By Jessica R. Santillan
The three siblings walk alongside the rows of roses, a Technicolor display of reds, yellows, pinks, whites. They just moved to this town and they have the itch to explore their surroundings. The children have been warned not to wander on the farmlands, but Irene, the youngest, wants to pluck a rose for herself. Yellow, she’d said, I want yellow.
We’re going to get in trouble, Alejandro says.
We’re always in trouble, Hector says, swinging his father’s shears as he walks.
You’re always in trouble.
I want yellow, Irene says. That one. She points at a rose that sticks up tall from the rose bushes, like a hand reaching out to the sky, asking for a few more drops of sunlight. It’s far, though, near the middle of the row, where they’re definitely not supposed to be.
That one? Alejandro asks. Why not this one?
I want that one.
Alejandro rolls his eyes. Stay here. And don’t leave her. He takes the shears from his brother and walks toward the rose.
Hector shrugs and laughs a little.
I mean it, cabron.
Go get the flower pendejo.
It’s a rose, Irene says. It’s a rose and it’s my favorite color.
Yeah, yeah, I’m going.
Alejandro crouches low and slips in between the hedges of roses, squishing mud and dirt into the soles of his shoes and dodging rogue thorns as he goes. And as he gets closer, his nose pricks a little. This is not the smell of fresh roses, nor is it the smell of standing water and mud. The smell is rotten, like something decaying in the sun, like flesh spoiling in the open air. Alejandro recognizes the smell from when they passed a dead dog a week ago. He shudders, remembering the barking that haunted him that night, as if the dog was in his room, next to his bed.
Irene shouts, telling him a bird is circling in the sky to take her flower. Alejandro groans and creeps closer, toward a buzzing sound. Flies. The sound of flies. Lots of them. Like an infestation; they zoom around his head, and they fly away, as if they’re telling him look, look, behold death.
Hurry up, Alejandro, Hector says.
Alejandro inches forward and sees. It is not a dead dog. But it is a man in bedraggled clothing, eyes open and empty, looking up. The white hair that sprouts from his head in knots lies like a pillow, a collection of down feathers, on the ground. He looks like he is at rest, and if it weren’t for the smell, Alejandro might trick himself into thinking the man would resume breathing and blink at any moment.
Is this going to be my father, Alejandro thinks to himself. He shivers.
What are you doing, brother? Irene says.
Come on, he’s being a chicken, I’ll get you the flower.
It’s a rose.
Transfixed, Alejandro cannot look away from the man. He’s barefoot, Alejandro realizes. Long yellowing nails snarl from the ends of his toes.
What are you looking at, Hector asks. Oh, God, what smells? Alejandro feels his brother’s shadow fall over him.
Hector puts his hand over his nose. The smell is what he notices, what makes him gag and tears form in his eyes. But Irene says, Is that man sleeping? Hector follows her gaze and looks at the body lying in the ditch, tucked under roses as if seeking asylum from the sun.
Is—is it dead? Hector asks. He has never known anyone to die. And this strikes him as a curious thing: death. Let me see, he says, and pushes past his older brother.
I want to go home, Irene says. She looks at the body with its yellowing skin, tight and shriveled at the same time, and eyes too big for its head. She looks at the body and decides that death is the color yellow. I’m scared, she says.
Let’s get out of here, Alejandro says.
Hector kneels next to the body. He pokes his cheek; the skin is stiff and doesn’t feel real. He touches his own cheek and compares the two.
I said let’s go, Alejandro says.
Hector wonders if this is this how all dead bodies look. He imagines himself dying, lying on the ground, on the mush, and staring up at the wide-open sky. What is it like, he thinks?
I want to go home, Irene says. She begins to cry, because she doesn’t understand, because this man lies on the ground but there is no one there, because the smell is overwhelming, because the bugs swarm around her and land on her and will not quit.
Ay, cabron, let’s go, Alejandro says. He grabs Hector by the arm and pulls him. Hector does not resist, but follows his siblings out of the roses and off the farmland. As they go, they turn and see that yellow rose, sticking up and moving in the breeze, like a little hand waving goodbye.
Alejandro does not like to sleep in the dark. Every night, he tries to turn his light on, but his father always seems to catch him. You’re wasting my money, his father would say. Leave it off. Tonight, Alejandro steals his father’s flashlight from his tool box and sits under his blanket.
Dad’s gonna get mad, Hector says.
Shut up, pendejo.
Why do you think the body smelled so bad, Hector asks.
That’s what dead things smell like, Alejandro says.
How long do you think he’s been dead?
I don’t know, Hector.
Do you think the cops are going to find him?
Why were there so many flies?
Flies like dead things.
Do they like you? Hector laughs.
Shut up, that’s not funny.
You shut up, sissy.
Alejandro jumps out of bed and gives his brother a good punch on the arm.
Go ahead. Alejandro stumbles back toward his bed. Hector giggles. Go to sleep, pendejo.
You too, Mr. Flashlight.
Alejandro slides into bed and squeezes the flashlight against his chest. It’s his cross, his talisman to ward off evil spirits.
Alejandro wakes to movement. He feels his bed shift, like something sitting beside him. Clutching the flashlight close to his chest, he turns over. A shadow obscures the moonlight from the window and sits at the foot of his bed. The breath strangles in Alejandro’s throat.
Dad? he chokes out. But the figure does not reply. Alejandro fumbles with the flashlight, sweaty fingers slipping along the smooth surface.
You will have a bright future, the man says. But first, there must be darkness. Your mamá, your papá, your brothers and sister.
Hands shaking, Alejandro pushes the switch. And in the moment when the light stretches out its arms, before it settles fully on the man, Alejandro can see that he has the face of the person they found that afternoon.
Mamá, Alejandro shouts. He throws off his blanket and runs through the house, flashlight guiding him to his parents’ room and bursts in.
Ay, mijo, what’s wrong? His mom sits up.
What the hell’s your problem, his father shouts. Is that my flashlight?
I saw something in my room. Mamá, please come. Alejandro takes her hand and pulls her along. His father follows closely.
I was sleeping and today we saw a dead body and I didn’t want to tell you because I was scared but I saw the dead body and he came to me right now, sitting on my bed and he spoke to me. Alejandro turns the lights on. Hector sits up and rubs his eyes. There is no man, there is no evidence there ever was a man. The window is shut tight, the blankets rumpled just where Alejandro slept.
What’s going on? Hector asks.
Your brother’s being a chickenshit, their father says. Give me my flashlight. His father takes the light from Alejandro and leaves the room.
He was here, Alejandro says.
Listen, mijo, Jovita cups her hands around his face and speaks to him in Spanish: I tell you, you have the gift. You can see spirits and it can get scary, I know. But nothing can harm you so long as you have God on your side. See that cross? She points to the crucifix nailed on their wall. And that one? She points to one made of palm leaves over the doorway. Those are your protection. You are safe.
Alejandro nods, feeling more reassured.
Get to sleep, okay? She says, in English now.
Okay, Mamá, he says and hugs her.
And you, Jovita turns to Hector. You asleep the whole time?
No, I saw it too, Mamá. It was the old man just like we saw earlier. He came to me, too, Mamá.
You didn’t see anything, Alejandro says. You never see anything.
No, I’m just not scared like you.
Ay, leave each other alone. Get to bed. Ándale.
I saw him, too, Mamá, Hector says.
Sure you did, she says.
Jovita leaves the brothers in darkness, with only the light of the moon to bridge the gap between them.
Alejandro is a sissy, Hector says early the next morning as they eat their chorizo and eggs.
Why are you a sissy, Alejandro? Irene asks.
I’m not a sissy, Alejandro says.
Yes you are. Crying Mamá, Mamá, save me.
Shut up, pendejo.
Ay, watch your goddamn language and eat your breakfast, Jovita says.
The boys laugh.
Oo, Mamá said a cuss word, Irene says.
They laugh together.
Okay, be quiet now, your papá is sleeping still.
Probably because Alejandro woke him up last night, Hector says.
Eat your food, Jovita says.
Hector leaps off the top step on the front porch, the tips of his shoes scraping against the peeling eggshell paint. A loose chicken scrambles to get away. He laughs and chases after the chicken, wiggling his fingers and grabbing at the fowl. Alejandro sits on the steps and stares at the roses across the road. He can almost feel the presence of the ghost with him. And Irene sits beside her brother, watching him contemplate the roses. She looks at the blossoms, and imagines that rose she never got, shining in the bright summer afternoon. But, she thinks, maybe a different color.
Can we go back to the roses again, Alejandro? she asks.
No, we’re not allowed to go, remember? The cops arrived early in the morning. Their mother peeked out the window and Alejandro could see the lights flashing from where he stood behind her; a terrible feeling of familiarity filled him. You stay away from there, she had said, knowing that Alejandro was not lying.
I just wanted a rose.
Alejandro doesn’t want to go because of the ghost, Hector says. His cheeks are red and his brown hair sticks to his slick forehead.
Alejandro puts his head down, but then remembers the way Hector gets around their mother’s dolls. He smiles and runs into the house, grabbing the creepiest doll he can find: one with the rolling eyes, broken and twitching, with scraped up cheeks and jet black hair that’s missing in some places, with a charcoal-colored gown and an arm missing. She’s beautiful, his mother had said when she brought her home. But Alejandro knows his mother’s English isn’t that great; she must have meant something else.
Hector doesn’t see Alejandro sneaking up behind him. He doesn’t see Alejandro press a finger to his lips at Irene. He doesn’t see his sister join in on the scare. Hector is too occupied by watching a man, with a curved back and a lop-sided walk, dressed all in black, walk slowly down the road. For a moment, Hector thinks it might be the man they saw in the rose bushes, but as the man gets closer, he realizes it’s someone different. Someone with darker skin. And as the man gets closer, Hector realizes the man has black hair and a thick black mustache, neither of which match the sagging skin on the man’s face. Although the sun hangs high in the sky, Hector shivers. Is this what Alejandro feels, he thinks. Is this what the gift feels like? And as if the power has descended upon him in full, he senses something powerful breathing down his neck. Slowly he turns, sees the cold and plastic face of a nightmare and screams.
Alejandro and Irene laugh.
Hector’s ears redden to match his flushed cheeks. He rips the doll from his brother’s hand and throws it on the ground. Feet smashing against the doll’s head and squishing it.
Stop it, Hector, Alejandro shouts.
Aye, aye, their father walks down the steps. Hector stops and steps back. What are you doing? Huh? You know your mother loves those.
Their father takes the doll from the ground, dusts it and squishes its head back into shape.
Take this inside, Alejandro. Next time I catch you grabbing your mother’s things you’re gonna get it.
Alejandro lowers his head, takes the doll, and runs back into the house.
Señor, me puede ayudar? Hector turns. It’s the man he’d seen walking down the road. Up close, he looks even scarier. Dark circles under his eyes like he hasn’t slept in days. Something doesn’t look right about the man, Hector decides.
Ah, si. Qué necesita, señor? Their father leans against the bent metal fence, broad hands hanging down.
Estoy buscando a Jovita. Estoy maldecido, verá y yo necesito su ayuda.
Oh, si, si. Entrar, señor.
Hector takes his sister’s hand and pulls her back, hiding her behind him. He doesn’t like this man.
He’s weird looking, Irene says.
And though the man doesn’t speak any English, he seems to know what Irene has said. He turns his head, gives them an uncomfortable smile, and follows their father into the house.
Alejandro comes bounding down the stairs just as the men walk into the house.
Who’s that? He asks.
Dunno, Hector shrugs.
He was speaking Spanish, Irene says.
I think he’s got a curse, Alejandro says.
Yeah, I know, Hector says. I could tell.
I thought you didn’t know what was wrong, Irene says.
I was trying to test Alejandro.
Sure you were, Alejandro says.
Their father comes out of the house with a six-pack in one hand and a tool set in the other. You leave your mamá alone. Go play. I don’t want you in that house.
The kids all nod. They’re never allowed in the house when Jovita does a cleaning. Hector thinks it’s unfair; he wants to see what’s going on. Alejandro doesn’t mind, though. Most of Jovita’s clients scare him; he can feel darkness around them: they carry bad spirits on leashes like ferocious animals waiting to be freed. And Irene has no interest in what goes on inside the house while her brothers are outside playing.
Their father walks outside the front gate toward the old Ford that he was restoring.
Come on, let’s go listen to them, Hector says.
I don’t want to, Irene says. Let’s play something.
We’re not supposed to, Alejandro says.
You scared? Hector asks.
Alejandro submits to the pestering of his younger brother. They sneak up underneath the open window by the living room where their mother meets her clients. The window pours out the smells of the house: fried food, incense, sour beer, perfumes.
They’re speaking Spanish, Irene says.
Sh. Hector nudges her. Irene crosses her arm and frowns.
What are they saying? Hector asks.
Of the three children, only Alejandro can understand Spanish. He remembers a time before their father made their mother quit her habit. The language flowed from their mother’s mouth and sounded sweet and loving. English sounds harsh on their mother’s tongue, like a viper, like venom leaking from her lips. Alejandro feels most comforted when his mother speaks Spanish to him; it’s like their own secret language.
Alejandro concentrates on the words. He doesn’t know what everything means, but he makes a guess.
He’s asking about a curse, Alejandro says.
This is so boring, Irene says. She throws herself on the ground.
Mamá doesn’t want to do it. She’s saying no, no it’s bad. Really bad.
What’s bad? Irene sits up.
The man wants someone dead, Alejandro says.
That’s not what he said. You’re lying, Hector says.
No I’m not. It’s bad. She’s saying. It’s bad to do this magic. And he’s saying please. Please I need him dead because he beats my daughter so. Please.
Who, who does he want dead? Irene asks.
I don’t know.
Alejandro thinks of the man in the roses. He thinks of his face and the emptiness in his eyes and he wonders, how could someone want to make someone empty like that?
What’s she saying, what’s she saying? Hector asks.
Alejandro strains his ears, because his mother is talking low now. He doesn’t catch all the words, but he understands: she’s going to do it. She’s going to curse someone and make them empty because the man will pay well.
What is it, Alejandro? Irene asks.
She’s not going to do it, he says. She thinks he’s a bad man.
Alejandro feels sick, like maggoty worms crawling underneath his skin. He looks at his siblings, whose expressions relax. Their mom is kind and righteous, perfect. But all Alejandro can think of are eyes that do not blink and a heart that does not beat and life that does not stay.
Hector and Irene play, chasing each other around, pretending to be superheroes like in the comics. They think of their mother like this: good and light and resistant to evil. But Alejandro sits on the front steps, watching his father open another beer. And his mother is still in with the man. A thought begins to form in his mind, an unclear one, a confusing haze, which points at his father and mother. He remembers the old man, sitting on his bed, coming to him with a warning.
The front door creaks and drags as it opens. Smells, dark smells, come from the living room. And the man emerges. His features look even more sagged, weary. The man moves like he’s brittle. And Jovita stands in the doorway, watching the man walk down her front path. Alejandro sees something different on her face, and all around her is drawn in black, like her shadow has grown to encompass her. In the house, his mother has hung crosses in every room, above every doorway, but there is no cross to protect Alejandro from her. He feels cold cold cold, like sitting in ice water.
Why aren’t you playing, mijo? Jovita asks.
Alejandro shrugs, hugs himself closer because he cannot break the chill in his bones.
Gather around children, their mother says. The moon is low. A bonfire blazes inside a metal drum. Irene and Hector take turns tossing things in to see how they burn. And they laugh.
Listen to your mamá, their father says, taking a swig from his beer can.
Hector and Irene come close to their mother; they sit at her feet.
Alejandro, come, Jovita says.
From the shadows, Alejandro crawls forward, combing his fingers through the loose dirt in the backyard.
I have good news, mijitos. We’re going to have another baby.
What, no way, Hector says.
I want a sister, Irene says. These boys stink.
Alejandro stays silent. He looks at his mother, whose eyes hide in shadows, and his father with dark and yellow light dancing on his face. Alejandro does not know how to react.
Jovita invites the children to feel her belly, to feel the life inside of her. And Alejandro wonders if that’s what death is: pushing life out and emptying yourself. The children press their palms to their mother’s belly and search for something that signals life, something like movement or a heartbeat or breathing. But when Alejandro lays down his palm, he feels pain and loss and fear. And Alejandro wonders if that’s what death is: pushing out those feelings and emptying yourself.
It will be a boy, Alejandro says.
Si, Jovita says. A boy.
And the rest of the family looks on, puzzled by a boy and his mother, connected by something frightening and dark, or something which does not exist.
Jessica R. Santillan was born in Bakersfield, CA and received her MFA from Fresno State. Her work has been published in the San Joaquin Review, Siren’s Call, and Cactus Heart.