Bud sat staring down at his corn flakes this morning. Yes, it was just another day, but for the third straight day, Bud didn’t wake up with the D.T.s.. That was damn strange just by itself. To top things off, he'd been able to nurse himself into what he laughingly calls "maintenance-mode drinking."
Yes, all this happened in the three days since his very vivid desert dream. A nightmare, really, with the stranger pleading for help. Then there was the whole creepy ghostly creature thing. Since that night, there was something different about Bud. He couldn't put his finger on it, but he sensed, quite suddenly, that he had some new calling in life, and it had something to do with the vision in that nightmare.
The change in Bud’s thinking reminds him of the Roy Neary character Richard Dreyfuss played in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Like Roy Neary's story, Bud begins to believe his encounter with the man in the dream the other night was some sort of 'invitation.' Except, this invitation wasn’t from an alien lifeform. He knew that much.
No, it was an invitation to go out into the Arizona desert. Bud just can’t figure out why. Bud remembered the comments his old high-school classmate Jessie Gutierrez made in the newspaper article he read the morning after his nightmare. Jessie talked about "unusual circumstances in the desert." Bud decides he needs to reach out to his old friend. The problem for Bud is he has no idea how Jessie will react to his phone call.
Bud is not good at saying he's sorry, and that may be required - given he avoided his old friend for all these years. The feelings of guilt and remorse bubble up in Bud as he stares first at his cell phone lying on the kitchen table, then at the half-empty bottle of Smirnoff just an arm’s length away. 'Which one is it going to be, old buddy?' he asks himself.
Jessie glances at his vibrating cell phone. There's an incoming call, and he doesn't recognize the number. It's definitely from out-of-state, but he can't make out the area code. "Hi, this is Jess Gutierrez." There's a long pause on the line. "Hello! Anybody there?" "Ah, hey... Jessie, it's Bud Granato."
"Bud Granato! Now that's a blast from the past. How the hell are you, Bud?" Bud stumbled momentarily for his words. It's been years since he last talked to Jessie. Except now, his friend's voice sounds different, and Bud can't figure out what's changed.
"Um, yeah. It's been a while, man. Too long, unfortunately, and that's my fault," Bud said, his voice trailing off, almost to a whisper at the end. "Nonsense, my old friend! It's REALLY good to hear from you, Bud. Your ears must have been ringing the other day because I was talking about you." "Oh yeah," Bud said hesitantly. "Oh yeah!" Jessie replied.
"Someone was asking what got me into journalism. I told them the story about when we were in junior high. Remember that?" Bud doesn't but is embarrassed to admit it, so he grunts approvingly as Jessie continues the story. "Yeah, we had to put together that fake T.V. news program for our media arts class in ninth grade.
You were amazing, man. All that research you did and the scripts you put together for all of us to read. You were the whole reason we aced that class!" Starting to vaguely recollect the events Jessie was referring to, Bud responded rather sheepishly. "It was a team effort, Jessie, but it did get me thinking about what it would be like to be a big-time news anchor." "Exactly! Me too," Jessie replied enthusiastically.
Jessie then laid out his life journey from the moment the two of them parted ways after high school. He talked about how he went to San Jose State after getting into their journalism program. He found a job at the San Jose Mercury News when he graduated and worked his way up from neighborhood beat reporter to a featured columnist.
As Jessie talked, Bud was having difficulty bringing himself to believe he knew the man on the other end of the line. Bud remembered Jess Gutierrez as a shy, mousey awkward guy. If you looked in the dictionary under the word introvert - Jessie's picture would be plastered there. The only time Jessie would really let go was when the two of them would steal booze from the local grocery store. After downing several pops - they would hang out at the local Stoneridge Mall and hit on girls. "Liquid courage," they called it. Now here was Jessie, talking to Bud - confident, yet modest at the same time.
"Jessie. How did you wind up in Parker?” Bud asks. “Sounds like you had a pretty good thing going on in San Jose." "Yeah, old buddy, that's quite a story, but the short answer is I found HER.” “Her?” Bud asked. “Yessir! Her name is Bonny, and she changed my life. I met her while I was on assignment for The Merc. I was covering a story about Native Americans' lack of access to affordable health care. One thing led to another. The next thing I knew, I was proposing to her." Bud started to laugh but caught himself.
"But why, Parker?” Bud repeated the question. "Bonny is from Parker. Her parents were Native American. They passed on several years ago. Died within days of each other. They had lots of medical issues when they got older, and Bonny is a registered nurse. When it got to the point where they couldn't get the help they needed, Bonny talked me into moving to Parker so we could take care of them.
"That's true love, old buddy," Bud said. "Yeah, I guess you're right, Bud. But it was more than just moving here to take care of Bonny’s parents. I mean, I’d grown weary of the whole Silicon Valley thing. The Mercury News was good to me, but, as you know, the whole traditional newspaper business is going down the crapper with the rise of the internet." "Boy, don't I know that!" Bud replied. "More importantly, Bud, I had been hanging on to some old crutches, if you know what I mean."
Bud instinctively knew what his old friend meant, and that made his stomach clench up in a knot for a second. The two of them had gone on many prodigious benders. Way too many for young teenage boys, and not a good harbinger of things to come. "Bud. That stuff just wasn’t working for me anymore, so I thought a change of scenery would do me good.” Bud thought to himself, ‘yeah, if only it was that easy.’
"Bonny and one of her friends on the res got me to start thinking about what I was doing to myself, so I gave up the fight, got off the pot and booze, and started taking some direction from people that I had to learn to trust..." Now squirming in his seat, feeling very uncomfortable and wanting to change the subject, Bud blurted out nervously. "Hey, Jessie! I saw that article in USA Today, the one where you were quoted about the car accident problem in Arizona."
"Oh yeah, that!" Jessie replied. "I got several emails from some of my cronies at The Merc when that USA Today story came out. They started kidding me. They asked me. When did I start writing ghost stories?" "Ghost stories?" Bud asked.
"Well, Bud, I told the USA Today that before a wave of accidents began happening, there was this one particular accident. A young man was killed in a horrible wrong-way crash near Quartzsite. There were some weird circumstances behind that crash, you know. This guy was being chased by the local sheriff, and he drove onto the highway going in the wrong direction. The guy plowed head-on into a semi. This caused a chain reaction crash, and a whole bunch of people were killed as a result. Most of the gory details were left out of the USA Today article.
“Anyway, here's the fascinating tidbit, old buddy." Jessie's voice got quieter as if he thought someone might be listening in to their conversation. "After the first crash, many of the accidents around that area involved people who were in some way connected to the guy who caused the first crash." "Really? That doesn’t seem that odd, Jessie. Did anything else seem strange?" Bud asked. "Yeah, as a matter-of-fact sports fans, there was!" Jessie replied excitedly.
"Several weeks after that first crash, there was another incident a little further west on the same highway. A guy from Parker and his family were traveling home from a vacation in California. I knew this guy. He was a local high-school teacher here in Parker. Anyway, I just happened to be returning from an assignment that evening when I drove past the crash scene. Here's the bizarre part, buddy old pal... “
The high school teacher driving the SUV was killed, along with his wife. One of his two sons, who survived the crash, kept rambling on about how his dad kept saying someone named Barry took control of the car and forced him off the road. That's when I remembered the name of the guy who was killed a few weeks earlier. Get this! His name was Barry. Barry Jankins! If that's not a Twilight Zone minute, I don't know what is!" Jessie said as he broke out in a big barrel laugh, then started humming the Twilight Zone theme song.
Bud's head was really buzzing now. It was like that feeling you get when you're really close to remembering something important, but it just keeps eluding you by the smallest of margins. Then he remembered the man in his nightmare. "Jessie. Do you think there's a way I can see a picture of this Barry guy?" "Sure, Bud. There's probably a picture of him on the memorial webpage his daughter set up for him, but tell me, why are you interested in this? "Oh, I don't know. Just a hunch, I guess," Bud replies just as Jessie gave him the URL to the memorial site.
Bud opened his laptop and punched in the website address. Up popped the memorial site with a big full-color picture of Barry Jankins on the front page. It was like a bolt of lightning had just struck Bud right on his noggin. There's total silence on the phone…
"Bud, are you still there? Jessie asked. "Ah...Ah... Ah... Jessie, this will sound really weird, but the other day I had this super freaky nightmare. I was out in the desert. I could tell it was the desert because these giant saguaro cactuses were waving at me with those long arms that they grow." That elicits a loud laugh from Jessie. "Yeah, really weird, huh, but in the dream, there's this guy following me around. At first, I can't make out the guy’s face cause he's just out of my field of vision. Then, he is standing right in front of me, and he's pleading for help. I only see his face for like a second or two before this ugly ghost creature jumps between the two of us and starts growling at me like a mad dog. I turn and walk in a different direction, and the guy jumps in front of me again, pleading for help. Again, the creepy figure jumps between us. This happens like three or four times, then I wake up in a cold sweat."
"Man, that's some heavy dream shit!" Jessie exclaims. "Jessie! The guy in that dream is the same guy I'm looking at here on my laptop screen!" Bud's voice is starting to tremble with palpable excitement. "I'm 100% sure of it," Bud adds. "Woah! Are you sure about this man?" Jessie asked. Bud continued, "Ever since I had that dream, I've had this gnawing feeling like I've been invited on some kind of friggin adventure." "Well. I have some time off coming to me. Besides, it's a slow time of the year here. Maybe I'll go out there for a few days to poke around."
"Awesome, dude! Listen, you have to stay with us. Bonny and I would love to spend some time with you," Jessie rattles on enthusiastically. "Ok. Maybe. Thanks for offering. I'll get back with you later today," Bud replies. "Listen, Bud, I gotta get to work. Let's talk soon." "Absolutely, Jessie! I'm really glad I called, and I'm sorry I haven't stayed in touch." "No apology necessary, my friend. We're talking now, and that's all that matters. I'll talk to you soon, Bud."
Bud put the cell phone down on the table and quickly fixed his attention on his laptop to find AA.com. He started looking for the next flight to Phoenix. ‘AA.com... isn't that ironic,’ Bud thought to himself. I can't seem to get away from thinking about Alcoholics Anonymous. I wonder if Jessie is involved in that outfit?’ Those thoughts would have to wait for now. Bud finally has the coordinates to the destination he received in his dream invitation. This was not the time to get bogged down in extraneous and superfluous discussions about the state of his sobriety.
To be continued...