Cheyenne loaded me down with shopping bags. My arms bulged like giant hams netted too tight, similar to the hocks I used to pack at the plant. She set that deep dark gaze of hers on me and I gasped for air like a beached whale.
“Thanks.” Her lips parted into a warm smile. The shine of her teeth revived me.
“Nothing to it.” I dropped the bags next to the table at the center of the food court and fell onto the nearest chair.
Something crunch and squished under me. “Dammit.”
Cheyenne stared at the bags like a mother tending her young, then scowled at me. “Toby.”
I stood and patted my ass. Cheese coated my hands. Chip particles scratched my skin through my pants. “Someone must have left them.” I scowled at the nacho container in my seat.
“How did you not see them?” Cheyenne’s silky voice always intoxicated me, but something in the jalapenos sticking to my back pocket awakened my senses.
“These contacts you want me to wear are itchy and the bags are heavy.” I scowled.
She sniffed and wrinkled her nose. “And you wonder why I say you need to work out.”
“You try carrying this stuff. It’s heavy enough to weight down The Incredible Hulk.”
She reached into her purse and pulled out some tissues.
I brushed her hand away. “I can get it.” I took the pack from her and wiped as much as I could.
“So much for a romantic weekend.” She folded her arms over her chest.
The ring in my pocket weighed me down. I straightened my pants to hide the hideous expense and lost sight of why I thought proposing in San Antonio would be a good idea.
Cheyenne needed Palm Springs or upstate New York. This would never fit. Neither would I, but something inside me clung to the idea of “us.”
“We just got here.” I clasped her hands in mine. “Wait until you see the Riverwalk.”
She bit her lip and eyed the darkening sky. Clouds breezed overhead, ready to drench my dreams. “It’s going to rain, Toby.”
“You don’t know that.” A drop smacked my forehead.
She pinched her lips tight.
I searched for something to say, anything to make her laugh, but my thoughts were empty. I swallowed hard.
Her breath came out like a cool breeze. She gave me the same little speech all women like her give. “You know I love you. This just isn’t working. We’re too different. This trip sounded nice at first, but it’s making all our problems worse.”
“We can work through a little rain.” I grumbled in my head. Don’t wax poetic. She hates poetry.
“I’m sorry, Toby.” She leaned in and kissed my cheek.
I refused to answer.
“I’ll take the hotel room and get someone to help me with my bags.” She sauntered away.
At least I won’t have to play her bell-boy anymore. I longed to laugh spitefully, to see her struggling for help, but I didn’t stick around to see who she’d replace me with.
Unsure of where to go, I wandered the streets. I can’t go to the same hotel. Neither of us needed to bump into each other after my failed attempt to build a life with her.
I marveled at the architecture of the colorful buildings molded along the streets. The rain held off at least and the clouds were with me. Adobe walls called to me and I stumbled into a Tex-Mex restaurant. “Tequila.” I breathed to the lady at the bar.
She destroyed every Hollywood ideal of a Mexican bartender. Her bright blonde hair and hazel eyes left me wondering if she was a local or someone like me. Maybe I would stay. Never go back and start over.
“Here ya go.” She slammed my shot down and ignored me until I asked for more. She stood at the opposite end of the bar laughing with a group of drunk old ladies.
I set down enough cash to cover my tab and headed to the closest bar. I don’t remember much about that part. The limes were fresh, and I drank. It seemed customary. With or without Cheyenne, I would get my money’s worth. And I did.
Stumbling down an old cobblestone path at two a.m., I found an elaborate mural of a young Latina on the side of a building. She winked at me. I blinked in a stupor. How drunk am I?
Alcohol never gave me hallucinations, but she pointed the way. I shrugged and shuffled on, scuffing my shoes on each bump. Up ahead, I recognized the Riverwalk. Bright lights surrounded it despite the hour. Their glare shot off the surface like searchlights. I held my hand up in front of my eyes and squinted. A figure stood rocking on the bridge.
Cloaked in a shadow, the figure tiptoed along the edge as if contemplating jumping in. I can’t say the idea didn’t hold some promise. I lost my job and now my love, but the city was at least there for me. Focusing on someone else’s misery gave me purpose. I imagined rushing forward to talk down a suicide, remind a fellow human of why life mattered, and become hero-of-the-day.
I got fifteen sprints in before the cobblestones tripped me. My arms flailed without warning and my face smacked the pavement. No man who kisses cobblestone knows dignity. I remained conscious and rolled over to meet the snarl of my intended saving.
It sobered me up fast. That, or the fall did it. A good fall will knock the drunkenness out of anyone. Still, I met the cold dead eyes of a monster.
It heaved over me, fangs fresh with blood. Drool dangled from its jowls. The spikey-haired creature hocked a loogie on me just as it was ready to drop in for the kill.
If not for the loogie, I may have given in. Life didn’t hold much for me. I never achieved anything other than watching everyone else win, but whatever attacked me wasn’t just hungry. The bastard spit on me.
It sparked a deeper instinct. I grabbed the beast’s throat, rolled on top of it, and looked it in the face. I cleared my throat and spit in its eye.
For a moment triumph rang through my blood.
Then the creature roared.
My ears pounded under the pressure of its mighty bellow. I didn’t know what was happening, but I sprang off the thing and ran screaming. My voice echoed along the scenic waterway as if from someone else.
Adrenalin and wounded pride kept me alive. I don’t know how long I ran, but I shouted loud enough to get hit by a few pieces of garbage. A couple of people shouted at me from their porches as they pelted me with litter. It’s always people shouting for silence that are the loudest, I thought.
I clutched my head and exhaled. My heart pounded like it would explode. Sweat coated my entire body. The stench of the monster lingered. That rotten egg garbage can smell fueled my feet until I fell behind a bush and lay there gasping for air. Brambles and stickers poked my sides, but I passed out.
When I woke up I became acquainted with Spanish roses of a different breed than my Cheyenne. They found a new way to hurt me, pricking my skin through multiple layers like splinters on steroids. I crawled away from the unforgiving plant and rolled myself up to a standing position. My spine creaked. A wave of throbbing pain seared behind my eyes. I put one hand on the small of my back, and rubbed my temples with the other. “Food. Must. Needs. Food.”
My entire body ached from the inside out. My heart, my liver, my brain, my skin; it all grew heavy. A fresh breeze tempted my taste buds with spices wafting from a nearby dwelling. I licked my lips and strode off for the nearest Carl’s Jr. One man’s Hardee’s is another man’s Carl’s Jr.
I coated my stomach in grease and my faculties began to function again. I sat back in the booth and mused on the strange encounter of the previous night, before I’d run away shrieking like a frightened child. I thought of Cheyenne and patted my pockets for my phone. My fingertips knocked against the ring box and I slumped against the table. “What am I gonna do with this thing?”
I glanced at the short pudgy cashier ringing up an impatient man. Long bags drooped under her eyes. Her wide mom-hips made me wonder how many kids she struggled to feed off of a fast food wage. The idea of handing over the engagement ring to give her a financial boost drifted from the fantasy of being pulled into a hug to reality’s more likely scenarios. Sure the money might have helped her, but too many women had been suspicious of me just holding a door open for them; I doubted she would have trusted my generosity.
I grasped the box and pulled it from the dark confines of my pants, not the grand gesture I had planned for Cheyenne, but I held it tight and determined to sell it. Why not?
The prospect of a payout got me moving. It lightened my steps. My clothes may have been wrinkled, and my breath stale, but I came here for something new and changes took hold.
Before I could return to the damn mall, I strayed over to the open-air-market by the river. I’d never seen so many smiles, or well-made handcrafted items for so cheap. Booths littered the street on both sides, but instead of offering tacky crap, these people presented artistry unlike the corporate junk they had back in Chicago.
It sent a shot of guilt through me. I stared at the box in my hand. What a hunk of crap.
The jewelry here held a spirit, generations of skill and care. If money weren’t an issue, I would have tossed the failed engagement ring into the river, but I walked past tables and booths, picked up the pace, and went along the river walk retracing my steps from the previous night.
My feet pulsed in my shoes after a while. The cobblestones reminded me of where I had been. I wandered to the mural that directed me and stopped in front of the dewy-eyed Latina. I could never forget her midnight hair and ruffle crimson dress. She offered a bright smile, but held up her hands.
I swear, they pointed the other way the night before. Shaking it off as drunken stupidity, I turned to continue, but then she shook her head.
I gaped. The alcohol slept off, food in my belly, there was no mistake here. “I’m losing it,” I said to myself.
I contemplated turning around and trying my luck with the locals, but the mall offered a safer bet. The early summer heat grew thick with humidity as the sun beat down on the buildings around me. I wiped my brow and pulled out my phone to see how long I’d been walking. Checking the screen, I did a double take. It was already after noon.
“How long was I asleep?” I continued talking to myself. It offered a slight comfort, like acknowledging an old friend. Who cared if a few people stared?
I set my course for the mall and headed onward. After passing only two of the joints I remembered drinking in, somebody stopped me. “Hey.” I pulled away, but a network of hands stayed my steps. I don’t know how many guys gripped me, but I lost forward momentum. I was dragged into an alleyway that smelled of piss and rotting food.
I kicked at my captors but the hangover left me frail. Unable to break fee, I tensed and dared to stare down the men assaulting me. The gang donned matching bandanas on their heads, they all had white shaved heads, goatees, and the same damn jeans. The “uniform” didn’t do much for fashion, or image, but I was outnumbered.
A big goon cocked his head in my face. “What you got for us?”
If he and his buddies hadn’t have looked so hard, I would have laughed. I coughed and threw up on his shoe.
The bulky guy punched me in the gut and I gasped for air. Someone yanked the ring box from my grasp and kicked me repeatedly. I fell to my knees. My skin swelled, ready to pop off my body. I managed to slide my fingers in my pocket and dial the first programmed number on my phone before pulling it out.
“You’re messing…with a mobster’s…brother.” I panted and turned the ringer on full volume.
The gang glared. Every set of eyes darkened.
I shook my head. “Take the ring. I don’t need it. She never would’ve said yes anyway.”
A hint of sympathy almost lit the leader’s eyes. Almost.
My brother answered, “What’s up bro?”
I scanned the confused faces before me. Two gaped as if they only thought through their mouths.
“Not much man. Just getting mugged.”
“Give me that.”
My phone was yanked from my hand. “Debating on turning you loose on these ass holes,” I shouted.
A chuckle came through the phone. My brother’s deep throaty rasp always did it. The muggers tossed my beat up android and booked it. The bottoms of their sneakers flipped up and down until the smack of soles on pavement died into nothingness.
“You okay, bro?”
I hobbled over to my phone, ignoring the cracked screen. “Yeah.” I forced out a laugh. Nothing like needing your big brother to save you in your late twenties. Pathetic.
“You pulled the mob line again?” He coughed, choking on the hilarity.
My cheeks puffed out. “They didn’t seem the type to respect police.”
I could see him shaking his head from the precinct. “How do you get into these situations?”
“Special occasions only.” I grinned. “Was just heading to return the ring.”
“Sorry man. Cheyenne was never your type anyway.”
I clutched the phone tight. “She dumped me before I could even ask.”
“Good. Mom hated her.”
“Mom hates everyone. We’re done here.” I set my jaw.
“Good luck.” He hung up before I could.
I hated that. Always the first to the party, never get the last word. So much for my pride. At least I still had my wallet.
I limped for the nearest bar and found solace in the tang of tequila again. “When in Rome…or San Antonio,” I sang as if I were in some black and white film.
I longed to visit The Alamo.
Cheyenne may have been a bitch, but her love of history always gave her some depth. It would have been a great fucking proposal. Instead of just “remembering The Alamo,” she would have gotten engaged there, but no, instead, I got drunk again.
This time I learned though. I avoided walking and got an Uber.
My driver seemed displeased with my appearance. She grimaced as I got in the car. Her big hoop earrings swished each time she glanced back to check on me. “You sure you’re okay to go sight-seeing?”
“To The Alamo,” I shouted and lay back against the seat.
I dozed during the ride. She urged me to grab some water once we arrived and I got out. I agreed only to ease her mind.
When the car pulled away, I stepped up to the tourist center. My parents had brought my brother and me as kids. The building stood smaller than I remembered and the tour was the same. I lingered in the tourist shop until closing time.
Once the employees closed up and shuffled off, I remained standing before the site. I stayed to wallow, and hide. “She left me because I sat in my nachos.” I slumped cross legged on the dusty roadside, arms propped up on my knees, holding my face with my hands. “Why do I always end up the fool?”
Despite my anger and resentment, a hole opened in my heart. I needed her. The pain burned and my eyes watered. I sniffed.
My whining met with a grunt. A deep, animalistic growl followed, and I was knocked forward. My neck caught a bath of sticky saliva and something jerked me aside. The rancid smell of the beast filled my senses and fangs scratched my skin.
I kicked and punched with more strength than I knew myself capable of. Claws dug at my sides and we struggled in the dirt. All the rough housing and wrestling I’d done as a boy mattered now. My muscles shook. The spiny ends of the monster’s hair jetted out at all angles. The air blew dust in our faces. Blinking hard, I shoved a finger in one of its empty eyes.
The moment I wiggled free, I rushed toward the building. I grasped the handle and pulled. I banged on it, but there was no one left. I stood locked outside with something out of a nightmare.
The creature shook its head and I glimpsed its full height for the first time. All teeth and claws, its hideous frame easily matched my average stature.
Some buddies and I laughed at a few El Chupacabra memes before I quit college; now I felt like the memes were laughing at me. I ducked around the building biding my time when the bleat of a wayward goat sounded. The Chupacabra roared a hunter’s cry and ran in the direction of the bleat.
What just happened? I rubbed my eyes. With little cover and a small chance of survival, my legs locked up. I stared out into the back field.
A blanket of gnats swarmed my vision and draped over the predator. It stalked its prey in the shadows. One foot at a time it deepened it’s stance until it fell out of sight like a shadow slipping through daylight. A slight pause and it dove onto the unsuspecting goat. The horrid shriek of death echoed. A brilliant magenta sunset glowed for one last moment. It darkened to a shifty purple night and my heart thumped.
I remained motionless.
The beast’s head bobbed up and down.
Fear kept me from drawing attention to myself, locked in place.
The slurp of distant sucking hung in the air.
I grit my teeth. Unable to look away, I drew a long breath.
El Chupacabra drained every drop of blood from the goat like an hors d’oeuve. A faint humming grew. My eyes went wide and I strained my neck trying to decipher the noise. The Chupacabra stood and fixed its face in my direction.
“Please be my ride. Please be my ride. Please be my ride.” I raced around the front of the building just as the driver pulled up. Flinging the door open, I jumped in and slammed it shut. “Go, please!”
I heaved in and out. Leaning forward I stretched my head between my knees and let the oxygen fill my burning lungs.
“Sounds like you had quite a scare,” the twang of my cabbie’s accent rolled off his lips.
“Did you see it?”
“It?” He pushed up the brim of his cowboy hat to look me over before staring back at the road.
“Never mind.” I rubbed my temples and exhaled loudly. “Just drop me at the nearest motel to the city.”
All I cared about was getting into a room with locks on the door. The exhaustion left me lying face down on top of the bed spread once I got my keys. I conked out until my neighbors thumped against the wall and woke me to another bright day.
Despite the hours of death-like sleep, I couldn’t escape the fangs, the claws. They reached for me from the closet, waited in the shower. Unable to keep calm, I found the nearest bar. Winston Churchill’s “liquid courage” became my confidence juice. Still weary, inebriation clouded my anxiety enough to keep me from becoming a paranoid psychopath who sits on the toilet with a loaded shotgun.
And then I saw her.
Cheyenne walked past the open door of the bar, framed in sunshine while I sat drinking in the dank shadows. She already had a new fool strolling with her, showing off his dimples, pecks, and credit card─like a peacock on the prowl.
It made me sick.
I threw down enough cash to pay my tab, and slunk out. I wandered that damn cobblestone again, following far back enough to remain unnoticed. Cheyenne and her tool led me through the Riverwalk and the market, where they got into a car and drove off.
Deserted and ashamed, I kicked the ground. An ad for the zoo rustled under my feet. I bent down and studied it.
I checked my phone; no updates except some texts from my mom asking if I was okay. Ignoring her messages, I googled the nearest liquor store and got myself a bottle of tequila. Then I arranged for an Uber to the zoo.
While I waited, I drank. I drank and imagined defeating El Chupacabra.
When my ride pulled up, she blinked at me. “No alcohol, okay?”
“Oh, come on. What if I close it up, for later?”
She looked me up and down. “All right. But you better be cool, man.”
“Scout’s honor.” I offered her my best Vulcan Salute, Spock style and she giggled.
The ride was quick and quiet, heaven to a man. When I got out, the late afternoon sun curved in a downward arch and I uncapped the tequila. I took a few swigs before multiple parents flashed glares of disapproval as they rush by with their kids.
One hiccup escaped me and I chucked the bottle in the trash. I staggered past the animals; made room for the families. The cages made me glad to be a human.
I relaxed and wondered what it would take to capture El Chupacabra. A plan hatched and matured before my eyes. I could do something. My confidence swelled.
Evening set in and I turned a corner as the place was about to close. My entire body filled with flames of rage. Cheyenne sat making out with, Mr. Pecks, by the exit. I marched over to them. My fists clenched. I punched him in the face, and called her a skank before security could catch me.
“Sir, you need to come with us.” A guard jogged forward walkie to his mouth. I dodged him and took off in the opposite direction. My chest burned, but two more guards joined the first following me and I lead a trail of under payed rent-a-cops around the enclosures. Cheyenne’s complaints about my physique melted away as I got the slip on them. The chase continued for longer than I intended, but I needed time.
I waited as long as I could, gasped in air and kept pumping my arms and legs. The sky finally turned to a dusty rose. The sun sank further, setting the countdown to darkness. I went by the goat corral and let out my best bleat.
That did it. All the goats began to answer me. I raised my voice and the herd harmonized with me in a bestial chorus. The low tones of a distant cry joined us from afar. I held firm and continued my call. A series of growls drew near.
My head throbbed with fear. My palms itched and my throat rasped, but still I bleated.
Each minute brought the growls closer.
The grumble rang close. I pulled a rope from my pocket and prepared a slip tie noose in front of the fenced in area.
That’s when security cornered me. “Hands up, now.”
“No,” I cried as the monster leapt onto them. El Chupacabra tore into their flesh and sent their organs spilling over the zoo walkway with a gush of crimson. It’s massive claws and giant fangs tore into a mass of arms and legs sprawling together like a game of Twister gone horribly wrong.
I spied a taser in one of the slain’s holster. Gulping down all hesitation I leapt forward. My hand grasped the handle but the beast bit my shoulder. I zapped the it, but and it ran off as I bled out.
And now I’m stuck in a holding cell.
El Chupacabra is real, and zoo security is dead. No one believes me, but I won’t stop talking about it to anyone within earshot. It all started when I sat in my nachos, but I’m not drunk and I’m not crazy.
There’s a monster out there.
“Yeah, sure.” The guard chuckled. “Your brother’s on his way to bail you out.”