The elf hits me doing what feels like eighty, blowing through the light at the new intersection by the outlet mall. One of his headlights glances off mine, and he swerves on two wheels before slamming into a construction barricade with the sound of a typewriter dropped off a roof. No seat belt: he is thrown from the car and sails into the desert.

It’s not until I’m through the scrub, the 911 dispatcher buzzing in my ear, that I realize he is beautiful.

He’s on his back in the creosote. The crash laid him just so. The elf’s black hair goes down his neck on either side of his ears, which are pointed, or, actually, slip-on versions of pointed ears. His costume isn’t Christmas elf but elf who is a thousand years old and lives in the woods. He’s definitely tall enough to run through the glades, hunt from the treetops with hair-strung bow. The top of his embroidered tunic laces like a shoe. The bottom hem is lifted, and I can see he’s in shape: above his tights, his hip bones make a V.

“Sir, sir,” the dispatcher is saying. “Is he breathing?”

I answer yes. The dispatcher reports an ambulance is on its way.

The elf’s eyes flutter open. They’re big and dark with painted corners. He looks right at me like he can’t believe it.

“Woah, man,” I say. It’s been forever since anyone looked at me like that.

“My bag,” the elf croaks. He reaches, recoils. There’s a white bone spearing through the top of his leather boot, poking him in the foot. His hands are full of glass.

“It’s going to be OK,” I say.

This isn’t even true for me. I don’t have insurance—I’m not even sure if that matters—and I can in no way afford to replace a headlight, for one.

“My bag, my fucking bag,” says the elf. “Get me my fucking bag, goddammit, this is so fucking stupid, man, my bag.”

He starts to cry, weirdly normal crying like at a sad TV show. All I can do is yell, “OK!” and hustle to the slag heap of his car. The crash popped open the trunk like Tupperware, and the bag is right there. It’s part of his costume: not a backpack but a long satchel of red leather with metal buckles stamped in the shape of wings. Also in the trunk—actually all over now—are neon-green flyers for a Renaissance fair.

Here are the police, and soon after, the ambulance. The elf must be at a critical point, because as soon as the EMTs crouch over him, one runs back for the gurney. They don’t say a word about the elf getup, and neither do the cops. They look around and see the road is not blocked and warn me about my headlight and are gone. The EMTs get the elf, who is now still, through the ambulance’s big doors and drive away.

At which point I discover the 911 dispatcher has hung up on me. I’m alone.

It’s early. The desert is pink, striped with mountain black, and is already waking up the way it does: by getting even quieter. Hummingbirds hover for their last licks before the hot death of the day comes down. In the road, the neon-green flyers bloom. I reach for one, distantly aware of the elf’s heavy bag, still hanging from my shoulder. The fair is today, and this makes sense.


I had spent the previous sixteen hours at my computer applying for jobs. Tech—what else? I was only out for food. The gas-station burritos two streets down are a terrific value, though they make my skin worse. All that seems like nothing now. A flash and I was on my knees on the hardpan, responsible, however briefly, for a life.

I know these fairs are grassroots, community-driven events where everyone has an important role. That has to go double for the diehards who spend hours on their costumes, who are worried as hell about not getting there on time.


The fair is in a park I’ve been to before, in one of the fake-adobe suburbs on the mountain. My mom and I would eat fast food here after summer Scout meetings. In the parking lot people cinch bodices and pick at the crotches of their tights. I remember the deep drainage ditches that hug the two long sides of the park’s yellow wedge. To get over the ditches into the park, you have to cross a concrete bridge on either side. The fair’s ticket booth is set up on one of these bridges. A guy in face paint and Viking furs tells me a ticket is twenty-five dollars.

Up to this moment, the decision to come here felt pretty right. Or, at least, important. Without me the elf’s friends were just going to sit there, wondering. I talked myself through it while getting onto I-10: I’d deliver the bag and tell them the news as gently as possible. I could tell this guy in the booth instead, but he’s immersed in the drama. Telling me the price, he uses the word passage. There must be some signal to turn this guy from weathered jarl in winter bite of war-torn fjord back into a thirty-something dude, probably from Vinton, in this year of climate obliteration and the first foldable smartphone, but I don’t know it.

I pay for the ticket. I walk in.

Music hits me: hurdy-gurdy. There are speakers. On the open grass near the entrance a guy helps his buddy on with a shirt of metal rings. It turns out the armor is backward, the metal hood over his face.

“You fuckin’ chode,” the guy says, posing for a picture.

I stand with the bag. I guess it isn’t really what I imagined. I had expected tents under a thicket of banners snapping in the breeze. There are tents, but they’re camping four-mans with metal poles or beach tarps erected over pickup beds. Under them, women in ranch hats sell turquoise jewelry. The big smells are gasoline and funnel cake.

The elf, my elf? I could tell he’d paid so much attention to his costume, each detail. Here, no one has even tried disguising the porta-potties. The elf’s last words had been toward this place. Out of respect, all modern English should be banned here. Flowers in your hair should be mandatory, and the only music should be made by wood and wire. Wasn’t the whole point to put the modern shit away and attune to what’s underneath? There are dads here pushing double-decker strollers. The elf must have hated that.

“I see you are troubled,” says a smoky voice.

It’s a fortune teller, or a witch. Her costume is good. All sorts of things hang from her belt: cuts of herbs, bird skulls that clack. I smell alfalfa like in the fields behind my mom’s house. Under her ragged skirt she is barefoot, like she should be, but the real killer is that she’s missing an eye. Like, really missing one. No eye patch, so you have to look into the cavern of the socket.

“I’m fine,” I say.

The fortune teller shakes her head, pitying. “Oh, child. The only thing worse than trouble is trouble you don’t let yourself see,” she says. “But lonely souls, oh, I’m drawn to those.”

I sort of laugh.

She grips my shoulder, and I am steered into a nearby tent draped in blankets and furs. “Into my chamber, young master. We must consult the spirits,” the fortune teller says. “The dead see much.”

She shuts the tent flap. Things go black. I hear rustling, then notice a glow. In the tent is a little table and two stools. A little predictably, there’s a crystal-ball-shaped cloth on the table.

“Sit, sit,” she says. “Only five bucks, and the spirits shall awaken.” I start to say I have no money, but she unveils the glowing crystal ball. She begins to chant in a strange language that’s neither Spanish nor English. She registered me as lonely because I’m at the fair alone, an easy mark, though it’s true that I have not been invited out in maybe a year.

“I’m sorry,” I say.

Her grin is wolfish. “Always apologizing.”

“No, I’m sorry. I’m not here for the fair.”

“Ah, a man who ends up where he doesn’t mean to.” The glow silks over the scar tissue of her eye. “Graves are full of men like that.”

“No, I mean, I have this for someone.” I point to the bag. It’s so long both ends touch a side of the tent.

“A deal to be struck, then. With friend or foe?”

“Friend. He works here. He’s an elf? He’s in charge of the elves?” As soon as I say this, I know it is true.

“Oh,” says the fortune teller in a completely different voice. “You’re staff!” She laughs, flicks off the crystal ball, and kicks on a box fan under the table. I lift the tent flap and the noise from the fair floods in. She fans her face. “I’m so sorry. I really muscled you in here, didn’t I?” She laughs again.

“It’s a good act,” I say.

“It’s fun.” She takes a Gatorade from under her chair and sips. “But you’re Oscar’s friend?”

Oscar. I picture him in the pink morning, lying as if asleep in the creosote.

“I love Oscar,” the fortune teller says. “He does so much I worry about him sometimes. Don’t you?”

“All the time,” I say.

She leans forward. “Don’t tell anyone on the committee I said this, but he’s the only one of them worth a damn. He’s willing to sit down and do the work, you know? He’s the guy who waited in city hall for six hours getting the permit. Rebecca wouldn’t do that. All she’s here for is to sit in the sun dressed like a slut.”

“That’s Oscar,” I say.

Eyes gentle, she touches my arm. “I’m glad you have Oscar as a friend,” she tells me. “We all need someone like that.”

I nearly add that Oscar is why I’m here, that I’m the one who has news from the dead, but although she knows Oscar, I sense she is not his people. Those people, the elves, deserve to hear it in person. I ask if she knows where they’re set up.

“The elf village is in the ponderosas, just like last year.”

I tell her thanks and duck under the tent flap.


I knew already, even before talking to the fortune teller, that Oscar was important. Everyone working at this fair loved and depended on him. But what I’m sure of now is the power I’m holding to devastate them. When I give them the bag, they will say, Thank you, we needed this. When I give them the news, they will clutch each other. They will go to their knees perhaps. They’ll most likely sit me down and ask questions, pry for every detail. Which they deserve and I am willing to give. It’s even possible they’ll ask me to stay and help out, given they are short a man. If so, I am game.

First I have to lock down what I’m going to say. I take a few circuits around the fair, one eye on the trees the fortune teller mentioned. Things are picking up. A bard guy poses for pictures. He wafts his cape for airflow. His makeup is running in the sun. Having a Renaissance fair in the desert is ridiculous. If this is Oscar’s life, which I am thinking it is, I wonder why he didn’t move to where there are real trees, real meadows. He could have had water, fog. Here, you can’t even go barefoot like people used to without your feet getting impaled by the goatheads. I don’t know how the fortune teller was doing it.


By the courtly-dance demonstrations, I ask a person in puffy sleeves if they know Oscar. They do. They love Oscar. Am I Oscar’s friend? Yes, I am. Do you know where the elves are set up this year?

Across from the food trucks, a blacksmith works beside the concentrated heat of a microwave-sized forge, one arm thicker than the other, her apron scorched. She removes a screaming shard and, with her hammer, taps one end flat, the other into a point. The cuffs of her jeans are packed with ash.

“Are you going to make a sword?” asks a guy in a snapback hat, his daughter balanced on one hip.

The blacksmith looks at him. “OK, so,” she explains, “this is what you did: You made nails for years and years. Then—and only then—your master taught you the secrets of the craft.”


The path that leads into the ponderosas starts outside the trees: two baskets of fake flowers draw you to the next two baskets sitting together on a blanket of dead needles. Quivers of arrows rest against the baskets. There’s some shade in here. The trees are too far apart, painted halfway up their alligator trunks with white pesticide, but there is a little bit of forest hush.

Farther on, a trio of elves help a fourth up onto a low branch. He’s got a pan flute around his neck, and I see how he will welcome visitors. They’ll hear the lilt of ancient songs and be called into the woods—or they will if this elf is any good. When they see me, they bow together. The elf in the tree bites off a birdcall note. They all have the pointed ears. I’m in the right place.

Their booth is bedsheets hung in modern-art triangles over tree stumps they must have trucked in. Here we go. Candles burn on some stumps in beds of old wax. One stump has a tablecloth weighed down by a tall vase beside a carved wooden box. The elf behind this stump smiles at me. Her braid is complex. She looks ready to tell me, Rest, weary traveler, in our glen; it is not often we welcome visitors. In these roots thrum the deep ruminations of the earth. We are eternal, so your brief ignorance is charming to us.

Instead she asks if I’m here for the archery lesson at 11:30.

I say I’m not. I breathe, hold up the red leather bag. “I have this for you,” I say. “It’s Oscar’s. I ran into him this morning. Or he ran into me. What I mean is, I have news.”

The elf frowns. Next, her eyes will brim with the worry that’s been building quietly all morning, phone call after missed phone call.

She shrugs. “Sure,” she says. “He’s back here.”

“Um,” I say to her back.

Through the trees are more elves under more bedsheets. A few are putting on their costumes; more sit in a circle on the ground, eating grapes out of ziplock bags, some with pointed ears, some without. The elf from the booth leads me to the side, where a guy in khakis and a button-up sits on a milk crate, poring over stapled pages. He’s in his thirties, maybe, heavy. He has his phone in one of those clip-on belt cases. On the crushed needles beside him lie two silver forearm crutches. When he looks up at us, his face is kind but overtaxed, eyebrows hanging like Spanish moss.

“Hey, Arely,” he says. “Everything going OK?”

“For the third time this morning, yes, everything’s fine.” She points. “Your friend’s here.”

“Oscar?” I say.

“That’s me,” says Oscar.

Arely looks back and forth. “Wait, you said you knew him.”

“I didn’t say that,” I say. “But I’m sorry. I think I made a mistake. I was in a car accident this morning.” This isn’t the way I’d planned to tell the story, and they’re looking at me like, What the hell? One of their guys was also in the accident, I tell them. The one I was in. An elf. He hit me, and he had this bag, and he seemed really worried about the fair, and it wasn’t out of my way.

Oscar, the real Oscar, sits there, decoding all this. Finally he says, “It’s really nice that you stopped by.” He scratches his head. “But a car accident? Are you OK?”

I tell him I’m fine.

“What about the guy you hit?” Arely asks, looking ready to press charges herself.

“He hit me,” I re-explain.

Oscar flips through his papers. “Did you catch his name?”

Unfortunately I did not.

“No one’s missed a shift,” Oscar tells Arely. “Mirna was late, but she got here.”

“Was he white?” Arely asks me.

“What color was his hair?” Oscar asks.

“He was tall,” I say. “And beautiful,” I add, then regret adding.

“Raahul?” Arely guesses.

“Raahul switched to tomorrow,” Oscar says.

By now my confusion has caught up with me. I hold up the bag again. “No one was supposed to bring anything?” The elf—whoever he was—seemed so distraught, his cargo so necessary. It’s hitting me now how weird this is, taking a stranger’s bag across town, stealing it basically.

“Wait,” says Oscar, looking at the bag. “I think that’s Benny’s.”

If his face doesn’t quite fall, Arely’s plummets. “Benny? Benny’s not scheduled for a shift today. Which is why I’m willing to be here at all.”

Oscar’s reaching for his phone. “You know him. He just shows up.”

Arely rolls her eyes at this truth. “Holy fuck.”

“Sorry.” Oscar is talking to me. “I think it was one of our guys who hit you.”

“But no, wait,” Arely says. “You said this guy was good-looking?”

I want to explain how he’d fallen just so.

“Benny is good-looking,” Oscar says. “He has good bone structure. It’s just he doesn’t know what to do with his height. I don’t think anyone ever taught him about posture.”

Arely’s look is dark. “You’re way too nice to that fucking weirdo.”

“He’s just unaware.”

“Well, you know what I think.”

“What do you think?” I ask Arely.

“He’s a fucking creep. He shows up to LARP even though no one invites him. He’s one of those people who goes on about everything, so you have to be an asshole to him by default just to get on with your day. And he says stuff to the girls. He like comes up and whispers in our ears. Which Oscar enables by keeping him around.”

“He’s harmless.”

“Oh right. That’s why every single woman in the troupe signed up for shifts today, when he wouldn’t be here.” She asks me: “Was he hurt, or . . . ?”

I tell her Benny wasn’t moving when the EMTs took him away. When he spoke, something broken and wet gurgled in his birdcage chest—the blood still inside him. I say this, and it’s probably too much to say.

“Oh.” Arely frowns. “And what, you just decided to fulfill his dying wish or whatever? You must have a lot of time on your hands.”

I admit that I am currently seeking employment.

Arely crosses her fingers on both hands, nails bejeweled and bitten to hell. “Well,” she says, “with any luck, they’re sliding him into the freezer right now.”

“Arely,” scolds Oscar. “Christ.”

“Maybe it wasn’t him,” I say.

Oscar nods at the bag. “No, that’s his. I saw it in his apartment.”

This disturbs Arely. “When were you in Benny’s apartment?”

“He took some tarps home by accident, and I stopped by to get them. It was kind of sad. When I got there, he’d ordered pizza and had, like, movies out that we could watch.”

“Let me guess: then he showed you the sex dungeon.”

“No. He hadn’t decorated much actually. Maybe he’d just moved in. I didn’t go anywhere but the kitchen. I stayed for a slice because I felt bad, but the thing was, he disappeared into the bathroom first chance he got. He was still in there when I left.”

Arely makes a face.

Oscar takes his crutches and rises. “I thought I had his mom’s number, but I don’t,” he says. “I’m going to ask Steph if she has it. What’s in the bag?” he asks me.

I tell him I don’t know.

“You didn’t look?” Arely asks.

I did not. I had thought a bow, a suit of mail. Some things you do not open, and the bag had seemed to fit into that category. But the way Arely is looking at me reveals this as kid logic.

“Well, can you check?” Oscar asks her, moving away.

Arely, though, is already leaving. “I don’t have time for that,” she calls. “I don’t even care. This is my day off. This is my vacation.” And she’s gone through the trees, leaving me alone under the bedsheets.

I hate that I’m about halfway to crying. I shouldn’t be here. I shouldn’t have come. It was stupid to imagine they’d listen to me, especially stupid to think they’d ask me to fill in. You can’t belong to something right away. It’s impossible. I’m embarrassed to be associated with Benny, who was not the tall leader of his kin I had thought, but was apparently a socially inept creep. Oscar with his bald patch and crutches is the one everyone respects, the one who stormed city hall.

I decide: I’ll check what’s in the bag. I’ll tell Oscar and get out of here. I’ll cause as little further trouble as possible. Then I will get my shitty gas-station food and go home. I set the bag on Oscar’s milk crate and start in on the buckles. The bag really is a work of art, but also, I see now, so, so weird. Benny probably took it to work or to the gym, where he was known for owning such a mortifying object. The more I think about it, the more ungainly he seems in my memory, sobbing in the dirt. Why couldn’t he just have a normal fucking bag?

I’m missing a latch or something. When I find it, the bag falls open.

Inside is a single, matte-black, gas-operated assault rifle.

I am of the generation that knows a lot about guns because we grew up playing video games about them, but I have never fired a real gun. I have always been fearful. I had a friend whose father was killed by a bullet ricocheting off the hubcap of a tire they were shooting at in the desert. The gun in Benny’s bag is a carbine, an M4 variant. The receiver features mounting rails for attachments. Benny attached a holographic sight, which reflects laser light onto glass in a shape he could aim through. On the rails under the barrel, Benny opted for a vertical grip to help him manage recoil. There’s other stuff in the bag: an envelope, a few loose papers, two full magazines, a pack of AA batteries.

I realize there is a language lying in the bottom of Benny’s bag, a language I can understand. The carbine’s safety switch is off, which makes a word that means: my hands will be shaking when I begin. The two magazines are taped together end to end, so all Benny would have had to do after emptying his first thirty rounds into a knot of his fellow elves is take the two-headed thing out, flip it over, reinsert. This is a word that means: bring on the end of me. He’d made himself swift in the first instance, but knew he wouldn’t get very far after that. The papers are federal registration for the gun; this says Benny was a bureaucrat, another in a long line of those who prefer their corpses filed away into tidy, labeled cabinets. The envelope is addressed—in language anyone can read. Benny wrote: “TO ALL FUCKERS.”

I understand the shape of the park, too. The ponderosas would have given him cover and a sight line all the way to the drainage ditches, which would have funneled people in a panicked knot over the bridges. The sun off all that armor? Easy target acquisition.

I understand all this. But also I do not understand at all. He said things to the girls, and when they responded in self-defense with unkindness, he nurtured those slights into . . . what? A horrific killing spree, a manifesto? Hadn’t he known that would be the most embarrassing, unforgivable thing you could do? It would only have confirmed what people suspected about him, what he already knew: his life was like an empty station where the train, the one with everyone on it, has already departed.

So why not retreat? Protect yourself from pain; improve yourself, if you can, in private? There is good advice online on how to respect boundaries, how to be at ease around people.

“Hey,” Arely says, back from the booth. “Thanks, but you can take off. Oscar’s calling Benny’s mom and—”

She stops because she sees what’s in the bag. She’s also seen me looking at it. I’m the strange white guy who’s shown up with an assault rifle. It’s easier to believe that I’ve come here to kill them than to believe the truth: that I was swayed by a fool’s beauty. Arely didn’t like Benny, but maybe she didn’t see him as capable of shooting up the fair. I hold my hands up.

Her eyes lock onto mine. She saw Benny as capable.

“OK,” she says. “OK. What did you touch?”

“Just the bag.”

“OK,” she says. “Yep.” Her face is a stone. “Here’s what’s going to happen. Close the bag.”

Instead of asking questions, I do. I close the bag. I don’t want the gun in the open air anymore. I look up, and Arely’s gone. I don’t see where she went. Then she’s back. She has wet wipes.

“We should get Oscar?” I ask.

“No,” Arely says. “Follow me.” She starts in a direction, then turns in another. “Hurry the fuck up.”

We move away from the rest of the fair. There’s not that far to go. A few more trees and we hit a retaining wall covered in chicken wire. Arely ducks along the wall, and I follow until we come to the drainage ditch. Tumbleweeds crowd against the grate. I’m surprised to see water here. When it rains, the water comes biblically down the mountain, which is why they need the huge ditches. But it hasn’t rained.

“Drop it,” Arely says.

“What are you going to do?” I ask.

She rips the bag out of my hands, tosses it down, and attacks with the wet wipes, getting the buckles and sewn leather grip, using each wipe for only two or three swats before pulling another. A garden of them grows around her shoes. Finally she makes a glove out of the last few and lifts the bag. She’s going to heave it.

“That’s evidence,” I tell her.

“Something that didn’t happen can’t have evidence,” Arely says confidently. She holds the strap in both hands. “He didn’t actually hurt anyone, he can’t hurt anyone anymore, so we don’t have to take any of the steps. Tell the police or anyone. We don’t have to do anything, because it never happened. To any of us. It can just be like this.”

Like this. I turn and look at where we came out of the trees. Our shoe prints are all over. They’re evidence. For there to be no evidence, we would have to walk backward all the way to the elf village. I would have to go even farther. We would have to fit our feet, carefully, into each print; would have to discipline ourselves to tremble at the exact frequency required to shiver all the dirt and pine needles back into place. We would have to work our mouths in reverse, so all the speaking we did crawled back in. The farther back we went, the more people would have to be in on it. The fortune teller to teach us to forget. Oscar to get us into city hall to expunge Benny’s records. Mine too, probably.

“Did I save all of you?” I ask.

“What?” Arely asks.

She lifts the bag. Her sneakers dig in as she starts to swing it. She must have done the hammer throw in school because she spins, spins, pivoting off one heel, kicking with the other, putting her whole weight into it. At the right moment she lets go, and the bag catapults into the water with a splash. The water isn’t deep enough to submerge it. It just rolls, and the top of the bag pokes up like an iceberg among the rest of the garbage.

Arely isn’t looking so good. Her false ears are crooked. She leans on her knees, hit, maybe, by the weight of what almost happened to her. She dry-heaves once.

It is here I remember the letter. The registration papers. Actual evidence, the catalogable, permissible kind. Shallow water won’t be enough. Even if the paper breaks down, criminal labs could magnify, chemically reconstruct. That’s where we are now. And anyway, they can just get the serial number off the gun, trace it back to Benny’s faceless apartment. Water isn’t even close to what we need. We need fire. We must reduce all this to dust. Also, it is dawning on me, we must read Benny’s letter. I can do it. I won’t make anyone else read it.

I sidestep down the ditch into the water.

Arely is shouting at me: “No, no, you fucker!” She must think I’m trying to get the bag back, trying to go to Oscar or the police. She works her way down, scooting on her butt until the last few feet, when her balance pitches forward and she has to kind of run, and she hits the scummy water face-first. She’s soaked. Her costume is ruined. She spits her braid, now a thin rattail, out of her mouth. Teeth bared, she crawls toward me and the bag, then jerks her hand out of the water and holds it, hissing in pain. She must have hit a nail or something.

She said we didn’t have to do anything. But we already have. She’s crawling around in ditchwater, bloody, ready to fight. The more we do, the more we’ll have to reverse—that hand will be a tetanus shot for sure—but how far she’s going, throwing herself into the water to reclaim the bag, the letter? It feels like an act of love.

I think about the tiny distances that close or don’t. Just a second longer to unstick my front door this morning, and Benny would have sped across the intersection in front of me like the devil. Our headlights would have never touched. He would have lived. I’d have heard about the mass shooting at the fair on the news. But Benny was the one who hit me. I did not save the elves’ lives. I was more the rock upon which another version of their living was broken. Both of us in the water, Arely is screaming at me to fuck off, which—truly, truly, truly—I understand.