The Witch's Mark
by Anika Scott
Barnesville was a scab on the desert. Locusts had decimated it once by the look of the beat-down shrubs and the sorry way the weeds lay in the pavement cracks. Ellis had never seen anything like it. He expected bleached skulls in the dust and found empty storefronts, and Buicks lined up along the curb like they’d been there since Nixon. He checked his rearview. No life there.
Across the street, a pockmarked cook smoked on the doorstep of a diner. He and two old men watched Ellis drive up slow, as if in Barnesville, a minute took 120 seconds.
“You fellas happen to know where the next gas station is?” Ellis asked out his window.
They exchanged looks, mind reading, plotting without words. Ellis knew the look from Uncle Hugh and Uncle Ben and his idiot cousin Stu, who sagged right now on a stoop in Pilsen. They didn’t do much of anything but know each other from cradle to grave, and they were bored.
One of the men wore a John Deere cap and a “Kiss my tractor” t-shirt. “Let’s see your eyes first, Chicago.”
Ellis wiped the sweat off his upper lip. “How’d you know I’m from Chicago?”
Ellis had got the car from a kid in Naperville who chewed a wad of bubble gum, nervous like he was selling his mom’s car for drugs. A hundred bucks, and the kid was too busy counting the bills to say anything about the plates. The car was a piece of crap Camry from the days when Ellis toddled in diapers. No GPS.
“Show us your eyes, boy,” John Deere said.
Ellis touched his sunglasses. “What for?”
“Eyes say everything about a man.”
“Now, now, John.” The second old man wore the flannel of a lumberjack. “This young whippersnapper ain’t here for fortune telling. He don’t have to show his eyes if he don’t want to.”
“Could be cat’s eyes.”
“So? So what if they was?” The lumberjack showed his stained teeth. “We all got something marking our devil selves. Shoot, I got a spot on me, don’t give a lick of pain. You know that mark on my arm? Stick it with pins, put a knife in it. Nothing. It’s a witch’s mark.” The lumberjack left the slice of shade under the awning of the diner. “Want to see my witch’s mark, son?”
Ellis glanced at his rearview. “Look, fellas, I don’t have time for this.”
“Don’t believe I got one, do you?” The lumberjack rolled up his sleeve. He showed a nut brown bone threaded with veins. In the middle of his biceps, a birthmark rose up, almost black. “Got a needle?”
In his mind, Ellis saw a hunting knife breaking skin. He tapped the gas pedal. The car gasped like an asthmatic dying in the heat.
The cook came out of the diner with a meat thermometer, the kind for Thanksgiving turkey, the end sharper than Ellis remembered the things being. “If you don’t know where the gas station is, just tell me and I’ll be out of here, all right?”
The cook flourished the thermometer at the lumberjack, who held it out to Ellis temperature side first. “Just the thing for a man like you. Stick her in there.”
Ellis groped in the back seat for a bottle of water, found the dry ones he sucked on yesterday while he sped through the desert.
The cook threw shade across the driver’s side window. In his hand, he held a splinter of light. Ellis wiped the sweat from his eyes. A bottle of Pepsi. Frost wafted from the glass.
He ran his tongue over his lips. “Five bucks for that bottle.”
“Not for sale. I’m giving it away.” The cook grinned at the lumberjack, who still held the thermometer through the car window.
“Show us your eyes,” John said.
“Go on, son,” the lumberjack said. “Stick her in.”
They talked all at once, the three spirits hunched around the car, grinning at Ellis, coaxing, barbing, tempting. Show us your eyes, your cat’s eyes, go on, slice her open, stick it in, don’t hurt a witch’s mark. You thirsty, boy? You thirsty?
Ellis took off his sunglasses. For a moment, he couldn’t see the men. The sun eclipsed them, washed them out into black shadows. He blinked the sweat away and saw them in the light as they really were, ancient creatures of sweat and malice.
He didn’t have cat’s eyes, but John examined them anyway, bent down and peered at Ellis like he looked for his own reflection in the pupils. “Them are the bluest eyes I ever seen. Them are angel eyes. You an angel?”
The lumberjack and the cook spread out, one at the head of the car, one at the tail. Ellis leaned out the window. “Get the hell away from my car.”
John leaned against the driver’s side door. “Angel or devil? What’s the last bad thing you done?”
Ellis revved the engine. “I’m warning you.”
“What you done? Thieving? Lust? Murder?”
“I ran over a fluffy bunny on my way here. Go back up the road a half-mile and you’ll find it covered in ants or armadillos or whatever the hell you have out here. I don’t regret it. Now get out of my way.”
John straightened, looked up the road north and east. Chicago in seven hundred miles. “You don’t kill animals. That ain’t what you kill.”
“What he kill?” asked the cook from the hood of the car. He was sitting on it now and holding up that Pepsi still frosting impossibly in the heat.
“Who’d you kill?” John asked.
“I never killed anybody.” Ellis reversed and hit the brake. The jolt didn’t shake the cook off the hood.
The lumberjack thrust his bare arm inside the window. “Go on, son. Give her a stab. Won’t hurt at all. It’s a witch’s mark.”
He shoved the meat thermometer inside. Ellis slapped it away, and it clattered against the windshield, the dashboard, then rolled under the passenger seat.
"Do it, son. Bet you can."
Ellis reached for the thermometer, found it between the scabbard – Damn, he’d kept the scabbard? – and an empty chips bag. He held the sharp end to the lumberjack’s arm, an inch away from the mole.
The cook and John Deere blotted out the sun as they leaned in to see. In the shade, the lumberjack’s arm looked different, gray skin cut by the wiry hairs of an animal.
Ellis wiped his hands on his shirt. (Why’d he keep the scabbard? Because it’d float. He couldn’t watch it bobbing on the Chicago River.)
“This’ll make it easier for you.” The lumberjack rested his arm on the open window. The others snorted. They rooted in slop like Uncle Hugh and Uncle Ben and his idiot cousin Stu day in, day out, year-by-year until the filth seeped out of Ellis too. One day, he cut himself clean out of it.
He jabbed the needle into the lumberjack’s arm.
The thermometer flopped over, the sharp end two inches out the other side of the witch’s mark. The lumberjack wiggled it. “See? Don’t feel a thing. You’re a natural, son.”
There was no blood. Ellis couldn’t figure out what kind of a man had no blood. Now, Uncle Hugh…
Ellis shifted and hit the gas and yanked the steering wheel to the right. The cook fell to the ground. Ellis swerved to avoid him, gunned the engine and sped up the street. Through the rearview mirror, he watched John help the cook up off the pavement while the grinning lumberjack did a jig in the road, his arm thrust into the air.
Anika Scott is a former staff writer at the Chicago Tribune, now freelancing from Germany. Her articles appear in numerous publications. Fiction is a new (ad)venture.