By Stephen Thom
Emmett helped Abigail up and supported her over to the hut. She sank down against the wall and watched as he ran back over to the wooden box. The comandante fired his pistol in the air and shouted into the hut. The hacendado flinched. The peon threw his quilt off, and sat up staring.
Emmett repositioned the final pin. He did not plug it, leaving it loose in the earth. He moved two of the pins, so that the structure of the shape fell behind the wooden box.
When he looked round the peon was standing beside Abigail, and the barrel of his rifle was pressed against her head. She was still sitting up against the wall, breathing slowly, and watching him intently. The comandante splashed over to the wooden box, and took a seat in one of the chairs. He was facing the hut, with his back to the dark plains.
'No second chances this time,' he said. 'You follow the same procedures.'
Emmett blanked him. Flames licked from the tree behind them, and smoke unfurled into the night.
'You follow the same procedures,' the comandante repeated. 'You sit where I can see you.'
Emmett wiped rainwater from his eyes. He walked over to the wooden box and sat opposite the comandante. He kicked at the dirt beneath him, and felt for the two large pins he'd left loose in the earth below the chair. He adjusted his legs and placed a boot over each pin. He was drenched. Rain blew in elastic sheets throughout the void. The comandante raised his pistol and cocked the hammer.
'You have not constructed the shape,' he said.
Emmett sat back in the chair.
'Nope,' he said.
The comandante raised his free arm, and Emmett heard Abigail moan behind him. He sat forward and held the comandante's eyes.
'He hurts her and I'll lock you in forever,' he said.
The comandante's brow furrowed, and his pistol dipped.
'Lock?' he breathed.
'We can lock these darn shapes,' Emmett said. 'I can lock you in right now.'
Wind keened. The comandante's eyes wavered. He sniffed and grinned.
'I do not believe you,' he said. 'You are bluffing.'
Emmett pushed his boots down. A glittering umbrella shape unfolded before him, and arced over the box. The comandante disappeared.
Black threads quivered above the ground beneath Emmett's feet, but he was outside of the shape. He had tried his best to be exact. He watched the empty chair opposite him. The world around him flickered monochrome, and he turned to check on Abigail.
The peon still had the rifle barrel trained on her. He was watching uncertainly. Emmett waited. Time ticked by, but he was too wired to notice. He bent down, scrabbled in the dirt, and pulled one of the large pins loose. He repositioned his boot over it.
The shape collapsed with a sucking sound, and the canopy slid back into the threads on the ground, trailing soft sparks.
The comandante reappeared on the chair opposite. His arms hung by his sides, and his mouth was open. He looked up slowly. His eyes were moist and pure white. His lips opened and closed.
Emmett realised that it was no longer raining: the time difference. He glanced back at the hut. The peon was slumped beside Abigail, holding his rifle against his chest. The hacendado was asleep, and his wife was sitting in the doorframe watching them quietly. The juniper tree by the corral was burnt black. The sky was stippled creamy amaranth, and a red disc was rising on the horizon.
The comandante wheezed and passed his hands over his eyes. He swallowed, fumbled his gun up, and levelled it at Emmett.
'It wasn't a safe shape,' Emmett said.
'Am I sick?' the comandante choked. 'What are the buildings? The white plants? Am I sick?'
'Yessir,' Emmett said.
'Matarla!' the comandante yelled. He drooled black fluid and wiped at his chin, smudging it into his beard. He wobbled in his chair, and looked down at the oilish slick on his hand.
The peon struggled up and raised his rifle. Emmett steeled himself.
'You want to go there again?' he said.
The comandante raised his palm and the peon backed off, squinting in the morning haze. Abigail crawled away from him. She sat in the doorway, beside the hacendado's wife. The comandante shouted again at the peon, who placed his rifle down and lit a cigarette. He paced back and forth, taking quick, irate draws, and watching them.
The comandante removed his hat and ran his fingers through his hair. He smoothed his white jacket out, as if he was trying to regain some semblance of control. He lifted his pistol and tapped it on the box.
'Well, then,' he said. 'Where do we go from here?'
'I know where you're goin',' Emmett said.
'You do that again and he will shoot your sister and then he will shoot you,' the comandante breathed.
'That won't be much use to you, will it?' Emmett said. The comandante growled and lifted his pistol.
Emmett adjusted his legs, and the man tensed and lowered his gun. A buzzard drifted across the pink sky above them. The comandante chewed his lower lip.
'There is no way out of this situation,' he said. 'Only death.'
Emmett cocked his head. The comandante twirled his pistol and yelled at the peon. He slid the pistol's loading gate aside, spun the cylinder, and emptied each chamber. He stared at Emmett with his milky eyes.
'You are a child,' he said. 'Do you like games?'
'Some,' Emmett whispered. His boots twisted the pins beneath him. His hands trembled, and he felt his position slipping away. He glanced back. The peon had his rifle trained on Abigail again.
'We shall end this,' the comandante said. 'We will play a game.'
He lifted the pistol, centred the chamber in the loading gate, and inserted a single bullet. He spun the cylinder and cocked the hammer.
'Emmett,' Abigail shouted. Emmett glanced back. The peon thrust the rifle barrel against her temple.
The hacendado's wife was crying in the doorway of the hut. She pulled at the sleeves of her dress and began singing through her tears. Emmett recognised the song. It was the same sad ballad the hacendado had sung the night before. He turned back to the comandante, and they sat listening to the strained melody. The sun was a flaming wheel in the flamingo sky. The red mesa looked briefly alive, like layers of stripped, dessicated flesh. Like a dormant entity.
The comandante smiled. His face was flushed red. A vein throbbed in his left temple. Abruptly he lifted the pistol to his head and pulled the trigger.
There was a clicking sound, and the cylinder rotated. Emmett shivered. The comandante sneered and slid the pistol over to him. He watched Emmett's legs, and raised his palm. The peon cocked his rifle, and Abigail screamed his name again. She scrabbled towards him, but the peon dragged her back.
'You have chosen this path,' the comandante breathed. 'It is our duty now to find a resolution between ourselves. I have seen others with the sickness that is upon us both now. I know what we will become. You must meet your death head on, with courage and heart, as I will meet mine. There is honesty and honour in this resolution.'
Emmett ground his boots against the pins beneath him, and felt himself choking up. He had thought there was a way out. He thought he had won. He fought the temptation to press down and trap the damn disgusting comandante for all time. He could save Abigail again if she was shot. But perhaps he could not. A head shot and she was gone. Either way he could not put her through that again. He might put her through it, only to be shot himself. There was no escaping the possible permutations.
He lifted the pistol. The comandante kept his palm raised. Emmett held the gun against his left temple, and looked out to the endless sand plains. Shrubs with grey bark and jagged leaves squatted like strange insects. Lenticular clouds hung in the dawn sky like fleecy saucers.
He cocked the hammer. The comandante's white eyes bored into him. His father's face drifted through his mind's eye. He blinked back tears and pulled the trigger.
A dry click. The chamber turned. The hacendado's wife's sad song floated over. Abigail and the peon were frozen in observation. Emmett's hand shook violently as he lowered the pistol. He slid it over the box. The comandante sat looking at the gun, his outstretched hand grasping at air. He blinked. Every second felt like a slow-burning fuse.
Emmett shifted in his seat. The comandante glanced at him. He picked the pistol up and cocked it.
'Hijo de puta,' he whispered.
He pressed it against his skull and fired. Blood spritzed out of his right temple.
Emmett ground his heels onto the pins beneath him, and pushed the chair back. A dense whump sound reverberated around the hut.
A silvery dome folded over the wooden box and the comandante's body. The atmosphere twitched and flickered, temporarily devoid of colour. The peon stood dumbfounded. Abigail scurried past the hacendado's wife into the shack. The peon dropped his rifle and ran for the corral. He hitched up awkwardly on a braying horse, drove it out of the pen, and up into the hills.
Emmett cast about. Black threads trembled on the ground. He reached down and tugged a pin free. The shape collapsed, and the coral gloss washed back over the dusty flats. As he ran towards the hut he could see the hacendado struggling up from a pallet bed. His face was pasty and confused.
Emmett picked up the departed peon's rifle and stood outside the doorway. Abigail was sitting on another pallet bed, with her head in her hands. The hacendado's wife looked up at him with glistening eyes.