by Alexandra M. Lucas

There’s no convenient time for terrible things to happen. Emer knew that. He also knew that he was the only Dowdle left, so, like it or not, he had to take off work, kiss his best gal goodbye, and drive to the middle of nowhere to see what kind of money and mess Great-Aunt Bellette had left for him. Or, to be more specific, he was driving roughly 76 miles per hour alongside endless sun-bleached stone to a whisper of a western town called Deemer’s Ridge.

Emer hadn’t had cause to venture into Utah before his great-aunt passed. Just like his brother and sister, now both long gone, he had grown up in eastern Colorado and couldn’t imagine anywhere better. Some would agree with his assessment, like his fiancée Jessamyn. Before she became laden with their future, Jessamyn had spent her days as a whitewater rafting tour guide, taming rapids along the wild Yampa for a reasonable price. The first time Emer had witnessed her in her element, he had seen in her eyes the ferocity needed to build a good life. As if he’d summoned her, his phone buzzed then with her image, but he rejected the call with the swiftness of repetition. Just give me a few days, Jez, he pleaded to her specter. No matter how long it took him to set things right, Emer trusted Jessamyn to hold the fort.

Alone on the dusty highway and 20 miles shy of his exit, Emer let his gaze stray from the road. Looming rock formations dotted the landscape, breaking up the dry, rolling hills of beautiful desolation. Emer didn’t know much about his great-aunt Bellette except that she had owned a hotel and that she’d had a way with the roots and cacti of the desert. In the delirium of his mother’s final days, she’d called Bellette a “medicine woman.” But if Emer was honest, he thought it looked like nothing could live out here.

An involuntary sigh escaped Emer’s lips when he spotted the faded exit marker for Deemer’s Ridge. But confusion soon took the place of relief when Emer saw on his GPS that he still had 20 more miles to drive before reaching Deemer’s Ridge. Where the hell am I going? Emer thought, shaking his head as he took the exit and passed a sign with a gas pump icon and an arrow pointing toward his destination. He relaxed his grip on the steering wheel, allowing himself some gratitude for being able to fill up before he tracked down what he hoped would be a fat inheritance and hurried away from this place.

The last 20 miles provided Emer with a strikingly different view. Now and then, a dented pick-up truck revved past his sensible compact SUV, honking at him for respecting the speed limit. On either side of the two-lane road, Emer’s gaze now found pockets of verdant fields and sprinklers doing their damnedest to coax crops to harvest. As he neared Deemer’s Ridge, the cattle crossing signs and barnyard bleats becoming almost commonplace, Emer started to shake the heavy cloud of concern that had followed him ever since his journey began.

That was when he saw it. At first, Emer wasn’t sure exactly what shambled across the road in front of him. He’d hit the brakes out of instinct, as he’d done countless times before when deer or geese had happened by, but horror caught in his sternum when his brain finally processed the  view. The thing might have been a cow once, he thought, but to his eye, it was now nothing more than a wheezing leather skeleton. With the windows down, Emer heard the weary scraping of bone that accompanied every step it took, and bile stung the back of Emer’s throat when he spotted shards of yellowed ribs protruding from the creature’s flank. 

Worst of all, though, was when the thing paused its agonizing journey to look at him. 

The chittering of cicadas and the vibrant wildflowers that dotted the side of the road melted away from Emer’s consciousness as the thing held his gaze. As it remained motionless, the notion soon began to creep into Emer’s mind that the thing’s stare rang not just of intelligence, but of accusation. A single thought wandered across his mind: What did I do?

A passing truck’s angry horn startled them both back to reality. The thing finally looked away, and the moment that it finished its haunted procession, Emer slammed his foot down on the gas pedal. He didn’t dare check his rearview mirror. Somehow, Emer was certain he wouldn’t be able to shake that stare, even after he’d once again put hundreds of miles between himself and Deemer’s Ridge.

Emer was in town long before he realized it. At a certain point, the farmland simply melted into manufactured homes with worn 1960s flair, boasting faded mint-green stripes and flamingo lawn ornaments. Although overturned trikes and rotted dog houses littered various yards, Emer didn’t spot a soul. Before he could think too hard about this fact, the low fuel alert commanded his attention, and he instead focused on locating the advertised gas station.

Seeking fuel took Emer to the center of Deemer’s Ridge. Metal washers on an American flag clanked against a rusted flagpole that loomed over Main Street, generating a rhythmic dirge in the wind. He still didn’t see anyone out and about, but he found some solace in the functioning gas pumps and an adjacent tourist rest area. The gas station was self-serve and had no convenience store to speak of, so he filled his tank and then wandered over to the restrooms and large informational placards at the rest stop. 

After relieving himself, Emer stretched and studied the history outlined on the seven-foot-tall signs. He was not surprised to learn that colonizers had forcibly shoved an indigenous tribe off this land, but he paused when he read that it was specifically conquistadors in service to the Spanish crown who were responsible. This all-too-common American factoid suddenly prompted Emer to recall a memory of his mother telling him that her side of the family had immigrated from the Netherlands several generations ago. Family legend held that there had been some conquistadors among them, but Emer knew better than to trust his mother’s tall tales. As the only surviving Dowdle, he preferred to stay grounded in what he could touch and see rather than get lost in imaginative fancies that some people needed to believe to feel interesting.

As he finished reading the 400-year-old history of the town, Emer’s vision soon began to skip over the usual colorful claims about famous Wild West outlaws, politicians, authors, and missionaries frequenting the town over the years. However, he couldn’t help but linger on the final sentence:

“Local historians also wish to note that Deemer’s Ridge was the site of a violent massacre in 1674 that devastated both settlers and Native Americans alike.”

A soul-deep shudder overtook his body then, forcing him to shiver from head to toe. 

Unsure why it had affected him so deeply, Emer turned from the informational placards and ventured a visual sweep of the modest Main Street. Focus, he scolded himself. Remember why you’re here. Get the goods and get out. His gaze soon fell upon a single light in one of the storefronts, which just so happened to be that of the Hotel Carmentis.

Emer both knew and did not know the hotel. He had heard stories about it and his great-aunt Bellette for as long as he could remember, but no one else in his family seemed to have visited the place. “Too remote,” his mother had often complained, but something about the scowl on her face when she said it had always given Emer pause. In life, his mother had held every member of the Dowdle clan close, save for great-aunt Bellette. As a child, Emer, curious about the family outcast, had even asked to write to Bellette, but his mother had taken his letter and torn it to shreds right in front of his eyes. “Stop tryin’ to fix broken things,” she’d spat at him. “Some things are well past fixin’.”

It doesn’t look so bad, he thought as he assessed the three stories of weathered wooden planks and the antique brass sign out front. The hotel boasted the modern trappings of electric lights, loud travelers’ guide rating stickers, and ample paved parking. In fact, nothing about it seemed unusual to Emer, whose travels as a park ranger had taken him to all manner of withered highway motels. Nothing looks like it needs fixing to me, Emer thought with a shake of his head. Should fetch a good price on its own. Good enough to wipe out my debts, anyway. Then, as the sun began to dip below the horizon, he strode into the Hotel Carmentis.

Once inside, Emer felt a little lighter when he spotted a tall, well-dressed clerk busying themselves behind the front desk. Plush burgundy material cascaded over every chair in the compact lobby, calling to mind the kitschy furniture Emer had seen in those ‘frontier times’ photobooths for tourists in Telluride. Folksy music streamed in from speakers overhead, and the clerk looked up with a smile as Emer approached. “Ah, welcome to the Hotel Carmentis. You must be Miss Bellette’s grand-nephew, Elmer.”

He grinned with a familiar wince. “I am, but, uh, it’s Emer.”

The clerk kept the smile on their lips but dropped it from their eyes. “Of course. My mistake. Miss Bellette always spoke so fondly of her Colorado family. Pity we have to meet under these morbid circumstances, Emer.”

He waited for the clerk to introduce themselves, but they simply continued to smile and hold eye contact with him. Once unease and the smell of mildew mixed with despair fully washed over him, Emer finally ventured, “Yeah. A pity. And you are?”

“Rowen, sir, at your service.” After another long pause, the clerk added, “It’s good you’re here. There should always be a Dowdle in Deemer’s Ridge.”

A wave of fatigue abruptly broke across Emer’s back, nearly winding him. Everything around him seemed to slow, from the dueling banjos in the speakers overhead to the clerk turning the pages of the guestbook. It was only the memories of his purpose, his desperate need for cash, and his raven-haired fiancée Jessamyn that roused Emer from disorientation. “Great, Rowen. Can you point me to my great-aunt’s place? I know she lived on-property, and I need to start sorting her stuff right away. Can’t stay more than a night or two.”

The world resumed its normal pace around him, and Rowen didn’t look up from writing down Emer’s name in the guestbook. “Very good, Mr. Emer. Now, I’ve—”

He interrupted the clerk. “Just Emer is fine. Seriously.”

“Very good, Emer. Now, I’ve written your arrival date here, and I’d typically include a departure date as well.” The clerk paused for so long that Emer wondered for a moment if they were having a stroke. “However, I suspect your task will require more than a few days to complete. Miss Bellette was dedicated to documenting your family’s many contributions to Deemer’s Ridge, and as such, she amassed quite an extensive collection of curios.”

A groan lodged in Emer’s throat, but he kept it from escaping. Given his mother’s hoarding tendencies, he knew he shouldn’t be surprised, but he’d still hoped for a short trip and quick access to his great-aunt’s will. The sharks waiting on his gambling debts were not patient men. Still, he knew that the only way to finish something was to start it.

“Okay, then you don’t need to write down a departure date for me yet. Guess I’ll let you know when I know.”

The clerk smiled broadly. “I’m sure you will, sir.”

Great-Aunt Bellette’s rooms felt cozier than Emer had expected. Something about her cerulean tea kettle and intricate, hand-woven doilies seemed familiar, almost like he had visited her home before. Framed photos of their family claimed all available counter space, ranging from a picture of a Dowdle reunion five years ago in Estes Park to worn black-and-white photographs from a few generations prior. If he squinted hard enough, Emer could almost see traces of himself in those stern-faced ancestors, and he smiled a little when he recognized landmarks on Deemer’s Ridge Main Street in some of the images as well.

Everything was so tidy that Emer almost didn’t notice the cat. He initially mistook it for a ceramic figurine, both because it was curled into such a still ball and because it had one green eye and one gold. Emer nearly yelped when the calico winked at him, but the welcoming purr that followed soon settled him back into his skin.

“Hey, little thing,” Emer drawled as he slowly extended a hand to the cat. “Between you and me, that clerk seems like more of a dog person.”

It nosed his knuckles in greeting, and then it issued a tender mewl Emer recognized as hunger. The park ranger nodded and started poking around the beige 90s kitchenette for some tinned food. “Maybe you can hitch a ride back home with me. Bet you’d like Colorado all right. And I know a thing or two about ferocious cats such as yourself.”

The calico emitted a chirp that sounded strangely like a laugh to Emer. A little smile darted across his face, temporarily making Emer forget about the urgent matter of finding out just how much money his great-aunt had left him. A few days here might do me some good, Emer conceded. And besides, he knew his debtors wouldn’t track him here. No one seemed to come to Deemer’s Ridge.

When Emer finally located an old can of Friskies, he turned around to announce his triumphant find to the cat, only to see that it had disappeared. Just in case, he set the can on the counter so he would be ready if the calico decided to return. 

With a shrug, he resumed his first sweep. Although he wasn’t sure where his great-aunt kept her will, her organization made him feel increasingly confident that he would find it in some intuitive place. After going through every neatly labeled file on his great-aunt’s desk and coming up empty, Emer finally stumbled upon a locked drawer. Something about the lack of dust and the signs of wear on the lock told him that he’d found the jackpot. He tried every key on Bellette’s massive ring that the clerk had given him, but none of them freed the drawer. Frustration soon gave way to exhaustion. Light’ll be better in the morning, he reasoned as his movements slowed. And worst case, I’ll just bust it open.

Although he needed the money, at the moment, Emer needed sleep more. A glass of water and a Valium later, he got what he wanted.

Around 3am, the high-pitched screeches of a runaway train screamed through Emer’s head, rousing him from fitful slumber. Confusion flooded him first; Emer hadn’t been anywhere near a train since he was a kid, riding the Narrow Gauge Railroad in Durango with his own little wooden whistle. Then he tried to shake it off. Don’t fall apart like Ma did, he scolded himself as he thrust his head back into the pillow. Like so many of his family members, his mom hadn’t been well at the end. That trend seemed hereditary, although Emer had thus far been lucky enough to avoid the imagined sights and sounds that had plagued many a Dowdle. But it was unfortunately common for his blood to die young, save for Great-Aunt Bellette. At least one of us escaped the family curse, Emer thought with a sigh. 

A flicker along the windowsill drew his gaze, and once again, he saw one green eye and one gold peering back at him. “There you are, little thing. Can’t sleep, either?”

The calico tilted its head at him and then turned to look out the window. Emer followed its line of sight, and he soon saw a faint red light glowing in the distance. No matter how hard he tried to focus his vision, he couldn’t make out what it was, but the cat remained transfixed. 

That was when Emer noticed a distinctive little key dangling from the cat’s collar.

Just as Emer threw himself up out of bed, the cat darted through an opening in the window and began hopping down to the first floor. “Hey! Get back here with Bellette’s key!”

After throwing on a baggy gray sweatshirt, Emer hurried down the stairs. As he sprinted through the lobby, he glanced around for the clerk, but Rowen was nowhere in sight. Emer shrugged and continued on into the night. Although he quickly lost sight of the cat, he still heard the pitter-patter of nimble paws on sand and followed it as best he could. Emer was so focused on tracking the key-carrying calico that he didn’t notice the red light he had seen through the window growing brighter with every step.

Emer didn’t stop until the cat stopped, and by then, they were in the middle of a municipal park that had seen better days. Two chipped pony spring riders bobbed in the wind, dancing on their own to some unheard melody. The red light belonged to a streetlamp that flickered every few seconds, threatening to die in the face of the slightest surge. Emer shuddered as photos he’d seen of post-disaster Chernobyl jumped to the front of his mind.

The rest of the world fell away when Emer noticed that the cat was sitting on the upward end of a wooden seesaw, yet the flimsy old plank didn’t sink under the cat’s weight. This pointed absence of physics made Emer feel strangely weightless, like the only way he could remain under gravity’s control was by lowering the seesaw into its proper place. But before he could reach the calico to investigate, he stumbled on a stone marker on the ground. He blinked a few times, willing his eyes to adjust to the odd light, and then he was able to read the cracked engraving beneath his feet:

April 3, 1674: on this spot, 7 conquistadors and 946 members of various indigenous peoples perished in Spain’s unending quest for gold.

Some instinct prompted Emer to jump backward, as if standing on the marker had stung his foot. It’s nothing, he willed himself to believe, closing his eyes and shaking his head. Just old news and bad blood. Get the cat. Get the key! 

But, when he opened his eyes, Emer saw that the cat was no longer looking at him, but past him. He swallowed hard, frozen in place as he pondered whether he should turn or lunge for the calico while it was distracted by whatever horrors were behind him. I know that key opens Bellette’s drawer. I know that’s where I’ll find the will. Nothing else matters. Nothing else is real. Nothing else is—

Try as he might to shut out the strange night, Emer could not ignore the hand that suddenly and firmly grabbed his shoulder. The piercing grip jolted him into awareness, and when he finally looked behind at its source, he wished he hadn’t. Figures shrouded in spectral shadow had gathered behind him as far as the eye could see, their haggard faces awash in a sea of contorted anguish. Shapes that resembled children stood among them, and every single pair of milky eyes was fixed squarely on him.

“The blood will tell,” moaned the figure with the grip of the grave. 

Emer’s voice disappeared into his throat as he watched the figure point to the ground. He managed to will his neck to allow him to look down, at which point he saw that the earth was red, red, red. A thousand fingertips emerged from the crimson dirt, clawing at his shoes with long, dirty fingernails that caught on his laces.

It was only the memory of Jessamyn’s heart-shaped face that enabled Emer to wrestle out of the wraith’s rigor grasp. He swept his gaze over the luminescent crowd, then the cat, and then back to the figures. “You don’t get it. I need that key,” Emer panted. “You got the wrong guy. I’m nobody! I just need to take what’s mine and make everything right.”

The figure shook its head with the weariness of habitual disappointment. “Again. The choice is made. The blood will always tell.” 

Then, they all began to shamble toward him.

Survival instincts finally kickstarted within Emer. He backed away, and as they quickened their pace, so did he. His legs carried him swiftly, as they had loyally done after the countless hours he’d spent on the treadmill, and so he soon put some distance between them. 

But then Emer caught sight of the cat again.

I have to try. 

The cat was only a few paces away. 

I need that money. 

Just a few more steps and his gambling debts would be washed away. 

Everything will be like before. Better

He and Jez could start over. A clean slate.

We need it. Our baby girl does

His hand was mere inches from closing around Bellette’s key on the calico’s collar when the familiar cry of a runaway train blazed through his ears. When Emer looked up from the key, his eyes widened as he gazed into the blinding headlights of a steam engine barreling straight for him.

The last place Missy Dowdle wanted to be was Deemer’s Ridge. Her deadbeat dad had abandoned her before she was born, saddling her mom with so much debt that she had made Missy swear to never set foot in Utah. Yet here she was, walking in the footsteps of a selfish man she never knew so she could scrounge up some cash to pay off her student loans. He had to leave me something, right? 

Whatever she was owed, Missy was sure she’d find it in Deemer’s Ridge. Certainty only grew in her heart when she opened the front door to the only hotel in town, which her dad supposedly had owned. 

The moment she stepped inside, a well-dressed clerk greeted her with a warm, strangely familiar smile. “You must be Mr. Emer’s girl. Missy, isn’t it?”

She nodded, slightly unnerved but too desperate to care. The clerk grinned even harder.

“How nice. There should always be a Dowdle in Deemer’s Ridge.”

Alexandra M. Lucas is a Game Writer at EA-Ridgeline Games. She won the GDC Game Narrative Review Platinum Award twice, and she has delivered pop culture presentations at GDC, PAX Dev, GeekGirlCon, and Wellesley College. She won the 2022 Dark Sire Award for Psychological Realism for “In the Deep“, originally featured in our Spring Issue: Alter Ego; her story, “The Lighthouse Remains,” was also a 2022 Gothic finalist. Alexandra won a 2020 Sue C. Boynton Poetry Merit Award for “Leftover,” and her prompts piece, “Sleeping Beauty,” was published in the Village Books 2022 Writers’ Corner Anthology. Her short stories have appeared in Coffin Bell Journal and Whatcom WRITES.

Including “In the Deep”, Alexandra’s work has been featured in all HamLit season and solstice issues: “The Other Side” in Winter Issue: No Man’s Land, “With You” in Summer Issue: Second Place, “Harmony” in Fall Issue: Golden Age, and “Soldier’s Like Us” in Summer Solstice: Life Expectancy.

<<< previousnext >>>

return to Winter Solstice Issue