Red Bill’s Blood Quest

Red Bill’s Blood Quest

Red Bill’s Blood Quest 1920 1440 Joshua Storrs

Heather and Sloane sat with their backs against the side of a gas station mini-mart on the edge of the plains, waiting for the mechanic to bring them the diagnosis. Heather’s portable radio sat between them, oscillating between two stations, the sound fading in from one and out through the other.

One of them nudged the radio, and the tuning resolved into a numbers station. A woman was reading from a phone book. They knew her from the sound of her voice and the rhythm of the numbers. Heather heard the cigarette and the henna tattoos and the bandana holding her hair back. Sloane could hear the incense and the dreamcatchers and the books on mythology scattered throughout the room behind her. If he’d been listening, the mechanic would have heard the cabin she lived in, resting beneath a wind farm whose turbines hadn’t turned in years, but whose aircraft lights still blinked in unison.

The gas station’s fluorescents flickered to meet the approaching darkness. Out from the garage came the mechanic, wiping his hands on his coveralls. His face was the last part of him to come into the light. His nametag said “Harlan.” The prognosis wasn’t good, he told them. The engine was shot.

“There’s a charter bus comes through here about once a week.” He mumbled as he placed a cigarette between his lips. “It can take you back. Should turn up in a day or two. You’re welcome to camp in the picnic area, so long as you’re tidy.”

Sloane stood up to stretch and took a drag from Harlan’s cigarette. Heather stayed seated and listened to a few more phone numbers.

“We’ll sleep here,” said Heather. Sloane handed the mechanic his cigarette. “But tomorrow I think we’ll keep going.”

“I wouldn’t,” said Harlan.

“We packed for hiking.”

“You know about what’s been going on?”

Heather looked at him and shook her head.

“Folks have been losing livestock, finding dead things on the plains. Couple bodies have turned up. We think it’s Red Bill’s awake. Come down from his perch for a blood quest.”

“What does that mean? He wants blood?”

Harlan shrugged. “That’s just what they call it here, trying to make sense of it, but nobody’s ever gotten the chance to ask him directly, you get me? What we know is to hunker down till he goes back to sleep. Not the time for tourism. So again, I suggest you camp here till that bus comes.”

Heather blinked at him. “Thank you for the offer.”

“You’re not hearing me,” said Harlan. “The people here are worried about other things. They don’t have time for all you radio junkies right now.”

“I’ve been listening to this place since I was a kid. I need to be here.”

Harlan exhaled. “Look, lots of you come through here. You’re probably safe if you have a vehicle, but not on foot. Not with what’s happening.”

“We have friends near here.”

“Who?”

“The Giraffe and the Mammoth.”

Harlan took another drag and scuffed his boots on the concrete.

“They are not your friends. And if they are, they can’t protect you. They’re just as much a target as anyone. They’ve got blood too.”

Heather fingered the radio until the voice was silent. “We’ll need the battery out of the Jeep.”

Sloane leaned towards the mechanic and sniffed.

“Is something wrong with her?” asked Harlan.

“She’s a missing person,” Heather said, then followed Sloane into the grass.

Heather and Sloane pitched their tent next to a bulletin board for visitors. It had maps and notices and warnings. Mounted to one corner was a pamphlet tray that read, “Free hiking maps. Take one!” The tray was empty.

Sitting on the picnic bench was a man in a straw hat with a large rabbit perched on his knee. He didn’t move or respond to the two of them. He just breathed. The rabbit reminded Heather of Amblin’ Jack, and she wondered if this could be Jack himself. But Amblin’ Jack was said to sit in the badlands of the plains, and play his accordion to the rabbits living in the rocks. But this man didn’t have an accordion, and he was on a picnic bench.

 

###

Heather dreamed about the things in her backpack. She dreamed that her portable ham radio was her grandpa, teaching her how to find the frequencies between frequencies. She turned it on and his voice came out the way it would when he tinkered over his work table, rambling—sometimes about his years as a long-haul trucker, sometimes about nothing, but sometimes—and this is what she really listened for—about the radio plains.

She dreamed about children’s book of folk tales that she had almost packed, but didn’t because she was afraid of losing it. It was the only book of plains mythology she ever found. She had stolen it from the library and read it until the corners frayed. The stories were old, but they were the bedrock of her obsession.

She dreamed of the Ziploc bag at the bottom of her sleeping bag that held the picture of her grandpa standing next to her grandmother, whom Heather had never met.

“Sometimes people get lost,” came Grandpa’s voice from the radio. “Sometimes they just wander off. You might hear from them for a while. They might keep in touch. But after long enough, the only thing you hear about them is stories passed along the chain enough times they’re not true anymore.”

Heather dreamed about her notebook, her personal sequel to the children’s stories. With her radio equipment, she found the stations that told the stories. They were deeper and richer in detail than those in the storybook, and there were more of them. She wrote them all down. More than half of the stories in the notebook came from a pair of astrologers called the Giraffe and the Mammoth. The knew the stories of the night sky, and they could see the future.

“It took me a long time to accept your grandmother wasn’t coming back,” said Grandpa’s voice from the radio. “But I still wish I knew if she was lost, or if she’d just wandered off.”

###

Solitary trees rose sporadically from the grass and rolling hills, no more than two or three within any given square mile. To Heather they looked like a field of radio towers. To Sloane they looked like a search party: spread out, policing the earth, not really expecting to find anything. The grass turned gold in the sunset, and the air above the plains shimmered like a waiting fire.

They found the Giraffe and the Mammoth on a hill in the shade of a cottonwood. The Giraffe was sobbing to herself and the Mammoth was dead. At the base of the tree was an old shed, half eaten by vegetation.

The scene seemed to rise out of the landscape as Heather and Sloane climbed the hill. The tree bristled in the wind. As it swayed, the shed beneath it complained in groans and creaks. The Giraffe raised her head and watched them approach.

“Please,” she said. “Not right now.” The Giraffe looked nothing like the voice she had spoken to on the radio.

Sloane ran the rest of the way when she saw the Mammoth’s body. The grass around him was brown and sticky and Sloane’s jeans grew soaked as she knelt there.

“Don’t touch him!” said the Giraffe.

Sloan’s hands were in the Mammoth’s fur. “He’s warm,” she said.

“Don’t touch him!”

“He’s getting warmer.”

“Red Bill,” said Heather, putting the pieces together.

“I swear to god if you don’t… If you don’t,”

Remembering herself, Sloane stood up and stepped back. “I’m sorry,” she said, dipping her head. “I’m sorry.”

“Who the fuck do you think you are?”

“It’s okay,” said Heather, “It’s us.”

The Giraffe snapped to face Heather. “And who the hell are you?”

“It’s,” Heather paused, confused. “It’s Heather. That’s Sloane and I’m Heather.”

The Giraffe shook her head and squinted.

“We talked on the radio. We told you we were coming.”

The Giraffe’s whole body slackened, naked and tired.

“Do you know how many of you we talk to?” she said, speaking calmly, as if reciting bad news.

“I’m so sorry about… about Mammoth.”

“His name was Paul, and he didn’t know you either. We just talk to you people because it’s something to do.” The Giraffe looked back at the Mammoth. “But right now we’ve got bigger problems. I wish you’d all go home.”

“It wasn’t us, was it? I mean, we’re not the reason Red Bill’s awake.”

The Giraffe, whose name was Melissa, breathed deep, exhaling in a shudder.

“Just get in the shed. It’s not safe out here.”

Heather moved for the shed, but Sloane stayed a moment longer.

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “But we just need to find a quiet place, then we can leave.”

Melissa nodded, not taking her eyes off Paul. “There’s an empty town,” she said. “To the south, on the highway. Its name is Coward.”

Sloane dipped her gaze. “Thank you.”

Sloane followed Heather into the shed. They could hear Melissa outside, sometimes breathing, sometimes sobbing, sometimes talking to Paul about the day and the weather and the future.

“It was getting warmer,” said Sloane. “Paul’s body.”

“You don’t think it’s because of us, do you?” said Heather. “Red Bill, I mean.”

“People show up here every day. I don’t think it’s us.”

“But what if it is?” The idea was lodged in Heather’s head.

“I don’t know,” said Sloane. “I think maybe that’s a selfish question.”

They’d met some days ago on the road. Sloane was hitchhiking and Heather had picked her up. She needed to reach the radio plains so she could stop being a missing person. Heather offered to help.

Extending her radio’s antenna and lowering the volume, Heather dialed into some old satellites and listened to them talking to each other in machine language as she closed her eyes and quietly left the planet.

###

Sloane dreamed about every rest stop she had ever visited. Some floated on islands between interstate lanes; others had parking lots on either side of the highway, connected by skybridges where she could stretch her legs. Her favorites were those attached to a trail or a scenic overlook.

She dreamed of the last rest stop she’d ever drive to. In the dream it was bigger, gleaming with significance. She dreamed of the empty lot where her car had finally come to rest, where she had gathered her things in a day-bag that she would later trade for an old army rucksack. Her company gas card had been deactivated. Her manager had left his last voicemail.

Sloane dreamed of the rest area near the tracks where she hopped her first freight train. She rested at a hobo campsite where traveling kids told each other stories about missing people, about the dangers of wandering off the edge of the map.

Sloane barely spoke to anyone. She always traveled alone, and isolated herself from companionship. She turned her attention to self-reflection, and kept it there for a long time, trying to understand why she felt the way she did—like her vision was fogged and her voice was muffled. An isolating white noise faded in over everything, like a barrier between her and other people, and the longer she traveled like this, the louder it became.

Then she dreamed of weeks spent hitchhiking, trying to go back, but getting no closer. Her rides abandoned her at rest stop after rest stop. She dreamed about the traveling kids warning her against wandering too far off the edge of the map. She had become a missing person, trapped in the places between places.

But the ham radios in truckers’ cabs sometimes told her stories of the radio plains. Of the characters who lived there, and the spells they knew.

She dreamed of the last rest area. Her ride left without a word. The young woman who picked her up next said her name was Heather, that she was on the way to the plains, and that she knew how to help. She seemed excited to have company.

###

It was still night when they woke. An orange glow flickered through the cracks between the planks of the shed. Heather and Sloane roused themselves, both knowing they would not be able to fall back to sleep.

Outside, Paul’s body was burning. Sparks from the fire arced through the air and landed in the grass nearby. They reminded Heather of droplets from her grandpa’s soldering iron. Sloane hoped one might light the grass and burn a path all the way out of sight. Melissa was gone.

Heather and Sloane continued south. They took turns carrying the battery from the Jeep. Ahead of them, the hills flattened out and they could see the curve of a river like a snake in the grass. The wind drowned out the sound of their feet on the grass, but Sloane’s voice was clear.

“What’ll you do after…?” she said.

“Probably wander a while. Explore. Listen to the stations. I might find a place to live and read into the radio. Maybe from a phone book or something.”

“You won’t go back?”

“I don’t know,” said Heather. “I spent all my time at home thinking about coming here. I guess I wasn’t planning on going back.”

“What if the blood quest doesn’t end?”

Heather could hear the water now. The shape of the hills and the surface of the river made acoustic miracles. She felt she could hear something floating towards them, turning the same bend over and over as the sound echoed back and forth.

“We should follow the river,” said Heather.

“Is it going the right way?”

“There’s supposed to be someone called the Riverman.” Heather closed her eyes and recited, “His route is routine and his jokes are dry. There are places he can take you and places he won’t. When you see his raft, he will greet you three times, and you must ignore him twice.”

Sloane listened to Heather recite the stories like flash cards and asked, “Do we need him?”

Heather looked at her as if just remembering she was there with her own goals. “He can take me, us, where we need to go.”

It was earlier than it felt, as the sky had yet to lighten. The sky was clear, and the grass reflected enough starlight that they didn’t need flashlights. Heather looked up as they walked. The stars were the same, but the fables of the plains used different constellations. The Giraffe and the Mammoth had known them all. Heather tried not to think about how she could never learn from them now.

At the river’s edge, they filled their canteens and followed the water. A raft passed them, but the only people on it were tourists, heading for home. As the raft drifted away, Sloane called a question, and the answer echoed back across the water.

“Do you know a place called Coward?”

“Yes. There’s a boat launch up river. Follow the dirt road.”

###

At the boat launch they rested, letting their feet dangle in the water between the reeds. Heather tuned to the numbers station she’d found earlier, but the woman had stopped reading and the station was silent. She tuned instead to railway channels, where train engineers spoke in code. They were sending a diesel engine to intercept some runaway freight. Heather couldn’t understand them, but Sloane knew the language.

Heather closed her eyes and heard people she knew in the voices of the engineers. She heard her grandpa spending his retirement surrounded by radio equipment, looking for his missing person, Heather’s grandmother, and never finding her. She heard the executor of her grandpa’s will, telling her about the portable ham radio she was to inherit.

The dirt road from the launch wound up the riverbank to a two-lane highway. A few rotting farm houses flanked it. A sign told them that Coward had a population of seventy-six, but the sign was rotting too. Another road led uphill, away from the highway, and from the crest they could see a small huddle of buildings. Cracks had split the edges of the road and weeds were just beginning to show themselves. It was a place in transition—clearly in disrepair, but not yet overgrown.

As they climbed, Sloane felt the white noise around her go quiet, like an old lightbulb that titters for days until finally going dark.

“Do you feel that?” she said.

“What?” said Heather. “Oh, I guess. Yes.”

“Have you done this before?”

“No,” said Heather, returning to herself. “But I know what to do.” It was good, she thought, to have someone who wanted her there.

All of Coward fit along Main Street and one cross-street called South Main. There were more collapsed houses, a gas station, and a bar. A radio tower rose from behind the bar, no more than three stories high. It was dead like the town, its aircraft lights dark.

The bar was the center of the quiet place. The sign over the entrance called the place Weekender’s. In some repurposed back room was a sound booth for a radio station: the only reason to come to Coward besides gasoline.

Heather’s radio picked up nothing. Like a hungry ghost, the dead tower sent out a cancelling signal that put Coward in a bubble. Inside it, all frequencies were quiet.

“Are you sure about this?” Heather asked.

Sloane nodded.

“I’ve liked having company.”

Sloane let this hang in the air for a moment.

“I’m tired of being a missing person. I thought I could learn more about myself by being by myself for a while. But I think I need people. Some people. So I think I’m done now. It’s nothing personal.” Sloane met Heathers eyes. “And this is not my place. It has something I need, but I’m still just passing through.”

Heather nodded. Sloane kept talking.

“You’ve been here now. You’ve heard the stations. You’ve met the people. You’re helping a missing person go home. That’s more than most tourists can say. Now you can go home, or you can keep looking for whatever you think you need.”

“Wait here,” said Heather.

Sloane pulled a chair from one of the tables and sat in the center of the silence. Heather took her radio, the battery, and a toolkit from her pack. She carried her equipment with one hand and climbed the tower with the other.

At the top, she went to work. Her skill came less from her worship of the plains and more from her years of fooling with radios, but what she did now felt more like ritual than expertise. This was not her workshop back home, with her ham radio and cheap headphones. This was the place between places, where the stations wandered.

Heather worked the dials. She found the outline of Sloane with her instruments, put her into the tower, and introduced the tower to the battery. The silence vanished as the quiet place collapsed, and as Heather clung to the bars of the tower, Sloane became frequency, broadcast in all directions. She would arc across and beyond the plains, reaching for any connection she could find.

From her perch, Heather could see a light on the horizon. She thought it was the sunrise, but realized it was fire. She saw other fires dotting the plains all around her—more of Red Bill’s victims, glittering like jewels. If Sloane had been there, she would have seen people dying in their homes, felt the empty space they left behind. But it was just Heather now, perched on the metal frame. The lights of the tower pulsed. Sloane was gone.

###

If Heather had given Sloane’s words time to sink in, she might have stopped in Coward for the night. She might have felt the empty space beside her where Sloane had once been. The next morning she might have turned back, returning home by charter bus, having accomplished something her grandpa could not. But all of this hadn’t occurred to her, so she kept going. Eventually, she came to an empty cabin beneath a wind farm. A floating plane of aircraft lights flashed in unison overhead.

As she approached, she caught movement above. It passed across her peripheral vision, flying low with the wind. The creature came to rest atop the cabin, just above the door. His feathers were black and his beak was red and his eye was like the sun.

Heather froze. He was about the height of her forearm. She waited for movement, but he only watched, his head twitching to different angles. She took a step forward.

“Errant signal” he said, drawing the R out into a growl.

In her chest, some animal instinct demanded she run, screamed for flight, but there was nowhere to go. Only flat, open grassland. She took another step towards the shelter of the cabin.

“This house is empty,” he said “Is it yours?”

Heather considered. Eyeing the door, avoiding his gaze.

“It could be,” she said.

“There are things inside it. Are they your things?”

“I can make them mine,” Heather said, and knew then that she and Sloane did not wake him. He was a part of the land. An infrequent natural disaster for those who belonged here.

“Make them yoouurrs,” Red Bill repeated, letting the last word click in his throat. He flicked his head to one side, then the other, appraising her with each eye. The air smelled of decision, though Heather could not tell whose. Was this how he appeared to his victims—as a choice? Had he appeared to the cabin’s previous resident in the same way? Is that why they’d left? But as she tried to understand Red Bill, the only thing that grew clearer was the scope of her ignorance. It was in the way the air bristled when he spoke.

“Tonight has been long,” he said. “I have fed well, and all have seen my fires.”

Red Bill ruffled his feathers, and the plains with him.

“But I could set one more. Perhaps then you would feel a part of this place.”

Heather rested her fingers on the door and closed her eyes, feeling the wood, but not opening it. She tried to make herself warmer, tried to believe that this choice belonged to her. When she opened her eyes, Red Bill’s feathers were growing out of the turbines and the grass and the wood of the door.  All was feathers and all smelled of wind and ash and flight. Was this the last thing the Mammoth had seen? I could still move, she thought, duck inside and escape, but she was so drunk on the stories of those who lived and died on the plains that survival was no longer her strongest impulse. She looked up into Red Bill’s eye and saw herself as one of his fires, rising to the stars for all to see. She took her hand away from the door and stepped back.

Red Bill opened his beak wide and spoke: a single word which lingered in the grass.

“Preeetennndeerrr.”

The feathers faded back into grass. The feathers shrunk back into the turbines. The feathers vanished into the cabin. As they disappeared, so did the warmth.

Heather threw her hands out, making herself an easier target. Red Bill ruffled his feathers. She screamed as if to provoke him, screamed to vent the tension that had been building since Harlan told her to go home, since Melissa hadn’t known her, since Sloane left. But her scream only startled Red Bill into flight, and Heather soon lost sight of him against the night sky.

Her shoulders slumped. She felt the coldness of the air in her lungs, and tried to be thankful that she was still breathing. Not this time, she reasoned, desperately rearranging her thoughts. The blood quest must be over. He’d fed enough, gone back to sleep. She wasn’t needed. Next time, she thought. She would stay until then. Until Red Bill woke and spread his fires again. She would have a chance to settle in. To acclimate. Maybe she would tell her story over the radio, to anyone who tuned in to listen, another part of this place, floating on the surface of the plains.

Heather pressed her hand against the door, and felt the deadbolt holding it closed.

Header photograph © Andrew Hall.

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