(originally published in Salsa Nocturna)

 

In a couple of hours, Magdalena will walk out of a forest and into a field. I’ve imagined

the moment so many times now. One of her spaghetti straps’ll be hanging down her

shoulder and she’ll still be carrying the machete with her. She won’t be smiling. Face so

serious you’d wonder if she’ll ever smile again. But she will walk out into that field and

far, far away, and leave the terrible past behind her.

“So you’re saying you still think about her?” Big Cane breaks into my imaginings.

Probably because he’s bored. We’ve been floating amidst the manicured bushes in front of

this library for two days now, waiting, watching, watching, waiting. Not glamorous at all,

this ghost hunting work.

“Every mothafuckin’ day, B. Well, okay, not every single one. But many. And especially

as today started coming up.”

“This was when you were still alive that you knew her?” His enormity demands he

always be looking down at whoever he’s speaking to, but otherwise, Big Cane is the least

condescending white person I’ve ever met, dead or alive. When he looks at me, I believe

he really does see me, not some cavewoman cartoon he caught on TV in whatever

century he lived in, not some pitiful, overweight, punk rock colored chick that needs

saving. It’s something in his eyes.

“Yeah. This boarding school I went to.” I always pause there. Don’t ask me why. “For

troubled teens.”

I hope I’m right about Cane, because I’ve told him more about my life than I’ve ever told

anyone else ever. He has a way of just prying stuff out of me, probably because he really

doesn’t try, just makes his little noises and occasionally sews together sentences and then

I get to babbling. Which I swear is really unlike me, except when it’s not. That particular

grunt means, “I see” with an added connotation of “What are you gonna do about it,

then?” We spend a lot of time together, me and Cane.

I shrug and move my neck in circles to ease the soreness of so much of the same. “I don’t

know if Imma do anything, yet. There’s something to be said for letting go.”

“Hm.” Amen.

At the coffee shop across the street, life bumbles along its insanely dull daily routine.

We’re in Riverdale, a gushy suburban corner of the Bronx and not a damn interesting

thing has happened here since 1947. Probably not true: a few night clubs and assorted

shenanigan holes are scattered around on Broadway, not far away, but this block right

here? Duller than death. You’d never guess there’re three parasite phantoms poised to

feed on an entire room full of pediatric souls in the daycare center behind the coffee shop.

“Oh, look, that same mom with the two kids from yesterday,” Big Cane points out.

“Mm.” I’m getting to be more like him with each passing day of this insane stake out.

Good thing I like him.

“‘Cept she’s a little later today.”

“Indeed.” Kill me now.

Cane adjusts his position, stretches those gigantic arms forward and then up above his

head. “So…I think you should do something.” A rare declaration of opinion from the

ancient giant.

I frown. “Suggestions?”

“Nope.”

“Great.”

*

Magdalena strolled into fifth period English class late and chewing gum one chilly Friday

afternoon, and slid into the seat next to mine. She wore a purple dress and you could tell

she had those kind of breasts that just lay there against her chest and that she didn’t give a

fuck what people thought about that. Halfway through the class she slid a folded up sheet

of lined paper onto my desk with a drawing of a penis riding a mule, its grotesquely hairy

nutsack straddling the saddle like fat little legs. I tried to suppress a cackle, caught some

saliva in my windpipe and erupted into a coughing fit.

When I recovered and Mr. Davis stopped glaring at me, I drew devil horns on the donkey

and a backpack on the penis with a little baby penis poking its head out, papoose style.

That was the first time I saw Magdalena smile. It exploded like the tearing of two

tectonic plates across her face; transformed her in seconds from a snarling teenager to a

bright little girl. Her two front teeth were huge and one laid slightly on top of the other

like it was trying to hold it back from picking a fight with the world. Then she

disappeared the smile, perhaps never to be seen again, and concentrated on drawing the

mama penis and her mule.

*

“I think it’s time,” I say, more because I’m bored than any real reason.

Big Cane shakes his big head. “Not yet.”

“Soon?”

A nod and the slightest of smiles.

“How will we know?” I’m not usually this impatient but Magdalena’s big moment is

rapidly approaching, and it’s drenching my thought process with a swirl of gruesome

images. Not the walking out the forest ones. Other, uglier scenes, that I’d rather not think

about. “The Council gonna send us a message or something?”

Cane lets out a gentle chortle and rubs his big fingers into his eyes. “Council ain’t tellin’

us shit except come to XYZ location, wait and move when it’s time to move. The

parasites been holed up in there for two days, gathering strength while the kids come and

go. And you and me are the eyes and ears of the Council right now, Krys. That’s it.”

“So we just wait ‘till some magical moment? How do we decide what to do?”

“Look, you wanna talk about what you’re really talking about?” Cane says instead of

answering. I hate that he can see right through me. I also love it, but right now I just

bristle and shrug. I am, after all, still a teenager.

Cane shrugs too and it looks like a mountain range going for a stroll. “Suit yourself.”

I let a moment or two pass, because I don’t want to seem too anxious, and then say, “It’s

an anniversary thing. The day and hour she turns eighteen and… The day something

horrible happened to her, years ago.” Cane nods and I say, “On her eleventh birthday,

actually.” I’m not sure why I added that detail; maybe I needed to see Cane flinch like

that, to know there was still some living, feeling thing under all those translucent layers

of muscle and fat. But then I feel bad, because now the sadness in his eyes won’t go away

and it’s too late to go back. “Her father.”

Cane looks like he’s been slapped and for what it’s worth, a part of me is relieved. You

never know how someone, especially a man, is gonna react to information like that, and I

was afraid he’d just go on being the big stoic impenetrable badass he always is and that I

would hate him for it.

Terrible, how far and wide the tentacles of a single act can spread.

*

I wasn’t crying as Magdalena finished telling her story but I was definitely making stupid

little sobby noises and frowning a whole lot. It was three am on the morning of her

sixteenth birthday. We’d snuck out of our dorm and holed up in a little makeshift nest

made of stolen blankets and flickering candles in the cramped props room behind the

auditorium. I hiccupped and sniffled but Magdalena just sat there calm as could be like

she was talking ‘bout what she had for breakfast. Then she told me about the promise

she’d made to herself. A covenant, she called it, fiddling idly with one of the silver spikes

sticking out of her lower lip. A covenant. Then she frowned.

She still had babyfat on her face and her hair was tied back beneath a red bandana. I felt

so big and solid next to her wispy little frame, but for the first time in maybe ever that

bigness didn’t feel like a bad thing, an awkward thing, it just felt like what I was. I wished

in that moment that I could bottle the certainty in her eyes that made it so simple and

obvious to just be me. Wished I could manufacture a lifetime supply for every moment a

stranger’s gaze told me the opposite.

*

“It’s time.”

I look up from my memories. Cane is poised like a giant tiger that’s about to obliterate

some unknowing gazelle. The bastard’s actually smiling about the magnificent asswhupping

he’s about to deliver and that’s why me and Big C are peoples. Because I’m

smiling, too. Life, death, struggle, whatever: It’s complicated, laden with strife and

disagreements, regret, poisoned hearts and betrayals. We’re all survivors of something.

And nothing helps all that muck disappear into the ether, at least momentarily, like truly

wailing on some deserving fool of a soul-sucking phantom.

I don’t know what silent cue Cane took from the universe to tell him our moment had

come. He never gives me a straight answer when I try to ask; instinct I guess. A thing I’m

only beginning to understand. Either way, like he says, he just knows.

At a nodded signal, I pull my bow and arrow from my back and aim at the sky above the

coffee shop. Feels so good, so right to stretch my arms after so long sitting and waiting.

Just right. I take an extra second to double check my aim, imagining the havoc I’m about

to unleash. I don’t really need to, but this is no time for arrogance. Children’s lives are at

stake.

I release, feel the projectile erupt from my bow, stretch upwards in a glorious arc, cut

through the late afternoon sky above the heads of a dozen oblivious passersby. It hangs

there for a solid second, as if unsure whether or not to give in to gravity, and then

plummets. The warhead at the end is a sharpened canister: the spiritual equivalent of a

shock grenade. It won’t do any real damage but should stun everybody enough to give us

the upper hand.

Inside the building, fourteen kindergarteners stand in a tangled shadow web. They can’t

see it of course, can’t see anything in their semi-comatose state, but those misty lines

stretch between the three hunched over phantoms. The parasites are fully in some kind of

hellacious meditation, all bent on their soul-sucking ways. They’re draining these kids of

their life force. The kids’ll live but they’ll just be shells, no vitality. Failure to thrive, it’s

called in medical textbooks. The rest of their sad lives will be a failure to thrive. At least

that’s what would’ve happened. Instead, my warhead comes dancing out of the sky,

swoops through all those layers of concrete and wire mesh and finds its mark smack in

the middle of the feeding.

Cane and I burst out of our hiding place. People walk down the street like it’s just another

day in Riverdale, strolling, shopping, going about their business. We cut through them, a

sudden breeze against the flesh of the living, and push into the building. The arrow has

done its job well; the parasites stumble every which way, their long interconnecting

tentacles flapping in the air uselessly. The kids blink awake; a few start crying and

running around in circles.

I bring my bow down hard on the first parasite I pass, smashing it into the ground in a

pathetic ghostly heap. The next one is recovering some; it lurches up at me and I meet it

with a fist in the face. The thing crumples again and I move on, stepping gingerly over

the collapsing ghost web.

*

After Magdalena told me about her plan we sat quietly for a few minutes. This band she

likes, Culebra, screamed and wailed on a gritty little speaker box she brought and the

only other sound was us pulling on the joint, coughing occasionally. If it had been totally

quiet, no music, no smoking, nada? I think she would’ve been able to hear my heart

sobbing. No tears came out, although Magdalena’s story has pulled the floor out from

under me. I just let the sadness become a sleeping snake, curled up inside me. I let it rise

in my chest, squeezing a little tighter with each puff of smoke.

After a few minutes, Magdalena opened up that big smile once again. “The other part of

my plan is this”:”

“Tell me.”

“Every year until then,” she said like she was coming to the end of a really corny ghost

story, “on my birthday, I will make love to a beautiful woman.”

I burst out laughing, but Magdalena had folded her smile back away. I stopped laughing

and we just looked at each other across the candlelight.

*

“Go,” Cane says. He has his own covenant, the protocols of manhood. He follows them

religiously and they don’t allow him to put words to what’s on his mind. But he doesn’t

have to. A certain tremble erupts in those ghostly pupils and it tells me everything I need

to know. “Go,” he says again, but he’s really saying Go, because it happened to me too.

Because I survived and lived a long healthy life and so should she. Go.

When I hesitate he nods towards the last writhing phantom and says “I got this” in a voice

so hoarse and serious I almost hug him. But that’s not the move right now and I know it.

The move is get out of here and find Magdalena. Fast. So that’s what I do.

*

“Actually,” I said when Magdalena put her pretty, uneven lips against my neck, “I like

boys.” I still cringe when I think about it.

“Me too,” Magdalena said between slurps.

I was lying on my back. Lying perfectly still, because if I moved, the whole moment

might shatter. “I mean I’m not gay.”

Magdalena didn’t say anything, just worked her mouth down my shoulders and along my

arms.

I didn’t know whether I was relieved or disappointed when she stopped kissing my toes

and nuzzled up on top of me like a kitten sleeping on a baby bear in one of those feelgood

postcard photos. I mean, I was praying the whole time, to an entity I knew no name

for, and cringing too, and I suppose all my prayers and my shame and pleasure got mixed

into one sultry, complicated sludge that got sent up to Whomever and that was that.

I said, “I thought you were going to make love to me,” trying to make my voice neutral.

“I did,” she said and I felt her smile against my chest.

First, I felt sad, because maybe in her strange, broken world that’s what making love was.

No vaginas, no ins and outs, no gooey juices; just a whole mess of the gentlest kisses in

the world placed with the utmost care on each available body part and then a good

cuddle. I watched the top of her head rise and fall with each of my breaths. I had never

felt so peaceful in all my life. Maybe that was what making love was in my strange,

broken world too, and it was everyone else who had it wrong. I smiled and was grateful it

was too dark for her to see the tears sliding out of my eyes, down my face and onto the

stolen blankets.

*

This is where she said it would happen. I move quickly through a clearing; I’m just a

translucent flash in the darkening sky and then I’m gone, disappeared into the shadows of

the forest.

Perfect spot for a killing, really. There’s no one around for miles; we’re well away from

the main road in a vast park in the murky nether region where Brooklyn becomes Queens.

I glide forward on intuition mainly, because once I enter the woods it’s anyone’s guess

where she might be. Maybe it’s the beginning of Big Cane’s magic being born in me too; I

feel myself getting closer. Then I see her.

I’m too late. Sort of. Magdalena’s standing by a concrete opening in the forest floor,

maybe the foundation of some building that never got built. It’s full of murky rainwater

that looks like it’s been there for eons, all sludge and dead leaves and trash. Doesn’t

matter. What matters is the lifeless collection of limbs piled in the mulch at the edge of

the pool. The ground is dark with blood and blood is splattered in a frantic design across

Magdalena’s white t-shirt and jeans. She’s crying. Wipes a hand over her sweaty brow,

slathering blood all across her face. She’s still got the machete in one hand, and as I move

towards her, she places the tip of the blade against her belly and closes her eyes.

This isn’t how it’s supposed to go. I admit I had no plan. But I thought maybe I’d make it

here before the deed was done. I’d figure out some way to prevent it but still cause the

stupid guy enough holy terror to keep him from ever doing anything so foul ever again –

maybe castration as a last resort – and then Madgalena would walk away, out into the

field and on into the rest of her life.

I wrap around Madgalena, feel her shudder as my translucence covers her. She can’t see

me; I’m only a memory, a whisper, but I’ll be a whisper at the forefront of her

consciousness, I’ll be memory enough to blot out all the seeping terror. She trembles, her

body still stiffened, ready to strike.

I’m just new to the afterlife but I have some swagger to my magic. I squeeze tighter,

throw all my spiritual strength into making my ethereal almost nothingness break through

into that flesh and blood dimension. And Magdalena still stands there on the line,

wavering slightly in the early evening breeze like some baby oak tree.

It’s a few minutes before I realize that whatever I’m doing isn’t working. She’d thought

there would be some sense of relief, some triumph and closure after all that waiting and

plotting. Instead there’s just an emptiness so deep it infects me too: A total devastating

void. Magdalena lets out a sob and tightens her grip on the machete.

I was a pretty devout atheist in life. That night in the prop dock was probably the one

prayer I could put my name to. Since I died I’m not so sure. Hard to deny that there’s

something else out there when you are that something else. Cane, on the other hand, was

a true believer all through life and still hangs out in the back of some church in

Inglewood on Sunday mornings, smoking his hand rolled cigarettes and trying not to get

mistaken for the Holy Spirit. He says every soul is like a tiny shard of glass that reflects

God. He says when you’re dead, you’re just a soul, and the reflection is even stronger, not

muddled by all that flesh and blood and “‘living people shit”.’

Right now, at this moment, I’m gonna go with Cane’s view of the world, because it’s the

biggest source of strength I can find. I’ll be that super-magnified shard of divine light if

that’ll make some glimmer of hope filter through me into Magdalena’s sad soul. I’ll be

that. That emptiness keeps trying to overtake me, the sudden absence of life lying in a

crumpled pile in front of us, the sudden absence of mission and fire in the girl I’m

surrounding. My mind keeps trying to get distracted by the horror that just happened, but

I force it back into focus.

At first I think I’ll imagine-up a beautiful future for Magdalena, one where she’s peaceful,

not haunted by today or that day eight years ago or anything else that’s happened in

between. But I need something more solid than a dreamy sunlit apartment and a warm

cup of tea. Instead, I dig up a memory: The last week of my life, when every cell in my

body wanted so badly to live. Cancer won, but the imprint of that desire, that thirst for

life bubbles up inside me now and I let it overflow into Magdalena.

I slide my arms down hers, ease along like a second skin across her. My whole being is

vibrating with that memory, the lion’s roar to live, and I let it vibrate from my core all the

way through Magdalena and out into the forest around us.

A minute passes, or maybe ten. I lose track. Lose track of my own trembling, transparent

body and all my joys and sorrows. Lose track of which is me and which is her or whether

it matters, which of us is teetering on the fine line between life and death. Both I suppose.

And then Magdalena lets out a long, shaky breath and I know we’ve won. Death will have

to wait its turn for her. She lowers the machete, squats down and pushes the pile of limbs

that was her father into the green water. The last pale appendage disappears with a

gurgle. Magdalena stands and then walks out of the woods and into the field.