9 - Desert Nightmare

Bud Granato had one of the most lucid and fitful dreams he can ever remember. Usually, he doesn't dream at all. Most nights, it's more like passing out than falling asleep. His drinking has gotten exponentially worse, and some nights it's a miracle he gets any restful sleep at all. Last night was no different. The dream last night seemed like it lasted forever, and boy, was it a doozy!! 

Usually, he has very short dreams - nightmares mostly. In one disturbing dream, his dad is still alive. He berates Bud for falling into a pit of depravity and despair that is now emblematic of his life. Oh yeah, Bud's life, let’s talk about that. For sure, he has dug himself into a deep hole by drinking away every good journalist job he's ever had. He would be doing great at first, then at the worst possible time, he would go on a prodigious bender. He was frequently more likely to show up drunk in the strip club than on the scene of his critical assignment. After getting six DUI convictions in two years, he hasn’t had a driver’s license in a long time. The only reason he didn’t wind up in prison was the strings his famous barrister father pulled. 

In this most recent dream, a man, a younger man, was following him around. Bud couldn’t see the young man clearly, but he was there. He sensed the man was trying to get his attention like he needed help. The man's voice was speaking to Bud, but it was like the voice was talking just out of his range of hearing. What freaked Bud out was this shadowy figure following the young man. The ghostly wisp reminded Bud of the bodachs depicted in the Odd Thomas books he liked so much. The dream seemed to go on and on. He was traversing an old road out in the middle of what looked like the desert – with giant saguaro cacti, each with arms on each side that enthusiastically waved like cartoon characters to Bud as he went by. Whenever the young man would attempt to get Bud's attention, the shadowy figure would swoop in between the two of them, then look back at Bud and growl. Ooh! He remembered those menacing gnarled teeth and the devilish growl the crepuscular shape made. Bud felt like he wanted to hide somewhere – anywhere! Then he woke up in a cold sweat. His sheets were soaked with sweat. 

Bud sat at his kitchen counter eating his cornflakes. It was one of the few solid foods he could keep down these days. He tried not to think too much about the disturbing dream he just had, but then his mind just wandered onto other depressing thoughts. Bud hated his current job. He was the Chief of Digital Operations at the Bryan County News in Georgia. One of his college dorm buddies was the paper's editor and felt compassion for Bud when they met up one time at a class reunion a couple of years ago. Bud had convinced his college buddy that despite all the nasty rumors he may have heard, he was really "just having a string of bad luck." His old pal bought the fairy tale and offered Bud a job. 

Bud's father was a prominent criminal defense and civil rights attorney in New York City from a wealthy family in New Haven, Connecticut. Bud’s dad had high aspirations for his only son. His father named him Clarence after the famous barrister Clarence Darrow. His dad wanted Bud to follow in his footsteps and become a barrister himself. 

Growing up, his dad often called him by a nickname. It was like, "Hey Bud, can you get me a cold one out of the fridge?" or "Hey Bud! Don't forget to mow the grass before it gets too dark." The nickname got used so much that Bud's friends just started calling him Bud. By the time he reached high school, no one had called him Clarence anymore – except his mother. 

By the end of his freshman year at NYU, Bud discovered he loved writing. He impressed faculty and other students so much with his writing prowess that he became a regular contributor to the Washington Square News, the NYU independent school newspaper. This was quite an unlikely feat for a first-year student. 

After much arm-twisting, Bud convinced his parents he would be a better journalist than an attorney. After all, NYU had one of the top journalism majors in the country. Bud wound up graduating magna cum laude and landed a job at the New York Times. Bud remembered the day he told his parents that he landed a job at The Times. His dad gave him a pat on the back, then said, "Well, if you had graduated summa cum laude instead of just magna cum laude, you might have landed an even better job." Bud was often consumed by the sting of his father's obsessive judging. 

This morning, those thoughts got interrupted by Bud's trembling hands. They started shaking so much he could barely hold his glass of O.J. without spilling the tangy nectar. When he reached for a half-empty Smirnoff bottle at the end of the counter, he noticed a news story on the first page's bottom section. "Mysterious Rash of Fatal Accidents in the Desert," the headline read. Bud reflected on his desert dream, then decided he'll read this article as soon as he got enough vodka down to calm his shaking hands. 

Bud thought he would mix the vodka with the O.J., but he'd spilled so much of juice, he thought to himself, "what the hell!" and he just started taking swigs directly out of the Smirnoff bottle. Within ten minutes or so, his hands calmed, and his attention turned back to the news article. The article talked about the escalating dangers on America's highways and byways. 

Various experts were quoted as to the causes and cures of the mounting death toll, but what caught Bud's eye was something he read down in the third paragraph. It talked about a peculiar phenomenon happening in western Arizona. First, the article mentioned a project commissioned to address a growing increase in wrong-way motor vehicle fatalities. Then the next line blew Bud away. 

"Jess Gutierrez, a reporter for the Parker Pioneer newspaper, reports not long after the project was commissioned that the number of accidents and fatalities – specifically on a stretch of Interstate 10 between Quartzsite and the California border – have grown five times faster than the rest of the state." Bud explodes with laughter, "Jessie friggin Gutierrez, that son-of-a-bitch!! I haven't seen him since high school. What a kick, my boy Jessie - a newspaper reporter. Go figure…" 

Bud's attention goes back to the news article. Gutierrez is quoted as saying, "Ever since one particularly gruesome crash near the I-10 Dome Rock Road exit, there's another accident almost every week! What's different about these crashes is that in almost every instance, there are highly unusual circumstances leading up to the crash.” The phrase ‘unusual circumstances’ peaked Bud's attention. 

One survivor reported that just before their SUV crashed, his now-deceased father was frantic about someone being in the vehicle with him – taking control of it even though it was later confirmed that no unknown passengers were in the vehicle at the time of the crash. 

In another case, a truck driver pulling an all-nighter reported an apparition looking like a young man appearing in the seat next to him. The ghostly figure started talking to him, and he became so distracted that he failed to see a stalled car in the middle of the highway. He wound up plowing into the car, going 65 miles per hour. A young couple in the stalled car was killed instantly. The two had been on their way to Parker to visit a high-school friend, whose ex-husband, ironically, had been killed just a few weeks earlier on the same highway only a mile or two away. 

“That is damn strange, indeed!" Bud thought to himself. 

“What about little Jessie Gutierrez, though?” Bud asked himself. He just had to track down the old high-school buddy and see how he was doing. Jessie and Bud were fast friends all through high school. They lost track of each other when Jessie moved out to San Jose, California, to go to San Jose State University. 

A couple of times, when Bud first got to NYU, he got phone messages from Jessie. But, after Bud didn't return several of the calls, they quit coming in. Bud thought he owed Jessie a call and probably an amends too. Amends? Yeah, isn't that what they called it in those stupid A.A. meetings he was forced to go to when he got his third DUI? 

"Wait! Screw that A. A. bullshit, I'll just call him and give him a ration. Just like the old days back in high school,” Bud mumbled to himself as he looked into the bathroom mirror and tried to summon the courage to face another day in a cruel world where everything and everyone was out to get him. He had a pretty good head of steam on now, and it was time to load up on the Binaca, flush his eyes with Visine, and get his ass to work. 

To be continued...

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