Speculative Horror Indigenous

It is impossible to resist a hitchhiker on a road to nowhere. And that was exactly what my cousin Shane’s wedding to Raven the following morning was going to be.

It was strange that we all gathered to wish them well when none of us would be there in two years when the ineluctable breach of the sacrament was ratified by the divorce judge after Shane’s degenerate, pathological gambling resulted in the foreclosure of Raven’s overpriced Bungalow-style home in Boulder City, which she would naively agree to mortgage to the hilt to bail him out, setting up the bad beat betrayal she’d been waiting for from the day they met.

That is the thing about El Sombrerón. He ties his four mules to his inamorato’s post, while he woos from the threshold with sweet songs strummed on a silver guitar, plucking notes of promise, woven in plaited spirals, like Guatemalan braids. But once the affair begins, he leaves the stomach empty. “Madre de Dios!” At length, his black dogs howl their dismal mourning at the Snow Moon, which searches in vain like a celestial spotlight for what is left of the shriveled cicisbeo. Still, it is said that the old man never forgets the ones he has loved. I must apologize, my mind is prone to wandering. It is part of my condition.

I wonder how often Pablo Tac felt the same way, baptizing savages in the frontier who were more than likely bent for a hell of their own making.

How many does El Sombrerón visit to pay them their wages?

Sabrina, the Jamaican flight attendant, with the perfectly symmetrical face and the caramel complexion scolded Carl, who sat right next to me, saying, “Stay seated while the seat belt sign is illuminated. Don’t make me tell you again.” The seat belt light had been illuminated since the plane touched off and Tropical Storm Tomas caught us in its clutches, sending us in an interminable loop between Tortilla Flats and Scottsdale. Carl muttered something under his whiskey-smelling breath. Sitting down, Carl released a low, rumbling cough that rattled in his chest like a cracked carburetor. We were off to a famous start.

I didn’t know how long I’d had a demon, but El Sombrerón was in the back row with his broad-brimmed, high-crowned black hat angled down while he napped. I was safe for now. I could hear him whispering: Stefan… you can’t hide in your books forever… sooner or later you will have to face me… face your undoing… you will have to face what you have done.

While I wondered when El Sombrerón would make his move, I stroked my necklace with the coat of arms pendant, striped blue and red with an eagle at the crest. I kept reading from Alta California, a book of essays about Spanish and Mexican Settlers in the Spanish Borderlands. I was reading about the life of Pablo Tac, a Luiseno Indian, who despite dying at age nineteen, was a prolific writer and missionary whose extensive writings were the only surviving accounts of the Luiseno language and culture and one of the most studied reports of missionary life on the frontier. I had a second book in my bag, Memories of Life at a Mission, a biographical account written by Pablo Tac himself.

Carl had to get up so he could get something out of his bag in the overheads. When he sat back down, he had a stack of medical reports in hand. The header of his papers read: “Dr. Carl Kellog, M.D., Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center,” and I spotted a reference to someone named Sal—. Carl said, “I have an appointment to keep. I’ll be damned if I am going to miss it. The next thing they’re going to tell us is the flight is diverted to Goddamn Phoenix.”

On cue, the pilot came back over the PA to inform us that the flight was, indeed, being grounded in Phoenix for the night and that the airline would arrange for replacement transportation, but given the lateness of the hour, it would have to be the following day—those that did not wish to sleep in the airport would have a room comped nearby.

I was relieved when they first told me about the glioblastoma. I’d gone directly to Saint Peter’s Episcopal Church and entered the confessional. And I’d told Father Darby how I’d been driving home from the History Conference in Ithaca a few years back, after too many celebratory toasts, and quite a few tequila shooters from the mini bar to boot. I’d only wanted to sleep in my bed that night. I’d told Father Darby how I’d heard a thud and a crack of my windshield. The blue-jeaned body of a teenage girl hung in the rearview, perfectly cradled in the refracted lamplight. How I’d kept on driving. How many Hail Marys to fix that one?

Sabrina offered me a beverage, which I sternly declined, and I asked her softly, “Do you see a man about six rows back with a black-brimmed hat.”

She turned, dutifully, and then looked down at me with wide eyes. “No. No, I do not, sir,” she said. “Is everything okay?” I nodded. I was safe for now.

As we began our descent into Phoenix, Carl became apoplectic. He stowed his hands in a rigid set position on his knees and trained his eyes forward at Sabrina like she was his jailer and he stood wrongly accused.

“I have an important appointment in the morning in San Diego. I can’t be late. I just can’t.” Carl said all of this more to himself than anything.

Sabrina paid no attention.

I put my hand on Carl’s shoulder and said, “We will figure this out, together. We are going to the same place.”

* * *

“So, you are proposing we drive around the storm, through the night to San Diego? Are you nuts?”

“You want to make that appointment or not?” I asked.

And so, we tossed our luggage in the back of a silver Toyota Tacoma 4-door and hit the road.

“I saw your paperwork. So, you are a doctor?”

“A Surgeon,” Carl said. “What about you?”

“I am a history teacher, college level, up at Cornell. My research relates to sojourners and missionaries—all manner of settlers and vagabonds—anyone uprooted from their home and stranded in a foreign land. Aren’t they fascinating?”

“I suppose. That book you were reading—it was about one of those?”

“Pablo Tac.”


“A young missionary boy who grew up in the Mission San Luis Rey.”

“And what makes him so special?”

“Pablo Tac? Well, for one, he had a motto: Siempre adelante y nunca para atrás. It was more than a saying—it became his epitaph. He died young.” I don’t know it for a certainty, but I imagine Pablo Tac didn’t live long enough to make a mistake he’d regret for the rest of his life.

“Sounds foolish—he’s lucky he made it that long—out on the frontier.” Carl’s mind seemed trained to detect pathology in everything.

“You know, Pablo made it to Rome to study for the priesthood. Then returned to the frontier. He left behind quite a body of work. Made a record of nearly his whole life. Day-by-day. Imagine covering that much ground by age nineteen?”

“And how did he die, if I might ask?”


“There you go. The boy devotes himself to God, and boom—[clapping his hands for effectI]—he’s snuffed out like a match in between God’s bloodthirsty fingers.”

“I think it was a gift, that God allowed him to finish his mission early. Besides, if Pablo Tac could get that far by nineteen—then there’s hope for a couple of middle-aged codgers like us, don’t you think?” I said things like this. Hope. As if I still dared to wish for an unearned pardon. I wondered if all sojourners are really on the run. Each sure, in their own way, that redemption could only be granted, if at all, a long way off from the place where the crime happened. I guess fugitives are always prisoners of the truth.

“All I see is a promising man stomped under heel by a dictator.”

“So, there’s no point to suffering?”

“I’m an oncologist.”

“You cure the sick!”

“Cure? Oh, no. I specialize in Pancreatic Cancer. The five-year survival rate is twelve percent. My nickname among my colleagues is the ‘Grim Reaper.’ So, no, I wouldn’t exactly say that I ‘cure the sick.’ More like I chaperone them to death’s doorstep. I’m a butcher with dull blades—just an order taker at a meat counter—my patients’ diagnoses are like those number dispenser tags in a Supermarket—you know those red machines with the Garvey pull-off tags—I call their numbers and deliver the meat to the morgue.”

“Remind me to never call you for a consult,” I said—and we both laughed.

“What is that pendant you were playing with on the plane?”

“Oh, this. It is the De Santis Family Crest. A gift from my father. I was raised out by the Mission San Luis Rey by my foster family. I consider myself a De Santis, but my birthname is Stefan Daskalov.”

“That is a foreign-sounding name if I ever heard one. Where are you from, originally?”

“I was born in Bulgaria, in the year of the Jubilee.”

“And what was that like, growing up in Eastern Europe?”

“I wouldn’t know. My mother and I left when I was eight.”

“Was there something going on there you had to get away from?”

“You could say that. We were Turks, which is not such a good thing if you were living in Bulgaria. There was a national campaign to rename all Turks and erase our ethnicity. My father was an enthusiast for the resistance and the Communist jackboots came and pulled him from our home and took him to a labor camp on the island of Belene on the Danube. He died there that same year—but we never even learned how.”

“And what happened to your mother?” 

“After that, my mother and I emigrated to Turkey to escape persecution. She put me on a boat headed to California. Promising she’d follow after. She couldn’t ever save up enough for her ticket, and I never saw her again. Some years ago, I traveled back to Turkey and found the town where she was buried. It is strange—it seems like another world—one that I barely knew.” That reminded me that I had another thing to say Hail Marys for.”

“Jesus! That is one hell of a way to start out in life.”

“You know, there was nothing written on her tombstone. Out behind the old house. A real road to nowhere.”

* * *

Traveling west along I-8, we drank tall coffees and looked out on the vast desert, like two teens taking a road trip, rather than two terminally ill hypocrites.

The massive orange dunes propagated to infinity hugging dappled purple shadows for warmth, their peaks glistening in the penetrating spears of mulish moonlight smuggled past the veil. Great towering thunderheads bellowed and filled the sky like totipotent corpuscles injected with black-gray swirls of ink and mercury. 

Stefan took a wrong turn before Yuma. We finally stopped at a rickety bridge. The McPhaul Bridge. The bridge cut a path over the Gila River toward the coastal mountains. The GPS glitched and told us to cross, but the sign read “BRIDGE CLOSED.” Graffiti on the guard rails read, “BRIDGE TO NOWHERE.”

“We’ll have to backtrack and find another way through,” I said.

“I guess we’ve come to the end of the road,” Carl said, belting out an uncharacteristic laugh. Then resuming his rumbling coughs. The gasps and chokes of a stalling engine.

“For your sake, I hope not. Look up there,” I said, pointing at two figures walking across the McPhaul Bridge toward us carrying canvas sacks. They emerged from the hazy expanse, blown in with the petrichor which flavored the charged and static air.

The purple thunderheads pulsed with bursts of voltage, branching like the paradoxical immix of reaching tree limbs and searing flares. The bushes and cactuses accented the barren landscape with the resilient whit of life persisting on vapors, ruffled in a fanning and pitiless wind, trending to death.

There was a sudden knock. They were two young boys.

I rolled down my window. 

“I’m Bobo and this is my friend Amix. We are headed to California. It’s been a long journey, and the storm is coming in fast.”

“Oh, shame,” said Carl. 

“Do you think we could tag along until you get to Yuma? We can help you navigate in the desert. We know the way.”

I looked over at Carl, who nodded his approval.

“Jump in,” I said.

“The safest way is to backtrack to I-8 and take that all the way down.”

“We are in a hurry—is there a faster route,” Carl asked.

“Well, you could take the Camino Del Diablo, but I wouldn’t recommend it.”

“What is that in English? The Devil’s Highway?”

Bobo nodded.

Carl let out another hearty laugh.

He turned to me and said, “How could we refuse?”

And that was when I knew that Carl wasn’t long for this world and guessed that his appointment was not for a special case but for palliative care. Over my shoulder, I saw that El Sombrerón was sitting between the boys, his head hung expectantly over his silver guitar.

Death was alive in the cadaverous pallor of Carl’s complexion.

The color ran out of him. Like a rich, milky cheddar cheese, that starts a bright orange but whitens and hardens so quickly when left out on the cutting board.

Carl had already begun to decompose.

I wondered if Carl had cats.

If you die alone, a dog won’t eat you.

A hungry cat is another thing altogether.

* * *

Bobo was a skeletal man, not more than 5’3”. His khaki anuks shirt hugged his body, making him appear in the dark like a human shadow.

“I see you are reading Pablo Tac, Memories of Life at a Mission.”

“Yes, I am,” I said surprised, “Have you read it?”

“Ahhh, yes. What a heartbreaker. Wait until you get to the last chapter where he is called back to Rome for ordination.” Bobo tossed his sack over his shoulder and began walking back down the Devil’s Highway.

“I thought he died awaiting ordination,” I called after. 

But Bobo was already gone.

I had one of the last collector editions sold at auction at San Luis Rey.

The thing is—as I watched Bobo and Amix disappear into the dust of the desert—it occurred to me that this book had been out of print for decades, since before these boys were born.

Now it was just Carl, me, and El Sombrerón. On the Camino Del Diablo. In the dead of night.

On our way to separate destinations.

But sharing one fate.

* * *

After driving for hours, in what must have been circles, the warning light for refilling the gas tank came on, squeaking over and over at regular intervals, like a diseased heart incapable of variation, and we only had one reserve gas can left in the trunk.

“Carl,” I said, “Let’s camp out here for the night, and save our last fuel can for the daylight. I don’t want to get lost.”

Carl was looking ghastly and pallid.

“I have smores ingredients. I was saving them for the night after the wedding, but I say we build a proper fire and enjoy them tonight.”

We gathered sticks, and I used liter fluid, charcoal, and pieces of paper to help get the fire going. Even with all of that, I was barely successful, out there in the dark. How did men build fires like these for thousands of years in the hard-hearted blackness?

I pulled the sleeping bags out of the trunk. Grabbed little baggies with graham crackers, marshmallows, and chocolate squares.

Carl livened up and the two of us chatted late into the night, before falling asleep in our sleeping bags, at the edge of the fire, fingers sticky and bellies full.

The night grew cold.

* * *

Before the first rays of efflorescent dawn emerged from the undercroft of Gehenna, I arose, a diaphanous shroud.

Carl rose with me.

We both looked at the smoldering fire.

The fulgent crackling embers.

The hoary thinning smoke.

Two bodies in sleeping bags, cold and stiff in the first light.

Looking at one another, then at the horizon, I noticed that the cool desert morning felt warm and radiant on my skin. It shimmered as it touched my arms, like the glint of light off a lizard’s scales.

“Are we almost to the Mission?” I asked Carl.

Carl barely had time to shrug his shoulders before we were interrupted.

El Sombrerón strutted in a waddling gate down the road ahead, leading his train of mules into our camp. His spurs jingled and each rock gave its distinct harmony to the singing rowels. The mules whuffled and snorted the bass line. And El Sombrerón whistled, while chewing on a stick of straw, plucked from the breaching rays of the new sun. The brim of his broad-rimmed black Sombrero forever hid his visage. And he came to a stop just before us.

“Do you see him?” I asked.

Carl nodded.

“But when his strength failed him at length…” El Sombrerón said.

And I instinctively continued, “He met a pilgrim shadow.”

With that El Sombrerón gave a little bow, and continued, “O’er his heart a shadow fell…”

“But which way is the Mission?” I asked.

“Ride boldly ride the shade replied…”

“To where?”

“Over the mountains of the moon… Down the valley of the shadow…”

February 28, 2024 07:54

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Ross Dyter
08:03 Mar 07, 2024

Great story, I liked the way the different threads fitted together as the story built. Critique circle: I found the differing themes between the opening paragraphs slightly confusing and had to re-read them once I had finished to appreciate them with more context. Also the second sentence is is supposed to read "That was exactly where..." not what?


Jonathan Page
06:50 Mar 08, 2024

Thanks Ross!


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Angela M
14:25 Mar 05, 2024

I admire how you're able to build so much tension into the story that makes me want to keep reading! The title is also so perfect.


Jonathan Page
06:50 Mar 08, 2024

Thanks Angela!


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Ken Cartisano
04:26 Mar 05, 2024

'Just Deserts' funny title. Words I had to look up to understand the story. efflorescent; undercroft; Gehenna, diaphanous. fulgent; hoary; rowels. Words I never heard of before: undercroft; Gehenna; fulgent; rowels. Two bodies in sleeping bags, cold and stiff in the first light. (This is a great line.) plucked from the breaching (bleaching) rays of the new sun. Not sure if this is in error. You might have actually meant breaching. (But that doesn't mean it would be right.) It's a complex but wonderfully warm and humane story.


Jonathan Page
06:50 Mar 08, 2024

Thanks Ken!


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05:05 Mar 03, 2024

Always forward, never back - your Spanish phrase. Wasn't familiar with it. Fascinating use of words. A lot to work out. Wow. The beginning. First surprise was that Raven wasn't the problem. It was Shane.


Jonathan Page
06:50 Mar 08, 2024

Thanks Kaitlyn!


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Mary Bendickson
21:05 Feb 28, 2024

Ride on...once again, what a journey! Thank you for the full poem.


Jonathan Page
22:43 Feb 29, 2024

Thanks, Mary! Eldorado BY EDGAR ALLAN POE Gaily bedight, A gallant knight, In sunshine and in shadow, Had journeyed long, Singing a song, In search of Eldorado. But he grew old— This knight so bold— And o’er his heart a shadow— Fell as he found No spot of ground That looked like Eldorado. And, as his strength Failed him at length, He met a pilgrim shadow— ‘Shadow,’ said he, ‘Where can it be— This land of Eldorado?’ ‘Over the Mountains Of the Moon, Down the Valley of the Shadow, ...


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Alexis Araneta
10:40 Feb 28, 2024

Jonathan, I know we can always count on you for incredibly-detailed, well-built stories. There was a lot of intrigue, which kept me hooked. Lovely job !


Jonathan Page
22:44 Feb 29, 2024

Thanks, Stella!


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