Story and Art by Ethan David Underhill
Before she’d retired to her two-story house an hour outside of Leupp, Arizona, Mo Mian spent her life cheating death. Born in international waters in 1932 as her parents immigrated from China to Canada, she survived the c-section that her mother did not. Growing up in Vancouver, a train nearly flattened her at the age of three after it derailed from the tracks. In January of 1942, at the height of racial tensions during the second World War, two classmates cornered Mo in the bathroom and stabbed her thrice in the abdomen. In the hospital, the doctor mistakenly gave her what should have been a fatal dose of morphine, yet she walked out of the hospital the next day. Against the dying wishes of her father, she joined a traveling circus as an escape artist, inspired by the tales of Harry Houdini. When the industry died, she moved to Arizona and became a social worker rehabilitating former felons, only to find herself out of the job after having her throat slit and being left for dead on the floor by one of her patients.
She met her lover Barbara in the hospital, and though Barbara was married to a man thirteen years her senior, everyone else was none the wiser. As a member of the Leupp Animal Control, Mo found herself infected with rabies, mauled by a mountain lion (twice), bitten by a diamondback rattlesnake, mistaken for game and shot by a hunter, run over by an oncoming semi, and out of gas in the desert with no water for three days. All this, and at 85 years old, she’d outlived the two classmates, the doctor, her circus ringleader, the felon, Barbara, Barbara’s husband, the mountain lion, the second mountain lion, the snake, the hunter, the driver, and the patch of desert, which was now home to an upscale casino and bustling condominium community. She’d evaded death one hundred twenty eight times.
But she did not survive out of sheer luck. Though her own mortality stalked her, Mo earned her continuing life through a growing paranoia that kept her safe where the less cautious would have perished. The omnipresence of these threats no longer came with the emptiness they once had: without her youthful speed and health to aid her, the bravery of the adventurous escape artist she used to be evaporated. She no longer sat in the center of a room: only in the corner, where nothing could take her from behind. She never took the stairs: only her battery operated stairlift. She never wore socks, only the long-calloused feet that anchored her firmly to the ground. And she lived alone, for caretakers would only bring in outside disease. When she wasn’t at home writing under the fire-hazard-and-cost-free light of the sun through her window, she was taking the one and only risk she still regularly took, driving her incredibly safe Honda Civic at incredibly safe speeds to the incredibly safe town of Leupp for her groceries, which she made incredibly safe by washing each item twice over upon returning to her incredibly safe home. But even the risk of driving was negligible in the area outside Leupp: the emptiness of the desert provided no obstacles to crash into, the lack of an electrical grid resulted in an absence of wires or poles, and the paltry population meant she only saw one or two cars on the road each outing. It was during one of these trips that she came back to her home to find a visitor out front in the road, exactly fifty meters from her front door.
She came to a stop twice that distance further behind the visitor. Backed by the light of the setting sun, the silhouette of the figure gave off a strange sense of déjà vu, yet no feeling of having known them. The figure shimmered in the heat, pools of illusioned oil surrounding them. Nobody visited her. Not anymore.
Mo sat at the wheel and tapped her fingers along it, grip loose but arms stiff at the elbow, unmoving, frozen. The car idled. The figure remained. Mo glanced to either side, but only the desert fields and distant blue shapes of the mountains greeted her. She glanced in either side-door mirror, but found the dirt road empty behind her. She glanced at the rear-view mirror, and found the same. She let out a deep breath. This person was obviously lost.
Her car engine revved, and to her own surprise she found her foot easing down on the gas pedal. She pulled it back. Though she’d made quite a noise, there was no response from the visitor.
A trick of the light, maybe. Or a roaming addict. Perhaps an unusually large vulture perched over a meal. Though she had no cell phones or landlines, her doors locked tight and her windows were reinforced with steel grates, so there would be nothing to worry about. She sighed at the inconvenience and pulled left off the road onto the sandy, shrub-dotted earth. Though the suspension on her car would surely lead to aches in the morning, it somehow felt worth the tradeoff. She veered around the figure, giving it and the road a wide berth. As she passed the visitor, she realized amidst a brief sensation of weightlessness in her stomach that the visitor hadn’t been facing her at all, but rather stared intently at the house. She could make out no further details.
Mo turned back onto the road right in front of her home and parked the car close to the front door. She stepped out and hobbled to the back to collect her groceries and popped the trunk. While she kept her head facing her haul, Mo glanced repeatedly at the figure through her peripheral vision. There they stood, in that same spot, shimmering with the rest of the landscape. The sun had ducked down below the horizon now and any hopes of catching a glimpse of the visitor’s face set with it. The first crickets started their song. Mo scooped up her groceries and shut the trunk, then turned and shuffled up to the door, reaching her hand in her pocket for the keys. Her hands trembled, and she nearly dropped them, but she steadied herself long enough to unlock the front door. Once she was inside, she closed the door and locked it. She stored her groceries, took her medication, and then rode her stairlift up to her bedroom. She slept well knowing nothing could get in.
The next morning, Mo treated herself to scrambled eggs. Overcooked and speckled with salt and pepper, as she preferred them. She used to like them undercooked, before she caught Salmonella. Today she would continue to write her autobiography. In her retirement, Mo had settled into a three-day schedule of grocery shopping, writing, and self and house care. Though she enjoyed what little variety the schedule offered her from day to day, she lived mostly for her writing. She didn’t suspect that anyone would ever read her autobiography, but she felt the need to write one nonetheless; and the longer she lived, the longer it grew. It amused her to think of her autobiography as the first life story without an ending. With the only type-written copy of page three hundred twelve in hand, she sat down at her tiny kitchen table by the window and read it in the sunlight to remind herself of where she’d left off.
On May 14th, 1985, I awoke in the hospital as I was accustomed to. The bite that the snake left in my arm was a shallow one, but the doctor informed me the venom had been injected all the same. The prospect that the bite might be fatal terrified me. My doctor assumed that this fear came from the action of dying itself, but this has never been the case for me, save for my fear of the pain that comes with it. I do not fear dying, but I do fear not knowing what awaits me beyond it. Any attempts to embrace religion to quell this fear have been met with the resilience to blind faith instilled in me by my father. I think it is this same desire to know that led me to ask my doctor what became of the snake. She told me I would have to ask Frederick, who was out on the call with me at the time I was bitten. Later, I would ask him that very question, to which he would respond by informing me that the snake was dead when they opened the trapper box to release it back into the wild. I never –
I never, she repeated in her mind. She hadn’t finished the sentence last time she sat down to write. Though she’d written those first two words only three days ago, Mo couldn’t recall what it was that she never did. The shadows of the sun passed over the paper and she looked at the window to gauge how to reposition herself back into the light.
There it was. That same figure. Mo clutched her chest at the sudden hollow feeling within it, and suffered through the shortness of breath that followed.
They hadn’t moved. They still stood in the middle of the dirt road, fifty meters away, facing the house. With the clear light of day to aid her, Mo made out a few more details. The figure was a person, just barely hunched over, in a neutral pose with legs slightly apart and arms straight down at either side. They wore clothing light and warm in tone, but the exact shade evaded her. Though the air hung crisp and cold with the remnants of the frigid desert night, the figure shimmered. Nothing else shimmered.
For a moment, Mo thought a mild earthquake shook the chair, but as she became more conscious of the sensation, she determined that it was her own heartbeat. She mentally assured herself that these reactions were unfounded, and her pulse seemed to agree with her. She wouldn’t need to go outside today anyway, and the house was still sturdy. While she made a habit of writing at the kitchen table, she instead stowed away to her room for the day. She’d get more done.
That night, she glanced out the window to check on her visitor. There they were, still standing. She drew the blinds and shuffled over to the opposite window to do the same. There, on the direct opposite side of the house, exactly fifty meters away, was a second figure.
The next day was her care day. She’d bathe, stretch, clean, throw out the bad food, and complete any other miscellaneous chores that needed doing. The figures hadn’t moved. She never saw them interact with one another, since they stood on exact opposite sides of the home. The only difference she noticed between the two of them apart from their positioning was the color of their clothing. The one out back wore green. That figure too seemed to shimmer and waver in the light, but the desert had a habit of pulling those kinds of tricks. At first, Mo mulled over confronting the visitors. But the more she thought about it, the more she came to believe that there could be no sane motivation for their behavior, and figured that she ought not provoke them. Since they didn’t appear to have any food or water, they would eventually go away on their own, anyway.
She went about her day, working by whatever light managed to peek through the cracks in her blinds. Though she nearly fell a number of times in the dark, she managed to make it through to the evening without incident. Tomorrow she would have to grocery shop again. The desert never was great at preserving food, and without a fridge and electricity to keep things cool, she had a limited window to eat her stores. She drafted a list of what she needed and then pulled aside the blinds to check once more on her original visitor, a habit she’d adopted with compulsive regularity since the night before last. That’s when she noticed three and four, off to either side. North, South, East, West.
At dawn she skipped breakfast, her stomach tight and the very thought of eating causing bile to rise in her throat. Somehow, she needed to put a stop to this. She locked her home as she left through the front and climbed into her car. It still started up, untouched by the visitors. Her knuckles white and bloodless, she gripped the steering wheel and directed the car towards the original visitor. She inched the car closer. Slowly at first, but gaining speed to a few kilometers per hour. The gap between she and the figure closed. They’d have to move. She pressed down harder onto the pedal. The car sped up. The figure grew in the windshield. They’d have to move.
They didn’t move. Mo slammed on the breaks and veered off the road to the right, swerving around the unmoving figure and onto the desert sands. Dust rose in the car’s tracks. Mo looked back in her rear-view mirror. The dust settled. The figure hadn’t budged, but sand now covered their form. Mo discerned from the back of the figure that they were short, slightly stout, female, with short black hair, and a pink floral nightgown loose on the body. Mo rolled down the window and poked her head out to get a better look at the woman, but could discern nothing further. Some seventy or so meters beyond the woman, the distant shape of number three stood facing the house, wearing a blue gown.
The near woman flickered.
Not as if she disappeared, but as if she were old security footage. Her body seemed to constantly waver and duplicate into barely-overlapping transparent forms before solidifying again. The woman shook; not violently, not fluidly, but statically. There was no true way to make sense of it because Mo had not seen anything like it in the past.
Mo stepped on the gas pedal and floored the car away from the house, her palms damp, her forehead slippery, her mouth dry. She drove to Leupp and didn’t dare look back.
The possibility crossed Mo’s mind about halfway to Leupp that she had no obligation to return home that evening; she’d stop at the pharmacy to fill her essential nightly pill prescriptions and then check into the local motel and call for the Navajo Nation law enforcement to arrive from out of town. They’d need the day and likely the night to travel to her home, but she’d be able to return after they’d dispersed the visitors. With a plan in mind, Mo relaxed.
Except the pharmacy was closed. And she hadn’t packed her medication. And so she did come back, later that evening, as she had to, and that feeling of relaxation retreated once again. Eight figures, about forty one meters of space between them, all stood equidistant to form an octagon fifty meters around the house. She weaved between them to reach her home and made haste in bringing her groceries inside. She remained in her room all the next day, blinds drawn, unable to eat, subsisting off a bottle of water. Sixteen figures welcomed her the next morning, all identical, all wearing a different color of the same nightgown, all shaking like an object appears to vibrate in the night when swung. The following day was no better, and thirty two identical women watched her from outside, a mere nine and a half meters between each of them. She couldn’t be sure of the measurements, but by comparing the distances to the nearby shrubbery, she made educated guesses. The rest just took time, which she had more than enough of stuck at home all day. At this rate, Mo guessed, she’d be boxed in within two days, unable to pull her car out to gather food. She’d starve.
What little she had would keep her in good health for at least a few days more, but there would be no avoiding the women for much longer. That morning, Mo donned a green knit fleece, grabbed a cane she used now and again for the extra stability, and hobbled out the front door to meet the women. She called out nothing, for the women would not respond, she knew. But she would at least see their faces, maybe identify them to someone in town.
The original visitor was elderly, slightly hunched over, the pink floral dress ending at her bony, withering shins. Her wide, rounded face was flanked by dry jet-black hair that spread wide from her head and curled halfway down her neck. The woman frowned with mouth closed, eyebrows set in a look of mild anger or disapproval.
She looked like Mo, except for two differences: she glitched, shook, and vibrated without moving a muscle, making a sound, or changing her form…
… And the eyes were pitch black.
Mo stared at her doppelgänger for a silent minute. Her eyes never broke from the woman. The woman’s black eyes never broke from the house. Neither flinched.
Eighty five years old, and Mo had never encountered anything like this. She blinked hard, but it changed nothing; the figure was still there, and it was still her. Mo let out a quiet whimper and hobbled back to the house. Everything in her bones told her not to turn her back to them, but walking backwards toward the house would have been just as risky with the rocks and sand gradations she wouldn’t see. Mo attempted to speak, to call for help, to question these women, to string together any words at all, but her throat tightened like a knot and all that rose from it was an aching pain and the threat of tears.
She skipped ahead in her autobiography that day.
It was that morning that I awoke yet again to more strangers beyond my porch. I decided to meet with them, against my better judgement, only to find that they were
She pulled her hands away from the typewriter. They were a mystery. In truth, she’d learned nothing about them, only that they looked like her, shook, and had eyes of black. She crumpled the paper and tossed it aside. She’d hold off on this chapter of her life until she saw it to its conclusion. She’d get through this. She always did.
When Mo finished her writing for the evening, she continued her nightly routine at the window. Sixty four figures. A crowd, forming a perfect sixty-four-sided hexacontatetragon, five meters between each of them.
The next day, Mo left for the grocery store once more, medication in the car, and passed between the identical women. Her gas meter sat near empty, enough for a round trip, but she’d fill up in town. Every meter on the road was a meter closer to the end of all this, and now she’d removed the pharmacy from the equation, leaving less to possibly go wrong.
She encountered no other cars on the road that day. The edge of the town appeared to her as it always had, but no lights greeted her. No friendly faces out and about. No faces at all.
Mo parked her car and peered in the window of the grocery store. No food. No people. Empty shelves. The landline that normally sat upon the checkout counter was absent. This couldn’t be. She pulled herself away from the glass and shuffled to the nextdoor furniture store, her last shred of confidence hinging on her findings. Empty. The next building, too. And the next. And the next. All empty. Nobody around. No phones. Nothing. With no food in town, that meant the nearest food would have to be in her own home.
No. She couldn’t return. She wouldn’t. Mo turned to her car to make her way to the next town over, but held fast. In the window of a vacant restaurant, a single decoration remained: a poster of a young girl. Only this time, the smiling, comforting face of the girl was replaced with Mo’s mirror image, eyes black, mouth set in a frown, head shaking and jolting over the background of the poster.
Mo shambled back to her car as fast as she could manage. She started the engine and peeled away from the curb and out of town, back to the only place she had left to go.
She returned to her driveway on the last of her gasoline and locked herself inside. She didn’t work, nor did she sleep, nor did she go about any other of her routines. Instead, she gathered her canned goods, sat at the window, and watched. Surely she would witness how they moved when more inevitably arrived. Then she’d wait them out. Maybe they’d take awhile, but all things need to eat eventually. Mo didn’t have much food herself, but she did have enough for a few more days if she rationed.
When the sun started to set in the evening, she remained in her window-side chair, eyes fixated on the figures, an open can of tuna in her hand. She picked out the tuna with her fingers, unwilling to risk the sharp pricks of a fork when her mind was so focused on another task. She pricked herself nonetheless, her finger drawing blood against the jagged edge of the can. She took her eyes off the figures to examine the wound, then realized her mistake. Looking back up, she saw that one hundred twenty eight figures now stood outside her window, a perfect ring around her home which no car could pass through.
The next night, there were not two hundred fifty six figures outside Mo’s window, only the same one hundred twenty eight, staring at the house.
She waited days.
She tried to spark reactions by wearing night gowns to match the visitors, offering treats in return for passage, and even tossing small objects at their feet from the upstairs window. Anything that might be just enough to spark a reaction without turning things violent. When all these failed, she further barred the windows and kept the curtains drawn. She barricaded the door as best she could. She left her cabinets open so she’d know by their closing if someone hid in them. She sunk further into the corners of each room. And the food dwindled.
Each night she counted them, and each night they remained the same: one hundred twenty eight figures outside her door, fifty meters from the house, two and a half meters apart, their forms solid but physically impossible and shaking without cause or effect. And Mo finally came to terms with the fact that, in all likelihood, she would never be able to leave her property again. She was right days ago; she was bound to starve.
There was only one thing left to try. And so that night, Mo Mian gathered the last page of her autobiography and a pencil, and left her home. The full moon illuminated the desert ground with a cool blue. Shadows passed under every form. The women shimmered. Mo approached their line and spoke.
“Who are you?”
At the sound of her voice, one hundred twenty eight heads snapped in her direction. All these pairs of eyes, blacker than the shadows cast by the absence of moonlight. They spoke.
“We are the one hundred twenty eight deaths you should have died. We have come to collect.”
Mo remained silent. Even the desert crickets joined her. Only the wind dared to make a sound. Mo looked around at each of the figures, all staring at her, all frowning, none having moved below the neck.
“You,” Mo paused again for a moment, losing her words, “You’re death?”
Mo glanced down at her unfinished autobiography and spoke again, “I’m not ready.”
No response. Mo swallowed, but remained parched. The stinging of tears hung in her eyes and the silence told her everything.
“I don’t have a choice, do I?”
Only the original visitor responded to this, shaking her head. “No.”
Mo’s legs seemed to melt below her, and she leaned on her cane for support.
“Does it hurt?” Mo asked.
The visitor shook her head again. “No.”
“What happens after?”
“Nothing at all.”
Mo Mian looked at her bare feet and softly smiled. She wrote the last line of her autobiography and set the pen and paper on the ground.
“I’m ready.” said Mo, stepping forward into the line.