By Daniela Z. Montes
I ran across UCSB’s bike path, narrowly avoiding a hoard of bikers headed home, to their next class, or wherever. It was Dead Week, the week before finals week when we college students dress in our best sweat pants and university gear only to hole ourselves in Davidson’s Library—at least that’s what I was doing. I had an essay due soon, so I was going to go up to the eighth floor, one of the quiet floors where I could stare out the window and see all the way to the ocean. Before I reached the stairs going up to the library’s entrance, my phone rang. Dioscelina, why is she calling me?
“Hello?” I asked. Trying to hide from the Santa Barbara sun, I turned around and sat on a stone bench underneath a tree. I had an essay due soon, and while I was happy to hear from my sister, I needed to get to work.
“Bunny, Mom found out what we saw,” my sister, Dioscelina, quickly said.
“What was it?” I asked and thought back to a few weeks ago.
We piled into the truck after a long day at Disneyland. Dioscelina, Nicholas, Jesus, Julianna, and I were there from the moment the park opened until the fireworks ended at midnight. We sat in the truck, waiting for the heater to shoo away the November chill. Desert rats don’t like the cold.
Dioscelina watched the car’s temperature gauge drop slowly as the engine warmed up. It was a learned habit, one of many my dad drove into our heads when we started to drive. “Wait for the needle to drop under the one so your engine is warm. Otherwise you’ll ruin your car” and other nuggets of wisdom.
“Can you route us to the freeway?” she asked as she backed up.
I scrunched my lips and looked at my phone. It said it was at thirty percent, but my battery was shot, so I wasn’t sure how much longer it would stay alive. “Ummm, my battery is low and I don’t have a charger. Can we use your phone?” I asked.
“It’s dead. Kids, give Bunny a portable charger,” Dioscelina said. I reached my hand over the seat, waiting for a portable charger as I sent a text. She drove out of the parking lot and onto the street.
“We used them up,” said my oldest nephew, Jesus.
Dioscelina quickly looked over her shoulder as she brought the car to a stop at a light. “Seriously? The portable chargers can hold hours of battery.”
The kids stayed quiet. They knew their mom would only hold back so much in front of Jesus’s girlfriend, Julianna. Silence was always better than trying to correct her. Sometimes nothing was enough.
“It’s okay,” I said, trying to smooth things over. “There’s a Walgreens over there. I’ll just buy a cable.”
“They’re closed,” Dioscelina said. The dash lightly illuminated my sister’s face, deepening her lines as she concentrated on the signs overhead. Maybe she hoped one of them would spark her memory and she would remember how to get onto the freeway and out of Anaheim.
“Then go to a gas station. They have chargers, or at least car adapters.” I opened Google Maps and was halfway through adding the address before my phone lagged, then went black. Shit.
My sister drove past an Arco, then a Shell.
Didn’t she hear what I said? “My phone died.” No reaction. I turned in my seat. “Can I borrow one of your phones?” I asked the kids.
“They’re dead, Bunny,” Jesus said.
“All of them?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said.
I nodded and smiled as I saw Nicholas sleeping against the door and Juliana leaning against Jesus. They used their phones for taking pictures, listening to music, and social media. They were teenagers, after all. It’s why my phone was dead, and I was twenty-one.
My sister continued to squint into the distance. I rolled my eyes and tried to turn my phone on. I knew it had a little more battery in it. It wasn’t dead-dead, just pre-dead. It would turn back on at least long enough to get us onto the freeway and on our way home.
“What way is Coachella? Southwest or southeast?” Dioscelina asked.
“Southeast,” I said. She barely nodded and turned onto a freeway. Why was she still driving? Why hadn’t she listened to me? “Are you going the right way?” Nothing. Finally, my phone turned back on. I tapped Google Maps, typed in my home address as fast as I could, and clicked directions. “Google says to get off in a quarter mile and take a different freeway.”
“No, I know where I’m going,” Dioscelina said.
I furrowed my brows and shook my head. “No, you don’t. You asked me to look up directions, and Google is saying you’re going the wrong way.” I pointed at the exit. “Get off there.”
“I know where I’m going, Daniela,” she said, moving her grip on the steering wheel from five and seven o’clock to ten and two o’clock.
I tossed my black hair over my shoulder. Why does she have to be so annoying? “Get off on this exit.” No reaction. We zoomed by the exit. Bitch. Well, fuck this, if she wants to get lost, then she can get lost.
Eventually, I recognized the cities we were driving through. I knew we would get home at some point, but that didn’t stop me from complaining to my friend, Monica, about how dumb and annoying my sister was. I texted the guy I was dating at the time, too, but he was doing the usual, nothing. I texted until my phone died, for real this time.
We drove in silence for about an hour. The kids were asleep in the back, and I refused to talk to my sister, because I had nothing to say to her; she wouldn’t listen anyway. At about two in the morning, Riverside’s lights drifted away and were replaced by Moreno Valley’s, then farmland and darkness. I looked out my window and squinted into the night.
The 60 is one windy road with a median between four lanes; two go one way and two go the other way. It’s the only way in and out of the mountains. The speed limit is fifty, but depending on how late or sleep deprived people are, the speed fluctuates. I watched the dark hills pass by; the only light came from our headlights and the cars around us, but at this time of night, there weren’t many people on the road, and other than the orange mile markers and inky hills, there wasn’t anything to look at.
Hills, orange, green, white lines, hills. A car. Orange. That guy is driving a little fast. Hills. Red.
Up ahead, the fast car’s headlights hit something that flashed red. I tilted my head. Why was that mile marker red? They’ve all been orange. I bit my lip and waited for us to round the mountain. When our light hits the mile marker, I’ll see why it’s red. We made our way around the hill, but there was no mile marker.
Something stood at the base of a green hill and made what I would have categorized as a black sky moments before look a washed-out navy blue. The truck’s lights did nothing to help me process what the thing was.
There was just darkness and red eyes.
I had never seen anything so dark before. The car lights didn’t reflect on any part of the creature. It was as if the darkness was so deep the truck’s lights couldn’t escape its depths. What, what is that? It was like looking at Vantablack. The only discernible detail was how dark the thing was. If it didn't have glowing red eyes, I would’ve thought I was looking into nothing, a void so deep, black, and empty, there would be no escape from it. If I had to estimate how big the creature was, I would guess it was about the size of a large wolf. I couldn’t tell you if it had a muzzle, or what its mouth looked like, whether it had paws or not, but it was there, standing on the edge of the road, waiting. I couldn’t look away. I needed to know what it was; I needed to know if it was real, that it was there. The car behind us will light it up. I’ll be able to see it when the light hits it.
I leaned into the door, my nose pressed against the window and my neck craned to catch another glimpse of the creature. Drive slower, Dioscelina, you’re going too fast. I need to see it again. I need to make sure it’s real. I need to know what it is. I wanted to make out more details, to rationalize what it was, categorize it. What is it doing there? Why is it there? My brain wanted closure, a clear-cut answer, but the hill covered it before the next car could illuminate it. Fuck. I gave up trying to see it and turned in my seat.
“Did you see that?” I asked. I had to know if it was just me. Maybe I was tired after a long day at Disneyland.
Dioscelina was tense in her seat, elbows locked. “Let’s pray,” she said.
She did see it. I let out a deep breath. At least I wasn’t alone, at least my brain wasn’t playing tricks on me. We quickly said an Our Father.
“What do you think it was?” Dioscelina asked when we finished.
I sat quietly, wracking my brain for something, but the only thing that came to mind was the Grim, the black dog Professor Trelawney described in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. “What did you see?” I asked her. I needed to know she was talking about the same thing, that she saw exactly what I did. What if she was talking about something else?
“Just a black mass. It was the size of a bear, but” —she shook her head—“I couldn’t make out any details except for the red eyes.”
I nodded. “Maybe it was the Grim.” I said half joking, half-serious.
She shook her head.
Only two weeks had passed, but with homework and finals looming, I did the only thing I knew how to do and repressed my memory of the red-eyed animal. It seemed weird to talk about it now with the sun shining, and yet all I could think of was the empty darkness.
“Mom said she saw a special on Travel America or something and they said there are Hellhounds in Palm Springs,” Dioscelina said.
“Hellhounds?” I asked scratching my temple.
“Yeah,” Dioscelina said. Then there was silence and the sounds of my sister tapping on the phone. “Mom said she watched a special about them on the Travel Channel that said they roam around Palm Springs.”
So close to home? It took a moment for me to understand we weren’t the only ones who had seen them. How many are out there in the hills? Did anyone else see it that night? If we were the only ones who saw it, then why us? My right leg bounced as everything sank in.
Meanwhile, Dioscelina continued to tap on her screen. “Oh shit, Bun, I looked up demon dogs, and it says they can be found in graveyards, crossroads, and hills! We were driving through the hills! No wonder we saw it. It says they’re black and have red eyes.”
“Yeah, it fits.” I ran my hands through my hair. Well, shit. I had joked about seeing the Grim in the moment, but, fuck. All the pieces added up and made it more real. A shiver ran down my spine.
“We can’t drive through the 60 together anymore, Bun.”
“Why is that?” I asked, fiddling with the zipper on my bag.
“Because,” Dioscelina said, “If we see it two more times, we’ll die.”
Daniela Z. Montes received her Master of Fine Arts from the University of California–Riverside, Palm Desert Low-Residency Program. She was The Coachella Review’s Social Media Manager. Daniela received her Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of California–Santa Barbara, where she received an honorable mention in the Kieth E. Vineyard Honorary Scholarship Short Story Contest.