The trailer park Jake moved into was called The Santa Cruz, and was tucked away on a cul de sac on the far east end of Rio Rico at the very edge of a suburban development. Patches of scrub grass and a few cacti were the only signs of plant life where the six trailers of the park sat at distances that guaranteed privacy.
One of the first things that the rental agent told Jake was, “Don’t expect the welcome wagon.”
The empty warehouse Jake selected for staging his new play was at the edge of a dry creek bed near the wall that bisects Nogales between the United States and Mexico. Once used to store wine, it had stood empty ever since the winery that used it burned down many years before. Only the cement floor and two cement pillars of the winery still remained nearby and was surrounded by scrub grass and thorn bushes. The parking lot for the warehouse was in relatively good shape. Jake parked his truck and walked the perimeter and tried to calculate how many vehicles would be able to park in it. Looking down at the dry creek bed that bordered one side of the lot he watched a scorpion make its way among the rocks. He was absorbed in watching it scramble up the far wall of the creek bed when Rita pulled into the lot. Jake looked at his watch. She had arrived exactly at noon, as scheduled.
She was wearing a white felt gaucho hat that sat high on her shoulder length, thick frizzy black hair. From her neck to her sandals she was dressed in white; a white blouse with puffy sleeves under a white silk vest, calf-length gaucho pants and a woven belt that hung loosely around her thin hips. Her facial features were extremely angular; not unattractive, just startling. Her lips were covered in thick red lipstick. When she came nearer, Jake noticed that thick black mascara was clotted on the ends of her long eyelashes. Her black irises, surrounded by white eye shadow, nearly popped out of her head. When she reached her hand out to shake Jake’s, he was surprised to see she was wearing white gloves.
“I’m Rita Dancing,” she said in a thick, indefinable accent. “Ramon told you I would be here to open the warehouse for you and give you the keys of course?”
“Yes, of course,” Jake said.
“You plan to turn it into a temporary theater space for putting on a play,” she said, making it sound like both a statement and a question.
“Yes I do.”
“How charming,” she said. “What is the play about?”
“A witches coven.”
Rita’s face went blank as if it had been turned to stone. “Witches are something you know about?”
“Just what I’ve read,” Jake said. “I filled in what I didn’t know with my imagination.”
“I see,” she said stonily, turning toward the warehouse. “Ramon said he sent you pictures of the warehouse. He hasn’t been here to see it himself for some time so the pictures he sent you might have been taken some time ago. I hope he told you that.”
“No, he didn’t,” Jake said, suddenly feeling slightly anxious.
“That’s Ramon, for you,” she said, “a man of partial revelations. Shall I open the warehouse for you?”
The warehouse was a large red brick square structure with three large metal accordion style doors facing the parking lot. At the top of a small set of stairs at the far end was a regular metal door. Jake was standing behind Rita as she unlocked and opened that door. As if the building had been holding in its breath, waiting for an opportunity to exhale, the two were blasted with a wave of heat and stale air mixed with age and dust.
“Like a dying man’s belch,” Rita said as she brushed the dust from her clothes. “Please go in.”
Jake entered a darkness so black that he could see no further than the light that came in through the open door. Rita closed the door and a moment later turned on the lights.
“Just as described by Ramon,” Jake said looking around at the large, empty single room that constituted the warehouse. Large wood beams held up a flat wood roof.
Another accordion metal door was at the far end.
“Where does that lead?” Jake asked.
“A supply room, I think,” she said.
Walking to it, their shoe prints were left in a thick layer of dust. As they neared the door, arrhythmic tapping against it coming from the other side was heard. Jake tried not to react to the noise, but it set his heart pounding.
Nothing in Jake’s experience prepared him for the sense of isolation he felt since his relocation to Rio Rico. At night, other than the barking of coyotes and loose siding on the side of the trailer banging in the slight breeze, the silence was overwhelming. He wasn’t used to so much quiet while trying to sleep. The cable hadn’t been turned on so turning on the television wasn’t an option.
On his fourth night, he tossed and turned in bed, bathed in sweat from the heat and getting very little relief from the hot wind that occasionally came in through the open window. He got out of bed and wandered down the dark hallway and into the living room cluttered with unpacked boxes and then opened the door and stepped out onto the top stair. The night was smothering with heat and stillness. Tiny pinpoints of starlight pricked the sky. There were no lights coming from the other trailers and the cars, mostly older models, had not been moved since the day he moved in.
If the javelina had been there when he first stepped out of the trailer, he hadn’t noticed. Now there were at least a dozen of the wild, bristle haired pig-like creatures in the dirt near the foot of the stairs. Their heads were turned up toward him, their eyes dull as black marbles.
“Shoo,” he said waving my hands at them.
They stood perfectly still and silent, but each of them had their long fangs bared. The foul odor from their bodies carried up to me like a toxic cloud. Jake hurriedly went back into the trailer and locked the door trying to erase their stench and stares from his senses.
After lunch Jake stopped by the warehouse and was surprised to see Rita’s car in the parking lot, but she was nowhere in sight. He parked by the creek bed in time to see a large bull snake crawl over the ledge and down the rocky slope to the bottom. When he turned around, Rita was coming out of the warehouse. She locked the door and met him in the lot.
“I wasn’t expecting to see you until this evening,” she said.
“I had lunch with Glenn and thought I’d stop by to set up things for the auditions before my interview with the local newspaper,” he said. “I didn’t realize you already had a set of keys. I was going to make duplicates of my set for you.”
“Ramon gave them to me,” she said. “Is Glenn going to do the sets?”
“Yes. He seemed a little concerned that I was doing a play about witches but he wouldn’t say why.”
She flicked a speck of dust from her white cape avoiding Jake’s questioning gaze. “I had the floor swept and already set up everything inside for you for tonight.” She handed him a small stack of papers. “These are the completed forms for the ladies coming to audition for roles.”
Jake counted through them. “Nine exactly,” he said. “It doesn’t give me much choice if I don’t think one of them will be right.”
“They’ll be right for the roles,” she said emphatically.
“Okay, then, I’ll see you this evening,” he said as he started for the door. “I’ll make sure the space is ready for the auditions.”
“I told you I already set everything up for tonight,” she said sharply. “You can go do that interview at the newspaper office.”
“Okay,” he said reluctantly and got back in his car. As he pulled out of the parking lot, Rita was standing by her car and watching him. Her icy glare made the hairs on the back of his neck stand.
Coming out of the newspaper offices Jake put his hand above his eyes to shield them from the glare of the bright afternoon sunlight. As he crossed the lot to his car he heard the buzzing of bees and turned to see a swarm hovering in the air in a roiling sphere. He rushed to his car, got in, and put the key into the ignition. As soon as the motor started the bees attacked, throwing themselves against his windshield and windows. He turned on the windshield wipers smearing dead bees across the glass. He drove out of the lot and in the rear view mirror watched the remaining bees form back into a ball and then fly upward and out of sight.
Jake watched an eddy of brown soil whirl its way across the lot of the trailer nearest to his. The heat in his trailer was stifling and the open windows brought in breeze, but no relief. He had tried to reach the rental agent to tell him the air conditioner was broken but could only leave a message. He went outside and looked around for signs of others being around, but the cul de sac was as desolate as it had been from the first day. Going to the trailer nearest to his, he cautiously went up the steps and knocked on the door. He thought he heard something or someone moving around inside but no one came to the door. Returning to his trailer he turned and saw the curtain in the window of the trailer he had just left abruptly close.
Back in his trailer he removed his clothes and laid on the bed, deciding to take a nap before going back to the warehouse. Looking up at the ceiling he noticed for the first time it had recently been painted. Through the coat of white paint the number 666 painted in a darker color in large strokes faintly came through. He rolled back on to his stomach, wrapped his arms around the pillow, closed his eyes tight and drifted into an uneasy sleep.
It was a little after 7:30 and near dusk when Jake returned to the warehouse. There were five cars including Rita’s in the parking lot and the parking lot lights and the light above the door were on. He looked through the copies of the audition pieces he wanted those interested in a part to read, and then got out of the car. A black mangy mongrel sitting on the ledge of the creek bed growled, and then ran off toward the street. When he opened the door the ten women seated in a circle on metal folding chairs all turned and looked at him. The scent of sandalwood and other fragrances he couldn’t identify hung in the air.
“Good evening,” he said.
“You’re late,” Rita said rising from her chair and looking at her watch.
“The traffic,” he said, trying to not sound like he was being defensive or lying.
As he neared the circle the faces and possible ages of the women became more obvious; they ranged from the very attractive to almost ugly and from teenage to elderly. He introduced himself and walked around the circle to in front of the metal door as it rattled lightly.
“I would like you to arrange the chairs as if you were an audience, facing me, and I’ll have you stand where I’m standing and read different roles from these,” he said, holding up the audition scripts. “Are there any questions you would like to ask before we begin?”
A middle aged woman with a hawk-like nose and flaming red hair raised her hand. “Rita said this play is about witches. Are you a witch?”
“Yes it’s about a coven and no I’m not a witch. It’s purely fictional.”
“Do you believe in witches?” This came from the youngest looking among them, a pretty blonde with expressive eyes.
“I believe in them but not that they can cast spells or do magic, even though from what I read they believe they can,” he said. “I think of them more as a peculiar kind of social club, which is the focus of the play.”
The women were all silent for a moment.
The oldest looking one stood up and smoothed back a stray gray hair from her wrinkled forehead. “You don’t think it’s dangerous to mess around writing about things you have no real knowledge about?”
“It’s called imagination,” he said. “It’s meant as entertainment. If you’re uncomfortable with the subject matter then it’s simple, just don’t audition. Otherwise, let’s get started.”
The women looked at Rita who had a scowl on her face. She nodded and the women began arranging their chairs. By the end of the evening Jake had matched the women to their roles.
He turned off the lights, left the warehouse and locked the door. He walked across the lot and found that two of his tires were flat.
Jake didn’t get back to the trailer until a little past midnight. As he put the key into the keyhole he realized the door was unlocked. He knew he had locked it before leaving, so he opened the door cautiously. In the darkness he saw that boxes of stuff he hadn’t unpacked had been emptied onto the floor. His books and papers were scattered around the room. He called the police and stood outside on the top step watching a dingy white, skinny cat pace back and forth near the nearest trailer until the police arrived. The cat quickly disappeared.
When Jake arrived at the warehouse a little after noon Glenn had one of the metal doors rolled up and was unloading pieces of lumber and sheets of plywood from his pickup truck.
“I thought you were going to be here earlier,” Glenn said. “Luckily Rita was here to unlock the place for me.”
“Someone broke into my trailer last night. I didn’t get to bed until almost dawn,” Jake said.
Glenn looked around and said in a near whisper, “Maybe the real witches in Nogales aren’t too happy about you putting on this play.”
“Nonsense,” Jake said. “The police said there have been a few break-ins recently in Rio Rico.”
Glenn lifted a long 2×4 board from the truck and shoved it across the floor of the warehouse. “Rita should be back,” he said. “She said something about going to look for costumes.”
“I never told her to do that,” Jake said angrily, feeling his face redden with Glenn’s surprised expression.
Jake helped Glenn unload what was left in his truck and sitting in the metal chairs they went over the stage blueprints. They were discussing the wall that was to be constructed in front of the inside metal door when they heard Rita pull into the parking lot.
“What’s behind that door?” Glenn asked. “Something keeps banging against it.”
“Rita said she thinks it was a supply room. I’ve noticed the noise also,” Jake said.
With Glenn following, Jake went to the door and bent down and looked at the padlock that kept it attached to a metal ring embedded in the floor. “I guess now is as good a time as any to find out what’s in there. He unlocked the lock and just as he and Glenn started to push the door up, Rita came into the warehouse.
A hundred screeching bats flew out between the space of the bottom of the door and the floor, brushing against the men’s legs as they escaped into the open warehouse. Jake quickly pushed the door down and when he turned to see about Rita, she had her arms up and was waving the bats toward the open door with her white gloved hands. A few minutes later, from inside the supply room the knocking against the metal door resumed.
“They must be getting in there through a hole in the roof,” Rita said.
After Glenn left, Jake sat across from Rita in the chairs and said, “Decisions about the costumes aren’t yours to make.”
“Do you know what witches might wear?” she asked.
“I know what I imagine the ones in the play to be wearing,” he said. “I appreciate all the help you’re giving me, but I need to make it clear that this is my play, my production and I’m the director. I don’t want the cast to look to you for answers or directions. Is that clear?”
“If you say so,” she said standing and pulling the netting from her white pillbox hat down over her eyes. “I won’t be bothering you again.” She handed him her set of keys and he watched as she walked out of the warehouse, her spiked white heels clicking on the cement floor.
Jake stood at the living room window of the trailer and called the rental agent, finally reaching him.
“I’ve left you several messages,” Jake said. “The air conditioner doesn’t work and I need it fixed.”
“I’ll have someone there first thing in the morning to get it fixed,” the agent said, apologetically.
“Also, does anyone else actually live in the other trailers in this cul de sac?” Jake asked.
“Why do you ask?”
“I’ve been here over a week and seen no one else and no lights on at the other trailers.”
“As I told you, don’t expect to have a neighbor bring you an apple pie,” he said. “Well at least you’re getting plenty of peace and quiet while you’re putting on that play.”
Jake didn’t tell him how disconcerting he found the constant “peace and quiet.”
The next six weeks went by relatively smoothly. The air conditioner was fixed. The women in the cast were standoffish, but learned their parts and stage directions without much difficulty. Ninety tickets out of one hundred available seats were pre-sold for opening night. Jake hired a theatrical lighting company from Tucson who had everything set up just as he requested the night before the dress rehearsal. Two from that company were hired to man the lights.
Wanting to get to the warehouse in plenty of time before anyone else arrived, Jake walked out of the trailer at 5 o’clock sharp and was surprised to see cars parked at the other trailers that hadn’t been there before. As he descended the stairs he saw on the side of his car GET OUT had been written on the driver’s side in red lettering. He ran his finger across the letter G, smearing it, and pulled his finger away and sniffed it. It had no odor. It wasn’t paint. He wiped the red from his finger and got in and drove to the warehouse. Before doing anything else he filled a bucket with water and tossed it on the lettering and stood back and watched as the red ran down his car and dripped onto the lot. Inside the warehouse it was eerily quiet. The bats weren’t banging against the door.
Glenn was on a ladder and holding a bucket of paint. A large pentagram had been painted in bold strokes on the black wall. Standing at the last row of seats Jake was admiring Glenn’s work when the door blew open then slammed shut. The suddenness of it made him jump. He opened the door and looked out.
In the parking lot the black mangy dog had returned bringing with it a dozen other dogs, all as unhealthy looking. They ran toward the steps, barking and growling. Jake closed the door and with his back against it, tried to calm his breathing. Ten minutes later he opened the door slightly and peered out. The dogs were gone.
“I can’t be in this play with that up there,” the red haired actress told Jake as she wagged her forefinger at the pentagram.
“It’s only a symbol,” he said.
“I know exactly what it is.”
“So do we,” the others chimed in.
“Look, ladies,” Jake said as calmly as he could, “No one in the audience is going to think you’re a witch or that witchcraft is being practiced in this play. You’re performing roles and this is all make believe.”
“Is it?” the eldest of them asked.
Lying on his bed, Jake tried to shut out the noise coming from the other trailers. Coming home to find the other trailers surrounded by cars and trucks and loud music coming from the trailers was so unexpected that it was as unnerving as the solitude had been. Despite the initial reaction by the women to the pentagram the dress rehearsal had gone well. When he shut off the lights at the warehouse a little after 11 PM and left the parking lot he was looking forward to a good night’s sleep. He looked at the digital clock by his bed. It was a little past 2 AM and there had been no abatement of the noise.
He got out of bed and went to the window. There were over a dozen men and women standing outside the nearest trailer. They were all facing his direction and emitting a low pitched hum in unison that cut through the loud music and his closed window. As they raised their arms Jake fell back from the window as if he had been pushed onto the bed. He was knocked unconscious.
When Jake awoke his bed was soaked with urine. It was quiet outside. He looked at the clock. It was 4 AM. Cautiously he went to the window. The vehicles were all gone other than the ones that had always been there. In the shower he stood under the hot spray for twenty minutes trying to calm his fears.
Jake stood at the door of the warehouse greeting those coming to see the play and enjoying the cooler air that accompanied the opening night. The parking lot was nearly full. Jake had the folding doors raised making the night and the breeze as much of the setting as the stage and sets.
The lighting technician flicked the lights on and off twice to signal to the audience to be seated. The lights went down except for those aimed at spots on the stage.
The women in the play still had not shown up. They were to enter the stage from the back, walking down the middle aisle and stepping up onto the stage. After several minutes the audience shifted about in their chairs waiting for something to happen. Jake went to the door and looked out at the lot and saw Rita in a flowing white robe, standing on the ledge of the creek bed with her arms spread
When flames erupted on the lines of the pentagram the audience thought it was some form of pyrotechnics and clapped enthusiastically, but the flames quickly spread to the surrounding ply board wall and soon engulfed the entire back wall. The fire rapidly spread to the stage and the rest of the set, and to the roof. Flames and embers rained down on the stunned audience. Panicked, the audience ran for the large open doors, knocking over chairs and each other as they jumped to the parking lot pavement, climbing over each other before scrambling to the safety of their vehicles.
Glenn, who had been behind the set and near the pentagram, stepped onto the stage, his body engulfed in fire. He stood motionless for a moment, and then collapsed.
Before Jake ran out the door behind the two lighting technicians, and seeing everyone else had gotten out, he looked up and saw streaks of flame leap from beam to beam. Cars were speeding out of the lot as the ambulances and fire trucks arrived.
Standing at the ledge of the creek bed Jake watched the roof of the warehouse collapse even as the firemen kept a steady stream of water flowing onto the entire structure. When all that was left was the brick shell and anything combustible had been turned to wet black ashes, the firetrucks left, along with the ambulances, carrying nine badly burned bodies and three dead, Jake stood alone in the empty parking lot holding the play script.
It was dawn when Jake returned to the trailer park. He pulled his truck up next to his trailer and got out.
“We’ve been waiting for you.”
Startled, Jake spun around, surprised to see the sudden appearance of Rita and the nine women from the play standing in a semicircle only a few feet from him. They were all dressed in black flowing robes and each one of them had 666 painted in red on their foreheads. A dozen people, also dressed in black robes, came out of the other trailers.
“What’s going on here?” Jake stammered fearfully.
“We won’t allow you to mock us with your play,” Rita said.
In that instant the nine other women and transformed into javelina.
Jake turned to get back into his truck, but the javelina attacked, tearing into his legs with their razor sharp teeth. Screaming, he fell to the ground and tried to fight them off, but was devoured by the pigs.
Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 480 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June, 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories, Sand, Rain, Heat, The Tales of Talker Knock and 50 Short Stories: The Very Best of Steve Carr, and LGBTQ: 33 Stories, and The Theory of Existence: 50 Short Stories, published. His paranormal/horror novel Redbird was released in November, 2019. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice.