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 sound sleep at all.  

Usually, when he does dream, they're short dreams - mostly nightmares. In one recurring dream, his dad is still alive and berating him for falling into the pit of depravity and despair that is now Bud's life. For sure, Bud has dug himself deep into a hole by drinking away every good journalist job he's ever had. At the worst possible times, he would go on benders, where he was more likely to show up in the strip club than on the scene of a critical news assignment.  

In this most recent dream, a man, a younger man, was following him around. Bud could not see the young man clearly, but he was there. He sensed the man was trying to get his attention like he needed help or something. The man’s voice was speaking to Bud, but it was like the voice was talking just out of his range of hearing. Disturbingly, there 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 forever, with Bud traversing an old road out in the middle of someplace that looked like a desert – with giant saguaro cacti, each with arms on each side that enthusiastically waved at 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! Bud remembered the menacing gnarled teeth and the devilish growl the crepuscular shape made. It made Bud feel like he wanted to hide somewhere – anywhere! Then he woke up in a cold sweat. His sheets were soaked.  

As 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 about the disturbing dream he just had, but then his mind just wandered to other depressing thoughts. Bud hated his current job. He was the Chief of Digital Operations/Reporter at the Bryan County News in Georgia. He got the job because 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 Granato was once a promising journalist with an upward career trajectory.  Bud’s father, a prominent criminal defense and civil rights attorney in New York City, came from a wealthy family in New Haven, Connecticut. The senior Granato had high aspirations for his only son. Bud’s father named him Clarence after the famous barrister Clarence Darrow. Of course, his dad would want his only son to follow in his footsteps and become a great and well-respected barrister himself. Growing up, his dad often called him “Bud.” Like, “Hey Bud, can you get me a cold one out of the fridge?” or “Hey Bud! Don’t forget to get the grass mowed 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 for maybe 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 - quite unlikely 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 graduated magna cum laude and landed a job at the New York Times right out of school. Bud remembered the day he told his dad that he landed a job at The New York Times. His dad gave him a perfunctory compliment but then quickly reminded Bud, “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. However, this morning, those thoughts got interrupted by Bud’s trembling hands – which now started to shake so much he could barely hold his glass of orange juice without spilling copious amounts. As he reached for the half-empty Smirnoff bottle at the end of the counter, he glanced briefly at a news story on the bottom of the first page in the Life section of his USA Today daily newspaper.  “Mysterious Rash of Fatal Accidents in the Desert,” the headline read. Bud reflected on the dream he just had and decided he’ll read this article as soon as he gets some vodka down in sufficient quantities to calm his shaking hands.  

At first, Bud thought he would mix the vodka with the O.J., but he’d spilled so much of sweet, tangy juice, he thought to himself, “what the hell!” and he just started taking swigs right out of the bottle.  Within twenty minutes or so, his hands calmed, and his attention turned to the news article. The article talked about the escalating dangers of America’s highways and byways. Various “experts” are quoted as to the causes and cures of the mounting death toll, but what caught Bud’s eye in something he read down in the third paragraph. Described is a peculiar phenomenon happening in western Arizona. First, the article mentioned a project commissioned to address a much larger than average increase in wrong-way motor vehicle fatalities. Then the next line blows 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 in laughter and says out loud, “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 the first crash near the  I-10 Dome Rock Road exit, there’s almost an accident every week! What’s really interesting about these crashes is that in almost every instance, survivors, if there are any, report highly unusual circumstances leading up to the crash.” The phrase “unusual circumstances” peaked Bud’s attention.  

Bud goes on to read how in one case, a survivor of one of the crashes 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 no one else was there. In another case, a truck driver pulling an all-nighter reported an apparition of a young man appearing in the seat next to him, and it started talking to him. He became so distracted that he failed to see a stalled car in the middle of the highway in front of him and plowed into the car, going 65 miles per hour. A young couple in the stalled car was killed instantly. The couple had been on their way to Parker to visit a high-school friend, who’s ex-husband, ironically, had been killed just a few weeks earlier only a mile or two away from where they lost their lives.  

‘That is damn strange, indeed!” Bud thought to himself, and what about little Jessie Gutierrez! Now, 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, but they lost track of each other when Jessie moved out to San Jose to go to San Jose State. A couple of times, when Bud first got to NYU, he got phone messages from Jessie, but after Bud didn’t return a few of the calls, they quit coming in. Bud 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 ‘the hood,’” Bud shouted to himself in the mirror. 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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