In celebration of A. LEE MARTINEZ APPRECIATION WEEK!!, a new Life in Rockwood short:
There were secrets in Rockwood, and nobody knew them all.
Mayor Ortega knew only one, but it was the worst one. It came with the job, and he would’ve never run for office if he’d known in advance. Now he had to live with it.
Elena helped him with his tie. “Honestly, Julio, you should’ve learned how to do this by now.”
She sounded annoyed, but she was smiling. She loved taking care of him, especially the small things. Tying ties and picking fuzz of his jacket, making sure his hair was combed to her liking and keeping an eye on his nose hairs.
“We’re going to be late,” she said.
“They can’t start without me,” he said. “I’m the Mayor.”
She took his head in her hand and kissed him. “And a handsome one at that.”
She returned to the bathroom to apply her makeup. She didn’t need it. He loved ever wrinkle, every pound she’d put on over the years. They were the trophies of a life together.
“I’ll be back, Elena,” he said. “I have to do something.”
“We’ll be late,” she said, though she was the one not ready. He didn’t point that out.
“It won’t take long.”
He slipped out of the house while her attention was focused on mascara. He drove down the dusty road. The Founders’ Day celebration started at dusk, and he had an hour or so.
He wondered if it was worth it. Rockwood, a patch of forsaken desert in the middle of nowhere, a place where the dead were restless and the living were often more restless. Nothing to do. Nowhere to go. He hadn’t made up his mind as he pulled up to the Schneider’s trailer.
The door opened before he could honk. Buddy Schneider and Tourmaline came out. Buddy’s ill-fitting suit was wrinkled, and his tie was askew. Tourmaline wore an old flannel robe that covered her.
“Front seat or back?” asked Buddy.
“Doesn’t matter,” replied the Julio.
Tourmaline sat in back. She was a plain girl. Not ugly, but not one to turn heads either. Buddy leaned in the window and gave her a kiss on the cheek. “What must be done . . . ”
“Must be done,” she finished. She smiled, “I love you, Dad.”
“Love you, too.” He caressed her hair. He might start crying. God, Julio hoped there wouldn’t be crying.
“Buddy, we’re on a schedule here,” he said.
“Sure. See you at the festival, Mayor.”
Julio nodded and drove away. He stared at the road ahead and did his damnedest to not look at the girl in the back. That’s how he thought of her. The girl. She had no name. Born with but one purpose.
It wasn’t worth it.
But damned if he wasn’t strong enough to stop himself. Rockwood might not have been much, but it and its citizens were his responsibility. It had to be done. They rode in silence, and even if he didn’t look at her, he could see Tourmaline with her chin tucked down, looking at nothing.
The old mine had been boarded up ages ago. Julio pried away a few of the planks so that they could go in. He’d forgotten his flashlight, but Tourmaline had the foresight to bring one. He’d brought a map, but she knew the way. She led him deeper into the cold, cruel earth, and he wondered why he was here at all. Someone had to witness it.
They reached the ancient antechamber. Statues of broken, twisted gods best forgotten decorated the walls. The whole place stank of mildew and brimstone, and a hot wind swirled around them. Julio had never been here before. The sacrifice was only demanded once every twenty-one years. It was just his luck to be Mayor when it came due.
She undid the robe. He looked away, expecting her to be nude, but she was wearing a modest one-piece swimsuit. He wondered if that made a difference. She’d probably know. She’d been raised her whole life for this moment.
She sat on the altar in the center of the room, and they waited.
They didn’t wait long.
“Who brings the sacrifice?” asked a creaky voice from nowhere and everywhere at once.
“I do,” he said.
“And does she come willingly?”
“I do,” she said.
“And in exchange for her purity, we shall refrain from destroying your town. A most fair bargain, is it not?”
“It is,” they said together.
Tourmaline laid down on the altar, and a thing emerged from the darkness at the far end of the chamber. It was long and thin and pale. Vaguely humanoid, but then again, vaguely not. To describe it further would require the Mayor to look directly at it, and he knew to do so would drive him irreversibly mad.
The horrible god approached the altar. Chuckling, it reached out with its long claws and stroked Tourmaline’s cheek. Its hand burst into flames, and it howled.
“This girl is not pure,” it hissed. “What treachery is this?”
“She is, I swear,” said the Mayor. “Tell him.”
Tourmaline sat up. “Well, they’re might have been some hand stuff, but I didn’t think that counted. Maybe some mouth stuff too. But, like, only once or twice. Maybe three times.”
The chamber rumbled. “You dare betray the pact?”
“Not me!” said the Mayor. “I didn’t know! Blame MTV! Blame the internet!”
The secret god of Rockwood roared. A statue fell over and shattered into pieces.
“You shall suffer eternally for this, fool. You and every mortal above shall writhe in agony as I devour their souls for this failure.” The god cackled.
Tourmaline punched the thing in its sort-of-face. It sort of exploded and fell to the ground.
“You dare touch me! You, impure whore of–”
The kicked it, and it whimpered like a wounded puppy.
“Fuck you,” she said, “And fuck your antiquated view of sexuality.”
She stomped on the god’s back and ground her heel into its back. The thing, once terrifying, was nothing now. Live by the virgin sacrifice, die by it, guessed the Mayor. The thing withered and shrank away until it was nothing.
Tourmaline and the Mayor left the antechamber behind. The moment they exited the cave, it collapsed.
They drove back. Tourmaline sat in the front this time.
“Hand stuff, huh?” asked Julio.
She shrugged. “Might have been some more stuff too. Don’t tell my dad.”
“Oh, I don’t think he’ll mind,” said the Julio.
Chuckling, they left the forgotten gods and their impotent demands behind.