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A short story


The Devil’s Top Hat

Maybe it was that damned hat; maybe it was my imagination, but regardless of which, my short conversation with the Devil that terrible night, changed my life forever.

It was a sweltering 30th of June 1978 in Bakersfield, California, and had started out as any other normal Friday night. It ended however, in the early morning of July 1st, amid the hellish screams that accompany limbs being torn from a body. Two bodies in fact. To this day my guilt is consummate: for I had been warned, but I'd ignored that warning, because it came from a stranger. A stranger named Lucifer.

***

Between Bakersfield and Lake Isabella is a jagged gash that slices through the Sierra Nevada’s called Kern Canyon. It was carved out by the raging Kern River and in mid-summer the river is at its highest, and its deadliest. About halfway to Lake Isabella and deep down inside the canyon next to the river is a set of sulfur-hot springs that some mason in the distant past built into a set of native stone tubs. These tubs are constantly filled by the spring’s hot sulfuric water with the effluent spilling out into the cold river just inches away.

It was to these hot springs, simply known as “the Tubs,” that my two best friends, John and Basil, my dog Tammy, and I traveled to on that hot summer night. Tammy rode in the car with me while my friends rode Basil’s powerful CB 750 motorcycle. We took two cases of beer in a cooler. Our plan was simple: drink cold beer and party all night while sitting in the hot tubs while our feet dangled over into the cold river water. We’d done this before, so the steep trail from the parking area hundreds of feet down to the tubs was familiar, and even though it was dark, we knew the way. Tammy was romping up and down the trail in a state of canine bliss. All of us had worn shorts and happily got into the hot water without delay.

Soon after midnight, Tammy began acting strangely. She wasn’t an aggressive dog, but like most German Shepherd’s she was a protective breed, but not on this night. She began to whine and grew inexplicably frightened until she finally tucked her tail between her legs and ran off into the night. I got up and called out for her, but in the absolute darkness she had disappeared. After a few minutes, I gave up and went back to the tubs knowing that she would eventually return.

As soon as I returned to my friends, a man suddenly appeared out of the moonless of pitch black night. His appearance wouldn’t have been entirely strange if it weren’t for his clothes. He'd climbed down that steep trail in the dark dead of night wearing a full tuxedo, complete with a tailed coat and a top hat. He was friendly, congenial, unthreatening, and asked if he could join us; despite the outfit he seemed somewhat normal. He introduced himself to us as Louie—short for Lucifer. It’s a name distinction that has haunted me ever since.

At the time, however, we had no objections, since there was plenty of room, and if someone wanted to party with us, then so much the better. He seemed grateful for our open hospitality; removed his hat, set it down, and got in the water with us still wearing the rest of the tuxedo. He realized that must seem rather odd to us and explained that had been on his way to a wake, but for some reason decided to stop at the tubs. He sat next to me, and through the strong sulfuric odor of the hot springs I could detect a feint smell of death on him. Since he had mentioned something about a wake, I associated the odor with his being around something dead and gave it little thought.

We drank, told jokes, laughed, howled like wolves, and enjoyed the freedom of being out of Bakersfield with all its’ filth, all its’ turmoil, and all its’ oppressive heat. We were looking for an escape that night, but what we found instead was the road to Hell.

After a couple hours, Louie told us he had to leave. He was still sitting next to me and I suddenly felt his hand on my knee. It didn’t feel sexual, it something was so much worse. His fingers felt like animal claws as they dug into my naked flesh. I was instantly paralyzed. I couldn’t even breathe. He leaned over and whispered in my ear. His breath strongly stank of ancient death, “I’m unused to being welcomed, and since you’ve all given it to me so unconditionally, I’ll extend to you a warning, be assured that this is a very rare mercy from me. Don’t leave until after daybreak. If you do, you may not be able to save them, and your cowardice could kill them.” Only my ears heard his words of warning. His claws finally let go of my leg, and it took a moment, but the paralysis disappeared, and I was able to breathe again. He was already out of the tubs by then, bade us all goodnight, and just like his arrival hours earlier, he vanished into the gloom of the night. It was 3:00 AM.

John soon noticed that Louie had left behind his top hat. He grabbed it and we took off to catch him. John was eighteen and I was twenty years old; we were both in very good shape and literally raced up that steep canyon bank. But when we got to our vehicles, no one was there. It had taken us less than two minutes to make the climb, but Louie was already gone. We decided to place his hat on the hood of my car, so he could easily find it in case he came back. We then returned to the tubs and when we got there, Tammy had also returned, cautiously wagging her tail.

***

Another hour passed, and everyone was tired and ready to leave—everyone but me. I suggested waiting until daybreak but was overwhelmingly overruled. I didn’t want to go but not wanting to argue with my friends, I left anyway.

When we got back to the vehicles, Louie’s hat was gone.

My friends led the way on Basil's big motorcycle, and I followed in my car. We were traveling west on Highway 178 back into Bakersfield when Basil started weaving on his bike. On the last hill before entering the city, he swerved into the oncoming path of a Cadillac, and although he managed to slightly angle the bike away, he still hit the car’s fender at about 70 mph. It was like an explosion. Instantly their tumbling bodies were in my headlights directly in front of me. I swerved into the oncoming lane to avoid hitting them and then slammed on my brakes and slid to a halt on the shoulder of the road. I quickly leapt out and ran back to where they lay entangled, screaming, and writhing in pain. Tammy howled inconsolably but refused to leave my car.

As I approached the horrible carnage on that roadway, I saw that their left legs had been the point of impact and both had been ripped off at their knee. I wanted to leave them there. I wanted to cowardly run home to the safety of my bed, go to sleep, and pretend that when I awoke this would all be just a bad dream, but the nightmare was real. The screaming was all too real.

I stood there immobile just staring at the gory carnage until Basil stopped screaming long enough to tell me, “Mark, if you don’t tie our legs off, we’re gonna die.” His plea finally broke my stupor, and I quickly found some cord in my car and tied the tourniquets that stopped the blood, muscle, and bone fragments that were flowing out of their ravaged legs.

Suddenly, I heard a big truck hit his air brakes. I sprinted to it and begged the driver to call an ambulance. I then returned to where my friends were screaming in primeval pain, and knelt in their gore to hold their hands. Within a few minutes, I heard an ambulance in the distance, glanced up at the sound of its wailing siren, and noticed the dim glow of light bleeding in from the east. Daybreak had come.

***

22 years later I was living by the beach in Ventura I had been gone for a month and came home to a stack of letters on my desk. One of the letters was from Basil. I opened it as I began listening to my answering machine. One message was from John. He sounded upset, and it seemed like he was at a party where no one was having any fun. He angrily demanded to know why I hadn’t heeded Louie’s warning all those years ago, then hung up. When I looked down at the letter in my hand, dated two weeks earlier, it was John’s obituary. His funeral had been the day before the phone call, and his voice on the message machine sent a chill down my spine, because I realized that I was listening to the voice of a dead man. That, and the fact I had never told him, or anyone, about Louie’s warning that fateful night.

It was a thunder filled blustery rainy evening, and I gasped in terror as a powerful gust of wind pounded the window above my desk. My head jerked up and as I looked outside, lightning flashed, and for the briefest moment I saw a top hat sitting on the wet sand. The wind quickly blew it away where it disappeared into the darkening gloom.


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