09 Oct

Spoiler Alert: The Man by the Side of the Road

“Spoiler Alert” is a serialized short story, coming in 13 parts every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. “The Man by the Side of the Road” is part thirteen. It’s best if you know the end first, so go to part one if you haven’t read it yet.

Of course, that wasn’t going to happen. It couldn’t. So I told him he needed to take this trip alone.


I didn’t answer for fear I’d say the wrong thing. If David didn’t take that burning bus north, would I never meet the pregnant, kiss-blowing love of my life? How fragile were these things?

David grabbed my hand — a gesture almost too tender to take. “Oh, no. He told you, didn’t he? Something happens on your next bus trip?”

David’s voice trembled a little, his sympathy towards me palpable. And when I looked in his watery eyes, it felt like I was looking at my own son. I had to give him some hope. So I lied. “Yeah. You need to stay away from me.”

He held my gaze for a long time. A little too long. I thought maybe he saw through me. But then he offered me one last gulp of his water bottle. “I guess I couldn’t break you out of prison after all.”

Buses were leaving for Belize with surprising regularity. We bought separate tickets north. Mine left ten minutes after his.

“You know,” David said, just before embarking, “the old man was a liar.”

“You mean Abuelo?” I thought he might be referring to his own father.

“Yeah. He told you some version of the future. But there’s a good chance it was a lie.”

“I doubt it, but yeah, it’s possible.”

That’s when he patted me on the back. “Doubt is a wonderful thing,” he said. And I saw him no more.

Later, after the explosion and the black plume of smoke, and an hour or two spent on the side of the road, the flavored ice man made another pass. He was dressed in a ridiculous blue jumpsuit with a matching bandana over his mouth and a large, straw sombrero, so I didn’t get a good look at him. But he was about David’s size, and though he said nothing to me, his shouts of “Helados! Helados!” as he walked down the roadside sounded familiar.

He couldn’t have been David, of course. It’s nearly impossible. I know in my gut that David’s gone.

But I hope I’m wrong.

07 Oct

Spoiler Alert: The Hands

“Spoiler Alert” is a serialized short story, coming in 13 parts every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. “The Hands” is part twelve. It’s best if you know the end first, so go to part one if you haven’t read it yet.

The grand-daughters were fussing over David when I appeared, but they immediately turned their attention to me, gasping and chirping in Spanish.

“What? What did I do?” I asked.

“You closed the door,” David said. He looked like he had a hangover. “Apparently, you just locked their grandfather inside.”

The women rattled the door and said “aye” a lot. Did they know what I’d left behind? “We’ve got to get them out of here, David.”

“You gave him my gun, didn’t you?”

If someone told you you’d break a man out of a Salvadorian prison . . . .

“Let’s go.” David stood up and put a hand to his forehead.

“What about the women?”

“Don’t worry, they’ll follow us to the door. They’ll feel it necessary to see us out.”

He was right. They did follow us to the door. Back through that labyrinthine house we went until we were uttering our awkward goodbyes at the doorway. That’s when we heard the gunshot.

They must have known we were to blame for it. Hell, they may even have known it was coming. But that didn’t make their cries any quieter or any less passionate.

“We can’t stay and help them,” David said.

“I know.”

It felt shitty to leave them there, sobbing on each other’s shoulders, the awful work of cleaning out a bloodstained room left looming over them. But where there’s a death like Abuelo’s, there would be police, and we weren’t in Guatemala yet.

“I think I understand a little more, David. I think I understand how you feel. It’s this sort of helplessness, isn’t it?”

He didn’t answer immediately. In fact, he didn’t speak much for the next hour or so. He only gave the occasional directions — “Let’s go left here,” or “This way.” But when we finally hitched a ride on a camioneta headed north, he spoke up. “I wasn’t helpless, you know. I just believed I was.”

It felt reassuring to be in the back of that truck, nodding at each other once again.

“If the old man told me lies, that means there’s hope.” He clasped his hands together as though in prayer. They were my own hands, in a sense. I’d seen them from the unique perspective of their owner.

He smiled. “When we get to Jutiapa, let’s catch a bus to Belize.”

05 Oct

Spoiler Alert: The Other Gift

“Spoiler Alert” is a serialized short story, coming in 13 parts every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. “The Other Gift” is part eleven. It’s best if you know the end first, so go to part one if you haven’t read it yet.

I jumped up from my chair, tipping it backward and startling even myself with the sound of it hitting cement. The women had already cleared the table of anything useful — a glass of water to throw in his face, for instance — but I spotted his backpack resting near the door to the old man’s room, so I grabbed it and extracted his water bottle. “Here,” I told him. “Drink something.”

The grand-daughters arrived just in time to see David refuse the water, push back his chair, and throw his head between his knees. The older woman tended to David and the younger one began wheeling Abuelo away. “Come with me,” he whispered. I was reluctant to leave David, but I followed anyway. I suppose that’s exactly when the betrayal started.

As the girl pushed him toward his bedroom, I held the door open.

“I need your help,” he said. When I eyed the girl, he added, “Don’t worry. She doesn’t understand anything I’m saying.” Not that I was worried, really. I kind of wanted a witness to the conversation, someone to maybe discourage the full scale mindfuck I suspected Abuelo was capable of. Let’s just say I had the more common type of clairvoyance, the kind known in layman’s terms as “a bad feeling about this.”

But the pained expression on his face got me thinking otherwise. The look in his eyes as his great grand-daughter helped him into bed — a look revealing long years of helplessness due either to his geriatric immobility or to the torment of knowing the future — that look only confirmed that he was no threat to me.

“I need you to break me out of this prison,” he said, as the girl offered to change his socks.

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“My family keeps me in this room. I can’t get out of bed without their help. It’s time to go.”

“So what do you want me to do?”

He said nothing more. He only snatched my hand in his and held it with a strength that didn’t seem possible. In a brief but vivid instant, I saw the future. I saw a hallway lit by florescent lights reflecting off immaculate floors. A man wheeling an I.V. unit shuffled by. Nurses and doctors hurried towards important destinations. A two-way door swung open, and a stocky, short-haired nurse told me I might want to come in now. In the room, I saw a woman lying on a bed, watching the face of a male nurse, who was coaching her to breathe. When she turned toward me, her lips pursed and face glistening with beads of sweat, it looked like she was blowing me a kiss. She called my name and reached for me, a gesture that almost made my knees buckle with heartache. Hers was a face I’d never seen before, but I knew someday I’d love this woman with my entire being.

Abuelo let go.

I gasped like a man long submerged under water, coming up for air. “How?” I choked.

“One more,” he said. He grabbed my hand again.

This time, I saw the inside of a bus, packed with passengers. A man to my right held a small, tan dog on his lap; in the seat ahead of me, a little boy was playing peek-a-bo, giggling each time he peered over the seatback. Suddenly, the bus swerved left, throwing the toddler into his mother’s shoulder. We tipped over, and bodies fell on top of me. I got kicked in the face a few times as people struggled to right themselves, but then the bus jerked to a stop and everyone fell again. We all started clambering toward the windows, now the ceiling of the bus. I lifted a few children upwards, and just as I was reaching for more, I noticed my own hands. Something wasn’t right about them. They weren’t mine. An explosion shattered the glass, and the cabin filled with thick, black smoke.

Abuelo let go again.

I resurfaced, choking over the only reaction I could vocalize. “David.”

“That,” he said, “is what the face of God looks like. Now you know why you have to help us die.” It only struck me later that he’d said “us.” I was too busy digesting the visions of the future I’d just been subjected to.

It took little justification, though, for me to extract David’s gun from his backpack and hand it to the old man. I waited for the great granddaughter to leave, of course. But I didn’t hesitate once she had.

Abuelo touched my hand — gently this time, like a father — and said, “Tell David I’m sorry.” Only once I closed the door behind me and saw David out in the courtyard, did I realize that the old man had finally called David by his name.

02 Oct

Spoiler Alert: The Gift

“Spoiler Alert” is a serialized short story, coming in 13 parts every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. “The Gift” is part ten. It’s best if you know the end first, so go to part one if you haven’t read it yet.

We stayed for soup and David spoke with the grand-daughter and great-grand-daughter, who went out of their way to make us feel at home.

David translated their words for me. “We knew you were coming. Grandpa can still see the future. But he doesn’t remember the past very well.”

I had a little epiphany — or maybe just a memory from high school Spanish — that abuelo is grandpa. David was unimpressed.

Abuelo didn’t talk much during the meal. The women had wheeled him to the table, telling us he was over 100 but they weren’t quite sure how old. They were amazed he remembered David, said he didn’t remember much these days.

I always get a little uncomfortable around invalids. I know, I know: I’m a horrible person. I’ve come to accept that. Still, the utter helplessness of the old and incapacitated, trapped in their houses or hospitals, makes me want to cry.

We ate in the courtyard, the women helping Abuelo spoon soup into his mouth. I tried not to watch, but I couldn’t stop. After the meal, the women went to the kitchen.

Abuelo perked up and cleared his throat. “Alan, I have a confession.” He didn’t look so helpless anymore. His eyes darted briefly in my direction and I pretended not to be eavesdropping. He whispered, “Half the things I told your son were lies.”

If my heart skipped a beat at this news, imagine what David’s must have been doing. I mean, if all the prophecies had come true but some of the prophecies were lies, what did that mean?

David choked out a feeble “Why?” though I’m sure he had more to ask.

Abuelo leaned in closer, but I could still hear. “You remember that man we met in Kansas City? The guy with the leather vest who was always eating pineapple from a can? What’s it he used to say? ‘Ain’t truth that’ll set you free.’

“We were given gifts, Alan. We’ve seen the face of God. But who really wants to see the face of God. It’s death.”

I would come to understand soon enough what he was saying.

In the meantime, I had David to worry about. He looked like he was ready to fall over.