Editor’s Note: One of the perks of a local shop is the opportunity for interaction with one’s neighbors and customers. Gifts To Go is pleased to host two writers critique groups which provide us with great exchanges and many fun afternoons. This post is the first two chapters of an intriguing story by one of the group’s members. The work started as a short story but after input from others is developing into an thoughtful “Twlight Zone-like” tale. Your comments are welcomed by the author.
John McGary loved to hike. He worked his way through the week with only one thing in mind. Going hiking on the weekend.
Sunday dawned bright and clear with a vermillion blue sky, a slight breeze and the promise of moderate temperature of only one hundred degrees in the afternoon. John grabbed his daypack, checked it and confirmed it was already packed with his usual hiking supplies. These included; a windbreaker, a lightweight Mylar “solar blanket”, a topo map of the area he would traverse today, a compass, and high energy snacks. Included were his binoculars, cell phone,(not that it would be of much use), a small, but powerful handheld Ham radio transceiver, several bottles of water, his digital camera, a snake bite kit and a small first aid kit.
John tossed the daypack in the trunk of his car and headed north from Surprise up US highway 60 towards Wickenburg. After about 25 minutes he turned right off the highway onto Castle Hot Springs Road which cut through Morristown, crossing over Arizona 74 and passing behind a stone and gravel quarry before the road turned to gravel and eventually to dirt. The place where he planned on hiking this day was officially listed as a wilderness area, which meant that there were few established trails and that the terrain was what most would consider rough.
Castle Hot Springs had, at the beginning of the 20th century been a destination for travelers. The site boasted a real natural hot spring with bubbling mineral rich waters that attracted visitors from far and wide. The Morristown, Arizona railway station, on the Santa Fe line, was the starting point for those seeking to “take the waters” at the springs. A carriage ride took those visitors from the station across the valley desert floor and up into the hills eventually reaching a lodge that had been constructed near the spring. The lodge had eventually succumbed to the ravages of time and a fire and had gone the way of all flesh. The springs remained for those hardy enough to drive into the hills and hike up to it. The entire area around it was now part of a designated wilderness area.
John drove carefully along the winding dirt road, climbing higher up into the hills, meeting one or two other vehicles heading the other way on the narrow road.
Arriving at the designated parking area, John placed a light reflective sunshade inside his vehicles’ windshield and placed a note he had prepared, under the driver’s side windshield wiper. The note included: his name and cell phone number, the date and time he was setting out on his hike, his proposed route of travel, and his estimated time of return to the vehicle. Additionally John noted that he was a licensed Amateur Radio Operator, listed his call sign and the fact that he had a Ham radio portable with him and a frequency that he would be monitoring in the event of emergency.
John went around to the trunk of his vehicle, open it and remove the day pack, opened the cooler he had in the trunk and drank a full bottle of cool water before he strapped on his hunting knife, and slung the day pack onto his back. He also slipped the large camping canteen over his shoulder. It was heavy and bulky, but too much water was a self-correcting problem, especially in the desert. Too much water was much better than not enough.
He consulted the official US Coast and Geodetic Survey Topographical map for the area that he had brought. A real paper map was always better while hiking in the more remote areas because terrain details were right there in front of you instead of on a small screen that a cell phone or GPS device had.
Besides cell phones needed coverage to work and the batteries never went dead on a paper map like they could in a handheld GPS. You could read a paper map in full bright sunlight without sheltering the screen also.
John adjusted his sunglasses, and snugged down his hat and started up the hill away from the parking area, noting the time and starting the stopwatch function on his wristwatch. It was just 9AM. A bit of a late start, but today would be a shorter hike, three to four hours out, with a one hour rest and three to four hours back. Estimated time back at the parking area would be between 4 and 6 PM. Not that many miles would be covered as the terrain was not easy and there was no hurry to cover as much distance as possible. Today was a day to look at things along the way.
John hiked out for about three and a half hours. He took frequent breaks for water, to rest, and to observe the terrain, the flora and fauna in the area and just to enjoy the wilderness. The midpoint break included a short nap and some food from his day pack.
About one thirty, John started back down towards the parking area. He had decided to return over a slightly different route and frequently consulted his topo map to ensure he was on track. He chose to use a narrow canyon to save himself the trouble of descending a rather steep slope that was strewn with large rocks. After several turns John noted that the terrain and the map did not seem to be in sync with one another and he became concern that a wrong turn may have occurred. Suddenly the canyon opened up into a large rectangular area that was level and sandy.
In the center of the open area John came upon a man, naked, and splayed out on the sand with his hands and feet tied to wooden stakes with leather thongs.
“Oh my god” muttered John. He rushed over and immediately tried to untie the leather that held the man to the stakes. The leather was dry and tough and would not easily move. John reached opened his knife sheath, withdrew his blade and quickly sliced through the leather.
The man sat up and said “Thank you”.
John looked at the man. “How in the world did you ever come to be in such a predicament?’
“It is part of a wager” said the man.
John looked down at the big man, about 6 feet tall, with dark shaggy hair, a full black beard and moustache and beet red, apparently from fierce sunburn caused by the day’s relentless sun. There was an odd smell in the air also, almost like sulfur.
“Here” said John, reaching for his large canteen. “You should have some water right away”.
“Thank you” said the man. “But, there is something I must tell you first”
“No” said John. “You really should have some water right away. You have been subjected to some pretty intense sunlight and are probably dehydrated. Have a drink”
“All right “said the stranger. “But first I must tell you who I am. I am Lucifer, the fallen one, Satan, prince of darkness.”
John considered the strange man for moment thinking to himself; perhaps this poor man has been out here longer than I thought. ”Right” he said, “Here, have some water”.
The stranger sat up and said in a powerful voice “That is one time”. He rose and dusted the sand off his bottom and legs and moved over to sit upon a flat bolder nearby. “I really am Lucifer, Satan, Beelzebub, Loki, the fallen one”.
John regarded the man for a moment before speaking. “Look, you have had quite a traumatic experience today, you really need to have some water and let me help you into the shade so you can start to cool down”
The strange man looked at John and said “That is two times”. He again looked at John and in a surprisingly powerful voice said “ You must know, I am the Dark Angel, fallen from the grace of heaven, Lord of Hell, also known as Pluto, lord of the underworld, Hades, guardian of the netherworld, the Devil himself !”
John again regarded the man who only moments before had been totally helpless on the sand. He seemed taller, hardier, and almost relaxed as he sat on the large flat rock. Again the faint odor of sulfur seemed to be present. “Look, you really should have some water now.”
The man stood, slowly shaking his head. He threw his head back and laughed.
“That is three times” he pronounced. “I win this one “.
Suddenly there was a brilliant flash of light and a swirl of dust and there stood the man in a smart, white linen, single breasted lightweight suit, a white Borsalino hat perched on his head, a pair of what appeared to be Ray Bans in the breast pocket and some comfortable looking Italian loafers on his feet.
John’s mouth dropped open.
“Sir” said the man. “Allow me to offer you a drink” Suddenly a round table appeared, complete with; a white linen tablecloth champagne flutes, green linen napkins, silver place settings for two, a plate with cheeses, what appeared to be pate, a silver dish with black caviar, and small slices of Westphalian rye bread. There were two comfortable looking chairs and a large green umbrella that shaded the table and chairs from the sun. A huge silver ice bucket on a stand was between the chairs with an enormous bottle of Krug champagne nestled in the cracked ice.
John’s first thought was, I have been out here in the sun too long today, perhaps my blood sugar has fallen and I have not had enough water to stay hydrated. All this is just a mild hallucination.
The man sat in one of the chairs and waved with his hand for John to sit in the other one.
“Allow me to formally introduce myself” the man said. “I am Satan, and you are?
John shook his head as if to clear it and thought, Well, if this is a hallucination it’s a damn good one. What the hell, I’m probably passed out in the shade of the wall. I guess I might as well just go along with this for a couple of minutes while I rest and soon all will be right.
“Pleased to meet you, my name is John McGary”
Satan took the bottle of Krug and undid the wire cage on the top, pushed the cork up and out and poured the foaming liquid into the two flutes on the table. “Thank you again by the way. Today, you have helped me win my wager with my brother Jehovah. Not a big victory, but it has been awhile since I have had one, even a small one with him. He cheats you know.”
John regarded the flute on the table before he picked it up and tasted the bubbling golden liquid. It was icy cold, tart and pleasing on his tongue. “Wager?” John said with a puzzled look on his face.
“Yes” said Satan. “My brother bet me that no man would knowingly come to my aid once he was made aware, not once, not twice, but three times who I really was. This was a small victory, but as I said, it has been awhile since I have been the winner in any contest with him.”
John regarded the man and then exclaimed “Right….you’re Satan. You are sitting there in a thousand dollar suit, with six hundred dollar shoes, a four hundred dollar hat and drinking some of the best champagne the world has to offer”.
Satan regarded John McGary for a moment and then said “You would prefer a more traditional appearance?” Suddenly a flash of red flame surrounded both men. There, before John, stood an eight foot high vision of Satan straight out of legend. Tall and shaggy, with red skin, eyes with flames behind the pupils, large curving horns atop his head, long bent legs with cloven hooves, and long pointed tall. Gouts of flame shot from between the rocks. Smoke and the overpowering smell of sulfur and brimstone were surrounding them both. John thought he could hear what sounded like screams of damned souls in the background.
“But this is just what my brother would have you all believe” he waved his hand and the pleasant box canyon returned complete with the table, umbrella, comfortable chairs and the Krug.
“You know that they say” said Satan, “The winner of a conflict gets to write the history”
John McGary thought for a moment and then said, “So what is your side of the story?”
“Well” said Satan. “It’s too depressing to go into it. Suffice it to say that things are not as they seem, especially to you, since you have heard “propaganda” for thousands of years. I truly get depressed thinking about it.”
John McGary was silent for a moment and then replied, “You know in my business we have a saying that “perception is reality” and it has proven true more times than not”.
“And just what business are you in?” asked Satan.
John replied “Public Relations and Advertising”.
Sipping his cold champagne and reaching for some pate John continued. “Let’s look at this way. I know your story, as it has been related, but if you look at it from a different angle perhaps you will see the “silver lining” in it. You, were an employee of a large firm with a hard line boss who wanted things the way he wanted them. You went to the boss with some new and radical ideas that did not fit in with the world view that management had. This enraged the boss and he fired you. You were forced to leave the company and you did. You struck out on your own, to try your ideas in a fresh environment. You truly are the ultimate capitalist. You are working on ideas that do not fit the established view and the dominant company in the market is using its’ advertising to discredit you, your company, your ideas, and your product. You are living the dream of every budding entrepreneur on the planet.
For a moment there was no sound from across the table.
Then laughter boomed out and echoed off the walls of the rock walled space.
“You know”, said Satan, “I like you John McGary.” “In all of history I never thought to look at the situation that way.” “You truly have made my day, not just because you helped me win my small wage, but you have opened my eyes to reality seen from another point of view.”
John smiled and sipped his drink.
“I thank you, John McGary. I have much to think about and much to do.
I owe you, more than you can know. Do you have a business card and may I call upon you in your professional capacity in the future?’
John reached into his billfold and withdrew an engraved business card and passed it across the table. “Of course” he said.
“Wonderful” said Satan. “I am truly in your debt. I owe you big time and I always repay my debts.”
Suddenly a slightly smoking card appeared in Satan’s hand. He passed it to John saying “Feel free to reach out to me at any time..24/7/365. The number will reach me directly and the email goes direct to my desktop”
The figure stood, placed the Ray Bans on his face, adjusted his hat and said in a booming voice “And now I must go and you must continue you hike. Thank you again, you have truly made my day.”
And with a flash, the table, chairs, umbrella, champagne bucket and food were gone and John found himself sitting on a very large rock in a small area of shade.
Shaking his head John thought to himself, That was the most interesting heat & dehydration induced hallucination I have ever had.
Rising to his feet John picked up his pack, consulted his map and started back towards his vehicle. He picked his way carefully through the rocks and small canyons until he could see the parking area and his parked car. He arrived and unlocked the vehicle, then opened the trunk. He took a very cold bottle of water out of the cooler in the trunk and drank it down in one large draw. He then reached for a second one, slung his pack into the trunk and went forward to the drivers’ door. He opened the door, sat down behind the wheel and started the engine. Turning on the air conditioning, he set it to its’ highest setting before removing the solar shade form behind the windshield.
John drank from the second bottle of water and thought over the afternoons’ events. “Wow” he said out loud, “I really should think about hiking with someone from now on in order to make sure I drink enough and stay out of the sun. They can let me know when I start to see and hear things”.
John reached for the seatbelt and as it slid across his left shoulder it caught on his shirt pocket. He reached into the pocket and withdrew a black business card smelling slightly of sulfur. It was engraved with silver, displaying a name, a phone number and an email address. He shook his head. He turned the card over and in fine silver script on the back were the words “Thanks again…I owe you…call me any time. S”
After thinking for a moment John realized that it is much better to be owed a favor than to owe one to someone else. His second thought as he put the car in gear was, I wonder if this means I might have a new client?
John drove back down the road towards Morristown meeting several four wheel drive vehicles with light bars full of high output lamps headed out into the hills. Reaching Arizona Seventy Four, he turned right towards US Highway Sixty, instead of crossing and proceeding towards Surprise. When he reached the junction of Seventy Four and Sixty, he again turned right and started towards Wickenburg just ten miles to the northwest.
As he drove, John’s thoughts went back to earlier in the afternoon and his hike and the odd de-hydration hallucination he had. Of course it was a trick of the mind cause by the heat of the day and not enough water. Just then he caught a whiff of something he thought he recognized coming from his shirt pocket. John reached in and removed a black business card engraved with silver. It was slightly smoking as he regarded it. It had a phone number and an email address along with a stylized name and title printed on the front the name read “Lucifer Satanus”. The next two lines seemed to be his titles: “Angel of Light / Price of Darkness” followed by “Lord of the Underworld / Master of Hell”. The phone number 898.666.1000 and email address Lucifer@hades.org. John turned the card over and reread what was on the back. “Thanks again…I owe you…call me anytime S. Private direct # 898.666.1099” Now I know that I was out in the sun too long thought John. I’m seeing things that are not there and believe I am holding something in my fingers that cannot be real.
Suddenly it occurred to John that the best way to end this trick of the mind was to simply disprove it. Slowing, John pulled is car off to the side of US Sixty, stopped and reached for his phone. He dialed the number written on the back of the card. A moment later a deep voice that he recognized from earlier in the afternoon answered.
“John, I did not expect to be hearing from you so soon. Again let me thank you for giving me a lot to think about.”
There was silence on the line.
“John, are you OK? Is something wrong? Do you need help? Say something John” the voice said.
“Who…..Who….Who did you say this was” repeated John.
“Where are you John?” asked Satan. “No never mind, I see you are on US Sixty south of Wickenburg. Just stay put, and I’ll be right there.”
A moment later a wisp of smoke signified the arrival, in the passenger seat of John’s car, of the well-dressed man John had imagined seeing while hiking.
The white suit, Borsalino Hat and the Ray Bans made the man look like a drug dealer, thought John.
“Oh, just a moment” said Satan. “I should change my attire in order to blend in with the locals, considering where we are”
In the next moment the man in the passenger seat was suddenly dressed in a blue patterned short sleeve shirt, Lee jeans, with a wide, tooled brown leather belt complete with a silver “FORD” buckle, a pair of tan Tony Llama boots and, of course, a pair of Ray Bans resting on his nose. To complete the picture a straw cowboy hat was on top of his head.
John eyes bugged out as he looked across the car at his passenger. Then suddenly his eyes darted up to rearview mirror noticing the Arizona DPS car pulling off the road behind them. “Oh shit” exclaimed John.
The DPS office stopped his cruiser a short distance behind the Chevy Impala on the shoulder of the highway. He noted the license plate and reached for the microphone of his radio. “Dispatch, Valley One-Ten. Checking on a possible disabled vehicle, US Sixty, three miles north of the junction with Arizona Seventy Four. Arizona license KB7URL. Requesting wants and warrants.”
A moment later the dispatcher replied, “Valley One-Ten. Arizona license KB7URL, no wants, no warrants. Registered owner is a John Dwight McGary.Address listed as PO Box 1001 Surprise, Arizona 85379. Say your status.”
“Dispatch Valley One-Ten” replied the officer. “Will be going up to check on the driver”
The DPS officer exited his cruiser and walked up the shoulder to the idling Impala. He looked down into the car and said “Evening sir, is everything all right?”
John looked over at the DPS officer standing on the right side of the car and said “What was that officer?” It suddenly dawned on John that he was alone in the car.
“I asked you if everything was all right sir. You seem a little disoriented just now. Is there a problem?” asked the trooper.
“No” said John. Thinking quickly he added “I just finished a hike up near Castle Hot Springs and was heading into Wickenburg and suddenly felt nauseated and thought it best if I pulled over and had some more water”
“You look quite pale sir. Almost as if you had seen a ghost. Are you sure everything is all right” asked the officer.
‘Yes. I will be just fine in a minute or two. Thank you for stopping to check though” replied John
The officer watched as John reached into the back seat and removed a bottle of water from another cooler located on the back seat of the car. He opened it and drank half down in a long swallow.
“Can I offer you a bottle of water officer?” John asked.
“Thank you sir, but no.” the officer replied. “If you are sure you are OK, I will be on my way now. You have a safe trip.”
The officer returned to his cruiser.
John shook his head thinking, What next? Finishing his water, he slowly put the car in gear. After checking his mirror for oncoming traffic, he signaled and pulled back onto the pavement and continued towards Wickenburg. He noted that the DPS vehicle pulled out also and was following a short distance behind. All at once, the DPS cars’ warning lights came on and the vehicle swung through the grass and dirt of the median strip and accelerated southbound on the highway back towards the junction with Arizona Seventy Four.
As he drove northward, John shook his head and thought, OK, really need to rehydrate and get some food in me and shake off the effects of too much heat and too much sun.
The puff of smoke returned and suddenly John had a passenger in the right seat once again.
“Did not think you wanted to explain who I was to that officer” said Satan as he adjusted his hat. “We should go have some Mexican food in Wickenburg. There is a really good place called Anita’s Cantina. I’m buying.”
G.S. Morgan, Surprise, AZ