I don’t know if my nightmares are from fear or guilt. I should have done more for the child when he called on me for help. What would you do if this happened to you?
On a deserted stretch of Arizona highway, a faded sign on a sun-parched cabin said, “Gifts, Souvenirs, Curios – Cold Drinks, Ice Cream, Snacks, Coffee.”
I steered the car quickly into the unpaved parking area. A cold, quenching soft drink would hit the spot, I thought. Dust floated up around my car when I stopped a few feet from the entrance.
A little bell jingled over the door when I walked in.
A hefty, grey haired woman sat behind the counter, reading a magazine. When she stood up, I saw she was wearing a colorful Mexican dress, its festive design faded and shapeless over her bulk.
“Good afternoon, sir,” she said.
Souvenirs and gifts surround me, on tables, display stands, rotating pedestals, and wall shelves. What stood out the most, however, was behind the woman. A big bleached steer skull, minus the horns, sat on a shelf beside a metal oscillating fan, surveying the room through empty bovine sockets.
“I like the cow skull,” I said.
“It is a Brahma bull,” said the woman. “Not for sale.”
“Oh,” I said, walking over to a refrigerated cola display case. “Well, it sure adds atmosphere to your shop. What happened to its horns?” “People use them for arts and crafts. They take the horns and leave the skull.”
I picked out an ice-cold orange soda and approached the counter to pay for it.
High, sustained guitar notes bloomed from the back room like yin-yanging creeper vines. Electric blues licks.
“Wow,” I said. “Sounds like Jimi Hendrix back there.”
“That’s my grandson,” the woman smiled. “My daughter’s son. He is always practicing that guitar.”
I didn’t want to tell her I was a talent scout right away. No use getting her hopes up. But the kid was riffing like crazy and it sounded great. Perfect tone and good technique.
“He’s good,” I said. “How old is he?”
“Nine,” said the woman. “His father taught him the basics.”
“Wow. Is his dad a professional?”
“He passed away two years ago,” she said with a quick sign of the cross
“I’m sorry for your loss,” I said.
The little bell over the door rang again. In walked a young, twenty-something Mexican girl.
“Mom,” she said rather sternly to the older lady behind the counter. “I hear guitar…”
“I told him to do his math first,” said the grandmother. “He start playing while I’m occupied with the customer. I cannot be two places.”
“It’s okay,” said the girl. Then she smiled pleasantly at me and said, “Hello.”
“Hello,” I said. “Is that your son jamming like Santana?”
“Oh, yes,” she said. “He plays good but there is a time and place for it.”
“What’s his name?” I asked.
There was an uncomfortable silence. The women looked pensively at each other. The young mother looked at her watch and sighed. I took a drink of my orange soda, thinking, these women probably see all variety of highway travelers stopping here. They don’t want to give out personal information to a complete stranger.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s none of my business.”
In an unnecessary and meaningless effort to excuse my nosiness, I slid a business card from the wallet I had been holding absent-mindedly after paying for my orange drink.
Offering the card to the young mother, I said, “I’m an A&R guy for Conundrum Records.”
I couldn’t believe the extremely negative reaction to that information. The young woman’s eyes narrowed into angry slits that she fixed accusingly on her mother.
“Mother, how could you? What have I told you about this?!”
“I said nothing!” cried the grandmother in the Mexican dress. She looked at me for corroboration of her innocence. “I did nothing!”
After a speechless moment I said, “It wasn’t her fault. I’m the one who brought it up. I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“I’m sorry,” said the young mother. “It’s a long story. I’m sorry, Mom.”
“Well, I’ve got to get back on the road,” I said as casually as possible.
“Momma!” said a muffled child’s voice from the back room.
The music had stopped and the door to the back room was swinging open.
“I’m coming, Atilano,” said the child’s mother, hurrying to the boy.
Was she eager to see her son, I wondered, or had she rushed to block him in the doorway? To prevent him from joining us? I tried to see the youthful guitarist but his mother stood in front of him, speaking in a low voice. What was she saying?
As the two of them disappeared into the back room, the boy started crying.
“Momma!” he sobbed. “I want to go outside!”
Then the old grandmother got strange on me.
“We have to close now!” she told me. “We are closing, sir!”
Another dust cloud swirled in my rear view mirror as the tires gripped the blacktop, spinning miles of highway between me and the peculiar family store.
I was eating breakfast with singer/songwriter Pete Vrees in Blythe, California, just over the state line from Arizona. Pete had met me here in the lobby of the hotel where I spent the night. The other members of Pete’s band were already laying down instrumental tracks in a Los Angeles recording studio, where we would meet them later today.
“How long will it take us to get to L.A.?” he asked, trying to wipe an accidental jelly smudge from a page of his Egyptian Book of the Dead (deluxe hardcover edition).
“Maybe three hours,” I said, putting an ice cube from my water glass into my coffee so I could drink it faster. “If we hurry.”
“Good,” he said. “When we get there, I can take a nap before the session. I was up half the night reading this.”
“Good reading?” I asked Pete as he shoved the last bite of toast into his mouth and turned a glossy page of the Book of the Dead.
“Yeah,” he said distractedly.
Pete dabbled in mysticism and the occult. It was part of his image, in the tradition of Jim Morrison and Jimmy Page.
“Get this,” he said. “I’m gonna copy some text from this book onto a sheet of paper, then cut the paper into strips and tape it back together all mixed up.”
My cell phone rang while I gulped coffee.
“Yeah,” I answered the call.
A muffled little boy’s voice said, “I want to play guitar for audiences.”
“You said I play good. I play my father’s guitar.”
“Who is this?” I asked.
“Atilano,” said the child.
“Ah tee LA no!” he elucidated impatiently. “I play guitar!”
He must have found the business card with my phone number on it.
“Yeah, I remember you,” I said. “But did you ask your mother if you could call me?”
“She locks me in the room,” said Atilano.
What I heard next is hard to describe. First, a woman’s voice. I believe it was Atilano’s young mother. Then, an inhuman snarling noise, and the call was disconnected.
“Something is wrong,” I said to Pete, and told him about the incident at the gift shop. “We should call Social Services or the Police or somebody.”
“I don’t know,” said Pete. “It might be nothing.”
I’m ashamed to say, I didn’t call anyone that day or the next.
The recording session went late into the night. I slept most of the next day and met the band again Sunday evening for another all-night session. Monday, around noon, Pete Vrees woke me up with a phone call.
“Yeah,” I yawned into the phone.
“I’m worried about that kid at the gift shop,” said Pete.
“Yeah,” I said. “I should have told somebody.
“I did, Bill. Jerry’s dad is a State Trooper!”
Jerry plays drums in Pete’s band.
“What did the trooper say?” I asked.
“He wants to go check it out, but I don’t know where the gift shop is. You’ve got to show us.”
A few hours later, Pete and I pulled into the unpaved parking area in front of the gift shop, followed by an Arizona State Police car. My car had barely stopped moving when Pete jumped out of the passenger side, anxious to find his sister. The tall police officer approached us sullenly in his mirror sunglasses and brimmed trooper hat.
“Why don’t you guys wait outside a couple of minutes,” he said. “I’ll go in and speak to the proprietor.”
“Alright,” I said.
Pete put his hands on his hips impatiently and looked up at the gathering gray storm clouds, which darkened the evening sky.
Watching the cop enter the shop, Pete said, “I’m going around back in case somebody makes a run for it. Is there a back door?”
“How would I know?” I said, following Pete around the corner of the old wood frame building. “I stopped in for a soda.”
There was, in fact, a back door. We stood there, looking at it.
A fat drop of rain splattered on the top of my head. Pete watched more raindrops collecting on his upturned palms.
“What the hell?” he said. “It’s not supposed to rain.”
“It almost never rains out here,” I agreed.
A deafening peal of thunder announced the full-blown downpour.
We squinted up at a swirling phantasm of black clouds, rain stinging our faces like darts.
Pete tried the doorknob, instinctively seeking shelter. The back door opened and we went inside.
“The freakin’ four horsemen are sliding out of their saddles,” said Pete in a low voice.
“We shouldn’t have come in this way,” I said. “What is that noise?”
We heard a low electric hum.
“Look!” said Pete in a too-loud whisper.
A beautiful sunburst electric guitar stood upright in its stand, next to a vintage leather-covered Supro amplifier. The escalating drone of feedback meant that someone had left the guitar plugged in and powered up.
“Check it out,” said Pete, lightly touching the guitar strings to stop the hum. “Classic1957 Fender Stratocaster, maple ‘V’ neck, and a tube amp, probably from the same year.”
“That must be what the kid was playing,” I said, stating the obvious. “But where’s the kid?”
“Don’t touch anything!” said the State Trooper, standing in the doorway from the front room. “What are you doing back her, anyway?”
“It’s pissing buckets out there,” said Pete.
I finally noticed how wet Pete and I were.
A moan came from the front room.
“There’s an injured woman in the gift shop. A senior citizen. I called for an ambulance. You guys need to come up front.”
Someone or something had wreaked havoc in the gift shop. Rotating display stands were toppled over. Tables with broken legs tilted, spilling ceramic knick-knacks, rubber scorpions, and little wooden outhouses onto the floor.
“It looks like a cyclone hit the place,” said Pete.
Lying on the floor amid broken merchandise, the gray-haired grandmother muttered incoherently. Blood soaked the shoulders of her colorful Mexican dress.
“What happened?” I asked the Trooper.
“I wish I knew. I called for an evidence van as well as an ambulance. She has the teeth marks of an animal on her neck.”
Pete knelt beside the woman, listening to her words.
“Ayúdeme, Dios. Ahhhh, Dios.”
“She is saying, ‘Help me, God.’”
Upon hearing Pete’s voice, the old lady’s eyes opened wide.
“Ell cráneo que chilla!” she said hysterically. “El cráneo de la calamidad!”
“What did she say?” I asked.
Pete stood up, his face pale as a ghost.
“Oh, man!” he said. “Screaming skull. Skull of calamity.”
“Skull of what?” I asked impatiently.
The grandmother seemed to be getting a second wind.
“El cráneo que chilla!” she cried. “Calamidad, oh Dios!”
Pete looked at me seriously and asked, “Have you ever heard of the Screaming Skull legends?”
“Most of the stories come from England,” he said. “One of the best documented accounts took place around 1790 at Higher Farm in Somerset, England. The owner of the farm said that when he died, he wanted his skull to be kept in the farmhouse.”
“Why?” I asked.
“I don’t know, so he could, like, watch over his household from the other side, or something. So his family kept his skull in a cabinet. Over the years, any attempt to remove the skull from the house, to dispose of it, resulted in poltergeist activity, horses going crazy in the stable, terrible thunderstorms, weird noises . . .”
“In England, maybe,” said the cop. “This is the Arizona desert.”
“Actually,” said Pete, “A guy named Olsen Archer wrote a book about American screaming skulls, which he says are rare because the United States is such a young country, compared to England.”
For the first time, I noticed the steer skull was missing.
“There was a bull skull on that shelf!” I said.
“Nah,” said Pete. “It’s always a human skull, not an animal.”
Subdued guitar notes drifted from the back room.
“It’s the kid,” I whispered. “He must have been hiding somewhere.”
Pete and the State Trooper followed as I quietly opened the door to the back room. The young boy, Atilano, stood with his back to us, head down in concentration, playing silvery arpeggios on his Fender Stratocaster.
The life of Atilano’s father, we learned later, was a tragic one. Everyone who listened to his demo tapes called him one of the best guitarists they ever heard. But the problem of presenting this unfortunate soul to the public seemed insurmountable, due to a serious birth defect.
Little Atilano turned slowly to look at us.
A combination of pity and horror overwhelmed me.
The boy had inherited his father’s elongated, bristly snout, flaring nostrils, watery rolling eyes, drooping ears . . .
While the boy’s grandmother recuperated in the hospital, Atilano’s young mother retrieved the misshapen skull of her child’s father from where she had buried it. It was the third, and last, time she tried to bury the memory of what happened almost ten years ago. When she was only sixteen, she had wandered into a barn. The barn later became an old sun-parched wooden gift shop, but in those days it was the place where Atilano’s grandparents kept their deformed son hidden away from society.
The boy still has my business card. I don’t know what I will do if he actually calls me. Maybe it’s time. Atilano has a “No Fear” bumper sticker on the side of his amplifier. Maybe the world is ready.