“The most ultimately righteous of all wars is a war with savages … the rude, fierce settler who drives the savage from the land lays all civilized mankind under a debt to him.” Theodore Roosevelt, The winning of the West, 1889 CE It was after dusk when Teddy came for us. His breath was thick and wet as it swept through the forest. Not even the coquis dared to chirp with him there, rummaging in the brush. I can still remember the wails of the trees as he flayed their barks, as he dismembered them limb by limb.
I was huddled with my family when his tongues slithered through cracks in our zinc roof, bored holes in the tarp that we hoped would shield us. Someone screamed when the roof caved in, splintered under the weight of a fallen yabisi. Its pale trunk cracked like bone beneath his invisible fist. Then, Teddy descended, jaws bared, his saliva oozing down on us in wicked rivulets.
Hands clasped, we pleaded to our creator for quick deaths. But death never came. Instead, as if our cemís had heard our prayers, Teddy’s voice caught in his throat. Silence. It was as if the engine of the cosmos had suddenly shuttered its industry, giving way to quiet entropy. And that’s when I remembered what the Gobernadora had said on the radio the night before, her warning not to trust the stillness. “No habrá paz en medio de la tormenta.”
When it was so quiet that I could hear my heart drumming in my ears, I clambered out of the wreckage. My sisters cursed at me for my foolishness, but soon they followed, curious. Where the roof had collapsed, bleached bark and serrated metal parted like the petals of a hideous flower to reveal him, grinning and gordo in the pallid sky. Below, the jungle had withered to a tangle of brown, as if his breath curled with unseen flame. A coconut palm whined and crashed. Its death echoed over the mountains, twisting into something that reminded me of laughter. I lifted my gaze to the sky to search for the face of the Taíno deity that legends say takes the shape of a storm, arms curling like serpents to set the clouds into a devastating spiral. Jurakán.
Teddy was the twentieth of twenty-two names randomly assigned for that year by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But I like to think that he was named after the Teddy, the American conquistador, the last to lay claim to this little jewel in the Caribbean I call home. How fitting that he should be the one to usher in the end of American dominion here. Perhaps we should be grateful. Some pray that our new masters will be better caretakers of our land, but we jíbaros have our doubts.
I regret not taking Mandarin at university as we sift through the packages our new rulers airdrop for us. Bags of rice. Insulin. Antibiotics. Distilled water. Bioprinted protein powder. Will the Chinese be more sympathetic than their American or Spanish predecessors? They are not strangers to our suffering. They must remember when their people were sent here as laborers to work in the factories, that last ditch effort to save Spain’s crumbling empire with industry. Or when the Americans’ Chinese Exclusion Act uprooted thousands from their communities, leaving them few refuges other than our colonial backwater. What an irony that the ones the Spanish and the Americans spat on and called coolies ended up as our new landlords.
The US sold us off like a bad investment. But on the radio they said that the Americans were on the verge of bankruptcy, that the Chinese seized Puerto Rico as collateral for unpaid debts. The price for defaulting on too many climate loans. I applaud the Chinese for banking on our collective apathy to curb emissions to win out in the end. With this International Climate Bank, they hold all the cards now. Financing natural disaster recovery efforts. Cementing their global influence by sowing debt. Before Teddy, the talking heads said that their President should get it over with and declare himself Emperor. Emperor of what, I wonder? After COVID-19, Androvirus, the gigafires and heat domes, the Thwaites Ice Shelf and Teddy, who wants to rule a world that is half-underwater and half-scorched to a dustbowl?
After Teddy, I had to teach myself not to care about what happens beyond my shores, even if that is what I spent my life preparing to do. I ignore what I hear about the Yucatán, parched by chemical weapons into a desert by the madman elected to care for it. I ignore accounts of drones slaughtering civilians branded as ‘apostates’ in Siberia for opposing the Tsarina’s theocratic regime. I ignore the latest updates on this Sino-American cold war with many fronts, fought by many proxies. It feels silly, my dream of being a journalist, that noble reporter who covered these last days of ‘civilization.’ Teddy had other plans for me. Now I’m here in the mountains, weaving solar nets with my sisters.
“It’s like when I used to braid your hair, Vero,” my little sister Yuíza says, showing me how to entwine kapok fibers, strands of blue tarp, cables, copper filaments, bulbs and glittering fragments of solar panels. She hands me a basket of materials. Her dimples are little caverns that deepen with delight. Yuíza. Ever the optimist.
I set the basket on top of a ladder and begin to thread a mesh of fibers through the boughs of a gnarled fig tree. “Remember when I did your hair for your Quinceñeara?”
Anacaona bursts into laughter behind me. My elder twin, the serious one. Even she cracks at the memory. “How could anyone forget?”
Our mother was running late that day, like always. Deciding that the fifteen kilograms of arroz con gandules she had prepared wouldn’t be enough to feed the dozen people she was expecting, she went to the market at the last minute for more pork, plantains, breadfruit and God knows what else. Anacaona, our mother’s shadow, was recruited for the shopping trip, leaving Yuíza and I behind. What was I to do? The princesa needed to be ready for her big moment. I did what I could, which admittedly was far from adequate. I’ll never forget Mami’s screams of disgust upon her return, how she wrenched the comb from my hands as if it were a murder weapon. The arcane arts of the feminine have always eluded me.
“On second thought, maybe you can help Dagüao with the breakers,” Yuíza says gently, her black curls falling over her face as she peers down at me from a rooftop.
“It’s coming along.” Anacaona gestures toward the forest, eyes alight with pride as she repositions her ladder.
I help Dagüao with the labyrinth of switches and breakers he built behind the cancha, the ballcourt that has become our unofficial town square. He’s another genius like Yuíza. Which explains why they’ve been best friends since they could crawl. I remove a rusted screw and grab a cable to attach to the open switch when I catch an expression of alarm in Dagüao’s green eyes.
-Not that!- he signs, the pads of his index and middle fingers clamping to that of his thumb.
I make a circle with my fist over my heart to reply. -Sorry.-
Dagüao passes me the end of another cable wrapped around his shoulder. I socket it into place and retighten the screws. Dagüao grins with approval, tucking his black hair into an elastic tie. In his delicate smile lines and sharp cheekbones, I can see the ghost of his father’s face, an artisan and mechanic from Ponce who moved to our mountains to build a new life with others who could communicate in his language. Teddy took too many of us.
When you’re raised in the campo, hearing or not, you learn to sign if you want to understand what’s going on. In primary school we learned a bit of ASL. But our neighbors speak a regional dialect of their own, sometimes specific to families. Communication is not the most straightforward up here, but you get used to it — you have to. We hearing people regularly switch from Spanish to English to Spanglish to ASL and LSPR and ASLPRish and that resurrected Island Arawak that youth learn at summer camp.
Dagüao riffles through a shipping container filled with useful scrap, searching for solar batteries to attach to his contraption. I follow him with discarded cable shielding and copper thread and drop them into bins that he has meticulously labeled to keep our salvage organized.
In the months since Teddy, we became scavengers to survive. They don’t tell you that the aftermath of the storm is the worst part. They don’t tell you about the despairing nights, praying for help that never comes. About digging mass graves to bury the dead under the smog-choked skies of diesel generators. In the end, we endured as we always have. Like the petroglyphs of frogs and birds etched in boulders along our rivers. We endured. From the debris of our towns, we created this yucayeke, this mountain sanctuary that has served many generations of our ancestors, going back to those daring Taíno and Yoruba that settled here, to escape the reach of the Spanish crown that enslaved them.
But with our kerosene supply dwindling, we had to find a new way to keep the lights on. Even though Teddy’s Category 6 winds shattered most of the island’s solar panels, Yuíza schemed a way to remake the debris into something that might save us. For all that our isla lacks, we have sunshine in abundance. So we weave the reflective shards of solar panels with kapok fibers from our sacred ceiba trees. We stitch circuits into a meshwork that we drape over the branches. We make solar microgrids with life’s stringy filaments. We call them our nasa -- an Arawak word for the nets that our ancestors used to catch fish in our seas and rivers, when they were still teeming with life.
“Y la música?” Anacaona descends from the ladder, the glossy twists of her hair swaying past her hips. She crosses her arms, her broad shoulders and tall stature instantly commanding respect. “It’s too quiet.”
At her bidding, Don Brizuela wheels onto the scene, followed by his grandchildren, Alonsito and Enriquillo. They carry maracas, guiros, panderetas, and his twelve-stringed pride and joy, a cautro he named India Encantada, to honor his late wife. The children guide him onto the raised catwalk we built for him to get around the village, but he has already mastered the makeshift ramps.
“How about something more retro than Bad Bunny?” He chuckles beneath his threadbare sombrero. The band strikes up an old folk song called “Espérame En El Cielo.”
“Wait for me in heaven, my love, If you are the first of us to go, Wait for me, because soon, I will come, To where you are, beyond the sky. Between bales of cloud as soft as cotton. Where we will live again.”
Dagüao notices the tears in my eyes. His hands stack and then part like a square, lips curling to mirror my sorrow. -Sad?- I feign laughter as I sign, -Estoy bien.-
I tell him I’m fine but I’m not. None of us are. I pretend as I have every day since that wall of mud buried our house with Mami, Papi, and Abuela Serafína inside, the day we became orphans and my dreams for the future were washed away. The day our community’s survivors turned to us, the children of their deceased pastor, for leadership.
Anacaona’s nails gently scratch my shoulder. She has never been the sentimental type, but I recognize this warm gesture. She always knows what I’m feeling. It’s a twin power, our grandfather used to say. “Ready?”
Yuíza and Dagüao huddle in anticipation, eager to see if their mad science experiment will end in disaster or triumph. -Turn on the lights- they sign in unison. They look like magicians pulling rabbits out of hats.
We grab the ignition cord together, and the generator sputters to life.
The forest flickers. Like neon spiderwebs woven across the canopy, our solar nets activate. It’s as if a thousand fireflies are frozen in amber above our yucayeke, their light softening everything as dusk falls. The cheers are hesitant at first, skeptical even. But after a minute or so of uninterrupted power, I jump up to hug Anacaona, shouting in that excited way I used to when we were kids. Don Brizuela is drumming his pandereta. Dagüao kisses Yuíza. Alcimar stares up in disbelief, removing his cap. The children clap and cheer and some of them run to their tents to fetch tablets to charge, followed closely by the stray dogs that have become their protectors. Grateful to be able to read his book late into the evening, Don Mateo drops into his hammock. Doña Marta switches on the electric grill, her daughter already prepping iguana kebabs and toasted casabe for the celebration.
Anacaona tosses me one of our last medallas. I snap open the can with care, as if handling a prized vintage. Teddy taught me not to take small pleasures for granted. “Salud!” I say to her, raising my can to hers. Her eyes sparkle as we tip our cans to our lips. The drink is still sweet well after expiry.
“For the yucayeke!” She twirls in a circle with her can raised.
“I thought you didn’t like calling it that.”
“This isn’t Taíno summer camp, Vero. But I think grandfather would be proud of what we’ve built here. The nasa, the yucayeke.”
I take a swig from my can. “Oh, Abuelo Abey! I’m sure he’s looking up at us from hell right now. Yeah, that’s what you get for worshipping idols!” I shout, mimicking my mother’s angry exchanges with her eccentric father.
Anacaona chuckles and crushes her empty can. “Mami was too harsh on him. Never forgave him for naming me and hermanita after old Taíno chiefs.”
I grab Anacaona’s empty as I finish my own and toss them in the salvage bin. “I think she believed in that stuff once.” Our mother never stopped me from visiting Abuelo Abey’s bohio, where he showed me the striking faces of the elder gods etched in stone. I remember being frightened by their cavernous eyes, like the orbital sockets of skulls. “It unsettled her … the possibility that her God was only one of many.”
Anacaona scoffed. “Meanwhile our father and his mother were doing Santería in our basement. She let that slide. As long as they have the names of saints.” Anacaona searches the crowd, spotting Dagüao and Yuíza approaching from the grill. The smell that precedes them is smoky and delicious.
“Los pinchos están listos!” Yuíza passes me a stick of charred, greasy meat.
Dagüao smiles as his clenched fist drums his open palm. -Buen provecho.-
I nod gratefully, then devour Doña Marta’s famous pincho. As dusk falls on the mountains and the frogs begin to sing, we drink and feast on iguana kebabs, breadfruit fritters, and crumbly casabe. There is laughter. The children are playing gallitos in the cancha. They giggle and cheer as they toss algarroba seeds threaded through string.
For a moment I allow this contagion of hope to lift me up. Somehow we always find joy, even when everything is taken from us. Even when we live in rubble and so many of us have vanished. For a moment, all I can feel is the love and warmth radiating from the faces of my community. And then I remember the shadow that looms over it all.
As the night deepens, as the people drink and grow bolder, their joy will sour. Even after this miracle we built for them, they’ll whisper and jeer. They’ll laugh and point behind my back. Because they know who I was. And they hate this new me. Just like Mami and Papi. I feel it in my bones.
But tonight I am spared. One by one, every phone, tablet, and computer lights up. An SOS on the emergency alert system. Another crisis. Another opportunity to make a difference. They’ll be too busy needing me to judge.
E.G. Condé (he/him/Él) is a queer diasporic Boricua writer of speculative fiction. Condé is one of the creators of “Taínofuturism,” an emerging artistic genre that imagines a future of Indigenous renewal and decolonial liberation for Borikén (Puerto Rico) and the archipelagos of the Caribbean. His short fiction appears in Anthropology & Humanism, If There’s Anyone Left, Reckoning, EASST Review, Tree & Stone Literary Magazine, Sword & Sorcery, Solarpunk Magazine, and FABLE: An Anthology of Sci-Fi, Horror & The Supernatural. He is also an anthropologist of technology and digital sustainability advocate (as Steven Gonzalez Monserrate). When he isn’t conjuring up faraway universes, you might find him hiking through sand dunes or playing 2D JRPGs from the 1990s. Follow his writing at www.egconde.com or on social media via @CloudAnthro on Twitter.
Sordidez and Answers of Tainofuturism by Scott Russell Duncan
I hadn’t heard the word Tainofuturism until I attended a reading by E.G. Condé where he read the first chapter of the upcoming Sordidez. I was amazed. It told of a near future Boricua community turning to renewable technology and a renewed Taino culture to survive a disaster, a hurricane aptly named Teddy after the colonizing US president. I loved hearing about the homemade solar panels called nasa, an Arawak word for nets.
I had to read the novel and know what else Tainofuturism had to offer. I’ve read other kinds of native futurisms and have tried to help Chicanofuturism along. (Shameless Scott-futurist plug: buy all the copies of El Porvenir, ¡Ya!, submit to the Chicanofuturism anthology, look for my upcoming book Old California Strikes Back and, finally, my speculative collection in progress Mexpocalyptic Tales.)
I know that for colonized people tangling with the future raises many questions.
Anyone interested in what questions futurism can answer should read Sordidez. (There is even a glossary with Taino, Arawak, and Mayan words in the back). Condé describes people turning their indigenous roots and land and refining the world and seeking to bring it back with clean technology and inter-reliance. Sordidez is a good example for Chicanofuturism with which to seek connection and solidarity.
Sordidez or sordidness, is a reference to the people with memory loss from a weaponized virus during an ugly civil war. The dirty past we are tasked to deal with as the descendants of ancestors who fought and died against other ancestors who would better be called war criminals. Boricuas, like Chicanos, are the survivors of two colonial efforts and survival often means imposed or chosen sordid choices: we lose ourselves, our language, our singular voice, our history. We deal with the culture of survival and having only pieces of ourselves. How do we deal with the trauma, how do we find ourselves whole again as the word Tainofuturism promises with a future that includes native people and outlook?
Sordidez opens in the future with the character Vero who becomes the leader of a small community hanging on in a post-climate and war apocalyptic near future Puerto Rico. Rebuilding the community is inspired by the resurfacing of Tainismo to resist occupation after Puerto Rico is being sold off to China by the USA for past debts. People scavenge from abandoned mansions left by rich Americans and use native language Windtalker-style. After losses in the conflict, the main character Vero believes transphobia will prevent him from ever being truly accepted and leaves for the outside world promised by the UN. The story moves to a “Sordidez” community where people affected with memory loss in the Yucatan from a virus released in a war with a tyrant. The community struggles to deal with the trauma, loss of identity, and finding family as some figures seek vengeance. As the UN comes to occupy the land for control rather than aid, a figure emerges, Red Wolf, who is steeped in Mayan culture and seeks to lead her people. I was worried when Vero left…I’ve read many lauded books where the central character leaves and makes some side appearance. When Vero enters the story again in Sordidez, I was relieved. Condé does an excellent job of weaving in the characters we follow, with narrative importance, not for asides. The characters had great verisimilitude for future gente, and while reading, I always felt concern over what’s at stake and was excited to know what happens next. Condé carries out the writing advice I jokingly tell myself, “Take out all the boring parts.” Sordidez could have been needlessly longer, but instead it gives us what is important, what feels important, the after affects, the decisions and the giving ups or returns.
Sordidez is an instant classic that deals with issues many occupied and colonized people deal with: intolerance, trauma, loss of history, necessity to reclaim indigenous culture, the poisoning of land and climate disaster. Sordidez offers a future vision that, though broken like the present, has hope.
Ultimately, Sordidez blends narrative, visions, healing and resolutions, in several figures, all willing to transform for their people and offer mutual aid in a found familia.
Scott Russell Duncan is senior editor at Somos en escrito Literary Magazine and Press and was editor on the first Chicano sci-fi anthology, El Porvenir, ¡Ya!, which was a finalist in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards. In 2016 his story “How My Hide Got Color” won San Francisco Litquake’s Short Story Contest. His nonfiction piece “Mexican American Psycho is in Your Dreams” won first place in the 2019 Solstice Literary Magazine Annual Literary Contest. He is at work on a collection of short stories called Mexpocalyptic Tales. His novel, Old California Strikes Back, a memoir of growing up Native/Xicano-Anglo and a fantastic tour reclaiming the myths of Mexican California, will be published in 2023 through FlowerSong Press.
When Robbie Austin carelessly flicked his cigarette butt into the side of a hiking trail in the Los Angeles National Forest, he could not have known that he would bring a day of bloodshed and terror to a fiery close.
Nor could Elisa Martinez have anticipated that her plan to seek revenge for her grandparents would receive help from an unexpected quarter.
Elisa was the only one in her family who still made time every Sunday to drive Abuela to church and then take her out for brunch before returning her to the cramped apartment in the senior living community. Abuela could be thorny and never minced words, but Elisa didn’t mind. When Elisa’s parents had thrown her out of the house at sixteen for daring to have a boyfriend, Abuela had welcomed her with open arms. When Elisa spent a weekend in jail for breaking a beer bottle over her abusive brother-in-law’s head, everyone else tut-tutted, but Abuela gave her a long hug and said, with a mischievous gleam in her eyes, “I’m glad you rearranged that puto’s face.”
So, when Abuela sunk into a dark depression, Elisa was the only one who noticed and cared. It took three Sundays for Elisa to get even a hint out of her, with Abuelita simply muttering, “It’s just something I saw on Facebook.” It took another three Sundays for her to finally reveal what was bothering her.
“It has to do with Camp Bava.”
Those two words were forbidden in the house when Elisa was growing up, but everyone in the family knew the broad strokes of the story. In 1971, Abuelita’s boyfriend had snapped and killed eleven teenagers at a summer camp. She was the only one who survived the slaughter. At first, Abuela had insisted that he was innocent, that someone else had done it. The police ignored her pleas because they were more than happy to pin the crime on a convenient scapegoat. That that scapegoat was some pesky-ass Brown Beret was icing on the cake. To make matters worse, her parents refused to believe her account of events and later disowned her when they discovered she was pregnant with a murderer’s baby. Abuela went on to have other children and the semblance of an ordinary life, but she shut down whenever anyone mentioned the summer of 1971, so her family learned to stop bringing it up. Over the years, she refused interviews from curious reporters and bloggers, many of whom painted her out to be an accomplice.
“You want to talk about it?” Elisa asked.
“No. Not if you’re going to make fun of me like everyone else.”
“Come on. You know me better than that.”
“Fine. Here goes. Lalo and I were camp counselors. It was supposed to be a way for all these Chicano kids who couldn’t afford Boy Scouts to get this nice camping experience. We were there less than three days when campers started to disappear. On the fourth day, we found one of the missing girls. You should have seen her. All shriveled up. The poor thing looked like a dried apricot. That’s a detail the cops never released, you know? It didn’t fit their story. After we found her, we packed up to leave. We were all trying not to panic, and Lalo kept us levelheaded. He was always a natural leader. Sometimes I wonder where he would have ended up if...” Elisa could see the tears beginning to well up in her grandma’s eyes. Her mother always said that Abuela was a cold, unfeeling woman, but Elisa knew there was a deep reservoir of feeling beneath the surface.
“Anyway,” Abuela continued and gulped down what might have been the start of a sob. “This is the part the cops refused to believe. Everyone tried to convince me I imagined it, that I had tried to make sense of the trauma by making up some boogeyman. I didn’t. I never stopped believing in what I saw. We were about to get into our bus when one of the campers screamed. Standing between us and the bus was that thing. He was a stringy-looking guy, all dried up, almost like that poor girl we found. He was dressed funny, you know? In a kind of tux. The kind you imagine those people in old, black-and-white Hollywood movies wear. Except the tux was all torn up and eaten away at parts. Probably the worst was his face, especially the eyes. They glowed red even in broad daylight. And the glow only got stronger when he grabbed hold of the screaming camper and started to feed.”
“Feed? Like a vampire?”
“No. No un vampiro. I mean, it attacked us in the middle of the day. But…I don’t even know if feeding is the right word. I just remember it taking hold of Rocky—that was the camper’s name—and Rocky screaming and then not screaming because it was like the thing had drained all the life out of him. That was the only time I saw it feed. When it came after the rest of us, it just attacked us with its bare hands.”
“How did you survive?”
“I got lucky. El Dandy. That’s what I remember calling it ‘cause of the way it was dressed. El Dandy cornered me and Lalo and the last surviving camper at a dock off the lake.”
She paused, and Elisa noticed a flicker of pride in Abuela’s eyes. “I don’t think that monster was expecting a fight. We had a little bit of combat training. We were going to be the revolutionary vanguard, after all. Lalo came at it with an axe. The one we used to chop wood for the campfire, I think. But the monster caught him by the neck, and Lalo dropped the axe. It was choking the life out of him. I had to do something, so I grabbed the axe and swung. Managed to hack off the arm just beneath the elbow. Here’s the messed up thing, mija. No blood came out. Nothing. Como si nunca le hubiera corrido sangre entre las venas. It looked surprised and then angry, and it swatted me away. It was so strong. It sent me flying into the lake.”
Abuela began shivering as if telling the story was purging her of years of fear, anger, survivor’s guilt, all sorts of bad feelings that had coagulated inside her. “Broke a couple of my ribs. Never really healed right. Sometimes, I have a hard time breathing.”
“You don’t have to keep telling me this,” Elisa said, “Not if it’s too much for you.”
“I have to.” Abuela sighed, “I don’t know why it didn’t come after me. I sank and then washed up on a far corner of the lake, and then I passed out from the pain of my broken ribs. When I came to, some cops were wrapping a blanket around me. They’d question me later, but I don’t know why they bothered. They found the last camper, Bennie. I remember his name now. They found him bleeding out right next to Lalo. The thing had buried the axe in Lalo’s chest and returned to wherever it came from. From there, it was easy for the pigs to piece together what happened. Lalo snapped, they said. Bennie had died defending himself and ended Lalo’s rampage—supposedly. My mind, unable to recognize that my boyfriend was a psycho, had concocted this whole monster story. They closed the case and shut down the camp, and everyone moved on.”
“But you didn’t.”
“How could I? Lalo was the love of my life. No disrespect to your other grandpa—que en paz descanse.”
“What happened with the monster?”
“El Dandy is still out there. I’ve kept tabs on missing people over the years. A hiker or two every decade or so. Nothing big enough to draw anyone’s attention, but I know he’s still out there. And then there’s this.”
She showed Elisa what had sent her into a spiral so many weeks ago. It was a Facebook ad from an up-and-coming True Crime podcast. It read:
Join Ethan and Karlie, hosts of THE MURDER BUDDIES podcast, for a weekend of chills! We’re doing a live recording at the site of the 1971 Eduardo Velez murders! Bring your graham crackers and marshmallows and bug spray! Join us for a spooky good time at Camp Bava! CLICK HERE FOR PRICING. VIP PACKAGES AVAILABLE.
“Fucking gringos,” Elisa muttered darkly. “A bunch of brown kids get hacked to pieces, and they turn it into a sleepover party.”
“I’m not mad about that. I mean, I am. But I’m also not. You live as long as I have, and you get used to this sort of thing. Our suffering don’t matter to them. I’m just worried for these people. If they go through with it, that demon out there is going to tear right through them. I feel so…powerless.”
But Elisa didn’t feel powerless. Abuela had basically raised her and imparted on her these words of wisdom from an early age: “You can be a lot of things, mija. You can be smart. You can be successful. You can be a bitch. But what I never ever want you to be is a victim.” As soon as she was old enough for it, Elisa enrolled in several self-defense classes. In high school, she gained a reputation for clobbering bullies and racists, much to her mother’s chagrin. Elisa later enlisted and started a business training stunt actors for filming fight scenes with weapons. She would not be caught unprepared for a fight.
The Murder Buddies didn’t deserve her protection, but she couldn’t let history repeat itself. She hoped that she could discourage them from recording their episode. Part of her hoped El Dandy wouldn’t show up at all. But a larger part of her wished he would. Nothing would make her happier than ending his reign of terror. El Dandy robbed her grandmother of her youth, joy, and health. He had killed Elisa’s grandfather, who was never properly mourned and had his name dragged through the mud. El Dandy had to be stopped, and the circle of her grandmother’s tragic story had to be closed.
That is why she bought a VIP package and a small but sturdy axe and drove up to the ruins of Camp Bava on a hot, windy September afternoon.
On the drive up, she listened to the episode on the murders. The hosts, bubbly and irreverent, floated theories about Lalo’s mental breakdown in between ads for mattresses and food delivery services. They pointed out that he came from a broken home, that his best friend was killed by police, that mental illness ran in his family. There was barely any mention of his activism and no mention at all of Abuela’s account of events.
Since she was listening to The Murder Buddies, she missed a very important announcement about precautionary evacuations that were underway in response to a sudden wildfire in Porter Ranch.
By the time she marched up to the fire pit at the center of the camp, she was ready to give the podcast hosts a piece of her mind. The festivities were already well under way. Everyone gathered around a crafts table with all kinds of summer camp inspired treats: deconstructed PB & J sandwiches, sloppy joes on buttered brioche, chocolate martinis lined with graham cracker crumbs, and so on. No expenses had been spared.
All the other guests were dressed appropriately, sporting cutesy backpacks, tiny shorts, and their complementary CAMP MURDER BUDDIES t-shirts. The dilapidated cabins encircled the communal fire pit, looming over the proceedings like creaking, rotten grave markers. The sun glared down on the campers without a single cloud in the sky to shield them from the intense rays. The breeze that occasionally passed through the dry, brittle tree leaves brought no relief from the heat. Somewhere in the distance was a thin plume of smoke, but everyone including Elisa was too busy milling about to notice it. Elisa set down her knapsack, which contained her axe, and began trying to locate the podcast hosts. Sweat stung her eyes, and she could feel the sun block she hastily applied already starting to melt away. She heard some rustling down the trail but assumed it was another latecomer like her.
As she milled about trying to find Karlie and Ethan, she picked up snatches of conversation.
“…yeah, I totally think the girlfriend was in on it…” “…okay, but it’s weird that those three people went missing like four years later…” “…I heard she said that Bigfoot did it, but the cops didn’t believe her…” “…the real hero of all this. I’m such a Bennie stan…”
Elisa grimaced. Here was her family’s suffering transformed into a decades-long game of telephone.
She heard the Murder Buddies before she saw them. Karlie, a conventionally attractive white woman in her early thirties, was haranguing her cohost. Elisa wondered how Karlie managed to keep her makeup looking impeccable in the unbearable heat, and her eyes drifted down to Karlie’s semi-exposed upper thigh, which bore a detailed tattoo of a rose. Ethan stood by scowling as Karlie pointed angrily in his face. Their show made them out to be cheerful and spontaneous, but the reality was far from that. As Elisa got closer, she heard what they were arguing about.
“We’re already here, and we already blew all this money.”
“They’re evacuating people, Ethan!”
“A few cities over! Let’s record the episode at least. They’re too busy to even notice. Besides…” But he didn’t finish his sentence because he saw Elisa approaching. It was like a switch flipped inside his head, and Ethan’s glower immediately transitioned into a jovial grin that didn’t quite reach his eyes.
“Hey there!” he said almost too cheerfully as he scanned and failed to locate Elisa’s name tag. “What can we do for you?”
“We need to leave,” Elisa warned.
“Shit! I told you someone would find out! We should have…” Karlie’s complaint was cut off by Ethan, whose face was mirthless again.
“I’ve got this,” he said through gritted teeth. “You can leave if you want, but if you check the purchase agreement, you’ll see you that you get no refund. It’s just a small fire.”
“Fire?” Elisa said. “No! That’s not what this is about.”
She was about to continue when a loud cheer erupted over by the campfire pit. The assembled hipsters whooped and hollered at a lanky figure that emerged from the forest. It looked just like Abuela had described, though a little worse for the wear given the passage of time. Its tuxedo, which was probably last pristine when Citizen Kane still played in theaters, was frayed. Holes in the pants and shirt gave everyone glimpses of desiccated flesh the color of a spoiled Bartlett pear. As Elisa expected, it was missing most of one of its arms. At some point between 1971 and now, it had tied what looked like a railroad spike to the ruined flesh of its stub. Bits of skull peered from the places where its scalp had rotted off. Even in broad daylight, its eyes glowed red as if someone had placed a crimson-tinted flashlight inside its skull.
Elisa had promised to take her grandmother seriously. On the drive up, she secretly wished that this cadaverous nightmare had really been a figment of Abuela’s imagination. No such luck. An unforgivingly arid gust of wind accompanied El Dandy as he shambled towards the assembled true crime fans. Abuela always said that los vientos de Santa Ana brought not only forest fires but violence and hatred with them. Elisa doubted her less than ever.
“You hired an actor?” Karlie squealed in delight.
“Don’t lie! I don’t get why it’s a zombie though. But whatever.” The wheels turned inside Karlie’s head. “Wait!” she added furiously, “Is this why we’re over budget?!”
“Get away from him!” Elisa cautioned.
But she was too late. Already the podcast crowd, some of whom shrieked with amused faux terror, were surrounding El Dandy and snapping pictures with their smartphones and commenting on the excellent makeup work. The more squeamish fans shrunk away in real fear. A tall fan who had already cut the sleeves off his camp t-shirt, swung his arm around the ghoul’s neck.
“Let’s take a selfie, bro!”
El Dandy turned to stare at the man’s cell phone, tilted its head in mild confusion, and then put its arm around the man’s neck.
“Ooooh! Cool pose!”
Just as he said this, a malevolent smile came over the creature’s face, revealing less than a handful of black, rotten teeth. It dug its scraggly fingers into the flesh of the man’s neck and then violently ripped a patch of skin right off, soaking the surrounding podcast enthusiasts with arterial spray.
The selfie-taker dropped to his knees and then collapsed face-first in the dirt, staining the ground around him a sickly maroon shade. A few campers stood rooted to the ground in disbelief, perhaps some of them even entertaining the notion that this, too, was part of an act, that these were just exceptionally well-executed special effects. This might have been what a young woman in a neon-blue miniskirt was considering when El Dandy rammed its spike straight through her chest. As her body went limp, he casually tossed her aside and set his sights on Elisa and the podcast hosts.
Before he could go any further, though, a burly man put the creature in a sleeper hold. Elisa recognized him as the one who had proclaimed himself a Bennie stan.
“You killed my girlfriend! You fucker! You killed her!” he howled at the inhuman thing, spittle flying out of his grieving, enraged mouth.
Elisa took advantage of this momentary distraction and made a beeline towards her knapsack. As she scrambled to pull the axe out of her bag, she noticed the unmistakable smell of smoke hanging in the air.
El Dandy was at a disadvantage trying to pluck the man of its back. Even for a preternaturally strong fiend, it would have been no easy feat, and trying to do so with one working arm made it even harder. Still, brute strength and evil cunning succeeded won out. El Dandy grabbed hold of the man’s lower jaw and squeezed tight enough for Elisa to hear the crunch of bone even several feet away. In one fluid motion, it yanked the boyfriend’s jaw right off its hinges. The man’s grip slackened, and he dropped off El Dandy, writhing and gurgling until he grew still. The creature carelessly hurled the ruined jaw aside and turned to look at Elisa. She stood before him, defiant and wielding an axe.
Having “lived” as long as it had, its memories tended to flow into one another, years of stalking, killing, and sleeping coalescing into one big, dark ocean. Only a handful of events stuck out in El Dandy’s mind like lighthouses dotting a midnight shore. Though it didn’t always remember which memories were months, years, or even decades apart, it still clung to these with the same tenacity that a drowning man clings to a board when adrift at sea. It remembered when it was still a man who used to hold séances and sell crystals and other mystical items to all the gullible transplants, all those times reading the fortunes of impressionable young starlets thinking they’d be the next Katharine Hepburn. It remembered the night a gunrunner didn’t take too kindly to getting conned. It remembered the resulting gutshot even if pain was now a concept alien to it. It remembered the long car ride, jammed in someone’s trunk, and then the fall off the side of a cliff, seeming to hit every rock on the way down. It remembered the voice in its head, older than the hills, predating the boosters that came out to Los Angeles to make it the next big thing, predating even the Serrano and Cahuilla tribes. It remembered the voice’s offer: Kill on my behalf, spill blood for me, and you will never have to die.
Most of all, it remembered the greaser bitch that had hacked off its arm. It remembered her fury, which had caught it off guard. It remembered its annoyance and then the satisfaction of killing her boyfriend. Its hatred and prejudice burned brightly in the shriveled lump of meat that was now its heart. For a second, El Dandy confused the past with the present. But then a realization dawned in its decrepit head. This wasn’t her standing before El Dandy right now. Not exactly. But she had the same eyes. A descendant most likely. An opportunity to tie up loose ends across time. The thing that used to be Gregory the Mystic and who had long ago lost the power of speech communicated its rage through a long, baleful hiss.
“This is for my grandparents, you ugly piece of shit,” Elisa hissed right back at it.
She swung the axe in a downward arc, hoping to bury it in the wight’s head and end the fight early, but it reacted quickly and blocked the swing with its weaponized half-arm. Steel rang on rusted iron, and Elisa’s attack at least managed to sever some of the ropes keeping the spike in place, and it dropped onto the ground with a clang, still covered in ichor and with some slats of the creature’s flesh clinging to it.
But a one-armed El Dandy was still dangerous. He swung at her with his remaining arm, and she rolled out of its way and buried the axe in his back. El Dandy turned to face her and grabbed her by the throat, lifting her several feet in the air. She struggled to free herself and fruitlessly flung kicks his way. His gripped tightened. Soon he would snuff her out.
And then several shots rang out. Few of them managed to hit anything, but one of them blasted right under El Dandy’s collarbone, spraying Elisa with bone shards and whatever it is that passed for blood in that monstrous body.
El Dandy dropped Elisa to face his new attacker, a flustered Karlie struggling to reload her gun. “Why do you have a gun?!” her cohost stammered.
“We do a show about serial killers who kill women, Ethan. Why the fuck wouldn’t I have one?”.
“Please. You live in Bel Air,” Ethan answered and then hid behind her.
El Dandy marched resolutely towards them. It had decided to save the Mexican girl for later, maybe even drain her lifeforce to replenish its own. The two podcasters broke into a run deeper into the forest.
Good. It loved a chase.
Meanwhile, Elisa struggled to draw air back into her lungs and spent several minutes trying to normalize her breathing. Her throat felt raw. He had almost gotten her, and she considered calling it a day. Let these two dorks get what was coming to them. But she couldn’t do that. She staggered to her feet and saw that her axe was nowhere to be found. It was still stuck in El Dandy’s back, so she picked up his fallen spike and followed down the trail after them.
The sunlight seemed to dim somewhat. By now, the fire must be completely out of control. Flecks of ash whirled lazily in the reddening sky. The event should have been canceled.
“Those irresponsible bastards.” Elisa’s seething was interrupted by the sound of more gunshots. They weren’t far ahead.
When she finally caught up to them in a clearing, she could see the blaze snaking down a hillside towards her. In the center of the clearing, El Dandy had its claws dug into Karlie’s shoulders. Her eyes were rolling in the back of her head, and a strange, reddish glow emanated from both their bodies. A few feet away lay Ethan, his head a bloody ruin and Karlie’s gore-encrusted gun resting right next to the mushy mess. In the end, the firearm had been worse than useless.
Elisa prayed that the spike would be more help and rammed it into the back of El Dandy’s skull as it fed. It dropped what was left of Karlie and let out an ear-piercing shriek.
“Now it ends,” Elisa said gravely.
Except it didn’t.
El Dandy turned to face her, the pointed end of the spike protruding right through one of his eye sockets. He pulled out the spike and contemptuously threw it over his shoulder. Elisa stared in shock at the hole in the creature’s face through which the orange, smoke-choked sunlight shone. It was unclear what actually kept the abomination going, but Elisa realized, to her dismay, that it certainly wasn’t his brain.
She had exhausted her options, and the fire from the hillside now approached the clearing at an alarming speed. She turned towards a path to her right and retreated, pursued by both monster and fire, two equally unrelenting forces. The path she followed took her to the dock where her grandparents faced down El Dandy all those years ago.
“Everything comes full circle,” she whispered to herself. “I die here, or he does. Or we both do.” The flames caught up to her before El Dandy did, encircling the lake and creating a blazing arena for the combatants. Black smoke started to blot out the sun’s harsh rays as El Dandy shuffled menacingly towards her, taking his sweet time despite the conflagration surrounding them.
Elisa figured that she could lop off his head if she could just free that axe from El Dandy’s back. It was a long shot, but a hope in hell was all that she had left.
She raced towards El Dandy and ducked under a swing of his claw. She could feel victory in her grasp as she dislodged the axe, but this feeling was short-lived. With unnatural agility, El Dandy grabbed her wrist. Her bones groaned and splintered in his hand, and her grasp failed—her weapon and hopes now both out of reach.
Then El Dandy began to “feed.” The pain in Elisa’s wrist was replaced by a coldness she could feel throughout her entire body. She felt more tired than she had ever felt. “I’m sorry, Abuela,” she whispered hoarsely and looked up, hoping that Heaven, if nothing else, would intervene to save her. As she did, she saw through the hole in El Dandy’s head that the tree behind them had a charred branch hanging on by a knotty thread. With one final burst of energy, she wailed a primal scream and shoved El Dandy as hard as possible into the path of the collapsing, blazing branch. El Dandy seemed to humor her efforts and mockingly grinned at her, but his arrogant sneer was soon replaced by bewilderment when the branch snapped and collapsed on top of the pair.
El Dandy caught most of the branch’s impact, and Elisa rapidly crawled backwards, not even noticing that her left pants leg had caught fire. She was having an easier time than the undead killer, who was now pinned down by the flaming branch. It writhed and screeched and grew blacker and smaller until it stopped moving. A pale, red light snaked out of where its mouth used to be and was swallowed up by the flames.
She was so caught up in watching El Dandy’s death throes that she failed to notice the fire on her leg, but the pain snapped her out of her stupor, and she furiously swatted at her jeans with her working hand. When she finally put the flames out, she looked around with weary eyes. There was no way to get back to her car. No way to go anywhere, really.
Elisa staggered over to the dock. She had no doubt that the fire would soon eat that up as well. She wondered how long she could float in the lake, perhaps long enough to be rescued, perhaps not long enough to avoid suffocating on the smoke darkening the late afternoon sky.
She stood on the edge of the dock, expecting El Dandy to spring back to life any moment, but the threat of that nightmare had passed.
Elisa allowed herself a brief smile before sliding gingerly into the waters awaiting her. The sound of her splash was met by the steady roar of the flames eating away at the wooden dock. Somewhere above her, the buzz of helicopters and the howling of los vientos de Santa Ana fought to decide the forest’s fate.
Salvador Ayala is a PhD Candidate at Rutgers University, where he works on twentieth-century U.S. and Latin American literature. He was born in Mexico, grew up in Los Angeles, and resides in Philadelphia. Salvador is an avid fan of slasher movies. His work has been featured in Nightmare Sky: Stories of Astronomical Horror from Death Knell Press.