Listen to this story
Fiction by L.L. Madrid— 2017 Luminaire Prose Award Winner
In seventeen years, little has changed on Catalina Avenue. The cars that line the narrow, curling street are coated year-round with desert dust. Old pictures reveal that our casita was once a buttery yellow. Now it’s sun-bleached to the same color as the bones that we find in the wash behind the neighborhood. Sometimes babies are born or grandparents move in. Other times the grandparents die. Brothers get arrested; now and then they come back. Fathers tend to vanish for good. Mine did when I was two. Most everything else stays the same, the entire street like an infinite loop.
Momma, Nana, and even Bisabuela, all went to Tucson High. Just like I do now, a prisoner to family tradition. It never bothered anyone else, though. My family doesn’t wonder what life looks like in places with four seasons. They don’t share my yearning for exploration. Tucson, though stretched and sprawling, has always felt too small. It’s a place where you can drive and drive without ever getting anywhere.
I used to get mad at Momma and demand to know why she lived her life exactly the way her mother did. Her dark eyes narrowed. “Isabel. Let me tell you a true thing. This life is not beneath you. It’s a good life. You’re nothing special, mija, and that’s okay.”
Nana’s opinion of me was no better, although it took me longer to recognize it. She’s a superstitious old woman, always saying folksy stuff. Eat twelve grapes on New Year’s Day for luck. Seashells carry sadness. If you hear a wailing, lock the door to keep La Llorona out. She doesn’t blame me for wanting more. “It’s your nature, mi niña. It’s the monsoon.” I entered the world in late August as billowing storm clouds released a torrent of water. That day the ephemeral rivers ran wild through the desert washes and subterranean flood tunnels, journeying to join the Santa Cruz River. Nana says monsoon babies long for movement. For change. For bigger things.
So I can’t help being a selfish misfit. It’s the way I am. It took me years to realize why she’d look at me and cluck her tongue, and move on. There’s always a hard truth at the center of Nana’s superstitions.
Maybe my adventure will be breaking tradition. I’ve worked hard with one goal in mind: To get out. I’m an expert at getting good grades and getting adults to care about me, to mentor me. While other kids got jobs making sandwiches at Eegees or herding carts at Food City, I worked for lawyers and engineers. I got accepted to every school that I applied to. I chose the one with the largest scholarship, the one that would take me the furthest away.
There are three months left until I leave. I’ve started packing. I stare out my window at the wash that runs behind our house. Currently, it’s a sandy meandering path where people walk dogs, children play, and coyotes hunt for rabbits. It’ll be monsoon season when I leave. I hope I get to see the river run one last time.
In the mornings, my best — and only — friend Luz comes by, and we walk to school, dropping my little sister Amaya off on our way. We’re the same age and grew up on the same street, so we started off as friends by default. Luz is popular, and I don’t understand why she’s kept me all these years. Still, I love hearing about her misadventures with her other friends. I rarely take part; I have too much to lose.
We’re different types of girls. Luz has the easy confidence of someone who’s always been likable and beautiful. She’s one of those girls who shines, making everyone want to be around her. The other kids tease me for trying too hard. Luz isn’t great at studying, and I help her maintain a C average, but even our teachers like her more. If we weren’t friends — closer than sisters — I’d hate her on principle. And Luz? She’d smile at me in the halls like she does to anyone she doesn’t know. That’s just how she is.
Luz and Amaya will be the hardest people to leave. Amaya speaks to me less and less, like she’s trying to detach before I do. Luz talks about how excited she is for me. She’s my biggest cheerleader, but I can tell that she’s hurt that I’m leaving. She wanted me to take the full ride to the U of A and stay.
It’s the second-to-last Monday of the school year, and Mr. Gutierrez didn’t show up for senior government class.
“Should we tell someone?” I ask Luz.
“Don’t be stupid. It’s last period.” Luz grins and stands. Her long, black braid sways about her hips. “We’ll have one last adventure. Martin hooked me up with some great shit. I’ll smoke you out.”
“I have to pick up Amaya.”
“Not for, like, another hour. Come on.” Luz lifts the textbook from my desk and starts for the door.
Outside, the late May heat creeps over 100 degrees. The sky is blue and cloudless. No one stops us. Luz even waves to the school resource officer; his cheeks redden as he waves back. We walk alongside the wash that travels from the school and passes Catalina Avenue.
“Let’s smoke in the tunnel.”
“What if it rains?” A kid drowned there last summer.
“Isa, it hasn’t rained in months. You afraid La Llorona will get you?”
“La Llorona hangs out by rivers so she can drown her victims.”
“The wash is a river. It’s just dry. She can still figure out a way to kill you.”
“Remember how we played witches down here? You tried to scare me even back then.”
Luz takes my hand, and together we climb down to the empty belly of the wash. “You were never scared of monsters, just of getting in trouble.”
“Are we really going in the flood tunnel?”
“The cops are too afraid to go down there.”
“And we aren’t?”
“Nah. I’ll protect you, baby.”
Luz wraps her arm around my waist and leads me through the underpass-sized entrance of the tunnel. Broken glass shimmers and graffiti adorns the cement. The earth slopes downward and the sun dampens behind us. My heart beats faster. I am afraid, but more than that, I am excited.
Luz produces a small glass pipe. She takes a hit and passes it to me. I’ve only smoked once before. This is the kind of activity usually reserved for Luz’s other friends. Her brown eyes shine under the spark of the lighter. I fill my lungs with smoke and then cough and cough.
She thuds my back with the base of her palm and whispers, “Let’s explore.”
Setting our cell phones to glow, we go deeper underground. Our hands are outstretched, illuminated like fireflies. The tunnel is dark and silent but for a distant dripping.
I stumble over a bare mattress that’s mottled with stains. Next to it, a grocery cart boils over with knotted plastic bags. A foreign light seeps from around the corner. I grip Luz’s arm. “Let’s go back.”
Luz holds her cell phone under her chin and gives a sugar skull grin. She skips toward the light. I don’t want to know where it’s coming from, but I don’t want to be alone.
An old woman sits on an overturned crate, suckling at the bladder from a box of wine. The light from a hurricane lamp casts her in a hunched, troll-like shadow. Wine drained, she wipes her mouth with the back of her hand and spots us. The woman stands. She is wearing layers of stiff skirts. Grimy duct tape holds her shoes together.
“This is my spot.” She’s shaking.
“You live here?” Luz asks, approaching the woman slowly, hand out as if to a strange dog.
“MY SPOT!” The woman screams and slaps at Luz’s arm. “Git, you filthy whore! GIT!”
I tug at Luz’s arm. “Let’s just go.”
“Listen to yer ugly friend, whore.” The woman spits, and the frothy liquid splatters on Luz’s cheek.
“You old bitch!” Luz wipes at her face before snatching the lamp by its handle. “We’ll leave, but I’m taking this.”
The old woman lunges. A shiny blade shimmers in the darkness. She grabs Luz by the braid. The lamp falls; the light rolls down the tunnel. Everyone is screaming, and I can’t tell what the old woman is trying to do with the knife. In the flickering cave, time has slowed, and I’ve left my body. I watch myself tugging at the old woman, trying to get her off of Luz. My feet slip, and I fall sideways. Like in some horrible flipbook, between flashes of light, the old woman falls backward. Her head smashes against the cement wall, and she crashes to the ground. The twin thuds echo throughout the corridor.
This must be a bad dream. Luz’s face is pale and still as the moon. The distant dripping grows louder, pounding like blood behind my ears. A beam of light — Luz raising her cell — falls over the woman. Her body is in a heap, her limbs at odd, sickening angles. Her jaw is slack and her eyes are as wide and blank as eggs.
It’s a horrible nightmare. I’ll wake soon.
Someone pulls at me, drags me backward, away from the woman on the ground. She’s not moving. I stumble, and Luz steadies me. In the dim light, I see her lips move, but I don’t understand.
Outside, the day is still bright. I squint at the sun and dig my nails into my palm until four crescent indentations appear. It wasn’t a dream. The air is hot and oppressive. I stare at my phone, still hoping to wake up. Trembling, I press the home key.
“Who are you calling, Isa?” Luz has turned gray, chunks of hair loop out from her braid. I’ve known her all my life, and I’ve never seen her like this, scared and uncertain.
Luz shakes her head and takes the phone. “We’re going to make believe this never happened.”
“But that woman — ”
“She’s dead. We can’t help her. No one can.”
“We can’t just leave her.”
“Someone else will find her. Come on, we need to get cleaned up before we get Amaya.”
“Luz! We have to call the police.”
Her fingernails sink into the flesh of my upper arms. “Think Isabel. Two brown girls cut school to do drugs and trespass in the tunnels. An old lady is dead. You know what’ll happen.”
“It was an accident! I didn’t mean for her to fall. She was attacking you.”
Luz wipes her face with the back of her hand. Silent tears stream down her skin. “You were gonna go to college. A university. And now …”
“It’ll be fine. It was an accident.” An accident, those words are reassuring. I reach for my phone.
Luz shakes her head. “You go pick up your little sister. I’ll make the call. If anyone asks, you went home and watched TV. You don’t know anything about this.”
“No. I won’t let you do that.”
“I’m not gonna let you fuck up your life.”
“Are you sure she’s dead?”
“She looked exactly like my Nana after the heart attack.”
“Okay.” As I whisper the word, I know it is the most important one I’ve ever said. With two syllables I’ve made a decision I can never change or turn away from.
At home, Luz brushes her hair. A chunk is missing, hacked off by the old woman’s blade. Braiding the fraying strands into intricate twists, Luz is silent. Bile rises in my throat when I think of the woman’s gnarled hand entwined in those black tresses. I wash my face and scrub my hands until my palms are raw.
Luz gives me a glass of water and tells me to drink. The tumbler slips from my fingers and shatters on the tile. I don’t move. I can only watch as Luz picks up the shards, sops up the puddle with a towel and hands me a new cup — a pink plastic princess one belonging to Amaya. I hold it to my lips and gulp. The woman is dead. I killed her. This is real. I’m a killer.
I don’t know where the princess cup is. My face is wet against Luz’s chest. I can’t stop crying. She’s singing a lullaby, one of Nana’s old standbys.
Luz gives me a Xanax. I wash my face again, and we walk to the elementary school to pick up Amaya, who asks if something’s wrong. Luz tells her I got my period and buys her a rocket pop from an ice cream truck that’s parked across from the school. Amaya doesn’t ask any more questions but sneaks glances at me. I wonder if I wear the old woman’s death around me like a dark halo.
Before she departs, Luz pulls me in close and whispers, “You’re getting out. You can leave what happened here. Leave everything here. Start over. You can do that.”
I listen to the same playlist over and over again at max volume. The earbuds are slick with sweat, but I lie on my bed, trying to drown out all thought. It’s late when Amaya appears at my door. Her hair is in a wild mane of sleep-tossed curls. Her eyes are like planets, and she is shaking. I motion for her to join me. She runs across the room, her bare feet hardly touching the floor. She leaps into bed with me. I hold her close; her heart beats rabbit fast.
“She’s working. What’s wrong?”
“La Llorona is outside my window.”
“That’s just a story to scare kids.”
Amaya tosses her head and burrows in under my arm. “Listen,” she whispers.
I pull out the earbuds and hear only traffic and cicadas. “There’s nothing.”
Amaya’s fingers fly over my mouth. Behind the chirping and the roar of cars, there is something. A long warbling wail comes from the direction of the wash, from the tunnels. I clutch Amaya to me and put one earbud in her ear and the other in mine. I press play. I’ve already decided to live with what I did.
There’s no turning back.
The 2017 Luminaire Award for Best Prose
FIRST PLACE WINNER
We are pleased to announce the first place winner for the 2017 Luminaire Award for Best Prose, honoring the independent press’ best short stories and hybrid prose works of the year. The winner is selected by an external panel that judges all pieces blindly and chooses the full list of finalists. Alternating Current does not determine the final outcome for the judging; the external judges’ decisions are final. The first place winner receives a printed certificate, an honorarium, publication on Alternating Current’s award page, publication on The Coil, printed publication in our triennial awards anthology, two complimentary copies of the journal, and our virtual medallion created by the lovely folks at Hardly Square, for personal and professional use on the author’s websites, blogs, and book covers.