“Across the Darien Gap” by Daniel Braum

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cover of The Night MarchersDaniel Braum writes stories, set in locations around the globe, that explore the tension between the psychological and supernatural.

The following story originally appeared in Cemetery Dance Magazine #55 in 2006. It can be found in the all-new Cemetery Dance Publications edition of his first short story collection The Night Marchers and Other Strange Tales which is out on May 19, 2023.

Cemetery Dance Publications will be releasing his novella The Serpent’s Shadow in Fall 2023. Braum is also the author of the books Underworld Dreams, The Wish Mechanics: Tales of the Strange and Fantastic, and Yeti. Tiger. Dragon.

“Across the Darien Gap”
Daniel Braum

“Where Central and South America comes together lies a 54 mile stretch of rainforest, the only missing link in the Pan-American Highway—the 16,000 miles of continuous road stretching from Alaska to South America.”

—from Butler’s Guide to the Darien

Distorted reggae chords blare into the jungle from a tiny Marshall amp in the corner of Johnnie’s Video Bar. I watch a blond-bearded, dreadlocked American chuck chords on a beat up, blue, Fender knock-off guitar. His buddy, crammed in the corner behind him with his drum set, hammers out a sparse but steady beat. 

Alexa shuffles on the dance floor with the seven others we’re traveling with. Her long black hair is coated in sweat and Costa Rican grime. She smiles and for a moment I can believe she is carefree, despite all our running and fear.

She keeps her distance from a short Indian man who is spinning in circles with his arms extended and eyes closed. A big, almost toothless grin spreads on his wrinkled old face. He’s definitely had a few shots of guaro too many.

I picked up the seven others between here and San Antonio to bring us to nine. Makes us easier to mask. Harder to scrye. Now we look like just a bunch of nobodies heading to the gap, leisurely. Not in a beeline. Nothing that will call attention to our pursuers.

Alexa laughs and drinks beers and guaro with the rest, the bunch of them oblivious to the burnt-out look on the faces of the musicians, a look born of too many years of living lean. I know it too well. They don’t notice how the bass player, a Costa Rican, stands away from the transplanted gringos, probably once hippie students from Boston, avoiding direct eye contact as they play. They don’t yet have the wisdom to realize that every face, in every place we have passed, was not placed there for our amusement or education. Except for Alexa. 

My old pal Johnnie himself stands behind the bar smiling as he serves a beer. A video screen behind him plays an American rock video with the sound off. He smiled big and greedily when we stepped into his gringo heaven in-the-middle-of-nowhere bar. He wouldn’t be smiling so wide if he knew that unlike the hippie holdovers in the corner who are probably running from themselves and their perceived sins of the world, the horrors I’m hiding Alexa from are dangerously real.

Tomas hired me to take her from St Louis across the Darien into Columbia. Told me she’s the daughter of some big time mystic, but not who. Told me her Pop’s enemies want her dead, but not why. I’m guessing a lot of people don’t want her to grow up big and strong like her Daddy. Now she’s got some bad stuff on her trail.

You can’t run from these things, Tomas said. They’ll keep coming forever. Her Dad is gone and we are all she has. Her only hope is to stay ahead of them long enough to get her across the Darien Gap, onto my ground. My hemisphere. I’ll stand a real chance of hiding her there. 

I don’t know why he chose me. Probably ’cause I’m small-time enough to slip under the radar and not be noticed. I know just enough arcane tricks to make a living, keep me alive out here, and to piss a lot of people off.

The band stops so Boston-Dreadlock man can tune up. The din of peeping frogs, chirping lizards, and pulsing hum of insect night sounds fills the lull. The Indian keeps spinning, his hands almost slapping Alexa. The group laughs at him. Alejandro and Rita indulge in yet another public kiss. 

“Get a room,” David taunts. 

Alexa rolls her eyes, then notices me. A glowing smile grows on her beautiful face. She walks over to the window.

“Nate, get in here and dance with me,” she says.

I screwed up right from the start and used my real name. Some instinct in me mistakenly reacted as if “she and I” were real, and not just another job and fear born fling. 

She tosses her freshly-showered, long, curly hair. She smells like soap and flowers.

I flick my cigarette and lean in. “In a minute,” I say, trying to manage an earnest smile, hoping it hides the sick feeling I get thinking about all this running. I walk across the dirt road to check the wards I placed in the edge of the jungle.

The leaves on the cibolas and ferny underbrush still lean south as I directed. Nothing has disturbed my “barrier.” Tomas said these simple wards would fool Alexa’s pursuers. Magical masks, he called them. Nothing outside will detect anything magical inside. Anything stronger will announce your presence for miles, like a flare. Keep it simple, and safe.

I walk along the barrier to check the next ward point.

A faint blue glow shimmers in the darkness. Something has walked into the barrier. Blue mist peels off a man-sized form, its pointed ears tight along its bald head. It turns, revealing stunted reptilian features on an almost human face. Its eyes are the solid milky-blue of a snake about to molt. It moves its arms and legs slowly, deliberately though its wiry frame looks built to run.

I freeze. What the hell did Tomas get me into? 

It keeps moving, apparently unaware of me. The bent plants all flip direction as it passes.

I didn’t bargain for this. Just figured I’d cast some wards, baby-sit some kid, and return home six months ahead on the rent.

The ward works. Simple and safe. 

It circles an ancient strangler fig a few times, then steps out of the barrier—mist wisping off it as it disappears. Tendrils linger and settle on the ferns before dissipating.

I stand motionless, hoping it is gone.

A twig snaps. A dark shape close to the ground moves toward me. I release the breath I can hold no longer. It freezes. A black feline head regards me with intelligent yellow eyes. A jaguar. What is it doing this close to shore? A few heartbeats pass then it lifts a paw, slowly then gently puts it down. 

Nostrils flaring, it crawls closer, its belly pressed to the ground, and I smell its musky stink. It paws the air in front of me, opens its mouth, baring its thick sharp teeth, releasing a low guttural growl. I hold still, thinking of what to do, but it crawls away in the direction the blue demon headed. 

I stand still until my body is convinced all threat is gone. The adrenaline stops flowing. My heart slows. Beads of sweat roll down my face.

I backtrack to the bar. Juan is standing outside watching the five who have gravitated to the beach. When we met in Guatemala I hired him to be a lookout and some muscle, but more importantly to be our ninth member. I wouldn’t trust him with my girl, but I trust him not to run if things get out of control. David asked him about his scarred up arm. Shark bite, he said and they all believed him.

“Everything good?” he asks.

“Yeah, everything’s still in place. But I’m getting tired. Double duty tonight. We’ll sleep well tomorrow.”

“Check,” he says.

Inside Johnnie’s, the band is packing up. Alexa, David, (who keeps hitting on her), and the Indian guy are the only ones left on the dance floor, moving to the sound from the video screens.

I want to get between them, but don’t. Keeping our secret serves me better. He’d get pissed and maybe leave. We are nine and I want it to stay that way.

The Indian guy abruptly stops his spin and turns to me. He brings his hand into a claw and rakes the air. “Meow. Grrrowl. Meow,” he says through a mouthful of laughter.

How did he know?

“Don’t bother the paying customers,” Johnnie says, pushing him to the exit. “Time to get out of here.”

“What’s with him?” David asks.

“He’s nuts,” Johnnie says.

David yawns. “It’s dead in here, anyway. Let’s hit the beach.”

“I’ll bring you drinks,” Johnnie says.

Alexa’s eyes protest. I can read her well. They say you’re not going to dance with me after all.

I stare back. I’ll see her in her cabin, later. Like always. 

We join the rest of the group, standing in a circle at the edge of the water smoking cigarettes under the stars. Balls of heat lightning flash on the horizon, slowly rolling closer.

“Come on,” Alexa says to me. “Take your boots off. Let’s go in the water.”

I take off my shoes, roll up my pants, and wade out into the shallow water with her. It’s only knee deep for a half mile out to the barrier reef. Hordes of tiny phosphorescent plankton float on the surface. We leave glowing trails in our wake. I light a cigarette and try to relax. We’re warded in all directions. Except from the water. Can I even place a ward on water?

After a minute David follows. I glance at Alexa’s calves, half submerged in the water. I don’t blame him for his persistence. Alejandro and the others leisurely wade out to join us.

A big orange and purple cluster flashes in the sky.

“What was that?” David asks.

“Ball lightning,” I say.

“But there’s no rain.”

“Doesn’t have to be. Friction of front on front.”

“I don’t care what it is. Just look at it,” Alexa says.

“Beautiful,” David says. 

As always, he adds one word too many.

“I mean, it’s the power of nature,” he continues. “Makes you think all the nature worshippers and animal lovers have it right sometimes.”

“Not really,” Alexa says with disdain. 

I think of the things searching for us in the jungle and the malice needed to sic them on us.

“If you could be any animal in the world what would you be, Nate?” Alexa asks, mockingly.

Something that hides, I think. Something that scavenges, crawls around on its belly. A crab. I don’t say it aloud. 

As much as I can’t stand him, I need David to stay with us and keep our number nine so I encourage him with an inquisitive nod. 

“I guess a fox,” he says. “Maybe a wolf or something.”

Half of Alexa’s face is lit by the stars. I can see the green plankton glow reflected in her brown eyes. I follow the taut line of muscle and cords from her neck to where it disappears under her t-shirt. Her smooth skin is perfectly tan. 

David is still talking, but I’m not listening. Alexa yawns and stretches. Her shirt rides up revealing her flat stomach. She wades back to shore. In a few minutes I will follow.


A humid wind blows through the thatched roof of the tiny cabin. The murmur of lapping waves serenades us. 

Alexa is staring out the open window. Johnnie chose a great vantage point of the beach for his cabins—a little rise nestled at the edge of the jungle. I gently press my hand in the small of her back to move her away.

She arches reflexively. I take a deep breath, stifling my desire. I haven’t double-checked all the wards yet.

“You gonna stay?” she whispers.

“I gotta check on everyone.”

“You’re always checking on everyone. Stay with me, just this once.”

“I’ll be back. I promise.”


I check the wards I set around the four cabins. Muffled cries and groans from Alejandro and Rita’s cabin join the night sounds. In the dark of the night, when we are alone in each other’s arms, Alexa talks about the life we are going to have in Columbia. A villa. A ranch. Lazy days in the sun. It helps me believe that I’m special, that this is special and going to last, though I know it won’t. It can’t. 

I imagine her cool, slender hands moving over my arms, to my shoulders. I check the last ward and hurry back to her cabin. I quietly slip through the door.

The room glows orange from the smoldering end of a mosquito coil. Alexa’s in a long tank top, staring out the window again. Geckos skitter on the walls, feasting on tiny spiders and nocturnal ants.

“Hi,” I whisper.

“Hi,” she whispers back. The back of her tank is wet from her hair. “Shower was nice, but cold,” she says.

“Sorry I missed it.”

She’s quiet. Been waiting up for me.

“What are you thinking of?” I ask. I expect her to turn, say something soft and breathy with passion in her eyes, kiss me as if breath depended on it, and slip out of her clothes.

“The Indian at the bar,” she says. “He made me sad. He was so out of it. The others were calling him El-Capi-tan.”

She never ceases to surprise me. “What does that mean?” I ask.

“I don’t know. But they laughed it up.”

“Maybe they’re the fools, you ever think?”

“Of course they are,” she says quickly, “but he was probably just running away—drinking down his sorrows.”

Like me. I’d love to run away with her. Live the life I never had. 

“Maybe he was laughing at us,” I say. “Maybe he just came out of the jungle to have some guaro, spin to the beat, and look at pretty gringas like you.”

She thinks about it for a second. “No, he was just lost and they were just being mean.” She looks away. “Everyone wants to make a side trip out to the island,” she says, her sadness apparently purged by voicing it. 

“You know we have to keep heading south.”

“You always stick to the plan?”

“Always,” I say. “But for you, anything.”

“Are there really no mosquitoes on the island?” she asks. 

“Really,” I say. “Only a lot of crabs and monkeys.”

“You wouldn’t lie to me,” she says playfully.

“Never,” I say. But I would. I have a hundred times already. To keep her safe. To keep my distance.

“Let’s go,” she says, her voice dipping low with an excited tremble that drives me crazy. “Just us. It’ll be so good.”

“Not now,” I say. Too dangerous. Gotta stay with the wards. 

She frowns. Did I snap at her?

“Tomorrow, silly,” she says with a slight laugh, but she meant now. I can tell. I laugh with her, relieved I haven’t shaken her good mood. But when this is all over and the sun and good food and gentle wind are gone, she’ll tire of me, realize my nervousness doesn’t come from watching this stupid group. I’ll bark at her one time too many and she’ll be gone, too.

“Listen,” I say. “I’m going to hit the bathroom then I’ll ask Johnnie if I can use his boat.”

She smiles.

I go to the bathroom and splash cold water on my face. All at once, the six geckos that had been leisurely hunting insects scuttle frantically through the cracks in the walls. Above, the roof rustles with movement.

Alexa screams.

Up. I didn’t ward from above. I burst through the door.

Snakes and frogs are raining down on her from a tear in the ceiling. I dive, but don’t reach her in time. She is bitten. Again and again.

I yell a word of banishment but the thing inside the snakes is strong and only half of them disperse. As the frogs hop away, disappearing through the window and under the bed, the snakes rear in an unnatural unified motion. I take a step back and they strike her neck as one. She gasps. Gurgles. Flaps her arms. Red frogs hop on her face and roll on her lips, spreading their poison. 

Outside, a jaguar cries, a screech like glass breaking. The snakes freeze, drop to their bellies, and slither away with the fleeing frogs.

I brush a straggling frog off her, drop down, and rub poison from her lips. She’s stopped breathing and her eyes are rolled back. Her neck is swelling. 

I scramble to my bag, hunting for the stuff her father gave me.

Alone, these are inert, Tomas said. Combine them. Combine them again and you may be able to command her back.

Bring her back? I asked.

From the void. Catch her if she’s falling. But only once. I told you this is dangerous work, if you’re not up for it…

I’m up for it, I said.

Should it come to this, get ready to run. My enemies and every demon they have sent will see it like fireworks in the night. Then they’ll come for you.

I combine the green and brown herbs and force the earthy reeking stuff down her throat, caressing her swollen neck.

I speak the words Tomas told me. 

Alexa’s eyes open and bulge. Her chest rises with a sputtering breath. Her back arches, violently. She gags, spraying poison and herbs.

She sucks in air, face taut, neck muscles flexed. A look of fear plastered on her face. Did I snatch her back in time?

She struggles to breathe. Her chest falls and with a hiss she succumbs to the poison. Again.

It’s not fair. 

She lays in a slick of frog guts and blood, her neck puffed and blue. Her life squelched before it could blossom. She had real compassion. And with the power they say she would have had, what a waste.

I feel a scream welling in my gut. There’s nothing in my bag that can save her now. 

It’s over. She’s gone. I grab my pack and run.


I hand Juan a fistful of cash and tell him to take the others north.

“Where?” he says.

“Anywhere, away from here,” I say. “Alexa and I are going to the islands.”

“The islands,” he says to himself, scratching his chin suspiciously. He knew the plan. He knew we’d never go. He’s wondering what went wrong.

“This is what I hired you for. Go.”

He pockets the money.

I dash back to the video bar. Johnnie waits with Alexa’s body where I left it, in the garbage pit behind the kitchen.

He sprays a half can of lighter fluid and dumps the jug of kitchen grease on her. He pauses with the matches.

“She not gonna like this,” he says. “We’re gonna make one angry ghost.”

He’s right. But it’s my only choice.

Don’t let them get her body, Tomas said. Burn her. Smash her bones.

Her spirit? I asked.

She will go where she can not be reached.

I stuff the rest of my cash in Johnnie’s front pocket and remind him of a dozen things I have on him from over the years.

He throws the match and she goes up in flames with the trash.

I want to wait around to see that he does it right, but what I’ve done has lit me up like a beacon in the night. So much for simple and safe.

I’ve got to run. Find somewhere to hide. Find some help. My best chance is Chandra about twenty clicks down the coast. She used to conjure luck charms and shark wards for the rich surfers on the circuit.

The kitchen grease sputters. Johnnie counts his money.

“Vaya con dios,” he says. 

I wish I knew the way.


The aroma of strong coffee and fresh banana bread makes my stomach buckle with hunger. I stumble up the steps of Chandra’s wooden hut. The surfers eating breakfast on the deck hush and turn as I push past to the screen door.

Chandra almost drops the tray of scrambled eggs and juice as she runs into me. The lines around her eyes and lips have deepened since the last time I saw her. Her red hair is in two long ponytails tied with ripped blue bandanas.

“Nate! I never thought I’d see you here again. You’re a wreck.”

I steady myself between two rickety tables, pulling off the batik tablecloth. Sugar and habanero sauce clatters to the ground. Chandra grabs me under the shoulders. Though past fifty, she is still lean and strong. A Costa Rican man in an apron rushes from the door behind us.

“It’s okay, Manuel,” Chandra tells him. “Go outside, check on the tables.” She leads me into the kitchen, through a door into the back room. Batik tapestries line the walls. Bronze and wood statues, bottles of oil, and crystals crowd the top of the wooden dresser. Lingering odors of frankincense and sandalwood mix with the smell of eggs from the kitchen. 

“I’m sorry, Chandi,” I say. “I did wrong by coming here. Something bad is on my tail.”

“Sit down,” she says. I collapse onto the small bed. I see the concern spread over her face. Can’t tell if it’s for me or for the trouble I’m bringing.

She regards me with her piercing blue eyes. Her left, almost violet one, stares off into space.

“You’ve been working way over your head,” she says. “You’re lucky there’s anything left of you.”

“I need your help,” is all I manage to say.

She disappears through the curtain door and returns with a glass of juice. “Take this and sleep. We’ll shake what’s tailing you when you wake.”

“Please don’t let me sleep for long.”


I wake and Chandra is sitting on the edge of the bed. Shadows from tall pillar candles dance on the thatched ceiling.

I picture it bursting into a rain of snakes.

“I gotta get to the Darien,” I say. 

“Easy, easy,” she says. “You look better. Strong enough for this.”

She takes a bit of salve from a mortar and pestle on the bedside table and dabs it on my lips. She then rubs some on her eyelids and the center of her forehead.

Her strong hands close around mine. She hums and murmurs in her rich voice. The candle flames dim.

Her hum trails off and her face contorts like she swallowed a bad shot of guaro.

“Oh, Nate,” she says with disgust. “That poor girl. It’s so horrible.”

I picture Johnnie sifting the ashes and smashing her teeth like I instructed.

The candles flare. “I know what you need to do,” she says. “You’re not going to like it.”

Chandra releases my hands.

“She hasn’t crossed over.”

It’s like I feared.

“The things in the jungle will come for her, and you until she does.”

“Why won’t she go?” I ask.

“She’s too mad. You failed her. Pretended she mattered. Then threw her in the trash. Like you would have one way or another. Her anger is all she has left.”

“I’ve got to get her to cross.”

“It’s not going to be easy.” She calls for Manuel. He’s through the curtain fast. “Go into the jungle and find me a snake,” Chandra says. “A small poison one. In the morning, go into town and pick out the bravest boy, for real, not just the loudest, and see if he is willing to earn good money to go with my friend to Panama.”


The road ended miles back, and this is the end of the packed earth that continued in its place. Twisted mangrove roots dip into the murky salt water and stagnant mud. Across these waters is the other side of Panama, and South America beyond.

Alexa’s phantom, pale and white—a frozen image of her at death—hovers where the dirt meets the water, inches above the sanctuary I failed to bring her in life. Just like Chandra said. I can feel her rage, tangible like a coming rain, certain as a disturbed hive of bees about to swarm.

She’s angry with me. Angry I lied to her. Angry I let her die, and then ripped her back once she did.

“I have a boat waiting at the docks,” I say. “We can go for our boat ride now.”

Alexa doesn’t budge. A long shot, but I paid the fisherman anyway.

“Who you talking to?” the kid asks.

“Nobody. Don’t worry.” I give the boy the bag with the rest of the stuff from Old Tomas. “You remember how?”

He nods his head, yes.

I take out the small canvas bag holding the snake.

The blue stain on Alexa’s neck darkens.

“You want to see me suffer,” I say.

I can tell she’s listening.

“You want to hurt me.”

Alexa’s ghost vibrates with an unsettling intensity.

I nod to the boy. I hope he stays brave. I take off my left boot and sock. I wriggle my big toe in the mud.

I open the bag and grab the young snake behind the neck. I force its jaw open. A drop of venom drips from its small fangs. I stab the curved tooth into my toe.

Pain shoots through my foot and radiates up my leg. My mouth goes dry, my head throbbing with each racing heartbeat. Everything goes black, and then I see the boy as a blurry ghost. Alexa is vivid and clear. Her face locked in the ghastly expression from when I ripped her back. 

The poison has me. I don’t have much time so I move to her. 

Alexa lifts her hand, slowly bringing it toward my face. I think of her ashes in the jungle mud behind Johnnie’s. I can still see the beauty that once was. She’ll never grow to be a woman like Chandra.

“I’m sorry,” I say. I open my arms to embrace her.

She clenches her fist and swings, connecting with my jaw. The blow is solid. I’ve traveled far.

She hits me again. Right. A left. She swings her arms wildly overhead. I hear her saying, “stay with me” over and over, but her blue lips don’t move. She always wanted me to stay. To share one restful uninterrupted night. I never did.

With each blow her body is less substantial. She drifts back, reaching for my hand. 

“Come,” she says. Her eyes, dark in life, are black as the void.

I should go with her. It’s only right. I squeeze but my fingers pass through hers. She fades until the faint blur of her gossamer outline melds with the darkness.

A throb in my foot jars me. I open my eyes, gag, and spit out the rancid tasting herbs. 

The world snaps into focus. Her phantom is gone. Safe. Beyond anyone’s reach now.

The kid did well. He’s nowhere to be found. Maybe if I hurry I’ll catch up with him on the road. 

I picture one of the reptilian demons clawing its way through the jungle. 

They have seen. They have felt me return. But with their quarry gone there is nothing left for them, except vengeance on me.

I try to stand, but I’m too woozy.

I never made it across the gap. Part me of me wanted to believe in Alexa’s dreams for us on the other side. I’d like to think we are together, lounging forever at some lazy villa, in the endless moment of her last pleasant thought before dissipating into the void.

A howl sounds in the jungle.

Maybe a jaguar will watch over me. Or the little guy from the bar.

“El-Capi-tan,” I call for him. I cough out brown leaves, struggle to my feet, and run.

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