A short story
December 6, 2016 at 11:00 am
This article is part of the POMEmag Séance Theme Week.
The light bled through everything — it was all Esperanza could see. Minutes ago, she stood alone in the abandoned house on Matamoros where she would sometimes go to listen to music on her phone, savor the silence, or just think. Looking from the outside in, the house stood tall and inscrutable amongst the other neighborhood homes. Stuck in time, the dark stone walls and burgundy accents loomed amongst the white and cream-colored houses that surrounded it. The neighborhood kids whispered about the house being the home of a witch, and even though the adults scoffed at the idea, they still crossed the street whenever they got too close to it. Anyone else would have shivered at the sight of it, but Esperanza found it charming.
One afternoon, as she was walking towards the home, she passed a bystander that looked at her, then the house. The old woman smiled and said, “I’ve noticed you coming around. Of all the abandoned houses in town to frequent, you really picked a winner.”
“Look señora, what I do in my spare time is my business, okay?” Esperanza replied. Like any teenager, she didn’t have time for the sarcasm of others; she had enough of her own. The lady chuckled at her response.
“Fair enough. ¿Pero, no seas tonta, está claro?” With eyes rolling, Esperanza said, “Sure, whatever you say,” and kept walking.
Whenever she walked into the house, a sigh of relief would escape her lips. Everything inside had been left untouched, since the owners had died several years earlier and left no instructions for what to do with the property. The thick coating of dust laying over the furniture that had been left behind, the creaky floorboards, the warm smell of canela that seemed to seep through the walls — it was all comforting to her. On especially good days, she would bring her notebooks and pens, listen to her favorite songs on her phone or on the old record player in the living room and draw all of the people and things that caught her eye on the way over. Her notebook was filled with the stray neighborhood dogs and cats, the flowers sprouting from the concrete, and even the woman who never left her house without a mug of steaming coffee. It was a perfect place to take in the world, mainly because people stayed away from it. Teenagers from around town used to mess with the house: a stray beer bottle here, a thrown rock there. But now it was mostly left alone to its own devices. No one else knew about the visits Esperanza made to the house, not her best friend Anna, or even her mom. It was hers, and hers alone. She liked it that way.
It was all gone now, engulfed in the blinding light that had appeared out of nowhere. The flare took her breath away. Esperanza thought she could make out the faintest outline of someone, something in the midst of the light. She had to know, had to be sure this was finally happening. After all these years of waiting, it was finally her turn to experience this — to find her place at last. She reached out her hand to touch it, her fingertips closing in on the entity.
The space between her hand and the figure vanished as she reached out and touched it.
Heart pounding, Esperanza woke up. The sheets were all but thrown off of her mattress; this was the fourth time this week she’d had to deal with a night of fitful sleep and, of course, the dream. She sighed, rolled over, and checked her phone. There was nothing new, but what was she expecting? She checked the weather. Although it was the middle of October, the highs for the day were going to be well into the 90s — nothing surprising for a South Texas autumn. Las Minas never really had much variety in weather, but Esperanza had come to terms with it.
Suddenly, the smell of bacon, eggs, and fresh tortillas floated into her room and willed her out of bed. Esperanza dragged herself towards the door. As she left the poster-plastered walls and warm carpeting of her room, she tried to ground herself. She felt her bare feet on the cold tile in the hallway and took a breath. She was here. She was home. And she could smell coffee. Esperanza walked into the kitchen and found her mom seated at the dining room table, with her raven-colored hair swept up in a quick ponytail.
“Good morning, sweetheart!” said her mother, always the chipper morning person Esperanza could never be. She grabbed a nearby mug. “Coffee?” Esperanza nodded yes and took the cup. She poured the coffee and could smell the cinnamon her parents added into the grounds — it was her favorite way to start her morning. After adding in some milk and a spoonful of sugar, she took a sip, letting the coffee wake her up.
The sound of booming footsteps echoed down the hall.
“How’s my favorite daughter doing this morning?” Esperanza’s father said while making his way over to her for one of his famous bear hugs.
“I’m your only daughter, dad,” Esperanza said while he squeezed her shoulders.
“I know, mija, but it’s still true,” he replied. She sighed and smiled at her dad’s reliable cheesiness. He could always make her laugh, even in the mornings.
Her two older brothers, Francisco and Daniel, soon stumbled in from their bedroom at the end of the house, too tired to be travieso. It was Saturday, so Esperanza’s family had no real plans for the day beyond breakfast. After last week’s adventure in an abandoned hospital, they needed the rest.
The visit was supposed to be routine, a quick peek into San Sebastian’s on Zarzamora to see if the whispers and hushed talk about the desolate building were true. As their city’s premier ghost hunters and paranormal specialists, the Ramirez family were more than obligated to investigate. It was quite literally their business, and the former owners wanted answers. Who would’ve expected the spirits that roamed the rotting hallways and floated across the cracked linoleum to be so malicious? It turned out that the former patients of San Sebastian’s had left their old rooms long ago. Something much more malignant had filled their absence.
Mr. and Mrs. Ramirez and the boys had been through a few tough nights before (spirit possession, floating weapons, and bleeding walls were some of the most memorable highlights of their past experiences), but the sudden cuts and bruises that appeared on their bodies during their visit were a new and troubling development. The injuries were thankfully not too serious, but they were enough to end their trip early and largely empty-handed. They left the hospital with a few, vague answers, but nothing concrete. The presence they had dealt with was malicious — it wanted to hurt them and potentially others — but they didn’t know why. Was the spirit simply trying to protect itself or did it have a more sinister agenda?
Esperanza had spent that night at home, trying to focus her attention on her Calculus homework. She knew the rules: she couldn’t come along on her family’s investigations until she had experienced the paranormal herself. But it still ate at her. How was she supposed to focus on formulas she would never use when there was a whole world she hadn’t explored yet? Anyone who knew about the Ramirez’s track record with the paranormal — every member of the family had experienced some sort of paranormal event since they came over from el otro lado in 1916 — would think the rule was reasonable. Esperanza, however, begged to differ. Seventeen years without so much as a bump in the night left her wondering. Would she ever feel that burst of cold air, those eyes on the back of her neck? She was the only member of her family who hadn’t been haunted — grandparents, tías, tíos, even second cousins seemed to have stories about visits from the other side for as long as she could remember. Yet here she was, almost out of her teen years and no dice.
“God, and the smell was THE WORST,” Francisco declared at the breakfast table. “Like, almost as bad as our room after a week thanks to this one.” He chuckled and gestured his forkful of eggs toward Daniel, who sat directly across from him at the table.
“Oh, come on. You know it’s not me stinking up our room, okay? I’m not the one who’s bought 80 bottles of AXE in the past week,” Daniel replied.
“Ya, callense niños! You’re giving your mother and I a bigger headache than usual, and that’s saying something,” Mr. Ramirez said, making Esperanza and her mom laugh.
“It’s okay dad, they just can’t help how dumb they are,” Esperanza said. After a brief moment of bickering from both ends of the table, there was a cease-fire when Francisco hit his arm against the table, mid-comeback.
“Is your arm still hurting, mijo?” Mrs. Ramirez asked. He nodded, and pulled up the sleeve of his shirt to reveal blotted, purple bruises running along the length of his forearm.
“Mine look the same,” she said, and stood up, revealing the small cuts and mottled bruising along her shins and calves. Esperanza’s stomach turned. Busy schedules and a slight cold front at the beginning of the week had kept her from seeing the damage from last weekend. She never knew what to say or how to help when her family’s missions got serious.
“So I guess the smell wasn’t the worst part of last weekend, huh?” Esperanza said with an uneasy laugh. The room went silent, save for her dad who chuckled lightly and said, “Definitely not.”
Esperanza couldn’t help but feel alone. Her family had their place in the world and knew what they were doing. The Ramirezes’ experiences with the paranormal shaped who they were in life in a number of ways. Among her family tree there were curanderas, clergymen, self-proclaimed brujas, and even those who managed to remain neutral in their professions but were overwhelmingly superstitious in their day-to-day lives. When Esperanza tried envisioning the future, all she could see was a path that lead to nowhere. Here she was, about to start her last year of high school with no real idea about what would come after. Every time she thought about it, her chest tightened and her head spun. Lately, the feeling was becoming more constant than she’d like to admit. What was she supposed to do?
While the far-reaching future was unclear at best, at least Esperanza would be able to hang out with Anna today. They had planned a trip to their favorite spot — the movies. For as long as they could remember, the local theater close to their houses had been their place. Every time they walked in and smelled the buttered popcorn that coated the building, saw the fading posters of old movie stars you couldn’t quite place, and settled into the worn-in seats, it just felt right. Plus the theater offered discount shows of old trashy VHS movies on most weekends, which the girls attended religiously. Today’s screening was Return of the Living Dead, whose poster declared, “They’re back from the grave. And ready to party!”
First, however, Esperanza needed a trip to the house. Her family’s talk about San Sebastian had wrung out her nerves more than usual, and she needed some alone time ASAP. She packed her backpack with the usual supplies — cell phone, headphones, notebook, set of pens, worn copies of Pet Sematary and IT — and got ready to head out.
“Where are you going? Aren’t you meeting up with Anna at 8?” her mom asked as Esperanza walked towards the front door.
“Anna changed her mind and wanted to hang out a little earlier to grab some elotes,” Esperanza replied.
“Alright, just text me when you’re with her so I know you’re okay.” With a quick nod, Esperanza was out the door.
Esperanza was beyond excited, not just for the partying zombies they could laugh about together, but for catching up with Anna. She hadn’t told her about the dream that had been plaguing her for the past couple of days, but would seek her advice on it tonight. Anna always seemed to have practical advice, or at the very least a joke that could make Esperanza breathe easily again. Either one would do.
She walked through the neighborhood, taking in the kids playing in the street, neighbors catching up over a cigarette, the cracks in the sidewalk. Esperanza took several deep breaths, slowly pushing the built-up anxiety from the morning’s events out with each exhale. She thought about the first time she asked her mom about the inevitable visit every Ramirez received.
“But mom, how will I know when it’s going to happen?” Esperanza, age twelve, asked. Mrs. Ramirez sat on the edge of the bed where Esperanza was curled up and paused before her answer.
“Well, mi corazón, the thing is you don’t know. I mean, you remember how it happened to your Tío Ernesto.” Esperanza giggled and nodded: “I can’t believe a ghost snuck up on him in the bathroom!”
“He didn’t tell anyone for weeks, and when he did, he turned beet-red. Your father still teases him about it occasionally.” The two of them laughed together and for a moment, Esperanza didn’t think her other questions would be necessary. However, when their laughter gave way to silence the questions came up anyway.
“What if it’s worse than that for me, mom?”
“What do you mean, mija?”
“I mean….what if it tries to hurt me?” There had been a handful of Ramirezes with truly terrible experiences, but they were rarely discussed. Mrs. Ramirez scooped up Esperanza, held her tight and said, “Your father and I won’t let that happen.”
Five years ago, with her face buried into the crook of her mother’s neck before bedtime, Esperanza thought these were all the answers she’d ever need. Yet here she was, with the same questions and anxieties. She passed a home with a gathering of stray cats in its front yard and for a brief moment felt twelve again. Then, as she walked up to the entrance of the black and blood-red house, something felt different. The heat rose off of the pavement. She paused and regarded the old home that had become her refuge. The sweat from her brow began to drip.
Esperanza hesitated. She couldn’t put her finger on what was bothering her, but she let it go as she walked up the stairs and through the front door. Once she was inside, she picked her raven hair up into a messy ponytail and settled in. She opened several windows to let the house breathe before sitting on the floor with her legs crossed. Even with the occasional breeze wafting in from outside, the heat prickled against her skin. She thought about how ridiculous it was for it to be 97 degrees in October, and began unpacking.
The breeze stopped suddenly. Esperanza looked up to find that the windows had closed. She got up to open them, and a whisper of cold air caressed her face. She shook, but not from the temperature change. From a crack in the floorboard, a sliver of light bled into the room. She was curious and, surprisingly calm. As she got ready to take a closer look at the beam of white light, she remembered something else her mother had told her when she was twelve.
“You know, mija, there are good spirits that our family has interacted with, too. Spirits who appear to people who need them the most at times of great change.”
Esperanza was about to bend down to get a closer look when the sliver exploded. The room was bright white, so radiant that when she looked down she could barely make out the outline of her hand at her side. She looked up and thought she could see the barely-there figure from her dream. Standing in the snow-white light, she tried to take this all in: the chill, the windows, the blinding light. She could barely believe it, but she knew exactly what to do. She faced the figure and reached out her hand, drawing closer. The space between her fingertips and the outline vanished, and Esperanza smiled as her fingers touched it. For the first time in seventeen years, the constant tightness in her chest lifted entirely. She could breathe again.