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.