By Maryanne Knight
Trent Hollis accelerated, the highway curving out of the mountains into Peru’s Pampa de San José, home to the ancient Nazca geoglyphs. His fiancé, Paige Osborne, had one hand on the dashboard, the other gripping the seat.
Their meeting with the Peruvian Ministry of Culture had not gone well. The ministry loved the idea of virtual reality tours but hated Fear the Hand Entertainment, hated him, and that was the end of the deal. As CEO of the world’s largest virtual reality company, Trent had honed his image as an aggressive disrupter, the apex predator at the top of the capitalist food chain. He didn’t make it to number one on the Fortune 100 by playing nice.
He jammed the brakes, skidding into the parking lot across from the observation tower, sideswiping the bollards that prevented tourists from driving into the desert.
“You are trying to kill me!” Paige was crying.
He turned the engine off. “No, babe, I’m just pissed. I thought this was a done deal.”
“So did I.” She tried to open her door but it was blocked by a bollard. “I told you the Tourista product line should be separate from F-THE.”
Trent wasn’t listening. Light from his phone bounced through the darkness as he stumbled to the only geoglyph that interested him. Los Manos, The Hands. The nerve of that dumbass bureaucrat, saying F-THE’s logo bore too close a resemblance to the image carved into the desert floor. He kicked rocks, walking inside the glyph’s line while Paige screamed at him to stop.
He wasn’t leaving empty-handed, even without the VR rights. He reached down and picked up an egg-sized rock from the glyph’s pinky finger. Hard to believe anyone considered it a treasure; its only value lay in the fact that it hadn’t moved in centuries. He clenched it in his raised fist.
“Fear this hand, dickwads!”
Paige was sullen on the drive to the airport. Trent ignored her. This whole fiasco was her fault, leading him into an ambush like that.
In the men’s room, a man with dark and chiseled features and a distinctive sloping skull used the sink next to him. He wore an orange tunic embroidered with figures in headdresses and costumes, bordered with overturned skulls.
“You took something that doesn’t belong to you.” The man’s accent was nasal and flat.
You talking to someone, conehead?” Trent shook water from his hands, splashing the man’s tunic.
“I’m talking to you.” He followed Trent to the paper towels. “You need to return what you stole.”
“No clue what you’re talking about.” Trent moved to leave but the man blocked him. “You a cop?”
“I’m the Keeper.”
Trent shrugged. “If you say so.”
The man turned just enough for Trent to pass. “You will return it,” he said.
“Who’s that guy?” Paige asked after they took their seats, one row in front of the Keeper.
“Some dude, harassing me in the bathroom.” Trent said.
“Harassing you?” Paige sounded skeptical. “Why, what did you do?”
“A little souvenir, that’s all.” Trent pulled a bag of candy from his carry-on and handed a large one to her, wrappers taped around the rock from The Hands geoglyph.
“You actually stole that?” Paige’s pitch rose. “You know that’s a crime, don’t you?”
“Relax. No one’s even gonna notice.”
“Yeah, well, he can mind his own fucking business.”
Citing a need to “think,” Paige took a separate Uber from the airport. Trent was annoyed at first; she had no right to be mad at him, when she should’ve had the deal in place before dragging him to Peru.
Hours later, she finally agreed to meet him at their usual spot at the end of the Santa Monica pier. Her old roommate, that annoying girl from Accounting, was with her.
“This is nuts,” Trent said. “You need to come home.”
Paige’s eyes were swollen. “Did you ever care, or were you humoring me so I would sleep with you?”
“Of course I care.” He reached for her but she pulled away. “Are you still mad about that stupid rock? Here—” He pulled it from his pocket and tossed it in the ocean. “See? Problem solved.”
Paige stared in open-mouthed horror, her friend filming the exchange. The Keeper stood behind her, a bemused look on his face.
The video from the pier had Paige and her once-again roommate on every news channel talking about Trent’s antics in Nazca and the toxic culture at Fear the Hand Entertainment. With charges pending in Peru and F-THE’s stock in a free-fall, Trent was forced to resign.
The Keeper haunted him. In line at the coffee shop, at the next table in every restaurant, the distinctive sloped head and orange tunic was there. If he tried to take the man’s picture, his phone stopped working. Eventually, his ringtone changed itself to the Keeper’s mantra: “You will return it.”
The night before he was to return to Peru for his arraignment, Trent donned an oxygen tank and dove under the pier. He groped along the bottom for almost an hour until a fish bumped him, jerking his flashlight to the left. There was the rock, on a pile of shells at the edge of a kelp bed, four feet away. Almost out of air, he wasn’t concerned; he only needed one breath to surface. He was too close to stop now.
Trent lunged forward, fumbling after his prize, pushing the rock into the towering columns. The current drove it before him, just out of reach, until finally his fingertips curled around it. He tried to rise, finding himself entangled. He worked furiously to free himself, his lungs aching for release.
A shadow loomed above, resolving into a familiar face. The Keeper, free-diving without oxygen.
“I’m returning it!” Trent watched his last air bubble rise with a cold realization. The rock slipped into the Keeper’s hand as Trent surrendered to the kelp.
Bio: Maryanne Knight’s short stories have been published or are forthcoming in the Santa Barbara Literary Journal, On the Run, and Grand Dame Literary Journal. Born in Brooklyn and raised in Vermont, she now lives and writes in Southern California. You can reach out to her at MaryanneKnight.com.