my ear just because I was a believer. She’d understand tonight. The blood moon would rise and the clan would step out onto the flat-topped mesas and the sacrifice of Misty Derricks would occur and I would be close by. As long as the last piece in my plan clicked into place.
When I’d completed the nine-block walk to the Village Mart, and stepped into the store, my manager, Douglas, was waiting at my register, watching me with his black eyes, the lazy one shivering all wonky-like. I knew from the way his good eye always fell slowly from my face to my boobs and the way he’d stare at me for sometimes a quarter of an hour across the store, unblinking, then blush and turn away, he had a crush on me, and could easily be persuaded into driving me to the Glass Mountains after our shifts ended at eight.
“Mornin’ Douglas,” I said, forcing a smile.
“I might have to take Perry back to the pet shop,” Douglas said with a long sigh and droopy eyes, which I had to look away from, otherwise I would stare at the wonky one. I remembered one time Douglas told me he could tell I was looking at it, judging the twisted, blackened orb no doctor could correct, and he would appreciate if I didn’t do that.
“Why do you have to return the bird?” I slid into the sweet spot—where the air conditioning vent seeped icy air down the back of my neck—and propped my elbows on the smooth conveyor belt. I squinted out the windows of the store, past the harvested wheat fields and the blacktop highway that led to far off places I’d never have the money to see and stared at the tiny red mesas sprouting out of the earth like jewels and I couldn’t tell if it was the hum of the air conditioning or if, honest to goodness, across all those miles, I could hear the chant of the wild moon clan spiraling into my ear, calling me home. Then, Douglas took a step to the side and the only noise was the air conditioning and the only view was of hairy flesh poking out the bottom of his T-shirt. I looked up at his wonky eye then, fixed myself a good stare, because sometimes it made him go away, but I remembered for the first time ever I would need this man for his car, so, my gaze flicked to his good eye, the one slowly slipping down to my boobs, and I tried to smile as he explained why his parakeet had to be returned to the store.
“Perry is biting me and the kittens,” he said. “Just the other day he pecked Mittens right on the nose and she started to bleed. I’ll have to take him back and get a tamer bird.”
“You could always release him into the wild,” I said, then regretted it immediately as Douglas’ face twisted like he’d bit into a lemon expecting an orange.
“I’m not going to do that,” he said, placing a hand on his hip. “The wilderness is no place for a powder blue parakeet. He’ll starve in the wild, or be eaten, and it would be too sad. I couldn’t live with myself if he died.”
“I’m afraid we’re all going to die someday,” I said, craning my neck then, because through the triangular-shaped hole his fat arm had made, I could see the mesas again.
“That’s an awful thing to say,” Douglas said and walked briskly away. I stood up, questioning quickly if I should flash him, then decided I was in need of a car not a stalker, so I just called out to him in the sweetest tone I could manage, the kind I used with Momma.
“I was only joking,” I said. “You’re right, the wild is no place for a precious, little birdy like yours, but it’s the life of the kittens that should concern you, and if you feel you need to return the bird to the shop, then you should, and by the way, would you be able to drive me somewhere after work?”
Douglas was on the edge of the aisle closest to my register, where the cornflakes, maple syrup, and toaster pastries lived. He spun around to look at me. I arched my back a smidge so the girls stuck out farther than usual, tilted my head, and fluttered the old eyelashes Douglas-boy’s way. His good eye explored me while the wonky one dipped toward the locked cigarette cabinet across the way. A creepy little smile pulled up on the edge of his cheeks and he said, a little too quickly, “Sure, I can drive you, where do you need to go?”
I relaxed my shoulders, pulled my head upright, and said smoothly, clearly, “The Glass Mountains,” and watched a shiver of fear shake across Douglas’ face for a moment before he nodded and headed silently toward the storeroom.
The rest of the day moved as usual and when the old ladies came in, their wrinkled fists curled around coupons, I smiled. When the young mommas, dressed in spaghetti strap tank tops with no bra underneath, a naked baby plopped on their hips shuffled through, I smiled. Even when Mrs. Langley, the head of the neighborhood watch, came in with fliers explaining Misty Derricks’ disappearance, I took the pages, promised to hang them up around the store, and smiled. But after they had all whisked through the sliding glass doors, into the muggy heat and their cars, fanned out over the town, my smile dropped. My elbows fell onto the belt, a new smile—a real smile—returned as I looked out at my mesas, my obsession, and dreamed of finally being there, mere feet from the wild moon clan.
When the sun began to sink behind the mesas and eight o’clock finally came, I closed up the register and found Douglas in the store room, bent over a crate in the corner, where he kept his things, a plumber’s crack on full display.
“You ready to go?” I asked.
Douglas jumped and the screech that came out of him was only justified by the fact he’d lived with cats for a good part of his life and I was sure, when the nights dragged and the cable bill hadn’t been paid, he’d sit there, with one lamp on, against the couch, pulling a shoe lace across the carpet for the cats to paw at, all the while mimicking their speech patterns: mewing, hissing, growling, screeching.
“How long have you been standing there?” Douglas asked. “You scared the living daylights out of me.”
“I thought you heard me come in,” I said. “Ready to go?”
“I’ve thought about it,” he said, looking at the ground, his wonky eye falling on me. “I don’t think I can drive you to the Glass Mountains.”
“Why not? You said you would.”
“I need to go home and take care of the kittens.”
“They’re cats,” I said. “Let them outside and they’ll fend for themselves.”
“I just don’t think I can drive you tonight.” Douglas took a step toward the door, but I blocked him, pressing my hand to the middle of his sternum, his heartbeat fast against my palm.
“So, you’d let me walk all the way there in the dark?” I said. “With Misty Derricks kidnapper still on the loose?”
Douglas swallowed, loudly. “Maybe you should just head home, then, so your Momma doesn’t worry.”
“I’m sorry,” he said quietly, definitively.
“Please,” I said, but then there was Momma’s voice, telling me to never beg, never take charity, and saying please, in a pleading tone, was begging, but I pushed Momma away, because I could see the plan crumbling, the wild moon clan slipping away, and I thought of Douglas’ car and how I needed it to get me to the mesas. So, I dropped to my knees, latched onto Douglas’ wrists, and said loudly, “Please. I won’t ask you for anything ever again, please, just drive me. I’ll do anything, I promise.”
Douglas’ eyebrow lifted. “Anything?”
“Yes,” I said. “Anything.”
“I want a kiss,” Douglas said and saliva caught in my throat and I started to cough and I released Douglas’ wrists, standing to my feet.
“What did you say?”
“If I drive you out to the Glass Mountains,” he said, “you have to kiss me.”
A fist punched the inside of my stomach as I thought of Douglas being any closer to me than he was and bile shimmied up my throat, but I swallowed it down, breathed, thought of the mesas, and told him, “Fine,” but when he leaned in, lips scrunched, I explained, “after.”
“You promise? You won’t go back on your word?” This freaky, perverted grin grew on his face and the fist was back and I had to look away.
“I promise,” I choked out.
We crashed through the back door of Village Mart, into the suffocating humidity, and tromped to the boxy little car parked under the only tree at the back of the lot. I climbed into the front seat, my heart pounding at the thought of finally watching the wild moon clan perform one of their rituals. Douglas peeled out of the lot, onto Main, and popped in an old cassette tape. I leaned back in the squishy seat, window down, and tried to lose myself in the hee-haw voice of Conway Twitty. We passed the library, where Momma’s weekly Bible study was held, the hair salon where girls like Misty Derricks came out looking exactly the same as everyone else, and finally the hardware store where men like Daddy gathered on weekends to discuss home improvement projects. Then, Douglas cranked the wheel and turned onto the dirt road that would eventually nest itself in the mesas. I glanced at Douglas, who hadn’t said a word since we left the store, because he was probably thinking about our lips intertwined and I just couldn’t handle that image rolling around in his brain.
“Do you take your cats for walks?” I asked, because it was the first thing to pop into my head, even though I must have sounded stupid.
“Sometimes,” he said, and that round head turned toward me, slowly, and he furrowed his brows in my direction, all serious-like. “Why do you want to get to the Glass Mountains so badly?”
I took a deep breath, which wasn’t smart, because the car didn’t just smell a little like cat piss, it smelled a lot like cat piss, and the sour, sweet aroma, mixed with a scent like rotting animal flesh, swelled inside me even though the window was all the way down. I gagged loudly.
“Sorry,” Douglas said, embarrassed. “Wilma has been smelling especially strong the last few days. I think it’s the heat.”
“The car,” Douglas said. “She gets like this in the summers. Just stick your head out the window if you’re going to vomit.”
I unbuckled my seat belt and jammed my head outside, the fresh air wafting over every inch of my face, pushing my tangled mess of hair toward the cloud of red dust Wilma’s tires were kicking up in our wake. The world was a blend of black and electric blue, the mesas silhouettes against the sky, looking like they did in my fifth-grade art project when I cut their likeness out of construction paper and pasted them to a page of crimson, drawing tiny human outlines at their top. I remember it hung in the hallway at school, among the bunnies, butterflies, and flowers, because the instructions had been to create Spring. Then, it was magnetized to the fridge at home until Momma got tired of looking at all that red, like blood she said, and the house was not supposed to be a violent one. So, I kept it tucked in a shoebox in my room with a shard of crystal I’d found and stories I’d penned of the clan, pulling them out on occasion to look at, usually on days when the sky was too hazy, the clouds too thick to see the Glass Mountains from town.
Wilma inched toward the mesas and the blood moon began to rise. I saw the whole world encased in red and when those darkened mesas shone against that sky, just like in my childhood imagination, I laughed. There was a thrumming in my heart and a teardrop formed in my eye, but I didn’t know if it fell because of the majesty of what I saw or if the tear was only a product of the strong wind that howled over the top of Wilma. I was so overwhelmed by it all that I spread my arms wide, soaring toward my future, toward a world so unique, so familiar, and suddenly I was liberated from everything mundane, monotonous, everything that belonged to people like Momma and Daddy and the Misty Derricks of the world. That’s when Douglas slammed on the brakes and nearly threw me from the car.
“Are you insane?” I slid back into the front seat.
“Holy shit.” Douglas stared straight ahead, into the figure of a girl the dusty beams of the headlights picked up as they branched out over the road. The girl stumbled closer to the car and her features came into view: skunk hair windswept and tangled, her body coated in a thin layer of red dirt, even her jean shorts and tank top matched the rusty color of the Permian red beds that made up our landscape. “Is that?”
“Misty Derricks,” I said as Misty leaned into the headlights, squinted, then lifted an arm, an attempted wave toward us. My whole body went numb.
“What’s she doing out here?” Douglas asked as he put the car in park.
“Why isn’t she on the mesas like she’s supposed to be?” I whispered.
Douglas’ door squealed open and he stepped out onto the road, hiking up his khaki shorts. Misty was tripping over her own feet, wobbling on stilt-like legs, looking like a newborn colt, covered still in the slime of birth. I pulled myself up so I sat in the open window frame and could hear Douglas as he spoke to her.
“Misty, are you alright?” Douglas asked.
“I’m fine,” she croaked out just before she stumbled into Douglas’ jiggling belly and he caught her in his arms, steadied her.
“Here, let’s get you into the car.” Douglas looped an arm around Misty’s waist—I bet he just loved the feel of her hot skin so close, the pervert—and walked her toward Wilma. “We’ll drive you back into town.”
“No, we won’t,” I said and Douglas looked up at me, eyes wide.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he said. “Look at her.”
“Have you already forgotten our deal?” I drummed my fingers against the roof. “Drive me to the mesas and I’ll give you a kiss.”
Douglas didn’t look at me as he opened the backseat and eased Misty onto the velvet bench covered in tiny black and white cat hairs. He pulled the seatbelt across Misty’s body, the body that should have been splayed out over the flat, gravelly top of one of the mesas, danced around, sacrificed to the moon.
“Can you tell us what happened to you?” Douglas asked. He had surprised me with how calm he was. A guy like Douglas, who got worked up over a stupid bird jabbing its beak into a cat’s nose, did not strike me as the calm type.
“She was taken by the wild moon clan and now she’s escaped and ruined everything,” I said, plopping down in the passenger’s seat. I felt four eyes staring at me, well three because Douglas’ wonky one had surely rolled off in a different direction, and I turned toward the backseat slowly, gazed upon Douglas and Misty’s open mouths. “What? It’s true, isn’t it? You were kidnapped by the people who live on the mesas. You were supposed to be their sacrifice.”
“You actually believe those stories?” Douglas asked, and for the first time it occurred to me that not everyone in town knew I was a believer, or simply didn’t want to think I was.
“Of course,” I said. Douglas’ lips pulled inward as he frowned and his good eye flicked away as if he was ashamed to look at me and I could almost hear laughter in the wind, rolling in from town, and a knot tied in my chest, my heartbeat disappearing altogether, but in the next moment it returned and I curled my fingers into fists, squeezing tightly. “The clan exists. The stories are true. That’s where Misty has been. It’s a blood moon tonight and Misty was supposed to be their sacrifice. She was taken. They took her.”
“No one took me,” Misty said, sounding halfway between a bullfrog and her usual self. “I came out here the other night with my boyfriend; we were fixin’ to have ourselves a real fun time with some of his friends, until we got in a fight—something stupid about his friend looking at me and me looking at him, but it wasn’t true—and I wandered off with a bottle of rum to clear my head, walking this way and that until I was spinnin’ almost and realized I lost my way. Then I blacked out. Woke up this mornin’ in this small cave in the middle of the mesas without a clue where I was. Creepiest part was someone had covered me with some horse blanket that smelled like dog shit, but I didn’t see no one and—Oh, my head.”
Misty smacked a hand to her forehead and leaned back against the seat, moaning. Douglas jumped back into the road, shut Misty’s door, and squeezed in behind the wheel. I kept my eyes on Misty, even though the engine was starting and Douglas was attempting a three-point turn around, headed away from the mesas.
“Who covered you with a horse blanket?” I asked.
Misty’s eyes were closed, but she shrugged, a sprinkle of dust rising into the air, illuminated only by the lights on the dashboard. “I said I never seen no one and I high-tailed it on out of there before I could.”
“I think it was one of the wild moon clan members,” I said, a flutter of excitement returning to my chest. Maybe they had taken someone else, from a different town, for their sacrifice. I pictured them trolling streets, gas stations, grocery stores, waiting for an easy target after Misty had escaped. “It had to be. There’s no other explanation.”
Misty laughed, which made her cough, but when she was stopped, she said, “You’re a fucking psycho. There ain’t no clan that worships the moon in the mesas. They was just stories someone made up to keep kids from riding their bikes to the mesas and falling over the edge. My momma told me so, didn’t yours?”
“You’re wrong. They do exist,” I said. “And I’m going to prove it to you. Douglas, turn Wilma around and take me back to the mesas.”
“Misty needs medical attention,” Douglas said as he accelerated toward town. “She’s probably severely dehydrated.”
“Do you want a kiss or not?” I asked, and watched the rusty cogs in Douglas’ head turn slowly as he weighed his options. I was irritated at Douglas for having to think about it so much; it wasn’t like I wanted to kiss him, but it was me he spent his days ogling, not Misty, who was just as annoying calling me a psycho, a freak, a crazed lunatic even though she was the one who got herself so drunk she wandered into the den of the clan on her own and still couldn’t admit they existed. “Tick-tock, tick-tock, Douglas-boy. It’s now or never.”
“Psycho, calm down,” Misty said. “You’re killing my head.”
“I’m not a psycho,” I said.
“Why are you so obsessed with these stories?” Misty asked.
“Shut up.” I turned back to Douglas. “Well? Are you turning this car around or what?”
“I am sick,” Misty said. “He’s trying to help me.”
“Unfortunately, your kind of illness cannot be cured,” I said. “Douglas. Make a decision.”
“I don’t know,” he said and the calm from before was gone, replaced by a small, shaky voice, and I rolled my eyes.
“Then just pull over and let me out,” I said. I fumbled for the door handle, ready to bust out the moment the car slowed, but it didn’t. A harmonious click sounded throughout the stinky car as Douglas locked the door.
“I’m not going to leave you out here alone,” Douglas said.
“Then drive me back to the mesas, let me prove the wild moon clan exists, and we can all go home,” I said.
“I can’t do that either.”
“Why not?” I ran my fingers over the smooth, vinyl upholstery covering the doorframe, trying to find the lock in the dark.
“Why don’t you just push her out of the moving car?” Misty asked. “That’s a genius idea.”
And it was. If there was no way to unlock the door, no way to convince Douglas to slow down or turn around, the open window was the perfect exit. I was only about a half-mile away from the mesas, an easy distance to walk.
“Why don’t you both just calm down for a moment, take a deep breath. We’ve been through a lot tonight,” Douglas said as I was swinging one leg out the window, then another. I expected there to be more protest from him, a hand on my arm dragging me back into the car, but then I glanced at him and saw his good eye was hidden, the wonky one staring off at the radio dial. I looked down at the road, passing by in a blur a few inches beneath my dangling feet. Wilma was probably only going about twenty-five, thirty miles per hour. I didn’t think the fall would kill me, but I needed a bit of motivation, so I turned a cheek toward the mesas and saw that the rugged hills were slipping farther and farther away.
“What are you doing?” Misty shouted from the backseat. She must have had her eyes closed and opened them at that moment. “I wasn’t actually serious.”
Douglas punched the brakes and the force knocked me from the window, sent me tumbling out of Wilma entirely. I hit the ground hard and began to roll. I twirled away from Douglas and Misty and the town, away from the people who laughed, away from the nonbelievers. I spun over the dirt, the red dust bathing me in its richness like it did the wild moon clan, and I cried out, a long, deafening howl, just before my momentum slowed and I came to a stop on the side of the road, body numb, stomach flat against the gravel, face twisted toward the mesas standing tall above me. As I laid there motionless, looking up at the mesas, I swore I could see them, at the very top, one shadow, then another as my wild moon clan began their dance. I cried out once more, and this time, I heard my chant echoed as the wail of the clan members bounced from mesa to mesa. They were no longer stories or closet obsessions, but real. I smiled then, not like I did for the old ladies or the bra-less mommas or the neighborhood watchers at Village Mart, but a smile so real it hurt, because I was close, so, so close. If only the moon had reached down and raised me up to the mesas so I could be with them, among them, dancing, wailing, sacrificing, but a golden light washed over me then, as Douglas got Wilma turned back around, and I blinked through spots in my vision, at the shadows on the mesas, knowing that was as close as I would get to the wild moon clan that night. But for one last moment, as the headlights pressed in on me, I kept my eyes on the mesas and I wailed with my people beneath the bloody moon, as I waited for the nonbelievers to descend.