Our Little Secret
Delicate firelight flickered off the walls of the temple. It only seemed to serve to cast the entire place into deeper shadows, darkness draping over the eye sockets and hanging from the cheekbones from everyone gathered in a circle around the table. Not even the thick liquid in the bowls set before them caught more than just a little shine. The lone window, nearly crossing the line from roof to wall in the west had been shuttered once the sun had crossed it, instantly concealing the subtle, intricate, artful carvings that lined the walls.
Alejandra’s muffled voice barely wormed its way through the series of thick, well-built walls, and the responses of the large gathering of Angelitas and Angelitos outside were hardly any louder. From what Carmen could hear, it seemed like Alejandra was stirring them up and settling them down as if she were some kind of master of tides. After a while there was the yowling and snarling and snapping of an ocelot—the initial sacrifice was about to begin.
Linda shifted a little on her cushion. “Ms. Cruz, Ms. Saavedra, Mr. Gorman: if you are unclear on my instructions, this is the last time to ask for clarification.”
Drink the stuff, grab the sharp thing, go off into a room, close the door, spill some blood into the bowl, burn up each of the papers with the candle. Bandage up when finished. Pretty simple.
After a moment of silence, Lance spoke. “What’s this stuff made of?”
“Slightly more than trace amounts of acetylsalicylic acid, mixed with banisteriospsis caapi paste, and stirred into distilled agave utahensis extract and a very dilute grain beer.”
“The agave helps make the chalkiness a little more tolerable,” Kahele added, nodding. “Less like Pepto Bismol and more like a slightly gritty smoothie. Pretty tasty, actually.”
Carmen could almost feel the look of puzzlement on Lance’s face. “Oh.” A pause. “Any… um… side effects?”
“No,” stated Linda. “Any effects you experience are part of its intended purpose. However, your psychadelic experience will be purely subjective and so I can make no guarantee of pleasantness or unpleasantness. My recommendation should you encounter what is colloquially known as a ‘bad trip’ is to breathe deeply and evenly and remind yourself that your senses are dependent on the way your brain processes input and are therefore often times unreliable methods of interacting with the world, which exists outside your personal experiences. And then, once you have distanced yourself enough from your hallucinations, attempt to interpret the symbols of the expressions of your subconscious. It can be quite an illuminating experience.”
Now Carmen could almost feel Lance’s confusion seeping into herself. Not that she couldn’t follow Linda… she just couldn’t translate fast enough.
“Oh. Um. Cool. Thanks.”
“Any further questions?”
Another pause. “What’s atecyl… the acid stuff?”
An exasperated scoff came up from the smallest shadowed form around the table. “Acetylsalicylic acid. It’s aspirin, lôlô.”
That caught Carmen by surprise. She had to stifle her bark of laughter with a hand. In apology, she covertly squeezed Lance’s knee with her free hand.
Linda sent a sharp look to Eloisa. “Ms. Cruz, ignorance is something to be amended promptly and magnanimously, which means you need to refrain from using insults.”
“Besides,” Kahele added, “this is a holy place, Eloisa. You don’t want to dirty the air here with that kind of language.”
Eloisa’s silhouette shifted a little as she dropped her gaze.
“Sorry, Tlilocelotlpilli,” Eloisa mumbled. “Sorry, Mr. Gorman.” She paused before adding, grudgingly, “I don’t really think you’re lôlô. Just kinda slow sometimes.”
Waning evening light spilled into the room along with a rush of air, snuffing out the candle. Alejandra filled the doorway, the shine of the sun in her hair and on her skin. Thick blood was smeared over her mouth, and dripped from her hands. Her chest had been opened and her heart bared, flames licking over it continually but leaving it pumping unscathed. Her eyes glowed a deep golden color, darkening to light brown as they met the pupil. They looked almost feline in the brief moment of light before the door closed.
Silence slammed on them, sending a shiver up Carmen’s spine. For a moment there was only the sound of crackling and the light pap, pap, pap of dripping blood drawing closer—the only visible things in the room being the two golden pinpoint glows and the fire-swathed heart, moving to the head of the table.
“Drink,” said Alejandra, her voice echoing through the temple.
She didn’t need to ask twice.
The concoction burned down Carmen’s throat as she threw it back—burned worse than Moe’s vodka. Just how strong was this “dilute grain beer” supposed to be anyway? Her eyes watered and she just barely swallowed her rising coughing fit.
“Tliloceltolpilli descends the steps of Acopa as I speak. He will be ready to approach very soon. Burn your blood, offer your aid to his journey.”
Quickly Carmen pushed aside the thought and took up the gift her mother had given her. She rose and stepped away from the table, heading towards the closest tribute room.
It was little more than a closet, really. Close, tight, windowless, and very dark. Again, only a single candle was aflame, at a small table, the wan light playing off the copper-colored bowl. Carmen knelt on the cushion beside the table and leaned over the bowl. Carefully she pressed Nelli’s point on her earlobe—just above the holes made for her piercings—which folded under the pressure a little between her fingers.
Her stomach felt like it was beginning to sear now, unpleasant, hot, and dry, worse than the sour burn of indigestion. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and let it out.
A sharp pinch blazed briefly through her ear. After she withdrew the knife and steadily placed it beside the bowl, warm, thick liquid crawled down her fingers. She reached up with her now-free hand and squeezed, listening to the plap, plap, plap of blood on the paper, with the slight metallic undertone of the bowl beneath it. It wasn’t long before she lost count of the number of drops and began to count her breaths.
Heat steadily bloomed up the back of her neck to her cheeks, feeling almost like it was catching aflame as it touched her ear. The dripping slowed.
She turned her head the other way, taking up Nelli once more. A second, sharper pinch, performed by somewhat less steady fingers, followed. Again she squeezed and listened to the rhythm of the dripping of blood, keeping time with the searing throb of her other ear and the painfully loud pounding of her heartbeat.
Heat steadily bloomed from her heart outwards, quickening its beat and lightening her head. Each breath came with an effort now, a singular concentration to ensure that her head didn’t lift from her shoulders entirely and send her toppling backwards onto the floor. She could almost hear herself collapsing—so loud that she almost believed she’d been overcome. But it couldn’t have happened—the candle was still before her, and the bowl, and the paper.
Instead, she took a deep breath, pinched a piece of paper between bloody thumb and forefinger, and held it over the candle. A tongue of flame hungrily lapped at the trembling paper, sending smoke that was somehow blacker than the close darkness of the closet-sized room drifting to the ceiling. In four breaths it was gone, and a fifth breath found another piece of paper between her fingers.
A light wind of a passing shape brushed her back.
Another paper burned. It took seven breaths this time.
A gaze burned through her skull.
Another paper burned. Thirteen breaths, quick, sharp, irregular… stifled, more than anything else, as if the room was filled with thick, coppery-smelling smoke.
A hot, tickling breath on her ear. Or was it… whiskers?
Another paper burned.
A purr of a voice, low and predatory. The flame swam in her view and darkness edged around its light. She could see nothing but for the bowl and the candle and her own hands.
She obliged, burning another piece of paper.
Another piece of paper, slowly eaten by fire.
Yes. I see it now.
It was as if her fingers were moving of their own accord. She could feel trickles of blood down her neck.
Carefully hidden away, behind layer after layer.
Her shawl lifted from her skin and fell away. It was as if the blood trails were someone’s fingers, brushing over her jugular, to her collarbones, and down… and the paper burned away. She wasted no time getting another.
Your lover doesn’t even know, does he?
She could feel the knots at her back being undone, her top falling away as the flame disappeared with its fuel. The candlelight brightened and her vision blurred and split, and before her were two flames like staring eyes. Still, her fingers dutifully lifted another sheet of blood.
Another paper burned; and then her skirt drew away, seemingly of its own accord. The burning began to crawl up her throat, as if she’d held it before her over the candle between thumb and forefinger instead of the paper. She closed her eyes and swallowed it down. It seemed to ease.
It’ll be our little secret.
The hot breath dropped to her navel. A rough, broad, flat, catlike tongue ran up to her collarbone, tracing the blood trail back up her neck, to her ear. Hungry, more than anything else.
Won’t it… mi querida?
Her eyes snapped open.
Here again: by the lake, the soft silt shifting pleasantly under her flesh, gathering in her sweat. Quickening breaths stole away the counsel she was trying to give. Just moments ago Lance had nervously admitted he’d never done this before. The man was 20, he’d been a star on his varsity football team before the world ended, and, if that weren’t enough, he was a good guy with a great face and a killer body! But she wasn’t surprised—well, she was, but that quickly gave way—so much as she was… disgusted. Not with him. No, she envied him. It… almost hurt how much she envied him. What the fuck was that about?
The memory crumbled to ash. She took up another.
Here again: the back seat of Ronaldo’s tricked-out Pontiac, the one with the tinted windows. The hot leather seats stuck to and pulled at her skin with each motion. He’d been a junior in college—she was approaching the end of senior year in high school. She broke it off after she found out he was dealing hard shit. Pendejo.
The memory crumbled to ash. She took up another.
Here again: behind the mobile classrooms, where not even the stoners went to smoke, against a rusty chain link fence that tap-tap-tapped against the rotting wooden fence behind it. A couple weeks before she’d met Ronaldo. Zach was on the swim team. They ended up missing half of fifth period. They’d broken up for the sixth and final time three days later, after the chem teacher had called Dad to report her tardy.
The memory crumbled to ash. Her lungs burned, and then she remembered to breathe. She took up another.
Here again: in a close-confined, pristine dressing room, trying their hardest to keep quiet, trying their hardest to make the other let out some kind of noise. Pressed against the hard wall, feet lifted off the ground. Ilya this time, a foreign exchange student, in the U.S. until Winter Break. Not long before Zach. They’d cracked the mirror, and then they were caught and banned from the entire mall. Dad had given her a big lecture about property damage and how Ilya was a bad influence on her. And then the next night… the next night he’d called her mi querida.
She swallowed again. The memory crumbled to ash. She took up another.
Here again: in the shadows under the bridge, with rocks digging into her skin. The graffiti swam in her vision, providing a kind of colorful, comfortable distance. It was some college kid who’d bought booze for her and her friends. They were both drunk; she’d felt as if she were underwater the whole time. It was nice at the time, but all she could feel through her hangover the next day was emptiness. Shit—she didn’t even know his name, and that… that mattered for some reason.
The memory crumbled to ash. Despite the vise around her chest stealing away her breath, despite the roiling within her stomach, despite the feeling of fire all over her skin, she took up another.
Here again, and again, and again. Boy after boy, layer after layer, paper after paper. All immolated. Each slowly revealing the same thing. Submerged so deep it was almost forgotten.
Cold trails like tears dripped down her neck; hot trails like blood ran down her cheeks.
One last paper.
It was like she’d sank deep down into the ocean, where the pressure pushed out all but the smallest breath, blocked out all but the closest light, weighed down her last little every movement. But it also dulled the throbbing in her ears, muffled her driving, pounding heartbeat, held her in suspension. She could stay forever, deep down where no one could find her. All she needed to do was not burn that last paper. Otherwise, if she did, it would all steam away, putting her alone at the bottom of an ocean bed, to be exposed and drowning and dried up by the sun.
No. She had to come back. This was about family, and the Fifth World.
Her fingers slowly, painfully closed around the last sacrifice. She pushed through, across a vast, aching abyss, toward the wan candlelight. Her hand shook violently with the effort but soon, the paper caught flame.
Here again: in her room, surrounded by her stuffed animals. She’d just finished turning them around. Their eyes seemed to burn into her now, like little hot candle flames. She couldn’t focus on her homework because of it, and she had lots of homework to do.
Maybe she should just donate them. There was that drive going on at Dad’s work, and some other kids probably needed them way more than she ever did. Besides, she was becoming a woman: just a couple weeks ago she and Mamá had bought some training bras, and she’d gone to an actual jewelry store—instead of one of those basic-ass “juniors” places—to look at earrings, and it was t-minus 13 days until she could tell people that she was headed to junior high now.
There was a knock at her door. “Carmen, sweetheart…”
Dad. He was saying things normal again, instead of in the weird voice he used that one night. Kinda like a low murmur, like he talked to Mamá sometimes.
“I’m coming in.”
Carmen couldn’t even find her breath to respond.
He opened the door. Her heart jumped. She didn’t know why—he’d warned her and shit, and gave her time to clean up or whatever, and she didn’t need to do any of that anyway, so what was the big deal?
Dad filled the whole doorway, tall-ways and broad-ways. He was still in his work shirt, but his tie was undone and his sleeves were rolled most of the way up his corded forearms. In a hand was a palm-sized, velvet-lined box.
“Happy late birthday.”
Carmen turned away from her desk, took it, and opened it. Inside were the really pretty dangly earrings she’d wanted so bad when Mamá’d taken her shopping. Of course, she’d picked the gold hoops, ‘cause they weren’t 375 freakin’ dollars. But Mamá had caught her look—Mamá was really good at that—and told her that if she saved up money for half of that, she’d cover the other half. Carmen had saved up $68 so far.
“A little bird told mentioned that you were eyeballing these,” he said. “I saw them and thought they were very befitting a young woman such as yourself.”
Here she was, holding the earrings she’d wanted so bad in her hands. They were hers now, to wear whenever she wanted, to show off to her friends. “This is—dios mio, Dad. Thanks, like, a lot.”
“Hey, you only turn eleven once, yeah?” he said. “Turn around, let’s see how they look on you.”
She did, facing the mirror on her desk, and the Madre Maria candle she’d lit when she got home. Dad carefully took off the gold hoops and set them next to her laptop, then took up the velvet box.
“I also wanted to talk to you about the other night.”
Suddenly she could feel her heart, pounding on her ribs. A feeling like steam billowed in her skull. Carmen shifted in her seat, crossing her legs, and lowered her chin to her chest, her eyes on the laptop’s keyboard.
He continued. “What I did—I wanted to say I’m sorry. Very, very sorry. It won’t happen again.” Dad’s voice was steady, straight, low, and serious. He… he meant it. Carmen wasn’t sure she felt better, though. It was… scarier somehow. “Did you mention it to anyone?”
That question caught her throat for some reason. Carmen shook her head.
“Alright.” He let out a breath and took out an earring from the box. “Alright. I’m gonna ask you not to tell anyone, okay? Not even Mamá.” He carefully put the earrings in her ears, fingers brushing softly against her ears, and her neck. “It was a one-time thing, a mistake. If it got out—” He paused, suspended. “Well. Long story short, it’d be rough not just for the town, but for the people in it. Us included. It’s not worth anyone else knowing.” His hands rested on her shoulders, fingertips light on her skin. The hair on her neck rose. “Our little secret, okay?”
Silence pressed at them. Again Carmen could feel the eyes of her stuffed animals burning into her.
“Okay,” she said, almost at a whisper.
“Thanks.” He brushed her hair back. “Hey, look at you!”
She did. The earrings were hanging from her ears, the yellow candlelight glittering from the teardrop diamonds. They were pretty, and she looked pretty wearing them. Like a woman.
“You have good taste, mi querida.” He bent over and kissed her on the cheek, as if to seal the new nickname. It felt… really weird, kinda in the gringo way, and kinda… something else. His five o’ clock shadow brushed at her. “Alright, dinner should be ready in an hour or so. Finish up your homework.”
She did. But first she had to get her stuffed animals ready for donation.
The memory crumbled to ash.
Finally, she was able to let her hand drop, to rest on the table. Her breath was coming in little gasps now, straining at the water the air had seemed to become. The rest of her would soon follow her arm, as she slouched over the empty bowl. The dual candle flames flickered before her, golden, staring.
“Here… here I am… Tlilocelotlpilli,” she wheezed. “It’s all… been burned away… as you asked.” Her head sank, her shoulders heaving, breath bubbling in her chest and throat. “Please accept this… this filth… as sacrifice. Please… take it away from me…”
Soft, low, purring laughter filled all things, pressing in at all edges like the crushing ocean depths.
I am not your mother. You have already paid your tribute to me. The rest of it is yours to deal with, Ichtacahuazinatl.
Her labored heart and breath stopped, all at once.
Slowly, the flames began to meld back to one. The oppressive darkness began to lift.
“NO!” Her voice ripped hoarse through whatever it was that had stuck in her throat. “I DON’T WANT IT!” The darkness continued to withdraw, little by little, her strength returning to her, as if she were rising to the surface. She straightened suddenly, panic tightening its fist around her. “¡YOU CAN’T JUST LEAVE LIKE THIS!” She took a deep breath of hot, thick, coppery air in and jumped up, seizing the empty bowl and throwing it across the room. “¡GET YOUR ASS BACK IN HERE, YOU FUCKING ASSHOLE!”
Vertigo seized her then, quick and overwhelming. Something hard hit her. She tried to move, but it hardly worked. She barely knew where to start. It was dark still, even if Tlilocelotlpilli was gone, impossible to see anything, and yet somehow it felt like the world was spinning.
A blast of cool, fresh wind hit her. It was as if she’d finally surfaced.
An irregular, limping set of steps thudded to her. She looked up.