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En la Casa de Fantasmas, by Brian Holguin

I.

Everyone knows about La Bruja.

They say she lives somewhere down in the Avenues south of Eagle Rock. She is a tiny thing, short and round. Always dressed in black no matter the weather or time of year. Draped in mourning, they say, like La Llorona. Black wool dress, black coat, black shawl. A black veil that falls like a cobweb over her ancient face. Ask the abuelas in the park and they will tell you they remember her from when they were young, and that she was an old woman even then.

You can spot her from a mile away, carrying that odd little dollhouse of hers. You know the one: it looks homemade, simple and boxy, with a peaked roof and a handle at the top. It is painted in bright candy colors, as cheerful as she is somber: lemon yellow and valentine pink, mint green and robin’s-egg blue. There are those who say the house was made for La Bruja by her father, or perhaps even her grandfather, and that they each bore it for many long years before her. But there is no one alive today who can answer for sure.

Go talk to the vatos who hang out behind the pool hall, the dark-eyed boys with grease under their fingernails and tattoos on their knuckles, and ask them about La Bruja. They will tell you she loves nothing better than to sneak into children’s rooms at night and steal their hearts. She comes while you are sleeping and never makes a sound or leaves a mark. You won’t even know it happened. You’ll just wake up in the morning feeling strangely numb and hollow. You will walk around blank-eyed and shivering, with no notion of what ails you, until you drop dead at the stroke of noon. Later, when they cut you open at the hospital, they will see that your heart is missing and find a smooth, round stone in its place.

They say La Bruja carries the hearts around in that crazy little house of hers, ready to eat at her leisure, like ripe, juicy apples.

But it’s all a lie. Those boys are only trying to scare you.

Everyone knows the house is for the ghosts.

It’s late August in L.A. The last mean stretch of a summer that feels like it will never end. Everywhere are brown lawns and shimmering stretches of black asphalt. Posters and billboards show angry red thermometers reminding you not to waste water. No sprinklers to run through. No inflatable pools to laze in. For children, August is doubly cruel. Too hot to do anything fun, too close to the new school year to waste a single day in idleness.

In the heat of the afternoon, La Bruja beetles her way along York Boulevard. The children outside the corner store shout “Bruja! Bruja!” and drop their Popsicles and soda cans on the sidewalk. They sprint for their bikes and race down the alleyway, daring to look back only when they are blocks away. There is no point, after all, in taking chances or pretending to be brave. If she were to lift her veil, La Bruja could freeze you to the spot with a single glance. You’ll stand there, stone still, until a perfect stranger walks around you three times, counter-clockwise, and says “wake up, wake up, fly away home.” If you are careless enough to let your shadow cross hers, she can snatch it in her hand and claim your soul. She’ll slip into your dreams at night and make herself at home, rummaging through your memories, your fears, your guiltiest secrets. Once she’s there you can never make her leave, no matter how many candles you light at St. Dominic’s or how many Hail Marys you say. That’s a simple fact. Everyone says so.

At the bus stop on York, La Bruja sits waiting, dollhouse at her side. She tosses a handful of sunflower seeds onto the sidewalk in front of her and makes a rhythmic “chk-chk-chk” sound with her tongue. It is less than a minute before the crows come. They descend by the dozens, squawking and flapping. They peck madly at the seeds and then perch silently on the seat beside the old woman, and along the backrest of the bench, until the whole thing is camouflaged in night.

When the bus comes, La Bruja steps aboard. The driver never charges her and she never bothers to ring the bell to call for her stop. The other riders get up so that she may sit in the frontmost seat all by herself. As the bus heads west and turns right onto Eagle Rock Boulevard, the noisy dark cloud of birds follows close behind.

No one knows exactly how La Bruja manages to conduct her business or knows when to show up for her appointments. She doesn’t have a calling card or advertise her services on bus benches. She’s never owned a telephone. But she always knows when she is needed. When you get desperate enough, frightened enough, you will find a way to contact her. Some say it is the crows who carry her messages for her. Others say you must approach her in your dreams and ask her for her help. If she agrees to help you, you will find a simple message—unsigned, unstamped, no envelope—somewhere in your home. In a kitchen cabinet behind the cereal boxes, perhaps, or tucked under your pillow.

But everyone agrees on this: You must take care to follow her instructions precisely. If you do not, she’ll turn right around and go home, and you’ll find yourself in the same dark place you started.

  1. The house is to be completely empty. Take the pets if you have any.
  2. Place the money in a plain envelope, along with the house key, and leave it under the mat. You’ll know how much to pay—after all, how much is it worth to you to live safely and peacefully in your own home? If it’s not enough, she will turn around and go home and you will never hear from her again.
  3. Do not come home until after sunset on the third day. This is most important.

It takes three buses today to get her to the desired neighborhood, and another twenty minutes of slow, steady walking to reach the house itself. It is on a clean, shady street high up in the foothills, so high that the smog doesn’t reach and the sky is a bright, endless curtain of blue. The lawns are all green and neatly manicured, and the swimming pools are full and crystal clear. Everyone knows the rich can afford to be wasteful.

La Bruja doesn’t need to check the house numbers to know which is her destination. The crows have already marked it. She finds them perched on the mailbox, standing sentry on the crest of the roof and along the telephone wires. They strut up and down the sidewalk, across the front lawn, and gather squawking below the eaves. La Bruja looks under the mat and finds the envelope. Inside is a stack of crisp bills and the house key. She unlocks the door and crosses the threshold, but doesn’t bother to count the money.

It is getting late and she has work to do.

II.

If the time ever comes to buy a house, be sure to ask if it is haunted. A house with a ghost is a far worse bargain than one with termites or dry rot or bad plumbing, and much trickier to make whole again.

This particular house is grand and tacky, built in a style the architect imagined to be vaguely Spanish. Clay tiles on the roof, pinkish-beige stucco walls and lots of large, arched windows that look out on palm trees and sprawling bougainvillea. A vague chemical scent greets La Bruja as she steps inside, a blend of lilac air freshener and pine-scented disinfectant.

Chk-chk-chk,” she beckons as she moves through the entry and into the living room. The home is immaculately clean; you’d scarce believe anyone lived here at all. Everything looks expensive and uncomfortable. Lots of heavy glass and wrought iron. Lots of hard surfaces. No comfy armchairs to fall into, no plump ottoman to rest your feet on.

She sets her little dollhouse down on the glass coffee table and looks around.

Chk-chk-chk.”

The back of the house is all glass: floor-to-ceiling windows and French doors that open out onto a tiled courtyard and swimming pool. La Bruja moves slowly towards the glass wall, taking tiny, careful steps. Mustn’t scare anyone.

Chk-chk-chk.”

She can smell chlorine and chewing gum now, and the faintest hint of cheap, stale beer. Her eyes shift back and forth behind the veil, scanning the room carefully. It is a few minutes before she finds what she is looking for: a set of faint, wet footprints on the polished wood floors, glistening in the late-day sun. They are rather small and shimmer slightly at their edges. Right away she guesses that this ghost is fairly old, even if the child itself was young. Children are surely the saddest part of her job, but in many ways they are the easiest. They don’t seek lost loves or plot vengeance. They just get lost easily and need someone to guide them homeward.

La Bruja steps out into the courtyard. She settles into a boxy rattan deck chair and keeps perfectly still. And she watches. From time to time, the little shimmering footprints pace away from the pool, then return. They move from this corner to that one, into the house and then back out again. Like a mouse in a glass cage that doesn’t understand why it can’t escape. She sits without moving a finger or uttering a word. She waits unmoving until the sun drops below the mountains, the first moment of twilight. Then she lifts the veil from her eyes.

The world swims and shimmers before her. Everything seems strange and distorted, like a television viewed through a fish tank. At first it is difficult to understand what she’s looking at. Echoes… memories… past… present… all competing for attention. But soon her eyes adjust and she can see things clearly. She can see exactly what happened.

There are four of them, three boys and a girl, gathered around the pool. It’s the late afternoon of a summer day not much different from this one. The youngest is a blond boy, skinny and tan, who looks to be eleven or twelve. He wears blue swim trunks and a red-white-and-blue tank top emblazoned with “USA ’76.” The other two boys look to be fourteen or so. The taller one is slightly awkward, still unused to his growing limbs. The smaller one is wild and wiry, with long dark hair and lots of coiled energy.

The girl is also fourteen but looks considerably older than her peers, the way teen girls often do. She is wearing cut-off jeans and a macramé bikini top. She is pretty and she knows it, more’s the pity. She is well aware of the strange power she has recently acquired, even if she doesn’t fully understand it. It’s the power to make boys stumble over their words just by looking at them. To make them do stupid, risky things to impress her, like shoplifting cigarettes or breaking into empty homes. She knows for certain it is a power she didn’t have last summer, and she already suspects it will not last long.

The home doesn’t belong to any of them. The tall boy knows this house because it is on his paper route, knows that the owners will be out of town till Monday. It was easy enough to sneak down the side yard to the swimming pool at the back. The four of them splash and swim in the summer heat. They have a cannonball contest to see who can make the biggest, loudest splash. The girl declares the wild boy to be the winner and the tall boy demands a rematch. They listen to music on a tinny transistor radio and take shallow, unconvincing puffs on cigarettes, trying hard to look cool and dangerous.

As evening approaches, they luxuriate in the borrowed sense of freedom they’re all sharing, imagining this must be what it feels like to be grown up, having no rules to obey, no one to answer to.

Once darkness falls, the wild boy gets the idea of prying open a window and raiding the kitchen. In his absence, the tall boy stretches out on a chaise longue and recites a string of filthy jokes he learned from some comedy record. The girl rolls her eyes and takes a slow drag on her cigarette, pretending she is too mature for such things. The blond boy laughs loudly, even though he’s not exactly sure what all the words mean.

The wild boy returns with a bag of tortilla chips, a six pack of cold soda and another of warm beer. They all pretend that beer is their customary first choice, even the blond boy. He quits after less than one can. At first the beer makes them all relax, floating on a mellow buzz, but then it makes them rowdy. The girl has finished her first beer and is pestering the wild boy for some of his.

Suddenly everything slows and the smallest details come into sharp focus. La Bruja’s attention is drawn to the little radio sitting on the patio table. It is blaring some silly gringo rock song, some nonsense about the “Fox on the Run.” The girl, splashing manically in the shallow end, yells to turn it up. The tall boy drains the last of his second beer and fumbles to light a cigarette. The blond boy is on the diving board and shouts to the others, “Look at me!” He attempts to do a front flip off the board, but in the failing light he misjudges the distance. La Bruja hears a crack—loud as the day it happened—as the back of the boy’s head strikes the edge of the diving board. It is a clean blow, like being struck by a baseball bat.

Already the boy is sinking to the bottom, already blood spreads like a plume of ruby smoke, staining the clear blue water. In that instant, the teens all drop their shallow veneer of adulthood, reverting back to the children they are, scared and helpless. They don’t discuss a plan. They don’t say anything at all. They don’t even look at each other.

They just run.

They run all the way home. They say nothing and try desperately to think of nothing, choking back the terror and the tears until they are each safe in their beds where they will sob all night into their pillows and wake in the morning wishing it was all a horrible dream. Not one of them ever says anything about the boy. Each is sure the others will do the right thing, the brave thing, and tell their parents or phone the police.

A week later, at the blond boy’s funeral, they don’t even acknowledge one another. The body, they are told, floated in the pool for at least two days before the homeowners returned. By that time, the water was as red as the sun and the corpse was so bleached and bloated it was difficult to identify. Although they share classes and sports teams all through high school, the three of them never say another word to each other or willingly glance in the others’ direction.

Those three children will all be grown up by now, and parents themselves. Perhaps grandparents. But none of them will ever see a single day pass without thinking of their young friend. About the things they did, and the things they didn’t do. They’ll carry that memory around with them forever, dragging it like a ball and chain. It follows them to school, to work, to Christmas parties, on honeymoons and vacations. It’s with them at the grocery store, at the movie theater and at their children’s school plays. Each of them is every bit as haunted by the past as this house is. But there is no sure remedy for their curse. They will bear its burden until the day they die. Only then will they be in a position to ask forgiveness, even though they don’t honestly expect to receive any.

Looking closer, La Bruja can see that traces of blood still linger in this pool. You can’t miss it once you know to look for it. Let your eyes soften and look below the surface. Pints of blood. Buckets of it. Vast oceans of blood, churning and roiling in the moonlight. No matter how many times it has been drained and refilled, no matter how many gallons of chlorine have been poured in over the passing decades, it is still tainted, still infected.

Some blood, you must surely know, never washes away.

It’s well past dark by the time La Bruja begins her working. To start, she removes a number of items from the pockets of her coat and from the leather bolsa she wears around her neck. She takes three votive candles and places one each along three sides of the swimming pool. She lights the first candle and blesses it in the name of San Jeronimo, patron saint of abandoned children. The second she lights in the name of San Alejo, who looks after those who are imprisoned. The third is for San Cristobal, patron saint of travelers. Now she takes a larger candle and sets it at the far end of the pool, the end with the diving board. This last candle is for blessed Madre María, who watches mercifully over all of us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.

La Bruja stands over the pool and begins to chant in an odd sing-song voice. She takes a small crystal vial and removes its silver cap. It contains holy water, again blessed in the name of the virgin Santa María. She sprinkles it over the surface of the water and counts slowly to nine. Then, she takes a golden sewing needle and pricks her own ring finger. Three perfect crimson drops fall into the pool. They mottle the surface for a moment, but are quickly diluted and subsumed, and the water appears clear as glass.

Blood for blood. No fairer trade.

The second part of the working requires no blood, but it does require patience. She takes eleven tea candles, one for each year of the boy’s short life, and spaces them in an arcing trail from the pool, through the French doors, and into living room. Once each is lit, she sets the dollhouse on the floor in front of the last candle, the one furthest from the swimming pool. She squats on the floor next to it and waits.

Chk-chk-chk,” she intones, tapping the wood floor with her finger nails.

Chk-chk-chk.”

After a few minutes the first tea light goes out, sending a little gray wisp of smoke trailing in the air.

Chk-chk-chk.”

The second candle goes out a few minutes later. Then the third. But the fourth candle lingers. Its flame flickers from time to time, but it does not extinguish. La Bruja is patient. She knows the boy must take each step in his own time, cross each threshold and close each invisible door behind him. This is his path to walk and he cannot be rushed.

It is more than an hour before the fourth candle finally goes out. But it is quickly followed by the fifth. And the sixth.

Chk-chk-chk.”

The little house is hinged at one gable end, and there is a bright pink padlock in the shape of a heart at the other. As the ninth candle goes out, La Bruja takes a key from around her neck and unlocks the padlock, but leaves it dangling in place.

Chk-chk-chk.”

Again the procession stalls. It is nearly another hour before the tenth candle dims and dies. Very carefully, very slowly, La Bruja removes the padlock and opens the front of the house just a crack.

Chk-chk-chk.”

The eleventh candle fades slowly… slowly… and then grows. It grows brighter and brighter until at last, with a blinding flash, it goes out. La Bruja quickly shuts the dollhouse and snaps the lock in place.

It is too late now to catch a bus back to the Avenues, so La Bruja will sleep here tonight. She will help herself to cold beer and whatever palatable thing she can find in the fridge to eat. In the morning she will rise early and burn a wand of sage leaves and smudge all the rooms in the house. She will throw wide the curtains, open up all the windows and leave the front door wide open.

She will place the key back under the mat, gather her things and head back down the hill.

III.

In La Casa de Fantasmas, there are many mansions.

True, there are only four windows on the exterior of the little house and those are merely painted on. But inside there are countless doors and windows. There are cozy libraries, suffocating closets and tight, bricked-up tunnels. There are comfortable rooms with en suite bathrooms. There are endless dim corridors to wander down, lost in romantic torment, if that is your preference. The dollhouse is small, but the spirits take up so little space. Even La Bruja has lost count of how many ghosts presently dwell inside. But there is plenty of room for all of them.

You must know that ghosts become ghosts for many reasons. For some it is the trauma of a violent death. For others it is love for the ones they left behind. For a great many it is guilt: Guilt for letting down their family, for not making more of their lives, for all the wicked things they may have done but still can’t bring themselves to truly regret. Guilt is a great anchor that holds spirits earthbound.

Still, most spirits don’t move on because they simply aren’t ready. They haven’t said their piece or made their mark or danced one last dance. But all have one thing in common: They hate to be reminded they are ghosts.

At the front of the house is the large salon, where the walls are lined with bookshelves and heavy chandeliers hang from the wood-beamed ceiling. It is one of the oldest rooms. A wood fire burns in a stone fireplace, and there are leather sofas and armchairs nestled around well-worn Persian carpets. The more gregarious of the guests gather here, to swap stories or gossip, to play chess or try to cheat one another at cards.

Standing by the fireplace, puffing on a cigarillo, is the one they call the Fox, an over-the-hill gentleman with a watch fob in his waistcoat, Cuban heels on his shoes, and a ludicrous beard he keeps waxed and styled like a cartoon devil. He loves to dance the tango and the tarantella, and pesters all the ladies until one of them acquiesces.

The Irish Tinker scrapes out a Romani ballad on his fiddle while Sister Agnes plays a game of backgammon with the Quiet Man. The Doctor watches from a corner. He sits sipping brandy, his smooth bald head hovering over the pages of a Thomas Mann novel he’s never managed to finish. He mutters under his breath how one day they will all be sorry. One day, they will regret underestimating him.

Darla sits by the front door waiting for her gentleman caller. She is wearing her best dress, the one the color of summer apricots. She can’t help but worry. There are no clocks in the house, but surely he should have been here by now. If you asked her, Darla couldn’t tell you the gentleman’s name or how they met. But she knows he is a kind, handsome man and knows in her heart that they are truly made for each other.

Her mother never approved of gentleman callers. Darla doesn’t care to divulge her age, but her mother was quite fond of reminding her that if a woman hasn’t hooked a man by this stage of the game, she had best give up the ghost. Better an old maid than an old floozy. The minutes pass and Darla grows certain that something bad must have happened. An accident or an emergency. Or maybe he just decided he doesn’t want to see her. She tries to hold back the tears, but it isn’t long before her mascara runs in black rivulets down her cheeks.

She gets up and checks herself in the mirror. She looks a fright. You’re such a silly thing, Darla. Always letting your imagination get carried away, always making things a bigger deal than they really are. Take a deep breath. Stand up straight. Think good thoughts, and good things will happen to you. She dries her eyes, reapplies her mascara and touches up her lipstick. Darla wants her smile to be the first thing he notices.

She can hardly contain herself now. He’ll be here any minute…

The blond boy has been living in a tree fort. He knows his parents must be worried, but he’s not ready to go home yet. Besides, the fort has everything he needs: a sleeping bag and flashlight, a stack of old Marvel comics, and a transistor radio that only ever plays his favorite songs. He gets hungry sometimes, though never enough to make him want to leave. He likes the quiet and the cool breeze that smells of jasmine. He looks at the stars and listens to the radio. He naps for long stretches at a time. He’s not sure how long, but when he wakes up the sky is always dark.

He knows if he went home now, his parents would be furious. The boy has a cousin, Darren, who is three years older than him. Years ago, Darren ran away from home and was gone for the better part of a week. For the first couple of days, Darren’s folks were in a rage. His dad promised take his belt and thrash that boy to within an inch of his sorry life. But the days dragged on and phone calls were returned from friends saying they hadn’t seen him, flyers were posted around the neighborhood and the police kept asking more troubling and embarrassing questions. By the time Darren finally was found—sleeping in an old camper parked in a neighbor’s driveway two blocks away, living off Pop-Tarts and RC Cola—his parents were so relieved they forgot they had ever been angry. That’s the trick of it, the blond boy reasons. Stay away long just long enough for your folks to stop being mad and start being afraid.

His cousin is easily the coolest person he knows. Darren can do a handstand on his skateboard for nearly half a mile straight, swear to God, and is always smooth when it comes to talking to girls. When he is older, the blond boy wants to be just like him.

The radio plays a song by Paul McCartney & Wings. The one about Venus and Mars: red lights, green lights, strawberry wine… The boy finds himself drifting into sleep again. Funny, he can’t even remember why he left home in the first place. It’s not like things were ever that bad. Still, give them a little more time to worry before heading back. One more day should be enough.

Tonight he will dream strange dreams about an empty beach on a crystal blue sea, and a dark red sky rolling above. And a weird little house that could hold everyone in the world if it had to. Tomorrow he will go home. Just as soon as the sun comes up.

Tomorrow.

Always tomorrow.

IV.

Tonight is Halloween. The eve of All Souls’ Day. A night for revels and mischief. When the veil between this world and the next is thin as gossamer. Tonight is the night the ghosts come out and play.

All along the Avenues, pumpkins grin from porches, and paper ghosts and witches hang in windows. Little kids are already out tricking and treating, even though the sun hasn’t gone down yet.

Every year, La Bruja sets out a plate of pan de muerto—a sweet pastry flavored with cinnamon and anise seed—on the stoop of her little house at the end of her crooked little street. These goodies are free for the taking, but no one ever comes to her door. They won’t even walk past the front her house. Not even the adults, not on a dare. But that’s all right. By morning, every last morsel and crumb will be gone.

Behind her house, La Bruja has set up for a party. Streamers are hung and luminaria are lit. At one end of the little yard stands a lopsided table decorated with brilliant sprays of marigolds, colorfully painted miniature skulls and scores of candles. Two figures stand at the back of the table: a two-foot porcelain statue of the Virgin Mary, smiling beatifically in blue and white robes, and the carved wooden figure of Queen Mictecacihuatl, skeletal empress of the underworld.

Once the sun sets, La Bruja will remove the heart-shaped lock from the little dollhouse and open it wide. All those inside are invited to join the festivities.

It is an unruly scene: La Bruja sits on a wicker settee, smoking a fat cigar and drinking whiskey from a communion chalice. She claps along as the Tinker plays a wild Irish reel on his fiddle and Crazy Bobby, who was once this close to being a rock ’n’ roll star, strums along on a battered guitar. The Fox and Darla manage to dance a lively tarantella to the rhythm.

There is music, laughter and toasts to absent friends. Grudges and worries are put aside for the evening. The guests allow whatever burdens they carry to slip from their shoulders. Even the Doctor puts down his book and dances the foxtrot with Sister Agnes.

After a time, some of the ghosts desert the party and venture into the wider world. From sundown to sunrise, they are free do as they please. And they are not alone. Countless ghosts from centuries past walk the earth tonight. They come to stand watch over their children or grandchildren, to comfort a spouse they left behind, or to simply remind themselves that they too were briefly among the living. But the ghosts in the care of La Bruja are bound by a particular rule: They must return home to the little house before the sun comes up or be forever banished.

The Fox drifts to a favorite haunt near Olvera Street and sits at the end of the bar, boasting of the beautiful women he has danced with. Sister Agnes will wander back to a little nowhere town in Montana, sit on the steps of the house she grew up in and marvel at how much her street has changed, and how little. She will reminisce about a tall, blue-eyed man she once knew and how she almost gave up everything for him. Funny, she can’t even remember his name now.

Every year there are some who choose not to come back. They find their graves and lay themselves to rest. They walk into the sea at daybreak, glitter upon waves for a brief, golden moment, and then are gone. Or they simply drift away like smoke on the breeze. Most, however, will return home, to the comfort of old patterns, and resume their strange half-life. Many don’t even step outside the little house in the first place, not even for the party. And that’s all right. It’s just not their time. They simply aren’t ready to let go.

The blond boy doesn’t bother with the party. He’s never felt comfortable around grown-ups, especially those he’s never met. Besides, it’s been forever since he felt the ground beneath his feet and he wants badly to stretch his legs. He wanders out into the street and is delighted to find that it is Halloween, his favorite night of the year. He snatches a piece of sweet bread from the plate on the door stoop and wolfs it down in three quick bites. He hadn’t realized he was so hungry. He grabs two more pieces and heads out into the night.

He joins the throng of children going from door to door. It would be nice to have a costume, but he doesn’t mind. He is too absorbed in the wildness of the night, awed by the sounds and scents, the garish, lurid colors. He doesn’t have a bag or pillowcase, so he stuffs candy into his pockets or, more often, eats it on the way to the next house. He’s only gone to six or seven houses when he hears voices calling out to him:

“Hey! Kid! Over here!”

He sees them standing at the end of the block. A pack of boys, a half dozen or so, all about his age, give or take a year. Their hair is shorter than his and some of their clothes are so old-fashioned he mistakes them for costumes. They in turn have mistaken the blond boy as one of their own, just another departed soul playing hooky on All Hallows’ Eve. Back for one more run through the candle-lit streets, one more night of mischief and abandon. They don’t bother with introductions, yet right away they all feel like old friends.

“Are we all here, now? Let’s go!”

They move with single purpose, like a flock of crows, crossing the city side to side and back again in less time than it takes to think. They throw eggs at police cars and run hooting like the madmen. They set off firecrackers in the underpass below the freeway, so they echo like thunder. They find a carnival at the YMCA and go through the haunted house three times in a row without paying once. They eat cotton candy until their tongues are blue and their fingers stick together. At the face-painting booth they all have their faces made up to look like skeletons. They are a tribe now, a band of merry pirates. Drunk on the mad, wild joy of youth that doesn’t think even a minute ahead or waste one moment’s thought on the past.

In the park, they run like wolves and howl like devils. They do handstands and back-flips off the picnic tables. They race and they wrestle. They laugh till their sides ache and eat candy till they are sick. By now, their make-up streaks bizarrely down their faces from all the sweat, tumbling and roughhousing.

Late into the night, when the city has fallen silent, the boys gather in a circle on the grass. They pass a flashlight around, counter-clockwise, and swap spooky stories. They tell the one about the hitch-hiking axe murderer, and the one about the teenagers and the bloody hook. They tell that old story about the Weeping Woman, the ghost mother who steals lost children away, believing them to be her own.

A little before dawn, when they can’t hold their eyes open a moment longer, they stretch out in the grass and lie side by side, like a neat row of graves. No more playing now, or even talking. They just lie there too tired to move, but still too alive to sleep. This is the happiest the blond boy has ever been. The best night of his life. The world could end and he wouldn’t even notice.

There is no other thought in his head when the sun finally rises.

Ghosts become ghosts for many reasons. But surely it could never happen to you. You are too sensible and too clever. You know to go to bed each night fully content with how you spent the day. You do not leave important things unsaid or undone. You never wait for tomorrow—always tomorrow—to speak your piece, make your mark or dance as much as your heart desires. You know to live without fear or regret, unburdened, so that any day may be a good day to die.

It’s simple, really. But simple and easy are hardly the same thing.

Anyway, everyone knows there’s no such thing as ghosts. There is no crazy witch woman with a funny little dollhouse full of lost souls. How could there be? They’re just stories. They’re only trying to scare you.

Remember that, should the shadows ever come for you. When your life slips from your control and you wake one day feeling strangely numb and hollow, like a faint echo of yourself. Lost in limbo, treading the same old ground in ever tightening circles. When fear turns your heart to stone and freezes you to the spot. Remind yourself that it’s all pretend. It’s just your imagination getting carried away with things. You can always move on, as soon as you are ready.

Wake up, wake up, fly away home…

Brian Holguin has been a professional writer of comics and prose for more than two decades. Highlights include the award-winning urban fantasy series Aria, the ground-breaking independent comic book series Spawn, and the Dark Crystal graphic novel prequel, Creation Myths. He lives in Southern California.

Other Strange Houses:

Hic Sunt Leones, by L.M. Davenport
It’s true that the house walks. It’s also true that you can only find it if you don’t know about it. Once, a boy in my high-school art class drew a picture of it, but didn’t know what he’d drawn; the thing in the center of his sketchpad had ungainly, menacing chicken legs caught mid-stride and a crazed thatch roof that hung askew over brooding windows. I knew it was the house right away because his eyes had that sleepy, traumatized look that people get once they’ve seen the house. I was used to seeing this look, mostly on my mother’s face.

Spirit Tasting List for Ridley House, April 2016, by Alex Acks
Welcome, honored guest, to Ridley House; the acquisition of this charming 18th-century Palladian Revival villa has been something of a coup for our club and we are beyond pleased to present a wide array of tastes for your pleasure, if for a limited time. Take a moment to enjoy the grounds, particularly the stately elms with their attendant garlands of Spanish moss, and the mist rising from the ponds and nearby irrigation canals.

A July Story, by K.L. Owens
Iron red, linseed-cured, and caked in salt, in a place where the mercury never crept much above fifty Fahrenheit, the two-room house chose to keep its back to the sea. A wise choice, given the facing of the windows and the predilections of the wind. Still, in other Julys, Kitten had stood naked between ancient trees or buried his toes in sun-warm sand. In this new July, he donned the buckskin jacket from the peg by the door and used wool socks for gloves, swaddled his head in a gaily-patterned scarf given to him by a gray-haired marm in some other July on some other island. Shivering on a shore made of black cobblestones—waves did not break, but clattered and rumbled—Kitten watched a bazaar of common murres bob on the wind and wondered which side of what ocean the house had selected this time.

Dustbaby, by Alix E. Harrow

There were signs. There are always signs when the world ends.

In the winter of 1929, Imogene Hale found her well-water turned to viscous black oil, which clotted to tar by the following Monday. A year later, my Uncle Emmett’s fields came up in knots of blue-dusted prairie grass rather than the Silver King sweetcorn he seeded. Fresh-paved roads turned pock-marked and dented as the moon. Tractor oil hardened to grit and glitter, like ground glass.

dust01In 1932, the dust began to blow and it never stopped. That was the only sign the rest of the world seemed interested in, especially once some of our dirt rained on Mr. Roosevelt’s head in D.C. and turned his morning milk an ugly pinky-brown. Then it was suddenly a bona fide Natural Disaster. Newspapers all over the country worried about THE BLACK BLIZZARDS OF THE MIDWEST, and asked WILL WE BE NEXT?

The newspapers didn’t mention the tractor oil or the bad seed. They didn’t say how sometimes you looked south through the haze and saw pale green hills where there weren’t hills before, like distant cities made of moss, and felt a strange pressing on your limbs as if some vast, unseen force were pushing you away from the land you worked. I guess they didn’t believe it. I don’t blame them. I barely believed it myself.

Until I found you, babygirl. Until you came back to me.

Now, I know people find babies sometimes and it doesn’t mean the world’s ending. It usually just means some poor girl found herself in a bad way and made her child a raft of reeds and floated him downriver, or left him on a doorstep. Babies are pretty ordinary in the grand scheme of things.

But she wasn’t ordinary. I was walking the field—field being a relative term, nobody in their right mind could’ve seen those scraggled stalks sticking up from the ground like dry-rotted teeth and recognized it for a field—and there she was. Naked as a turnip, the color of dust. Nestled among the broken wheat like she’d grown there all spring, sage-bright eyes waiting just for me.

I had time to think oh, babygirl, I missed you, and then I was back home, kneeling on the floor, clutching her to my chest and heaving with hurt. My tears caked into salted mud on my cheeks. Where they landed on her cinnamon skin they seeped like rain into cracked earth.

Babygirl, I missed you. Why did you go? I carried you seven long months, right below my heart, and then you up and left me before I could even give you a name. And I was all alone with nothing for company but this damn dust that chatters and whispers to me in my sleep.

In D.C. all those smart folks and science-types got together and published a thin blue pamphlet that said exactly why our dirt had risen up like a great red ghost and whistled away from us. They used words like “dryland farming” and “over-plowed,” and I’m no great shakes at reading but I know when I’m being blamed for the end of the world. Like we should’ve known better than to plant our wheat right in the belly of the country, and harvest and plow and plant again, like we’d been warned and this was God’s own retribution for our arrogance.

Horseshit, Uncle Emmett would say. The rain follows the plow, that’s what they said when he came west to farm his plot of prairie grass and bluestem. He plowed and plowed and the rain stopped coming, and now the people follow the rain.

The pamphlet also gave us a five step system to prevent further erosion. John and I tried our best to follow the directions, and so did our neighbors. When your fields stand barren and the wind whispers ugly truths in your ears and all your fresh milk goes sour overnight, there’s not much you won’t try.

1. Terrace Your Fields! Have you ever tried to pile dust into terraces? It’s like building a sandcastle out of sugar in a windstorm.

2. Irrigate Regularly! We laughed and laughed when we read that one, John and me. We shook our fists at the hazed orange sky and advised it to irrigate regularly. But John’s laughter turned to coughing, and we fell into silence that wasn’t silence because even on a clear day you heard the dust shush-shushing over the ground.

3. Build Windbreaks! John tried. I helped, but I was pretty far along by then and he didn’t like to see me hauling pallets in the noon heat, leaning them against our old fence line. Get gone, he told me, in that false-rough way of his. That’s what I liked about him the first time I set eyes on him—he had that stoic, hardscrabble jaw, like every other man in western Kansas, but John’s eyes were laughing eyes. Bull-thistle blue, crimped in brown lines at their edges.

The next morning our windbreaks were splintered and scattered, strewn across the land in queer jagged shapes. We didn’t try again.

4. Let the Land Rest! We figured that was another way of saying: Leave. The soil you remember, the soil you used to run your fingers through like wet black coffee grounds when you were a girl, has gone away and you ought to follow it. I wish we had. I wish John and I and our babygirl were lying in an orange grove in south Georgia, and the world was bright green and blue like it is on the label of FAULTLESS BRAND FRUIT SALAD.

5. Keep Your Chin Up! There is nothing more galling in the world than somebody better off than you telling you to keep your chin up. Imagine Mr. Ford pausing beside the bread line and advising those poor hungry-eyed bastards to keep their chins up. I cursed a blue streak the first time I read it.

The second time, I took a match to it and tossed the ashes into the wind. Maybe it ended up back in the East and turned the President’s milk char-black.

That was after John drowned in the blood and mud of his own lungs. It was the middle of a storm, one of the boiling black ones that lasted days, so I just sat and sat at the kitchen table because there was nowhere to go, no one to tell, nothing but the sound of dust slithering like a great snake across the tin. I hoped it would slide down through the rafters and swallow me whole.

I should’ve remembered to eat, babygirl. I know that now. I should’ve slept. I should have curled around the tiny flutter of your heart and kept you safe and stopped the bleeding, and when you slid red and purple-white into the world, small as a crow, I should have fought for you. Instead I just sat, dizzy and dull, listening to the dust.

But you came back to me. I don’t know how because I buried you and John deep as I could in the hardpan, but maybe the ones we love best come back to us. Maybe John is walking towards me right now, out of those distant green hills.

dust02


Charity Glover and the ladies of the Baptist Women’s Union of Ulysses arrived at some ungodly hour the next morning to check up on me. The way vultures like to check up on roadkill. They’d been coming once a week since the bad storm, clucking and shuffling and leaving pies with the crusts cut just so.

“Good morning, Mrs. Dawley,” chirped Charity. She always seemed to swallow the second half of the missus, like she still couldn’t believe I’d married a penniless tenant-farmer and she was giving me the chance to undo it now. “And how are we to—”

She saw the red-cotton bundle in my arms. One little fist waved cheerily at her. The ladies of the Baptist Women’s Union of Ulysses stood still as hens with a hawkshadow overhead.

“Where—oh, Selma, where did you get that baby?”

Did she think I’d stolen her? I knew they didn’t like me much, because I refused to join their club and only went to Church about every fifth or fifteenth Sunday, but Jesus H. “I found her.” I made my voice flat as cold iron.

The other women shuffled, but Charity was made of sterner stuff. “Where, dear?”

I found her in the dust, but she’s mine, I know she is—from dust to dust, isn’t that how it goes? “In the wheatfield. To the south.”

I watched her face, white as an undercooked pancake, turn whiter. All the trouble seemed to come up from the south, from those wavering green hills we tried to ignore.

Imogene Hale opened her mouth and closed it. She finally got out, “And just what do you intend to do with it?”

“I don’t see how that’s a damn bit of your business, Imogene,” I spat. That temper, John used to tell me, it’ll get you in trouble one day. I made myself smile in that softening way, like a woman overworked who just didn’t know what she’s saying, bless her heart. “I just mean she was left on my land, and that makes her my trouble.” They knew about the sovereignty of property lines. “I guess I intend to take care of her.”

Charity pasted a matching smile on her face. They fluttered amongst themselves and produced a pot pie and a jar of pickled beans in a basket. A little blue pamphlet stuck out of it like a flag. “You can get the basket back to me on Sunday,” said Charity. “And I noticed you didn’t come by the Post Office so I brought you the new Better Farming booklet. Read it close, now.”

They scampered back through the rust-colored yard and left us alone to watch the sun swim up from its bloody sea, dim and distant.

I should have asked about spare milk; I’d dried up weeks ago and the baby from the field wasn’t very interested in powdered milk warmed on the stove top. She’d howled until tiny tears gathered like dewdrops at the corners of her eyes and I’d given up in disgust with myself, a woman near thirty who didn’t know how to care for a baby.

She was mewling now. I repeated the powdered milk experiment inside. She spat it out, unrepentant eyes glowing scrub-green.

You must’ve got that anger from me, babygirl. Your Daddy would laugh and laugh if he were here.

I flipped through Better Farming: Strategies for Soil Conservation in the Drought-Affected Areas, rather than curl up on the floor and cry myself sick. The booklet was the same waste of ink and pulp it was before, but there were six steps now.

6. Don’t be afraid! However, should you encounter any unusual events or irregularities, DO NOT ENGAGE. Report them to your Extension Agent IMMEDIATELY.

Apparently somebody official, somebody with a nice corner office in a government building, believed in our portents. The horseshoes rusting to dust overnight, the apple trees turning to chalky stone, the green mirages in the south. And he didn’t like them much.

The wailing sharpened, burrowing like a bonesaw into my chest. A dull, pressing ache began in my breasts, thump-thumping with my heartbeat, and dampness dotted my dress like two tears. I unbuttoned, but it wasn’t cream-colored milk leaking from me. This liquid was clear as rainwater. I touched my fingers to my breast, licked the water from them—it tasted of low-hanging clouds and morning dew, the spring thunderstorms that no longer rolled across the flats. The baby watched with animal-hungry eyes. I pulled her to me, and she suckled like a fawn after a too-long night.

I watched the rainwater gathering at the corners of her red-earth lips and doubt came to me for the first time. She looked so alien, so inhuman, nothing at all like the baby I’d carried in my belly. Prairie-colored eyes flicked up to me, as if they were trying to tell me something, to send me some obscure message in an unfamiliar language.

No, no that isn’t so. You’re my babygirl. You just need to learn how to live here with me, in this dear, dry, dying world.

That Sunday I dressed her in a laced frock the color of old pearls. It made her dark skin seem darker, like dust after rain. (Do you like it? I made it for you, when you still lived beneath my heart.) I wore my best dress and we walked to town under a sky as blue and fragile as bird’s eggs. The wind rose around my ankles, hissing up from the south.

After John died I was a regular at Church, sitting in the back pew waiting for God to come down from his cloud-covered castle and explain why I’d lost my love and my firstborn. Isn’t that kind of thing usually reserved for His enemies? But He never arrived and I grew tired of the sweaty smell of desperation.

That day, I was just going for the pure spite of it. I wanted to show Charity and her hens I wasn’t afraid of them or their damn pamphlet, the way you’d stamp your foot to scare off hungry cats. I wanted to march in with my chin up and my eyes blazing and show them my babygirl, safe in my arms.

I lingered in the open doorway just long enough for heads to crane around, for silence to flutter like a white curtain around us. I smiled a brazen, biting smile with twenty extra teeth that didn’t belong in Church. The heads flicked back towards the pulpit, except for one old man with a bright ring of white hair. Uncle Emmett. I didn’t look at him as I passed.

We sat in the very front pew. In my arms, the baby shifted and tugged in discomfort. Her back arched against my arms. I tried to look like a good mother, with the kind of child who didn’t drink rainwater, whose eyes weren’t green and distant as the hills.

By the time Preacher Jacob stumped his way to the front and began his usual list of announcements, he was speaking over a discontented whine issuing from my arms. He ignored it. Preachers are good at turning their cheeks away from you.

“Now, folks—” He always slipped a “folks” somewhere towards the beginning of his sermons, like a politician. “It seems to me that it’s time to talk about the battle each and every one of us is fighting, against our great enemy—the one great enemy, he who Peter called a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” I felt the congregation lean towards him like moths to a match.

The baby squirmed more forcefully in my arms.

“But I fear we do not see the lion, even as he stalks among us. We see his works and call them uncanny, or strange, or irregular. We dismiss them. But I would remind you that there are only TWO POWERS IN THIS WORLD—” His audience rippled in pleasurable shock, “—yes, that’s right, ONLY TWO POWERS. There is OUR LORD GOD ALMIGHTY, and there is our ENEMY.”

Eyes pressed against the back of my head. The baby wailed. I wished we were both curled in our quilts at home.

The preacher turned slowly until he faced me. From the first pew I could see the dampness of his hands clamping the lectern, his pupils like distant dead stars, but I imagined it looked more impressive from further away. “And I advise us now to PUT ON THE WHOLE ARMOR OF GOD, that we may STAND AGAINST THE WILES OF THE DEVIL—”

And my babygirl let out a sound like a screech owl at midnight. A wild, fey sound that made every hair stand on end. I stood and walked as fast as a woman can walk without running, eyes burning me like lit cigarettes as I passed.

The wind outside was already meaner and grittier, the fragile blue of the sky rotting to a crusted old-blood color. The door opened and someone shuffled out.

“Selma.”

I wanted to ignore him, or spit in his wrinkled walnut face. But Uncle Emmett was the first one to come by the house after that black storm. He found a ragged husk of a woman lying in the field beside two fresh-dug graves, certain the world had already ended. Instead of hollering for help, he sat down in the dust with me and kept vigil until dusk. Until I decided I didn’t want to die of stubbornness, clinging to the dead bones of the world I’d loved. Until I decided only cowards believed in the end of the world. I owed him for that.

“Selma, don’t you mind Preacher Jacob and his malice.”

“I don’t.”

“Well.” He stepped forward, peered into the blankets to see her springtime eyes watching him solemnly. “As it happens, I think he’s got it wrong this time. I don’t think either of the two powers he was talking about made the dust rise, or sent this baby. Which means there’s some third power. An old, strange one.”

“And here I thought you were a Christian.”

“After a fashion. But what was here before we brought Christ? Just a dead, empty grassland, without a miracle in sight? Horseshit.” I’d never much worried what was here before me, or what came after. “I think whatever was here before—the buffalo, the lions and jack rabbits, Coyote himself—is tired of being forgot. Tired of being plowed and planted and plowed again without so much as a thank you, tired of fence lines and railroad tracks slicing her up like a goddamn jigsaw puzzle. And she’s setting it right.”

He nodded at the white-lace bundle in my arms. “And I figure she’s a part of it, someway or another.”

“No, she isn’t.” Don’t you listen to him, all right babygirl? I know you left me once, all alone except for the old-penny smell of my own blood, but you came back to me and you just haven’t learned yet how to be tame, how to be real. “She’s my daughter. John’s daughter.”

His weathered-wood hand touched my elbow. “What’s her name then, Selma? Call her by her right name.”

She didn’t have a name because I never gave her one, but—

I remembered saying her name long before she was born, when my belly was a soft swell. Bad luck, John said, but he didn’t mean it and I kissed him where his eyes crinkled into crow’s feet. I’d named her, used a bent nail to scratch it into the cross over her grave—

I looked south where the once-green horizon boiled like black tar.

“You better get in there and tell them, Emmett. The dust is rising.”

dust03I ran and the dust ran behind me, shuddering over the dry fields and tossing the earth into the air, playful and cruel as a cat. Red and black swirled around us. I looked down to see her face bright and wild in the wind, her mouth opening to the dust and letting in pour in, her arms waving as though the dirt were a part of her own queer world and she was glad to see it.

Oh Lord, what are you?

The house was dark, the windows alive with black whorls of dust, faint clouds filtering soft as snow through every crack. I laid her on the bed and began the feverish ritual of tying curtains closed and jamming pillows against the door jams, feeling my mouth turn to mud. When I finished we were a pair of pill bugs curled in the dark with the air stale and hot around us.

I know your name, don’t I?

I used to whisper your name as I watered my little kitchen garden, my line of coffee cans trying to protect the soft green shoots in their bellies. I said it as I fell asleep on black nights when every single star was eaten up by dust. I said it to you, do you remember it? I called you—

Her eyes were locked on mine, green with secrets and the silhouettes of cities on the horizon.

“Helena,” I tried to say, but the word tangled in my throat like a calf in barbed wire. It thrashed and fell still.

You’re not my babygirl, are you?

My babygirl died. I remember her tiny chest in my palm, shuddering up and down before the terrible, choking stillness. I remember wiping the blood and fluid off her arms, frail as sparrow wings, and tucking her in an old JC Penny box because I didn’t have anything else.

Helena was her name.

You don’t have a name. You’re not her.

Grief, in my experience, is a lot like dust. It turns food gritty and sour, it sifts onto your pillow as you sleep and burrows into every pore of skin, and you can never truly be rid of it. For a little while I thought I’d finally escaped it—I thought my babygirl came back—but I was wrong.

At dawn I found myself beached on the bed with the dust baby beside me, wet-lipped and watchful.

She blinked at me, solemn as a saint. The dust that settled on her dark limbs in the night was damp, as if she slept beneath a gentle patter or rain. She smelled of the springtimes of my childhood, walking through the fields and feeling the greenness of each wheat stalk unfurling beneath the soil.

She didn’t look much like the end of the world. She was too vital, too alive, and her eyes were pressing at me again as if there were some wordless message she wanted me to read, or an offer she extended.

I rolled away and pulled against the front door until it shhhhed through a drift of glittering dust and hung crooked against the light. The world outside had been remade in the night, sculpted into brown and red hills that shimmered dully in the dawn, beautiful and strange as the surface of a dead planet. It took me a while before I noticed it.

Our old Allis-Chalmers tractor reduced to a few thin iron bones. The ends of my hoe and digging spade rusted to gray dust. The hinges on the door behind me eaten away. There wasn’t a single piece of iron left untouched. The wind had come hissing up from the south and gnawed the metal to dust. On the horizon, that strange green-tinged city shone more clearly than I’d ever seen it.

It was then that I believed, for the first time, the storms would never stop. No matter how many windbreaks we built or how far up we kept our chins. Something out there—something old, something powerful—was through with us. It would peel us off the back of the land like a dog scratching away fleas, and the world would end.

But I’d decided once before, lying atop my husband’s grave and wishing I could sink through the earth to join him, that only cowards believed in the end of the world. It changes, sometimes brutally, and we can either change with it or die of stubbornness.

I stumbled back inside and curled again on the bed beside the dust baby. Is that it? Are we supposed to choose?

Maybe she was an ambassador sent from a neighboring country, offering one last chance for peace before the war. Perhaps if we learned to care for her, and for the wild, strange earth beneath our feet, things would come to a different end. The change might be less brutal. But I thought of Preacher Jacob, of the lean hate on the faces that turned towards me, and knew they’d made their choice.

And so had I.

I pulled the dust baby to me and unbuttoned my dress again. You’ll need that strength soon, dust baby. It won’t be long now.

It wasn’t. They came at dusk, a shambling crowd like a single many-legged beast trudging through the dust. I’d spent the day trailing my fingers over the familiar shapes of home, making furrows in the dust and staring south out my windows.

“Selma Dawley! We’d like a word!” Well, I could hardly lock them out, with no hinges or latch. “Bring that devil out with you.” I thought I recognized Mr. Glover’s voice. I bet Charity was standing at his elbow with her mouth all crimped up like a Christmas bow.

I gathered my few things and settled the dust baby into her crude sling. We faced them together, a horde with nothing left but a hot red thread of hate. Their farms had turned to deserts, their wells were dry, their tools had been eaten away in the night. People get mean, when their world ends.

Mr. Glover stepped towards me. I didn’t move. “Mrs. Dawley, I think you know why we’re here.” I did, but I wanted to hear somebody say it. Like a school ground dare. “We know that storm last night wasn’t natural. And that baby of yours, she isn’t either.” Mr. Glover floundered into silence. I looked for Uncle Emmett, but he wasn’t there. Good man. Somebody would surely tell him where I went, next day, and I pictured his wood-seamed face bending in hope.

Preacher Jacob bulled forward. I guess all that preaching gave him an aversion to silence. “We’re here to set it straight, to cast out our Enemy wherever he lives.” Nodding, shuffling, mean jaws clenching. “We’re calling on you to take that thing back where she came from. Right now.”

Well, they weren’t yet so red-eyed they’d swing an infant by her ankles and smash her skull against the doorframe, but they were teetering on the edge. They were all watching my face for something—rebellion or weakness or possibly Satanic possession—but they didn’t find anything.

I walked through them, barefoot out across the dust-drifted field, putting them at my back. Knobbled wheat stalks hid beneath the sliding dunes, turning my ankles beneath me. The wind tossed little handfuls of dust in my face. The baby in my arms waved her arms in unseemly delight.

Soon the townsfolk were nothing but smudged blurs behind me, wind-blown mirages like the city on the horizon. I passed the little hollow where I’d found the dust baby, but I didn’t stop.

You don’t even have a name. I gave my daughter a name—HELENA DAWLEY, 1934, it says above her grave—but it didn’t save her. Names are just prayers mothers make to the future, that the world will keep spinning on its axis, undying, for as long as you live.

It will, Dustbaby. I didn’t look back. Not once. You only look back if you’re leaving something behind, and all I was leaving was a dead world of neat-planted wheat rows and combines and fresh-paved roads lying like ropes across the land. We’d thought it would last forever. We’d thought we could plow the wild out of the west and build our lives from its sun-bleached bones.

But the wildness slid beneath the thin crust of cornrows and tractor tines, the way prairie fires sometimes dove down into the earth and burned unseen, waiting for months or years before rising and turning the sky red with its heat. I didn’t know what might grow back after the burning, only that I meant to rise from those ashes.

Don’t be afraid! Isn’t that what the pamphlet said?

The blue-green horizon in the south grew clearer and stranger as we walked towards it. The air smelled wild, like mud and stars. The dust beneath my feet began to feel cool and damp, with that almost-vibration that means live things burrowed and crawled and oozed somewhere beneath the surface. Tiny white flowers dotted the earth like constellations. One night, it rained.

They were signs. There are always signs, when the world changes.

end_of_story

Alix E. Harrow
Alix E. Harrow

ALIX E. HARROW recently resettled in her old Kentucky home, where she teaches African and African American history, reviews speculative fiction on her blog and at Strange Horizons, and tinkers with fiction. She and her partner spend their time rescuing their gloriously dilapidated home from imminent collapse, and accumulating books and animals.

 

Return to Shimmer #27Become a Sparkly Badger

Allosaurus Burgers by Sam J. Miller

Our teacher Mrs. Strunt said the allosaurus coming to Hudson Falls was the best thing that ever happened to Hudson Falls, but the worst thing that ever happened to the allosaurus. She herded us onto the bus looking mad about it, trying to keep us from seeing she was just as excited as we were. The bus was freezing and we had all the windows fogged up in five minutes. Other boys drew curse words. I wrote F-U-C and then flinched, imagining my mother finding out, so I wiped it away and drew an allosaurus.

“The poor thing,” Mrs. Strunt said. “Wherever it came from, it’s got to feel terribly lonely and lost and scared.”

The roads were all madness on the way to the farm. Barely a day since Mr. Blecher made his big announcement, and everyone in the world was coming to Hudson Falls. Scientists and men with giant cameras, and lots of soldiers with lots of guns, but not the mean soldiers and scientists from movies. Everyone I saw had a smile so big it could have been their birthday. Everyone is coming to Hudson Falls, I thought.

And then: a treacherous, wicked, horrible thought.

Maybe my dad will come.

Where had it come from—dad—that foul forbidden word? I sucked in my cheeks like making a fish face and closed my teeth on as much flesh as I could, and bit down hard. And then harder. Punishing myself. Until I felt the same hot smothering rage that rises up in my mother every time I say that word.

I thought my mother was God, then. Six-foot-something, all flesh and freckles, she towered over our neighbors in church and at the supermarket. She came home from the slaughterhouse smelling like blood. I was nine then, and she could still pick me up, hoist me into the air. Not even the fathers of the other boys my age could do that. She wasn’t afraid of anything.

At breakfast that morning my mother had said “Day after tomorrow, the army’s going to take it away, and I personally think it can’t happen soon enough.”

I finished my milk and Mom poured me more, which I did not want, which I drank. Mom is certain that the government wants to take our stuff. Mostly our guns. She has a lot of guns and a lot of stickers on her car about them and her cold dead hands. So now I wondered why she wanted them to take the allosaurus.

“Woulda taken it right away, only it’ll take ’em 48 hours to scrounge up the right equipment.”

I nodded. Mom drank from the jug and put it back in the fridge.

“Blecher’s going to make out okay, though. Heard he’s got a million in TV deals lined up.” She likes Mr. Blecher because he’s an old old man, but he can still get over on her once in a while in arm wrestling. “And he’s hidden away some of its droppings to sell to the companies.”

“What kind of companies?”

Mom frowned. “How the hell would I know something like that?”

I wondered what they would do with dinosaur poop. Could you clone something from its poop? Could something so gone forever come back so easily? And if poop worked, what else would? I thought of my father’s baseball cap, the one Mom didn’t know I had, the one that still smelled of his sweat when I crawled to the back of my closet late at night and in total darkness buried my nose in it.

Mom never sits at meal times. She made anxious circles through the tiny kitchen, moving refrigerator magnets and removing expired coupons and straightening the cat and dog figurines I could never stop forcing to fight each other. It was a Tuesday morning, which is when my sister Sue calls from college. Waiting for the call always made Mom a little tense.

“What?” she said, kicking me lightly. “Why the face, like I just killed a puppy?”

I shrugged.

“You want me to be excited about it. But that thing ain’t right. They got scientists out combing that corner of Blecher’s farm, but mark my words they won’t find nothing. This is something bigger than science.”

“At church yesterday, Pastor said it’s a creature of God,” I spoke carefully, not contradicting, just seeking clarity. I could no longer swing my legs when I sat at the kitchen table. This was a recent development, one I’d been looking forward to that had turned out to be pretty crummy. My feet rested resentfully on the cold tiles. A draft came from under the door.

“Pastor’ll say what needs to be said to help Mr. Blecher out and to get people to come and spend their money in town. Creature of God, my foot.”

Church was the most important thing in my mother’s life, but I don’t think she believed in God. The Hudson Falls Evangelical Lutheran Church gave her lots of things, like friends and a full social calendar and a reason not to go to the liquor store. God didn’t offer her anything extra. Mostly she just liked what Pastor said: the sermons full of blood, fire and the devil and impending doom, about a world gone haywire and full of sinners and about to be punished.

She heaped bacon on my plate, five then six then seven slices. “‘Fore you know it, there’ll be bunches of them things, running riot over all the world. Eating us all up.”

“It’s locked up, Mom.”

“I know you saw King Kong, because I saw you crying at the end of it—” and she thumped me on the arm, not hard, because I saw her cry too when the big ape fell—”so I know you know they had Kong tied up good and proper, and he still got loose.”

My sister Sue called then. Mom talked to her for a little while, not sounding super-excited. Mom handed me the phone while Sue was in a sentence.

“Hi,” I said, interrupting her.

“Matt? Hi! Exciting stuff, right? A dinosaur in stupid little Hudson Falls! It’s on all the news channels.”

“Yeah.”

“Have you seen it?”

“No,” I said. “We go today.”

“I wish I could come see it, but it’ll be gone soon, right? Did you read the dinosaur books I sent you?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

I shrugged.

“Did you just shrug? You can’t shrug over the phone.”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Do you not like dinosaurs anymore?”

I shrugged again. Then I remembered about shrugging. “I don’t know.”

But I did know. Starting around the time I turned seven, Mom frowned when I talked about dinosaurs. “You get too excited about those things,” she’d say. “Loving something too much is dangerous.” So whenever I got the urge to pick up a dinosaur book or toy, I bit down hard on the inside of my cheek.

The allosaurus was different, of course. It was something you couldn’t ignore or pray away.

“I talked to Dad,” Sue said. Mom was making a lot of noise putting the dishes in the sink. “He’s coming to town to see the allosaurus. He begged his editor to give him the assignment.”

“Oh.”

“Do you remember your dad?”

“No,” There was nothing to remember. Some phone calls, sometimes, some letters, and once a box with a birthday present. Mom set it on fire without opening it. Sadness-anger tightened my stomach. I bit my lip to banish it.

“Mom’s…” Sue spent a while figuring out where to go with that one. “Mom’s not always thinking straight, when it comes to him.” She knew she had to be careful. After she screamed bad things at Mom, I refused to speak to her for the whole week before she went to college. “I know it seems like Mom’s the toughest chick on two legs, but she’s afraid of lots of things.”

The being-mad-at-Sue didn’t really go away until we clambered down from the bus at Blecher’s Farm. I had been a million times, for church picnics and farm field trips, but had never seen it so full of strangers, people on cell phones, slinging weird devices. The inside of the barn was full of new gates and doors and walls, built quick by the army while they waited for the elephant cage to come from San Diego.

The allosaurus was as tall as two of my mother when it reared up to its full height, but it rarely did. Its usual leaning-forward walk placed it at just the right level to look Mom in the eye. It looked the way it did in books and movies, a tyrannosaurus but smaller, only it had something the movies don’t: a personality. Curious and mistrustful, not particularly smart, a little like a seagull that wants to steal your food.

“The poor thing,” Mrs. Strunt said, looking up at it. It bobbed its head as it walked.

I was glad Mom wasn’t there. I could stand there staring at the thing with what Mom calls my “gape-mouthed imbecile look.”

The allosaurus was anti-camouflaged, wine-colored with long wide yellow streaks down the flank. It didn’t need to hide from anyone. The claws were a weird marbled grey I hadn’t imagined. Blood and hay covered the floor. It had been eating; its arms and face were messy from it. It didn’t look lonely or lost or scared. It looked proud of itself, like it had lucked into a lot of food and was waiting to see how things played out.

Mr. Blecher took us on a personal tour, his hands heavy on the heads of the kids he knew from church.

We stood at the edge of the barn, beside the steep railing that penned it in. The allosaurus came closer and someone screamed. Its nostrils snorted smoke into the chilly air. The barn had been there since forever, but the sawdust-and-cement smell of the air gave the place a freshly-built feel that was not reassuring. Only raw wood and new nails kept it away from us. It nudged a bar with its head, its claws a yard from my face, and a whole bunch of someones screamed. Maybe including me. The arms are what make an allosaurus so much better than a tyrannosaurus. Tyrannosaurus is way bigger, but they have stupid stumpy little arms with two claws. Allosauruses have long, muscular, useful arms with three scary claws.

Mrs. Strunt asked “What are they going to do with it?”

“Rent it out to movie studios,” Blecher said. “Take its DNA and make little ones. Bottle its spit and sell it for engine grease. Honestly ma’am, I have no idea.”

He took us around to the adjoining cages, where the goats had been crammed. He gripped the lever that would release a goat into the allosaurus pen, and grinned and said “You kids want to see what happens when I pull this?”

We all screamed yes, but Mrs. Strunt said no. She said it loud and weird so Mr. Blecher didn’t.

“Sure wish I could keep it, but they won’t let me. It was all I could do to get them to camp down the hill with their whole security rigmarole, not keep me up all night with their noise.”

I watched the allosaurus. Mr. Blecher was telling the story about how he found it on bear patrol in his John Deere Gator Utility Vehicle, and how everyone always told him he was crazy to bring the harness and the tranquilizer cannon like he could shoot down a grizzly and bring it home. Didn’t he do them one better? … except that he had to call up five of his friends to bring their Gators to help drag it back.

In my head I broke the allosaurus down into the cuts Mom taught me, from the picture of the cow. Thick rib, thin rib. Silverside. Brisket. Chuck. Blade. Drumstick? Cows don’t have drumsticks. Probably the allosaurus was closer to a chicken, but Mom doesn’t work with chickens. That’s a separate slaughterhouse. That’s a whole set of words she doesn’t know.

“So?” Mom said. “How was it?”

“Neat,” I said, sitting down at the kitchen table. She blinked and smiled like she’d been praying, or napping. Her hands were raw, bright pink. Winter’s tough at the slaughterhouse. The meat gets cold fast. Mom doesn’t do the killing. The room where they hang the cows to empty out, after they’ve been killed but before Mom comes through to turn them into smaller pieces, isn’t heated. By the time she gets there they’re barely above freezing.

“Is it true they don’t know if it’s a boy or a girl?”

I nodded.

“Well shoot, you’d think that’d be easy to figure out.”

“You should come,” I said.

“What’d Rebecca have to say about the thing?”

I shrugged. Mom hates Mrs. Strunt. They went to school together, but Mrs. Strunt went to college after and Mom went to the slaughterhouse, and now Mrs. Strunt makes more money than Mom does. Not much more, Mom says, but the fact that Mrs. Strunt doesn’t have to spend the whole day standing up and lifting heavy things really rankles.

“Why don’t you want to come see it?”

“Lord, Matt, I don’t know.”

“Stanley’s parents let him stay home from school today. They said it was because they’re Catholics and the Pope hasn’t spoken on the allosaurus yet, so they don’t know whether it’s demonic or not. But really it was because Stanley was scared.”

I held my fists to my chest right after I said it, steeling myself for what might come, but Mom just smiled. “You think maybe I’m scared of that big brute? He don’t scare me. All it is is meat.”

She stood up and I heard something pop. Mom said one bad word, then, and spent a long time saying it. She put both her hands on her back.

I stood up, but didn’t go closer. Lately I’d been hearing that popping more and more. Once the pain passes she usually moves on to being mad. But this time she shut her eyes and her lips moved, and when she opened them the fierceness had gone out of her face.

“Is she a good teacher? Rebecca?”

“I guess,” I said.

“Do you like her?”

I nodded.

“Good. You need to do well in school.” She looked at me, smiled at whatever she saw. “Somebody ought to make that dinosaur into steaks, is all I’m saying. Or burgers. Eat it before it eats us.” Then she elbowed me. “Would you eat allosaurus burgers, kid?”

I said I would. She said she would too. We laughed about it more than maybe we meant to, but laughing felt good.

Much later that night the phone woke me up. I sat at the top of the stairs so I could hear Mom’s side of the conversation.

“No.”

“No. Uh uh.”

“Don’t.”

So it was Dad.

“Really, Max? That’s all it is? And if they shipped the dinosaur out to Texas or it died tomorrow, you wouldn’t come?”

“You’re a damn liar.”

“No.”

“No. Why would you ask me that?”

“Why all of a sudden do you care about him now?

“You’re the one who chose to live way the hell down there. And we’re doing fine, him and me.”

“No.”

“Don’t.”

“Please, Max. Please don’t.”

I cried a lot when Mom got drunk and burned the box with my birthday present from Dad, but only because I was five. I wouldn’t cry now.

Things started to get bad between Mom and Sue around the same time Sue called Dad.

“She’s taken him back once before,” she had told me, not long after she snuck out of the house and took a train to see him without telling Mom, and not long before she decided to go to college in Plattsburgh because that would put her just a six-hour bus ride from where Dad was. “I was nine when he came back. He stuck around for a month or two.”

Sue is nine years older than me.

“You should see him. He’s a big strong tough guy. Like you’ll probably be.”

I wouldn’t rise to the bait.

“He’s smart too. Also like you’ll probably be.”

I thought about him a lot. But I’d learned not to ask about him ever. Mom had lots to say.

“Why…” I said, back then, to Sue—but I needed to be careful if I was going to say out loud the things I barely dared think. The things that would break my mother’s heart to hear. “Why does she hate him so much?”

“She can’t say to no to him,” Sue said. “That’s why Mom goes to church so much. Because she’s not nearly as strong as she wants people to think.”

I said something, probably not nice.

“The only reason they’re not together is that he hated Hudson Falls. Said he could never live there. And you know what? She was going to leave everything, to move to the city with him. Quit her job, sell the house, leave her friends and church and family. And then at the last minute—like, the night before—she got blind drunk, stole his car, drove it one block and then deliberately crashed it into a pole, walked home, told him she hated his guts and to get the hell out of her town and her life.”

“You’re lying,” I said. “That’s stupid. Mom’s not stupid.”

“I’m not lying. She can either have him or be in control of her life, and she chose to be in control. And she doesn’t care who gets hurt because of it.”

I didn’t understand Sue then, didn’t know what she was saying, but when Mom hung up on Dad, I heard the cabinet above the refrigerator open and the bottle and glass clink against the counter.

Mom left her bedroom and then made a lot of noise in the garage and I knew right away what she was up to, where she was going. I dressed fast in the dark and was outside by the time she was halfway down the block. She wouldn’t risk taking the car. People would see it and know she had been there. I followed her from a distance. She was dressed in black for stealth and carried a bulging backpack—mine.

The walk to Mr. Blecher’s farm was way too long. She walked like people walk on TV when they drink too many drinks. She paused a quarter of the way there, and it was like I could hear every thought as it went through her head. This is stupid. I should turn back. I can’t do this. I can do this. I have to do this. Finally she took the bottle out and took a long time drinking from it before she started up walking again.

The quiet out at the farm was weird, after how noisy it had been in the daytime. The Army had put up cameras and Mom put her hood up when she got close. There was a new metal door to the barn, with a complicated lock. Mom spent a while looking at the keypad. I was amazed when she guessed at the passcode and got it right the first time.

Here I thought my luck might not hold, but I would not be turned back. Church was the most important thing in both Mom and Mr. Blecher’s lives, so I figured that was where the password came from. I tried the zip code of the church, but that didn’t work. My second guess was the last four digits of the church phone number, which Mom made me memorize because it’s where I could always find her if she wasn’t home or at work. That’s what it was.

I crept in quiet as a cartoon ninja. Mom stood in the middle of the barn, looking in to where the allosaurus was. She fumbled for a light and found one, but it was at the far end of the barn and barely lit one corner. We watched the darkness together, apart. We couldn’t see the allosaurus; it was asleep or maybe watching from a corner. Mom hollered, but the allosaurus didn’t holler back. She set the backpack down and opened it up and took out two of her biggest guns and put them together and put the backpack back on. Then she climbed up onto the high new door of the pen, and said “Hey!”

The allosaurus rose out of nothingness and took one-two-three tiny steps forward.

I walked around to the adjoining cages. I didn’t hurry. My mouth was full of blood from biting my cheeks. I never prayed in church, but I was praying then. She still had time to decide not to do it. From that far away I could watch her and pretend what I was watching wasn’t happening. I put both hands on the lever that would open the goat pen gate, ready to save the allosaurus from my mother. Goats grumbled in the dark beside me.

Sue is wrong, I thought. Mom is not afraid of the allosaurus. She doesn’t do dumb things out of fear. She does them out of fearlessness.

She raised the gun, and wobbled. The allosaurus tilted its head to see her better. They were ten feet apart. It stood up straight, so it was looking down on her, which Mom clearly did not like. She pulled herself up higher, to stand on the top tier of wood. She held her hands out to steady herself, but did not do a good job of it. The edges of the bars were dented and splintered where it connected to the frame. I imagined the allosaurus whacking its tail or head against them all night long, trying to get out, or trying to get the goats it smelled just out of sight.

The wood cracked. Mom fell. In.

It looked down at my mother. Its claws flexed. It lowered its head, and took a step toward her. Mom didn’t move. Her back was to me and I was glad I could not see her face. The thing took another tentative step, then walked purposefully towards her. Only when I saw it stand over her, mouth open and eyes wide, did I realize just how big and beautiful and scary it was.

I pulled the lever as hard as I could. The cage gate swung open and a goat darted into the pen, bleating its excitement, conditioned to believe there would be food when it got there. And there would be, except it would be the food.

At the goat’s bleat, the allosaurus turned its head. The goat was a little further from it than my mother, and a little smaller, so the allosaurus took another step toward Mom. I jumped down into the goat cage and shoved a second goat into the pen. It balked, either out of contrariness or fear. The goat was warm, smelly, and I could feel its muscles unclench as it gave in and trotted forward. I felt bad for it. And then I hunched and prayed in the dark where my mother could not see me.

The goats stood still, looking stupid until they caught the smell of the allosaurus. They scattered. This swiftly-moving meat made the allosaurus let loose a machine screech and stomp after them.

Mom climbed up and out, slowly. Safe on the other side, she sank to the ground. She held her back with both hands. The goats were making an ungodly noise, but I owed it to them to watch, to see what I had done. Blood went absolutely everywhere.

Mom had her head between her knees and her arms around her head. I watched her for a minute and that hurt worse than watching the goats.

I didn’t leave the dark stinking cage till Mom staggered out into the night. I wanted to help her up off the floor, but I knew not to. I listened to the allosaurus eat. It saw me when I stood up. It lowered its head to get a better look. And then it turned and stalked back to the barn-corner shadows. The allosaurus wasn’t a demon or a bad-ass movie monster. It was only an animal. It obeyed laws it did not understand and had no hand in making, just like me.

I followed Mom home much later and snuck into my bed. In the morning I came down to bacon for breakfast. She poured orange juice and I asked for coffee, like I always did, and she smiled when she said I was too young for it. I was glad to see her smile. She didn’t need to know she would never be the same size again.

fin

 

Sam J. Miller
Sam J. Miller

Shirley Jackson Award winner SAM J. MILLER is a writer and a community organizer. His fiction and essays have appeared in Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, Icarus, The Minnesota Review, Fiction International, Washington Square, and The Rumpus, among others. He is a graduate of the 2012 Clarion Writer’s Workshop, a member of the Altered Fluid writers group, and the co-editor of Horror After 9/11, an anthology published by the University of Texas Press. Visit him at www.samjmiller.com

 

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