Raquel’s birthday trip to the Grand Canyon felt more like a funeral march. The bus tour hadn’t been cancelled, but it should have been; it was pointless due to the freak rainstorm. Their guide rambled on about things that no one could even see due to the weather—things that might as well be on a different planet. He blabbed about history and animal species and mesquite trees and juniper trees—which he kept calling “Jupiter trees”; Raquel corrected him each time under her breath. To make matters worse, her aunt kept wandering away from the group to cough up gunk and spit loudly into the forest. The only good thing to come of the trip was the silver ring her aunt bought her at the pawn section of the gift shop. But even that couldn’t salvage the murky scenery—the most accurate conclusion to a rotten first year of high school.
All her ex-friends had taken a trip together out to the Grand Canyon early in the summer, and had flooded social media with their stunning photos with cute boys. In their hiking gear and sparkling smiles, they had stricken yoga poses and taken adorable selfies with squirrels. Instead, Raquel and her quirky aunt were shuffling on and off buses. Raquel’s mother hadn’t been able to join her because work wouldn’t allow it. And she couldn’t miss any hours. They’d already been late on rent three months too many. So instead, she had dropped Raquel off with her aunt, a reclusive veterinarian who lived somewhere near the Canyon. The most Raquel and her aunt had in common was their tendency to dye their hair. Monica’s was currently a cherry red and Raquel’s a deep mossy green.
So sad. Her ex-friends’ words echoed in her head. So sad how you’re spending all summer getting even more ugly and boring. You couldn’t even afford to go anywhere. She glared out at the billows of gray clouds currently suffocating the last week of her summer. So sad.
By the time the tour had reached its sixth and final scenic view, Raquel could no longer hold her tongue.
“Auntie Monica.” Her aunt turned toward her, still flipping through a brochure and itching the back of her head as if she had bugs. “Look how bad this fog is,” Raquel whined. “I can’t see anything. I can’t even see my ring anymore if I hold my arm out like this. Watch.” And she flung her arm straight forward and accidentally hit an elderly lady in the shoulder.
The old woman was as sturdy as the Canyon walls themselves. As Raquel apologized profusely, the woman simply looked her up and down, lips pulled back in a sneer. Her eyes sharpened upon sight of Raquel’s ring. She pointed at the silver band.
“This ring is older than you,” the stranger said, as plainly as if she were stating the time. “It has never left the Canyon.”
Dumbfounded with embarrassment, Raquel stepped behind her aunt. Her stomach tugged in one direction with shock and another with indignation. She couldn’t help feeling the smallest bit of relief when the fog swallowed the old woman whole. Her aunt hugged her around the shoulders and said something about their dinner plans.
The viewpoint was a good five miles from the village and all its lodges, and the only vehicles that could access that route were the tour buses and emergency vehicles. Yet the old woman was absent on the return ride.
“God, I’m so horrified we’ll bump into her at the restaurant or something,” Raquel mumbled into her aunt’s shoulder on their return bus ride. “So creepy.”
“As long as she isn’t our waitress,” her aunt said dryly, “I’m sure we’ll survive. Well, pretty sure.” She continued flipping through the chunky book she’d purchased as soon as they’d arrived at the park that afternoon. 99 Ways to Die in the Grand Canyon. A round red sticker blared “CLEARANCE.”
“Guess what. I’ve been thinking about my back-to-school fashion. And there was a cute pair of earrings back at that shop that would’ve matched my new ring,” Raquel said. “$19.99.” She tried to say this as casually as possible, but knew that her aunt wouldn’t take the bait. The ring and the book would likely be the only purchases this weekend.
“Oh yeah? $19.99?” As proud as a boy scout with a dead animal, Monica held up her book. “This was $9.99.”
Raquel groaned and swiped her phone awake. The signal had been spotty since they had arrived in the National Park. Not that she had any friends to communicate with. Besides, what would she say? Went to see the sunset and saw nothing. Once I get Wi-fi, I’m going to Google how to help my aunt stop itching her head.
She aimed the eye of the phone out the half-fogged window. Monica had made sure to get them canyon-side bus seats, as if the view would magically clear up. She kept the phone pointed at the unseen landmark the entire ride back. While taking a photo was useless, she started recording. The sad trail of gray rain might make for a nice sarcastic post later on.
Dinner was surprisingly good. Her aunt even let her order dessert—prickly pear cheesecake. As they ate, Monica regaled her with stories of dogs allergic to cats, cats allergic to down feathers, ferrets with extra ears, and the one time a celebrity had brought her Chihuahua in due to a cannabis overdose. The stories became more detailed with each Moscow Mule she ordered.
“Don’t even get me started on the science teacher’s cat. He must bring that poor thing in at least once a week. It’s always wild stuff that I have to research or call up some of my friends from veterinary school to ask about. I would take the cat away from him, or lie and say it died, but I really think it’s a different cat each time. He says it’s the same cat, and they seem to be really similar anyway, but he could just be cycling through cats. And it’s always a different problem. Won’t stop itching. Hallucinations. Seizures. Spitting up weird stuff.”
She paused to gulp down half her drink. Her purplish-red hair shone in the dim lighting of the lodge restaurant. Raquel thought she saw jagged scratch marks behind her bangs. “Anyway, this time, he said something about how this cat ate a new strain of catnip. Stronger. Like nicotine. It was so strong that even when his cat ate this grass and it was sitting in its belly, digesting, all the neighborhood cats went on the attack, trying to rip him open to get the catnip in his digestive system.” She shrugged. “Didn’t feel too bad for it this time, though. Darn thing bit me good,” she said, tugging back her sleeve to expose a swollen set of purple punctures on her wrist.
“This is a science teacher?” Raquel pushed the last bit of cheesecake around in the pink syrup. “Do you think he’s experimenting on cats? Why would he do that?”
“Did you know your mother’s allergic? Only one in our family allergic to cats. And I’m the only one allergic to men.” Monica chuckled at her own joke, then waved the waitress over for the bill.
Raquel considered opening up to Monica then. Considered telling her everything that had happened over the summer. How her boyfriend Nathan had dumped her for her classmate Courtney, the rich girl who drove her pearl-white car around all on her own without a license. How when she had confronted Nathan over text message. How he had told her he had felt so embarrassed the whole time he had been with Raquel. How his parents were doctors and Courtney’s family lived in a gated community and she was going to go to law school. We’re just nothing alike. You have no future. And Courtney had taken all Raquel’s friends with her. The more she tried to organize each piece of this pathetic saga in her head, the less she wanted to share it with her aunt.
She resolved to lie about the Canyon upon her return to school. She would say that she had dropped her phone over the edge and a beautiful stranger had offered to rescue it, never to return from the fog.
“Thanks for dinner, Auntie,” Raquel chimed as they walked along the rim trail back to their cabin. “It’s kind of nice hanging out with you.”
“Kind of nice hanging out with you too, kid.” Monica fished her phone out of her pocket. “Should we call your mom? Or text?”
“Ugh. Text.” Raquel kicked a pinecone off their path. “Wait. Are you getting signal up here?”
“Yeah. All us locals have Horizon. It’s the only coverage out here.” Monica’s eyes glazed over as she rapidly typed out a message. “Are you guys still on BZ&Z?”
Raquel sighed. “Yeah. And my phone is so old. Like, ancient. And of course, Mom doesn’t care. Even though there are so many awesome new models out there. With way better cameras.” Monica pocketed her phone as it jingled happily. “Thanks for texting her.”
“No problem. Come on,” Monica added as Raquel drifted towards the cabin. She itched her jaw. “We’re…going stargazing.”
“What? But Auntie, it’s so cloudy!”
“Not anymore. Monsoon storms don’t last long.” Monica pointed straight up and Raquel threw her head back.
The far edges of the sky still swirled with clouds, but a mass of black velvet and silver sparkles had spread its wings. “Oh, wow,” she whispered, genuinely smitten. “Do you think my phone can take a picture of this?”
“Unlikely. Come on, kid.” Monica beckoned Raquel back to the paved trail along the rim. She coughed and spat something into the Canyon. “The farther we get from the village lights, the brighter the stars will be.”
Raquel held her aunt’s hand, wary of floating away like a balloon as she kept her gaze focused upward. Just as Monica had said, the stars became clearer as they strayed from the village. The black revealed new dimensions—shimmering patches of dark blue and stripes of shadowy purple. She tried fruitlessly to take a photo. It was all just a black blur on her screen.
“Do you think the gift shop sells photos like this? I mean, the tour guide said a lot of photographers come out here, right?”
“Maybe. You know, we’re right under the Milky Way.” Monica traced something overhead. “There are laws in this area restricting how many lights we can have, and how bright they can be. Just so they don’t crowd out the stars. We discovered Pluto about an hour from here.”
Raquel smirked and tucked an emerald lock behind an ear. “Well, Pluto’s not a planet anymore, but I guess that’s cool.” She turned in a full circle to inspect their surroundings. The entire village, with its lodges and restaurants and gift shops, was far enough away for her to cover it up with her thumb. The tour guide had said if you can’t cover an elk with your thumb, you’re too close.
As she turned toward the Canyon, she suddenly felt dizzy. Some of the highways in their state had tunnels that had been blasted into mountains. Something the size of the moon must have blasted the Canyon open. It was an uneven crater, a ghost of land that used to be there—a gap between the bones of the earth. Something massive had bitten it open. Something wicked had hatched from it. There was no good explanation for how the Canyon got there. The clouds that had been all about Raquel, as if she had snuck into some dusty corner of heaven, had given way to a hollow, tortuous chasm, a hell with no bodies.
“Why is it like this?” Raquel asked, pointing out over the rim. “What…what broke the Canyon up like that? An earthquake?”
“A river. Water kept flowing for thousands of years over the same rocks and the rocks couldn’t take it.” Monica sat on a boulder and pointed up. “Do you know any constellations? See Carina there? Da, da, da,” she said as she indicated a string of stars. “Part of Argo Navis. The ship. An old ship, but it still works.”
“Yeah…sure.” Raquel sat next to her, yawning. “Crazy how fast the clouds cleared up.” She again held her camera up, scanning the Canyon and the sky. On her screen, it was all black, as if her phone weren’t even on.
Then a green flash crossed the screen. It soared from the depths of the Canyon up to the center of the Milky Way. It zipped along like a lizard, fast but not imperceptible. Then it coiled like a snake and faded out. “Auntie, did you see that?” Raquel tugged on her aunt’s sleeve. “What is that?”
“Hm?” Monica glanced up from her phone. “I got a work text, sorry. What was it?”
“It was like a trail of light! It was moving!”
“Oh, a shooting star.” Monica ruffled Raquel’s hair. “That’s good luck, you know. You should make a wish.”
“Do shooting stars go up?” Raquel whispered. She wasn’t sure why, but she found herself frightened by the thought. “It went up from the Canyon. It wasn’t coming down.”
“The stars are beautiful,” Monica said absently. She continued typing on her phone.
“Mm-hm. I guess so.” Raquel hugged her knees to her chest and nervously twisted the silver ring on her finger. The chill of the autumn evening was starting to bite through her jean jacket. She had insisted on wearing it rather than the fleece her mother had thrown in her bag. A fleece made her look so bulky. The jean jacket was cute. It was a cropped number with a stencil rose emblazoned in black velvet across the back. It was the first stylish item Goodwill had provided in a long time. The bellman had even complimented her on it. He would’ve felt like such an idiot if he had known that it had only cost $2..99—that she had bought it secondhand and the stain on the collar had been there before she had ever owned it, and that it would never go away. But in the darkness of the Canyon, appearances didn’t matter. And she just wanted to be warm.
“Auntie, let’s go to our cabin now.” Raquel stood and tugged on Monica’s sleeve. “It’s getting too cold.”
Monica did not react; instead, she continued typing on her phone.
“Auntie? You okay? Who’s texting you?” Raquel leaned down to peer at her aunt’s phone.
Messages highlighted with an error symbol crowded the screen. They were all the same, and they had all been sent to Raquel’s nonresponsive number: It has never left the Canyon.
“Auntie? What’s going on? Is dinner repeating on you? I think you can make it! The cabin isn’t that far.” Raquel looked around them, suddenly nervous of being embarrassed. Maybe a beautiful stranger would actually appear, just in time for Raquel to have no chances to impress. She’d be stuck nursing an aunt with a rumbling gut, instead of flirting and exchanging numbers.
Then it happened again. The green flash uncoiled itself. This time, it came down. But it wasn’t as fast as a shooting star. It meandered. It picked its way through the stars as clumsy as a ghost retracing a hundred-year-old path.
Raquel watched, transfixed as a mouse watching its predator descend upon it. Her aunt continued to tap out dead-end messages. It has never left the Canyon. Raquel noticed something glowing on her aunt’s arm. It was separate from the phone. She pushed up her aunt’s sleeve to reveal the cat bite, glowing a dull red. As if something under her skin were burning up. As she tugged the sleeve back down, the skin scalded her. She yelped and backed away from her aunt. Still, like a manic robot, Monica typed and typed. It has never left the Canyon. It has never left the Canyon.
A clattering overhead pulled Raquel’s gaze up. The green glow was gone from the sky. She instead looked up into the face of a stranger. Smooth-faced, lean, tall as the Jupiter trees. Dressed in white robes like a character in a church painting. Their smooth face exuded the magnetic beauty of the moon. Raquel found herself moving closer to this person. This stranger was holding out a pearl-white plate stacked high with diamonds, twinkling in the starlight and clattering as they spilled to the ground. Each one that fell rolled into the dark maw of the Canyon.
The stranger smiled wordlessly, revealing serpentine fangs. They repeatedly pushed the plate of diamonds toward Raquel, a gesture of offering. “For me?” Raquel’s heart fluttered and she felt a heat rise inside her. A beautiful stranger. Enough diamonds to buy back her friends.
Trembling, she reached out and took a handful of gems. As soon as she did, the stranger snapped a hand out and clutched her aunt’s hair. Confused, Raquel recoiled; the stranger mirrored her movement and stepped back, dragging her aunt with her.
“Stop! Let her go!” When the stranger was unresponsive, Raquel threw the diamonds back at them. The stranger relinquished their hold on Monica as soon as the last gem fell from Raquel’s grasp.
Horrified that the diamonds might vanish, Raquel snatched up another handful, then another. And another. She stuffed the gems into her pockets, into her shoes, into her shirt, into her hair. By the time she had taken as many diamonds as she could, she could no longer see her aunt.
The stranger crouched on the rock instead of her aunt. Their lithe form was jutting in every direction, as if they had consumed something bulky, as if this stranger were nothing more than an overfilled grocery sack. But sticking straight out from their mouth, dripping blood, was her aunt’s forearm, the wrist still glowing, the thumb still typing on her phone.
The stranger—the creature—met Raquel’s gaze and held it a moment. Then her aunt’s arm flew down its throat, as if pulled in by a vacuum. The glow of the phone illuminated the creature’s throat. Raquel pulled a gem from her pocket and reached it out to the creature. The hand creeped back out of the creature’s lipless mouth. Horrified, Raquel stepped back. The hand was sucked back down the creature’s throat.
Sated, the creature pushed itself to its feet. It turned away from Raquel and lumbered to the edge of the Canyon. A thin, ropy tail trailed behind it. With one long step, it dropped off the rim. Raquel rushed to follow it but stopped when a blast of green light shot up, the wind knocking diamonds out of her green hair. The sparkling gems tumbled down the precipice. Hands outstretched, her silver ring glinting in the moonlight, she took two bounding steps after the diamonds. In the darkness, she found that they were actually stars. And there were more than she could count.
Siobhan Manrique is a middle school English teacher. She earned her B.A. in English and Certificate in Creative Writing at Northern Arizona University. Aside from education and remote living, her previous positions in hotels and funeral homes also inform her writing. She lives in an Arizona mining town with her husband and dogs. Her published poetry, fiction, and nonfiction are available at https://www.sbhnmanrique.com.
Daniel Kent Foley is a Navajo visual artist and writer based in Central Ohio. He works mostly in mixed media and photography, experimenting with processes and layering them to create odd subjects in strange environments that exist somewhere between representation and total abstraction. He aims to provoke critical thinking by presenting forms that vaguely echo reality in compositions that defy it; suggesting a narrative but allowing the audience to arrive at it themselves and in their own way.