King of the Cacti

by Peter Bauer

The sun grew fat and sank nearer to the horizon. The desert sky bloomed into oranges and purples. In this desert, hidden in the hills and noble cacti, an unnatural structure protruded from the earth: It was a radio tower, set up alongside a recreational vehicle and an old Subaru, some 20 miles from the nearest town or bungalow. Sand-caked and evil, it sat still, and from inside a voice could be heard.

“Here’s what I’m saying,” John said into the microphone. “These mainstream-media types are feeding you all a bunch of horseshit, and I can prove it. I can prove that CNN lied. I’m serious—these globalists…the Marxist…uh…Satanists, okay, I’ll say it, that’s WHAT THEY ARE! Okay? These CNN and ABC and CBC types all lied. They knew that this was a planned-demic, okay? They all did. But people are finally getting over it, isn’t that nice? The one thing about people you can always rely on: their apathy.” 

John gave a little sigh. He reached for his Marlboros and put one in his mouth. 

“I tell you, you want to see an example of just how obvious these people are? Look at how many times the mainstream media brings up independent journalism—like my show—in a positive light. Never!” He reached for a lighter in his pocket, fumbling with the breast of his shirt, but it was empty. He looked up and Aaron held out a lighter. John grabbed it from him and lit the cigarette. “Alright listeners. It’s getting late. I’m gonna take some calls, and then I’ll be logging off.” 

Aaron quickly flashed him a thumbs-up sign.

Uh, hello?

“Hello, you’re on Truthnet.”

Oh my gosh, am I?

“Yes ma’am, what’s your name?”


“Marie what was your que–”

Oh, John, I listen to you every evening when I drive home. I really appreciate the work that you do.

“Well, it’s always nice to meet a fan, miss. Did you have a question?”

Oh, I guess I wanted to ask… what do you look like? Do you have a beard?

“What do you think, just from my voice?”

I think you have a beard.”

“You’re goddamn right.”

We’ve been arguing about this on the forums. I’m so glad we finally have an answer!

“Hey, I’m moving on to the next caller. Alright, Marie? It was nice meeting you.”

You too, John, thanks for having me on!” Aaron cut the call. The two men looked each other in the eyes and said nothing. John took a long drag on his cigarette. He liked it when the two of them didn’t say anything. Aaron gave a throat-clearing sniffle and pressed a button on his laptop.

Uhm, is this… John?

“Hey, it is, fella. You’re on Truthnet.”

Well, thank you for having me on.

“Of course. Did you have a question?”

Yeah, I… have a couple actually.”

“Okay.” John paused and glared at Aaron. “We’ll see what we have time for.”

You say that COVID was both a Chinese creation and that the U.S. government knew about it as well. How do you believe both of those conspiracy theories at once?

“Well,” John took an angry pull from his cigarette, “I think your problem is perspective.”

Oh really?

“Yes. You’re too indoctrinated to see the simple truth that newsflash, folks: they’re run by the same people! The globalist Chinese—”

Hold on, John, I’m sorry—

“Don’t fucking interrupt me! It’s my show.”

Well, I won’t let you just say something so—

“I don’t need this, you know.”

Why are you being so—

“Bye!” John said. 

Aaron cut the call, and John stared at him with deep resentment. “It’s now 8:30 central time, June 11, 2022. I have to get home, but I hope everyone listening has a good night and remembers not to cave into the demands of the globalist overlords.” 

Aaron pushed a button, and sultry country music started playing. The light on John’s mic turned off. 

“What the FUCK, Aaron?” John stood up in anger, barely keeping his head from the RV’s low-hanging shelves. “I thought you were screening these people!” John kicked the chair back into the table. Aaron jolted back slightly.

“He seemed normal,” Aaron responded, quietly. “And to be fair, you didn’t really give him time to talk?”

“Speak up if you’re going to insult me, boy.” John ground his cigarette onto the ashtray on the table. “Otherwise, you’re just whining.”

“I’m not trying to insult—”

“See? You’re fucking whining again.” John grabbed the old biking jacket from his chair and began to walk outside. “You want to be helpful? You can clear the holding tank and save me a trip outside.” 

Aaron grimaced. 

“I thought so.” John kicked the door to the RV open and landed on the dry earth outside. The sunlight caught him and he covered his face. There was no highway wherever they were, just a crumbling dirt road passing through the desert. He made his way behind the RV, in its shade, where a great green cactus stood, prickly and proud. John gave a tepid smoker’s cough and unhooked his belt. As he pissed on the cactus, he let out an exasperated sigh of relief and stared at his boots, as well as the little dribble of pee collecting by his feet.

“Uh, John?” He heard from the trailer. John shook his head in indignation. “John?” The voice got more frantic.

“I’m trying to piss, what is it?”

“We weren’t expecting company, were we, John?” Aaron’s voice quivered slightly. John turned his head and caught the sound of a motor running. He let out his last squirt of pee and peeked past the corner of the RV. A station wagon was making its way towards them, tearing up the dirt into clouds as it charged. It was probably still a half-mile out, but closer than anything else in this patch of nowhere.

“Stay inside, Aaron.” John’s eyes narrowed and locked onto the mysterious vehicle.

“Who is it?”

“I said stay inside.” 

Aaron didn’t respond. John ambled to the front of the RV and the dirt road that ran parallel to it. The sun was making its way down now, leaving the last ribbons of light in the sky to illuminate the whole desert, and the moon began to creep out from the horizon. The headlights of the car flipped on as it kept driving. There was no question now where its intended destination was, as the blinding lights pointed directly in John’s eyes. John held his body tight, unfaltering. His right hand reached behind his hip and slid comfortably into the shape of the Beretta in its holster. The car’s engine grew louder, and the last sunlight finally died as John stood there, stock-still.

The car tediously climbed the last stretch of road and began to crawl to a stop maybe twenty, thirty feet from John. The lights were too bright to make out anything else about it. The driver’s door opened and a man began to say something.

“Your engine’s too loud. I can’t hear you,” John said. The engine turned off and the lights followed. In the newfound darkness, John could make out two figures in the car, one male and one female. The male opened his door and sat with one leg in the vehicle.

“Pardon, is your name John?” The man’s face was obscured, masked in the shadow of the unlit countryside. “Johnathon Driscoll?” John could feel his insides grow heavier. He lifted his left hand in a stop motion.

“Hold on there, boy.” John’s right hand gripped tighter behind his back. “How do you know that name?”

“Uh… I’m looking for a Johnathon Driscoll,” The voice said, “I was told I might be able to find him here. Is that you?”

“I’m asking: who wants to know?” John began to tense the muscles in his feet and his hands.

“Well, look, if you are Johnathon Driscoll, do you remember someone named Sally Kohler?” the voice asked. John felt a memory return to him. “You met her in San Pedro, 1992 or thereabouts?”

“I may have,” John responded. A few gears in his head started turning. He scoffed. “You’re shitting me, right?”

“Fear not,” the stranger chuckled. “My name’s Carl Kohler. Mama passed away recently. Told me I should find you.” 

John squinted to try to get a sense of the man’s features. Was there a resemblance? The twilight did not paint enough shadows for John to make out much of anything. 

“Oh hell, where are my manners? I’m sorry, this is Melissa, my fiancée. Come out, Melissa.” The young man bent into the car and started whispering at her. They seemed to be bickering about something. 

John’s grip didn’t move from his gun. 

After a time, the other door to the car opened and a woman stepped out. “Hi, I’m Melissa,” she said. “It’s nice to meet you.” 

Slowly, John approached the two strangers. The resolution on their faces improved the closer he got, 25 feet, then 15 feet; then, he was right near them. He looked at his supposed son. He was a gangly and slightly chinless-looking boy. He might have looked like John, not as pretty though. John looked over at the girl next. She was beautiful, he realized. Suspiciously beautiful. He looked again at this “Carl” guy. Then at the girl again. Finally, he felt a cannonball of guilt sink down into his stomach.

“Sally’s dead, huh?” John asked. Carl nodded. “How’d she go?”

“Lung cancer,” Carl responded. “It was real sad.”

“Yeah, I bet it was.” John’s grip on his gun relaxed slightly. “I wish I’d known she was sick. I didn’t even know that you…” John trailed off. 

He looked at the boy again, in the light of the trailer. Whether he looked like John or he didn’t, John somehow recognized him. 

John let out a big sigh. “Look, it’s about to get cold as hell out here. Do you two want to come inside?” 

The two of them shared a look, one that John couldn’t quite read.

“We’d love to,” Carl said. He shut his door. She followed suit. “Man, let me tell you, I’m glad we found this place.”

“Yeah, I guess so am I,” he said. He led them the short walk to the RV, stepped up the slight stair, and opened the door. Aaron was standing at the window. “Clear the table, Aaron, we got company.”

“Who’s that guy?” asked Aaron. “And the girl with him?”

Company, like I said.” John moved across the kitchen and hooked his chair away from the table with his foot.

“Yeah, but who?” Aaron whispered.

“Supposedly, that’s my son and his lady friend.” John let the words sit in the air for a moment.

“Your… son?” Aaron quivered. The door to the RV reopened, and Carl entered first. He looked around and raised his eyebrows.

“Oh. Hi,” Carl said. He raised a hand for a shake. “I’m Carl.”

“Uh. Aaron.” Aaron shook his hand.

“And Melissa,” Carl completed, pointing to the woman by his side.

“How do you do, ma’am.” Aaron nodded. The four of them fit into the RV like sardines in a can; the loose electronics and recording equipment took up precious space, and there was a strong sense of claustrophobia in the air. John found himself opening his shirt by another button, just to let some heat out.

“This is a nice place you’ve got here,” the girl said, somewhat genuine, although clearly unenthused.

“No, this place is a shithole,” John said as he scraped a collection of files and loose paper from his desk. “I didn’t think I’d still be living in a place like this at my age, let me tell you.”

“So, Aaron, are you a friend of John, or…?” Carl began to ask. 

“Coworker,” Aaron said confidently. “I produce the program with him.”

“Employee,” said John. “Not Coworker.”

“Right. Employee. Sorta techie stuff,” Aaron smiled at the two guests.

“He presses a button when I ask him to—it’s really not that complicated.” 

John’s comment seemed to kill all the noise in the room. Neither Aaron nor Carl nor Melissa seemed interested in continuing this conversation. 

John gave an awkward cough. “Can I get either of you a beer?”

“I’ll take a beer,” Carl said. He looked over at Melissa. “She’ll take one too.” 

John nodded and opened the fridge. There was old pizza, discolored cheese, meat wrapped in a garbage bag, and only one beer. “Looks like we got a grand total of one beer left. I’ll send Aaron in to go into town and grab some more,” John sniffed.

Aaron’s face turned sour. “Me?”

“It’s—really not a big deal,” Melissa said, “I don’t need a beer—”

“Oh, that’s nonsense.” John waved her off. “What kinda hosts would we be if we didn’t keep our guests happy? Aaron, would you mind running to the store and grabbing our friends here some beer?”

John took out his ancient red-white-and-blue wallet and pulled out some loose bills, which he tossed in front of Aaron. They landed softly in front of him. John looked at Melissa; in fact, he couldn’t keep his eyes off of her. She looked oddly uncomfortable, but he couldn’t suss out why.

“In town?” Aaron asked in disbelief. “You want me to go all the way to town?”

“No, I expect you to get us beer from the fucking moon, Aaron.” John laughed a bit and looked to the two new guests for humor, but they just stood there silently. Awkwardly.

“But that’s a forty-minute drive there and back…” Aaronprotested limply.

“Then you better get driving.” John squinted at Aaron through his horn-rimmed glasses. Aaron was twenty-five, maybe twenty-six. He was a wimp, and they both knew it, but John was sure that he could make an honest, hardworking American out of the boy if given enough time and the right tutelage.

“We’re really—” Melissa began to protest again, but Carl stopped her. Aaron looked around. John was still staring at him.

“Don’t cheap out either,” John said. “Get the good stuff.” 

Aaron sighed in frustration and bit his pride as he stood up from the table. He squeezed his way through them, with barely enough room to breathe next to Melissa and Carl, and crept outside. His grumbling could be heard from inside the RV, and even his car sounded upset as he sped off into the night.

“Take a seat, take a seat,” John said. 

Carl found himself in the seat opposite John; Melissa was still standing. 

“I ain’t got much in the way of food. You two like Vienna sausages?” 

They shook their heads. 

“Suit yourself, I guess.” John sat back down at the recording table.

“Where’d you and Aaron meet?” asked Carl.

“Oh, I used to DJ down in Woodings.” John gave a slight cough and rearranged the cap collecting sweat from his bald head. “Aaron was the techie. When I left the radio station, I took him with me, I guess.”

“Why’d you leave?” Carl asked.

“Oh, I don’t know, same shit as always.” John let himself give a bit of a laugh. “I suppose I was just too politically motivated.”

“Politically motivated?” Carl asked.

“I mean, I was…” John looked over at his supposed son. “Hey, shouldn’t we be playing catch or something?”

“I’m more interested in you, John.” Carl smiled. It was an unusual smile, one that John wasn’t sure he understood.

John nodded. “Well yeah, okay, the owners of the station didn’t like that I was trying to wake people up. They didn’t like that I was educating people on-air.”

“Wake them up to what?” 

John looked up. Melissa was still standing, and Carl was only a foot or two away, keenly staring at him. John paused for a second and began to pull a Marlboro from his carton. He grabbed around for a lighter but couldn’t find one, looking down and fiddling with the breast of his shirt.


John looked up and saw Melissa towering over him. She handed him a black lighter, with no logos or obvious indications of manufacturer. He stared at it as she placed the lighter underneath the end of his cigarette and flicked it.

“Thank you,” John said, a bead of sweat dripping down the left side of his face. He sucked in and the cigarette was lit. He held it and rubbed his brow. “About the Globalist menace,” he said. 

He made it sound like he would say more, but instead, he smoked and stared at Carl.

“Oh, well,” Carl chuckled a bit, to John first, then to Melissa. “I don’t know that much about that kinda stuff. Enlighten us, would you?”

“Okay,” John said. “Well, the world is run by a cabal of pedophiles who drink the blood of children to keep themselves young. They run the media and all world governments, and they manufacture all world events in the interest of corrupting our youth into dressing like the wrong gender.” 

John smoked his cigarette. Melissa had started to look out the window. Why was she looking out the window? What was she looking for? She tapped her fingers anxiously. Carl’s eyes were focused intensely on John.

“I don’t know about that, John.” Carl chuckled a macabre laugh. “That all sounds mighty nasty.”

“You don’t believe me,” John stated. His eyes kept drifting over to Melissa at the window.

“Oh, I don’t really know,” Carl laughed a hick laugh, “I ain’t never been a political guy, I guess. I voted for Trump, though.” 

Melissa gave a frustrated glance to her fiance.

“Good man.” John smiled a bit “I’m glad you got some sense in you.”

“Yeah, I got some.” He was smiling. “So, what have you been up to? What’s your life been like since you left my mom?” 

John’s smile began to sag. Melissa was staring at him now, standing by the kitchenette.

“Say,” John said slowly, deliberately. “How did you two manage to find this place?”

“It took some tracking down, that’s for sure.” It was Melissa. Her voice was cold. “We were driving for hours.”

“Well,” John exhaled a puff of smoke, “I encrypt my location and then run my equipment off a VPN, so…I try very hard to make sure that people can’t find me.” 

John’s face hardened. There was a brief silence; Melissa and Carl looked at each other, and then Carl turned back to John.

“You’re right. I should explain.” Carl gave a slight cough to clear his throat. “My mom told me that you had a plot of land somewhere out here, and from there it was sort of a searching game.”

“Long one, too,” Melissa said with a hint of venom.

“Yeah, long one,” Carl sighed. 

John looked at the two of them up and down. He felt slightly sick to his stomach, claustrophobic and trapped in his own home. Maybe they were telling the truth, but maybe they weren’t. “Would you excuse me for a second?” 

He squeezed his way around the table and out of the RV, moving past Melissa and Carl without saying another word. He practically fell off of the half-stairs, stumbling down to the dry earth. His cigarette fumbled down from his hand as he closed the door and began to heave as quietly as he could. Filling his lungs with whatever air they could find. He wiped the sweat from his brow. How was he still so hot? He looked around to get a hold of his surroundings. It was the same patch of desert he spent all his time in, but with one major change. 

He looked at the car the strangers had come in, and then he peered into the RV through a window. Carl and Melissa were talking with each other. Quiet as he could, he made his way around to their car. The earth crumbled and crunched beneath his boots, and he glanced over his shoulder to make sure they were still occupied. He fumbled with the door, but it was locked, so he hoisted himself up and looked through the passenger window. In the darkness, he could see only that there was a briefcase lying in the back seat of the car. John’s stomach sank. 

He looked inside; they were still talking. John held his gun closely by his side as he opened the door and entered, with Melissa and Carl sitting adjacent to one another at the table. 

“What was that all about?” asked Carl.

“I had to take a phone call,” John lied. “Well, kids, it’s getting late. I think it might be best that we continue this meeting in the morning.” 

Carl looked upset.

“That’s nonsense. Pops, we gotta wait for Aaron, don’t we?” His voice sounded sweet, almost childlike.

“Right,” John admitted, “I forgot about Aaron. Well, we’ll wait for him to—” John stopped. “You just called me pops.”

“Oh, I guess I did.” Carl’s voice was sickeningly sweet now. “I’m sorry to—“

“It’s fine,” John said. He stared at the boy, who was grinning ear to ear like a fisherman with a good catch.

“Pops it is, then,” Carl chuckled. “I’m sorry. We would have called ahead, but we didn’t know how to reach you.”

“This is about it, I suppose,” John sighed.

“What about your phone number?”

“I don’t have a phone.”

Carl’s face changed, souring to a grimace. “I thought that you just said you were on a phone call.” It wasn’t a question but a statement. A challenge. John reminded himself that he was a man, and he knew what he had to do; and when you know what to do, you do it.

“Who are you two?” John grimaced. 

There was a long, confused silence.

“What?” Melissa asked, playing the part of the exhausted girlfriend to a tee.

“You’re kidding, right?” All pretenses dropped. John gritted his teeth and presented what he hoped to be a cruel smile. He moved close to the strange man. “You sure as hell ain’t my fucking son, and you sure as hell ain’t screwing this dime piece. So, I’m going to ask again, who the fuck are you two, and what’s in the briefcase?” 

Carl looked terrified. Melissa just looked confused.

“Pops, I—” Carl began to talk, but John didn’t let him. 

Instead, he finally pulled out the gun that he’d been clinging to for dear life. He held it up by his side, and he pointed it at this agent of evil he’d foolishly let into his home. The looks on their faces gave him an almost orgasmic feeling, like finally John was in control now. 

Carl screamed, and Melissa began to run for the door immediately.

“Don’t open that FUCKING DOOR!” John shouted at her, “I said, DON’T FUCKING OPEN IT—”

As the fluorescent lights of the gas station washed over Aaron, he couldn’t help but shield his vision. He was met with a familiar ring of the bell when he opened the door. To his left, at the counter, he saw Bill fiddling with his phone. Aaron was slightly repulsed at the sight of that fat lump, so he just made his way to the fridge and grabbed a case of the nicest stuff he could find. He walked past the aisles of processed foods and candies, and he placed John’s beer on the counter. Bill looked up.

“Hey there, Cowboy.” Bill called everyone that. “This gonna be everything?”

“Hey, Bill.” Aaron nodded. “Yeah, that’ll be it.” 

Bill scanned the box and began to poke his sausage fingers into the computer. Bill let out a yawn. “How’s that old nut-job doing, by the way?” 

Aaron glanced up into Bill’s hazy red eyes. The taste of anger began to catch at the back of his throat.

“He’s not a nutjob,” Aaron stated. “I wouldn’t work with him if he was.”

“Suit yourself, cowboy,” Bill scoffed. “18.23 is gonna be your total.” 

“You know,” Aaron feigned a little chuckle, “maybe you should actually listen to what he says. You might learn something.” He reached into his jean pocket and retrieved an unremarkable-looking leather wallet. Aaron took out the money that John had given him and gave it to Bill.

“Yeah, okay.” Bill chuckled. “I’ll do that.” He started to collect Aaron’s change from the register. 

“What’s so funny?” Aaron asked.

“Nothing.” Bill finished counting coins and waited for the receipt to print.

“You laughed,” Aaron said.

“Cowboy, I don’t know what to tell you.” Bill smiled and grabbed the receipt. “I laugh a lot.”

“What’s so funny?” Aaron asked again. “What’s so fucking funny about just listening to him?” 

Bill stopped what he was doing.

“Alright, Cowboy.” Bill looked down at Aaron from the little stool behind the counter. “Take a chill pill.”

“No,” Aaron began to raise his voice. “I will not take a chill pill. I want you to admit that you’re scared to listen to him because you don’t want your worldview to be challenged.” 

Bill’s face turned to one of confusion.

“My worldview to be challenged?” Bill stuttered. “Cowboy, I–” 

“Bill.” Aaron began to laugh. “Call me cowboy again, and I’ll kick your fucking teeth in.” 

Bill gave an unusual, doughy look. Aaron chose to believe it was fear. Bill gathered the change and receipt and put them onto the case.

“You’ve changed, Aaron.” Bill shook his head. “I don’t like what that RV has done to you.” 

Aaron ignored him, grabbed the beer, and stormed out.

The 2003 Subaru Outback climbed over the last hill before the RV was finally back in sight in the distance. With his high beams on, he saw John in front of the RV, digging something. Aaron’s car crawled to a stop, and he got out. 

He walked up to his boss—who he now realized was feral—and stared at the pit he was digging.

“John?” Aaron asked. “What are you doing?” 

John stopped digging and threw the shovel on the ground. He took his gloves off and threw them on the ground too.

“Let me see your teeth.” John said, fully serious.

“Um… what?” 

Aaron was totally confused, but John walked up like a lion, strong and commanding. The two stood eye-to-eye for a moment before John opened Aaron’s mouth and probed his fingers around his gums, examining his teeth. 

Hrrr!” Aaron spluttered. John pulled his sloppy, wet fingers from Aaron’s mouth.

“Looks like you’re really him.” John turned from Aaron as though nothing had happened, bent over, and put the gloves back on.

“I think…so…” Aaron felt his face. “Hey, John?” There was no response. He kept hauling dirt from the earth. “Where are the other two? Your son?”

“They left,” he muttered. Aaron saw that his boss was absolutely drenched in sweat.

“Their car’s still here.”

“Your life is made of choices.” John didn’t stop his impassioned digging; he grunted his words out. “So I’m gonna give you one here, boy. You can leave or you can dig.” 

Aaron blinked. He looked at the RV. There were holes in the side. There was blood trickling from the half-stair leading up to the door. He stood there, totally stupid.

“Who were they?” Aaron finally asked.

“Strangers,” the old man responded.

“He wasn’t your son?” Aaron asked, to no response. “John?”

“Are you going to dig, or not?” John whispered. 

Aaron stared at him. John was crying. Aaron grabbed a shovel and started work on the second hole.

Taking the radio tower down took the better part of the night for the two of them; and so, the two left that little nook in the desert—leaving two filled pits, one car with its plates removed, and a briefcase that used to be filled with old photos. The desert morning brought shades of blue and orange and the movement of critters. The noble cacti swayed in the sand, and the desert wind kept blowing.

A dark collage featuring overlapping buildings, cars, and water.

Night Drive

by Jeff Hersch

Peter Bauer graduated from Western Washington University in 2022 with a degree in English, a language he already knew anyway.

Jeff Hersch provides analog collages for the modern being. Like his thoughts, these pieces are often constructed in short, frantic spurts of energy, with bursts of self-doubt, though calm and subtle. Also like his thoughts, these pieces represent everyday observations and conclusions about the vast world that erratically suffocates us, with little time for a quick escape or chance to relax, as we are currently inhabiting an advanced state of infinite stimulus.

His works lend themselves to your own interpretation of meaning – if any – but should also serve as inspiration and demonstrate the simple notion that you too can and should create something/anything on a regular basis.

When he’s not hunched over his desk cutting and gluing clippings, Hersch finds the time to play in bands (Glazer, Civic Mimic, Postman Agitator) and volunteer as the executive director of Flemington DIY, a non-profit community arts space in the town he grew up in.

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