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Stuck on Saddleback
How two friends came face to face with the eyes of a killer.
Greetings, my fellow fiction lovers!
Today, I’m very excited to bring you.
Ben is a writer, average golfer, and fantastic BBQ smoker based in Southern California. As well as writing an award winning pilot screenplay, Call Of The Void, Ben writes— a substack where he shares his stories, screenplay writing process, and podcast.
On this fine Saturday morning, he shares one of these stories — “Stuck on Saddleback”. Enjoy!
I’m so glad you can join me today for this short story. I’ve taken a true story about my late friend and I getting stuck on a mountain in Southern California and put a bit of a twist on it. Regardless, it was one of the last memories I had with him.
Turn the lights off for this one. Let’s get spooky.
After the third switchback up Saddleback Mountain, his red truck, a box on wheels, had met its match past a district of pine forest. Bald and worn down rubber rolled across jagged rock. Rogue, fallen black oak, and torn branches of California sycamore blown down the steep embankment onto the trail that wrapped around the mountainside and spiraled to the top. Faint mirages of Transylvania fanged at the imagination as narrow cell towers extended their bony fingertips to a vaulted obsidian ceiling beset with glinting flecks of pearls.
Rain-gouged earth fought back at every turn. My eyes would only look out the windows every so often. In the passenger seat, I threaded and jabbed the polyurethane foam back through the seams. The road up to the top of Saddleback was never this narrow, never this ruthless. I forced myself to heave my sight out the window only to have it delude into falling off the mountain's edge and down in the brambles of ashy silk tassel and blue wild rye. The sharp spines and tips of lighting-stricken live oak dot the terrain on the way down. A sheer angle of death. City lights glitz of industrial coral below eye level and Catalina floated away from Newport Coast, silhouetted in the last embers of the sun. Dull shimmers of peach and lavender danced on the horizon before they were swallowed and loaned to the ocean.
Darkness staged cricket songs under the fiery holes punched out through velvet. Coyotes, in unison, pitched and wailed together in the distance or right next to us as we rolled along the undulating trail. Alone, just the two of us.
“Please stop driving so fast.” I said.
“We’re fine.” My friend said.
“We’re not fine. Slow down.”
“Just chill, will you? We’re almost there.”
“You said they’ll see us? Once we’re there?”
“Yeah, if they’re looking.”
“What if they don’t see us? I don’t even have cell service.”
“Then they don’t see us. But we still see it.”
All I saw was panic. I saw myself fly over the cliff, stuck inside the large, metal truck as it disintegrated against the jagged serpentine below. I was desperate to remove the claustrophobic vise as it clamped harder around my thoughts, and the lever spun tighter. I rolled down the window, flung half my body out of the vehicle, and gasped for breath.
The road was narrow up ahead where the mountain fell off, and the path wrapped around the edge. A terrace, a balcony made of dirt and rock around a turn and up a steep grade. The tires couldn’t take it much longer. A coming reality was inescapable.
Lighting struck down, shaking the ground below us, but the wind had blown the sky cloudless. Thunder had yet to roll but a loud explosive pop echoed in the night and the truck lurched forward and then pitched left.
“I told you.” I said.
“Stop.” He replied.
“Tires couldn’t take it.”
“We ran over a sharp rock.”
“Which is why I said to slow down. For rocks.”
“Let’s just fix it and be gone. They’re probably already waiting for us.”
“Are we close?”
“It’s right over the crest there. We can walk if we have to.”
The jack plopped under the metal frame. It cranked. The truck ascended, metal on metal screeched and unsheathed. It snapped, slipped, and kicked out from underneath with sparks that flew up as the iron jack collided with the mountain’s rocky wall in combustion with stone and soil. The mangled, useless jack at my feet. The smell of gunpowder and metal on stone lingered where a white burn had scarred into the wall of the mountainside.
The air had stiffened. The wind began to howl. Clouds candlelit behind silver soon whisked gaunt, then flamed out black. Bright and eerie. He was walking before me; I could only tell when his figure was before the moon. Over the crest had meant over the spine, then through washed-out runs and grass matted from bedding wildlife. His boots smashed along in the moon dust. It was an auditory adventure in the dark, away from the moonlight. We continued through a thick beam of silver patch, then out of it, back into the abyss along the trail. The city skyline shone below, the sounds fused together as one synergetic hum.
Darkness again as footsteps flanked my rear. How could he have gotten behind me already?
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“What?” He replied.
“Wait, you’re still in front of me?”
“Where else would I be?”
“I heard footsteps. Behind me.”
Then I saw it as it circled us. Two yellow orbs haunted the murky darkness. They rose up the mountainside wall, then sat still and hovered in the prussian darkness, guarding the way forward before they focused on the back of my friend’s head. My platonic love for him could only whimper as I trembled.
Words hardened into cement. My lips moved, but the tongue failed to hold its weight. A voice came to me, inside the terror. A Park Ranger from the Grand Tetons I met years prior. His voice, a memory, low and calm that simmered through thick whiskers that hung over his top lip and smacked on Stoker’s natural cut stacked in the bottom. I remember the Stetson that shaded his brow and toughened his calloused grin. The voice, the memory, warned me of the backcountry. Warned me to be safe. Warned me of the mountain lion, and if I were to ever see one, it’d be the last thing my eyes would lay upon. Death, my only witness.
“Very slowly, turn around and back up to me.” I said.
“What?” He asked.
“Just do it. Or you will die. Turn around— slowly— now back up.”
“What the hell is going on?”
Lost in a shroud. Thoughts of us drug away and buried alive. The whites of my friend’s eyes in the moonlight: fear. I don’t know why, but I had to see. I knew he’d be as afraid; his eyes would show it like mine. A mirrored image of terror I’d project my feelings back into, confirm bias, push away disassociation.
“We running?” He asked, trembling.
“If you want to get us killed, sure.” I said.
“Well then what?”
“Stand our ground.”
“With our eyes. Yes. We fight.”
“What if it rushes us?”
“Then use anything other than your eyes.”
Minutes passed. Time stretched. Finally, the orbs bobbed down, and its head was lowered. A low pant, then hot breath rose and vanished. It leaped off its rocky perch in a jolt and sprinted at us in the dark blue night like a four-legged grim reaper rooster-tailing an onyx snake of smoke.
My heart raced. My friend’s was pounding. I could hear it. My legs felt heavy, slow, and stale. Life flashed before my eyes as it— ran by us, more frightened than we.
Grey, thin hair moved in the moonlight with the wind. It reached the bottom of the steep embankment and then descended left down the cliffside through the brambles and under colter pine and oak.
Yips, barks, then howls. It was just a coyote, another void-ridden creature like us, hiding, afraid to move but willing to pardon while lost in a communicative abyss.
Half an hour had passed, and the moon sank away. It was low enough to allow the stars to be stars and dull blue twisted with black. As we reached the top, another truck was parked. A pickup truck bed was open, and feet dangled over. Beer cans clanked together. We reach them. We explain. We’ll need a lift, preferably a new jack. It’s 3am.
“How about a beer first?” One asked.
As we sipped our brew, my friend laid his hand on my shoulder. “I’d say it was all worth it.” He said, looking back up to the blackening chiffon-laced indigo that bore the Great Nebula in Orion’s sword.
I knew he was right as I watched the suns and galaxies dance. Forever grateful for the blazing spheres, born of dark matter, as they transfixed upon us and haunted us from above. An endless sea of phosphorescent starlight, ablaze, rowed into the present, offering a glimpse at the past as it was happening now.
THE ENDwrites .
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