“Empty Places,”

Fiction by Owen Drew

The Paiute and the Apache never went out onto Kiwa Mesa. The legends said it was a haunted place, a place where evil winds would gather before they set out to roam the earth. 

Tommy Standing Horse told me his grandmother used to say that if a bad man went out on the mesa he’d come back evil, but if an evil man went out on the mesa he’d come back walking alongside the devil. Tommy said his grandmother told him that the devil would feed off that evil man, rob his soul, and become stronger, become real, come through into our world. 

Tommy told me there are pockets where evil can gather. In the empty places. 

He said he met the devil once. Up in northern Colorado. On the side of the highway, along a lonely stretch, where the road twisted down from the mountains and cut straight through the high desert like a razor. This was right before the four college kids picked him up hitchhiking. Right before he murdered them and buried their dismembered bodies in the river wash. 

After that he said the devil didn’t need him anymore, he’d been drained of his evil, sucked dry, so the devil disappeared into the wind and went back to one of the empty places, Tommy tells me there’s lots of places where devils gather out there, the lonely corners of deserts, empty forests, the rundown sections of towns and cities. The devil’s closer than we think he says.

Tommy Standing Horse tells me he can feel the devil in the wind, in the unseen hand that pushes the tumbleweeds down back roads, in the breeze that shudders the leaves of just a few trees while the rest of the forest is still, in the small spirals of dust that kick up discarded papers in the narrow back alleyways of cities.

Tommy tells me he knows a lot about the wind. He’s had plenty of time to read about it on death row, he says with a smile. But he’s not worried about the devil anymore, Tommy tells me he’s soulless and already dead, and soon I will be too. 

I write notes as Tommy talks, it’s my job as a criminal psychologist for the Nevada State Department of Corrections. Tommy is one of my patients, and I see him for 30 minutes every week. The guards bring him over from D Block and shackle him to a chair in my office. I sit behind my desk, he sits chained in his chair. Sometimes it will take a while for him to get started and he’ll just sit staring out the window, other times he’ll start talking right away, and many times during our sessions I’m happy for the space between us. 

Tommy tells me stories about the wind. He tells me Ethiopian tribesmen would chase the wind, stabbing at it with their spears, and he tells me the Inuit people would pour water on a fire and then crush the steam rising from it with stones, or they would sometimes shoot their rifles at the wind as it blew in across the empty Arctic expanses. He tells me that when the Santa Ana winds begin to blow each year in California, there’s an increase in suicides and playground fights. 

He says people get agitated when it’s windy. It’s in our DNA from way back when we were roaming the savannas of Africa, when we were a food source for the animals with claws and teeth. He tells me on windy days you can’t hear a predator sneaking up on you. And then he talks about the prison we’re in. He asks me why they’d built a maximum security prison in the middle of a mesa that his people avoided for centuries. “One of the empty places,” he says. He tells me the mountains surrounding the mesa are filled with signs, petroglyphs, and pictographs in the rocks warning of the evil. Ancient rock drawings of creatures shaped like men with long necks, sinewy arms and claws.  

And then he tells me about his fellow inmates, the murderers, the rapists, and the child molesters. All of that evil gathered in one place. And then he says the devils are coming to feed. He tells me they’ll come on the back of the wind, inside the dust storm. And the sand will choke the generators and the power will go out, the dust storm will come and everything will go dark, darker than anyone could ever imagine. He trembles when he tells me this and I can see the sweat on his forehead, but I can’t tell if he’s excited or afraid. And then he says the devils will slide up the walls, and over the razor wire and through the bars of the cells. And when the devils suck dry the souls of all those murderers and rapists and child molesters the devils will become stronger, become so real that you’ll be able to touch them. Feel the black scales of their skin.

I let Tommy talk. He looks toward the window and asks me if I’ve ever seen a dust devil, those small spirals of wind moving across a desert kicking up sand and bits of brush. He tells me he used to see dust devils in the valleys of Afghanistan and the deserts of Iraq. He says he once saw one in a market after a suicide bombing. Watched it slowly swirl away, but nobody noticed it. And then he tells me people don’t take notice of their surroundings anymore. He says in his grandmother’s day people took notice of everything around them, they took notice of the clouds, and the sun, and the moon. They took notice of the wind. 

Tommy closes his eyes and we sit in silence for a moment. It seems as if he’s straining to listen to something, but there’s just the low hum of the air conditioning. Then he looks to the window again and he asks me if I notice the signs. He asks if I feel the devil on the wind when I walk to my car in the parking lot at night. Do I notice the chill? Do I notice that birds never fly over the mesa? He asked me if I’ve ever seen a coyote, or a rabbit or a snake on my 12-mile ride from the prison out to the highway. He says I should take notice of these things. He tells me that the four college kids who picked him up hitchhiking didn’t take notice of things. They didn’t take notice of the dead look in his eyes, or listen to his shallow breathing, they didn’t take notice of the long serrated knife he’d had taped up along his forearm under his sleeve. 

They didn’t take notice that he wasn’t human. 

When our session ends he asks me to look out over the mesa, over the prison walls, and the razor wire, out beyond the miles of empty desert, to the low black mountains rising on the horizon. Then he asks me to take notice of the dark clouds starting to form. He asks me to watch how they ripple and bend.

When the guards come to take Tommy away I pretend to look at my notes as they unshackle him from his chair. The truth is I don’t like looking at Tommy and his dark dead eyes. 

When they take Tommy away, I close my notebook and listen to the shuffle of his leg irons as he’s led down the hallway back to his cell. After the mechanical gate closes at the end of the hall I realize I’ve been holding my breath. I go to the window and watch the storm out on edge of the mesa. The sun is setting, and the clouds are black. They seem to be reaching up toward the sky like fingers trying to strangle the light.  

And then far off in the corner of the desert I notice a small spiral of dust drifting in from the mountains toward the prison. And then it is joined by another, and then another. 

Owen Drew, a summer resident of Montauk, is a software designer.