(pulled three random Rory’s Story Cubes, shook ’em up, dropped on table and arranged in order they fell top to bottom, wrote short story)
Ward McPheeters adjusted the filters on his camera and snapped two more photographs of the majestic saguaro cacti as the sun slowly set behind them. Ward captured photos of each color changing phase, mostly using digital photography but sometimes he used the film camera he had mounted to another tripod. People paid more for film photos these days. He whispered sweet nothings to the clouds that passed lazily through the frame, spiking the value of each lovely picture.
click “That’s my car payment.”
click “Hm, that might cover the power bill.”
click “One step closer to retirement, yessiree.”
You see, pictures of this valley fetched a good price because no one else was willing to shoot these particular cacti. The beauty of this saguaro-filled valley, especially at sunset, was legendary. But getting there required a level of fearlessness and determination that was becoming more and more uncommon. From the nearest town, you drive eighty miles on a lonely highway. Keep your eyes peeled or you’ll miss the wide spot where a roadside marker informs passersby of the area’s violent history. Southern Arizona has been through its share of conquerors, but this particular battlefield was one of the bloodiest.
There you’ll leave your car and head out on foot for a ten mile hike. Be mindful of the sinkholes, cliffs, and loose rock, not to mention the snakes and the lizards and the spiders. And if you do manage to trip and fall, odds are you’ll land in a prickly bed of cactus. There are enough rocks and cacti in this valley to keep motorized vehicles out, and only the most experienced horsemen dare ride through this part of the desert.
Ward was no horseman, and he didn’t own a motorcycle or a four-wheeler. No, he’d abandoned his Prius at the wide spot that morning, then carried a framed backpack loaded with cameras, film, data cards, batteries, filters, lenses, tripods, a collapsible chair, and what he imagined to be plenty of food and water, to this quintessential spot. And as the sun finally sank beneath the horizon, Ward believed his hike had been worth it.
He continued to snap pictures until the sky reached full dark, then Ward sat back in his chair and took a long drink of water. He tipped his head back to gaze at the stars peaking through the clouds. If it had been a clear night he could take shots of the Milky Way, but clouds were no good for night shots. Ward closed his eyes and stretched his torso from side to side. The desert inhabitants sang their nighttime noises all around him as the temperature plummeted.
Strapping on his head lamp, Ward stowed his gear while humming an old Marty Robbins tune. With a sigh he hoisted the pack onto his back, checked the compass to get his bearings, and then set out for the road.
Even though the pack was lighter than it had been that morning, now that the food and water was all but consumed, the pack weighed heavily on his shoulders. Fatigue set in and Ward had to focus on step after treacherous step. Lizards darted away from his light, insects screeched and buzzed in his ears, and the jagged rocks seemed to roll right into his path, daring him to look away from his feet.
When he nearly tripped over a bit of dead sage brush, Ward slapped himself in the face and started to sing the Beverly Hillbillies theme song. If he couldn’t remember a word, he made up a new one and sang louder. Eventually he added six new verses with a chorus in between. He chuckled to himself and thought, “I’m on a real adventure! I hope I remember these lyrics later so I can write ’em down…”
He inhaled the crisp night air and was just about to start a new verse when he realized that he was the only thing making noise. The desert surrounding him was suddenly silent. Ward froze in place and quickly snapped off his light.
There were no sounds. No screeches. No skitters. No buzzes. His own breathing now seemed to thunder in his ears. Ward covered his mouth with one hand and held his breath, listening.
Behind him, on his right side, he thought he heard a soft thunp.
Sweat spread across his forehead and he felt a deep tremble in his stomach.
He had no weapons, not even pepper spray. People always told him that just making noise will keep any night predators away. Night predators… Ward straightened as the idea formed in his head. Again he heard the creature, whatever it was, take another step towards him. As quietly as possible, Ward pulled the small, backup digital camera from its pouch on the side of his pack. The camera didn’t take the richest pictures, but it had a very bright flash. Night predators wouldn’t like a bright light.
Ward swiveled carefully on one foot until he was facing the thing’s general direction. He took a deep breath and raised the camera, one finger on the capture button and his other hand poised above the switch on his head lamp. Deep breath.
Ward screamed and shouted, “Chupacabra!!”
He whirled and ran, flinging the digital camera to the weeds. Screaming with hysteria, Ward leapt over cacti and rocks, fumbling for the cell phone in his pocket. He pressed the home button and brought the thing to his face. “No service!” he wailed.
Ward stumbled but somehow managed to keep his feet beneath him. He unclipped his pack and let it fall from his shoulders. The ground vibrated with sickening thuds as the beast pursued him. A loose rock rolled underneath his boot and Ward’s face rushed towards the sandy dirt. His light went out. And the rest…is simply too gruesome to tell.