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I process undeliverable mail for the USPS. Here's another dead letter that creeped me out
I work for the U.S. postal service. I process undeliverable mail, including dead letters. I’ve seen a lot of really weird dead letters these past few weeks. Even though these letters are all written to different people, they have two things in common: they all look burned, none of them have return addresses, and the mailing addresses are scratched out. Every morning when I come into work, I find a new one on my desk.
I absolutely should not be sharing these, but they’re starting to keep me awake at night. I’m the kind of person who deals with feeling upset by making everyone else upset, so here we are.
Anyway, here’s one of the letters I got last week:
It’s true I met your so-called angel, but I am afraid you will not like what I know.
When my mother died, we buried her at the bottom of a hill outside the city. We chose the hill because it muffled the city’s endless gunfire and the screams that always came after, slicing through the air like the cries of strange, tortured birds. I still dream of those screams: fierce wails equal parts terrified and tired. In my dreams, the screams do not come from people, but from monsters; half-hidden silhouettes I almost recognize, faceless hunters that prowl misty wastelands in pursuit of people who got away.
People like me.
My mother wouldn’t have hunted anyone. She was too good. She loved Christmas and Halloween and birthdays. Even though she was dead, it felt wrong to leave her out of the holidays. So my brothers and I made sure to include her. We put bouquets on her grave for her birthday, paper ghosts and orange garland at both Halloweens (the October one and the one after Pentecost) and tinsel and a little tree for Christmas.
It was pointless. But what was the alternative? Leaving our mother alone and abandoned, forgotten by the people she loved most? No.
The city was always dangerous in those days. Even the quietness carried a helpless, leaden panic – the kind of panic you might feel watching a lit match tumble toward a puddle of gasoline. You can’t stop the match from falling, you can’t possibly catch the match, and you don’t have time to run away. All you can do is pray the flame dies before it hits the ground.
But dangerous or not, I looked out the window each day. If everything looked quiet, I went outside with my brothers. Together we hurried through the city: past bombed-out storefronts, sidestepping the scorched craters left by car bombs, across streets littered with broken glass, past the blackened ruins of buildings through which winds moaned, until we reached the grassy cemetery by the hill. Then we would go to our mother’s grave and sit. Sometimes we had a picnic. Sometimes we talked to her as though she still lived. Sometimes we napped there. Those naps were deep and peaceful. Even in death, my mother made me feel safe enough to rest.
I could have lived that way forever. Only nothing lasts forever.
My father’s aunt married an American long ago. Her American husband had died recently – a stroke, according to my father – and she couldn’t live alone because she was frail and getting on in years.
I knew all of this, but I didn’t care. It was an abstraction, a thing that had no bearing on my life. But abstractions have an unsettling habit of affecting reality, and this was no exception.
“She has a big house,” my father told us. “And a swimming pool, and two dogs.”
I’d had two dogs. But my dogs ran away one night during a riot. I went out and tried to find them, heedless of the gunfire and explosions. I’d barely made it to the next street when a soldier caught me and slammed me down on the concrete before I could even comprehend what had happened. He pressed his gun to my stomach. I started to cry.
“Are you afraid?” the soldier asked.
I nodded helplessly, hating myself for crying, for being too useless to protect my dogs, too useless to protect my mother.
“Good,” said the soldier. “When you’re afraid, you listen.” Flames erupted across the street, reflecting off his teeth. “Are you listening?”
I nodded again.
“Get,” he hissed, “away from here.”
I got up and bolted.
I never found my dogs. I still cried for them. I wanted them back, not a pair of useless American shit hounds, and I wanted my mother, not an elderly aunt I’d never met. But that is not the way the world goes. Nothing changes for the better. It only changes.
“We will be safe with her,” my father said, looking at me as he spoke.
I looked back, frozen. The fault lines in my heart were breaking, releasing the colossal things hidden under the surface: winds that howled through bombed-out buildings, gunfire, explosions, landmines that shredded my friends into wet confetti, soldiers who chased my mother and me through misty streets, fierce screams that got inside me and never got out.
One moment I was standing in the living room, hating my father as I broke apart. Then I was outside, breathing cold air and the fine grey ash that hung over everything like fog. I ran, praying that the match in my mind’s eye would finally hit the gasoline and kill me, immolate me, render me into yet more ash that would drift away on the wind.
When I reached the cemetery, I flung myself on my mother’s grave and screamed. Don’t let us go away. Don’t let me leave you. Make us stay, please make us stay.
She would be alone now. Alone on Christmas and Halloween, on Sundays in summer and crisp afternoons in autumn, on snowy nights and rainy mornings and everything in between. There would be no one to hang garlands. She would be abandoned by her family. Abandoned by me, the useless child she’d died to protect. Forgotten and lost, like every other corpse in this ruined city. Surely that would be enough to stir her ghost, to make her rise up and keep us from leaving. Keep us with her. Keep us where we belonged.
Before I knew it we were in America, wandering my aunt’s dilapidated Victorian house like displaced ghosts. But then, that is exactly what we were: displaced and hollow, for some reason breathing even though we were dead.
My aunt insisted we speak English. She had many other rules, most of them arbitrary and unkind. She is only lashing out, I decided. She misses her husband, and we are strangers. She is grieving and angry, just like us.
But she wouldn’t stop insulting us. So one night I screamed at her, “I am sorry your husband had a stroke, but that does not mean you can be so cruel!”
“A stroke?” she screamed, then laughed. “He blew his brains out! He fought in the war, and the war got inside him and ate him until there was nothing left. So to get away from the war once and for all, do you know what he did? He put a big gun in his mouth. I found him there.” She pointed to the wall, where there was a pale, poorly patched hole. “It took away most of his head. There wasn’t much left.” She pinched her lower lip and pulled it down. “Only his teeth, and they stuck out just like this.”
A week later, I had my first day of school. It was hell. I barely spoke English, which made people think I was stupid. As a result, the school told my father I was retarded and put me in a classroom with autistic boys, pregnant girls, Somali refugees, and a boy who liked to set things on fire. The teacher alternated between forcing us to sit quietly with our heads on our desks and letting us color pictures of Batman.
Hate is not a word I can use to describe how it felt to be in America. Hate doesn’t even begin to encompass it.
I felt so apart.
A fundamental panic, a primal wound, like a bird dropped into the ocean or a fish thrown into the sky. I wished to go home, to have never left home, to have never had a home, to have never been born at all. To have died with my mother and been buried beside her at the foot of that grassy hill outside Grozny, covered in six feet of the same earth that had grown my food and my people, that had grown me. The earth that generations of my family have lived and died upon. The earth that was, for all its guns and bombs and broken glass, my home.
Home was where I belonged, where I was. In America, I simply was not. Emptiness spun into physical form, a nothing forced to wander a world made for something. My only comfort was that one day, when I was grown and the war was done, I could return home and sit at my mother’s grave again. I would bring paper ghosts and Christmas trees. I would nap there each day to be as close to her as I could without being dead myself.
I might as well have been dead, though. I couldn’t do school or make any friends. I did not know how to speak to my classmates. I had experienced horrors they could never imagine, but in turn they had experienced hells I couldn’t begin to fathom. Children whose parents starved them. Beatings that caused brain damage and amputations. There was even a boy who came home one day to find his murdered mother’s head in the kitchen sink.
The Somalis had the worst of it. The oldest girl pulled me aside one day and described, in detail, how she’d watched soldiers line up all the men on her street, including her teenage brother, and shoot them. Then the soldiers left the corpses, brains and all, to rot in the sun. Anyone who tried to bury the dead was shot, too.
“Why do you tell me this?” I asked.
“Because,” she answered, “I can’t make you care about what happened to us, but I can make you know. Now you know what happened. Now you know they’re still killing us.”
I looked at her, startled. None of you care. None of you. She thought I was like the Americans. But I wasn’t like them. I was like her. “I’m sorry someone is killing you,” I said clumsily.
“Someone is always killing us,” she said. “Because no one cares.”
“I care,” I told her.
“Have you ever seen ants carry pieces of your brother’s brain?”
“Then you will never care enough.” She smiled. “But now you know. Even though you don’t want to.”
It’s a hideous thing to admit, but she was right: I didn’t want to know.
School did not improve for me, so I stopped going. No one cared. It was the inner city in the 1990s, and I was just a stupid foreigner who couldn’t stay in the lines when I colored my Batman pictures.
Ironically, downtown—with its urban rot, gunshots, and some fire or other around every corner—didn’t look so different from Grozny. I often wondered why we’d come halfway across the world just to live in another ruined place.
Perhaps because it felt familiar, I gravitated to the most broken parts of my new city. I spent my days in abandoned houses, unlit parking structures with dripping ceilings, and derelict apartment buildings. In one apartment, I saw junkies splayed across a filthy mattress, needles jutting from their arms. Afternoon sunlight shafted through a barred window, striping their bodies with ribbons of fire. There was something breathtaking and perversely beautiful about it, like a masterpiece painted in Hell.
In another unit in the same building, I met my first friend. Her name was Cherise. She was a prostitute. She was open about it, cheerfully so. I didn’t even know what prostitute meant, and didn’t care when I figured it out. If anything, it made me feel close to her. No one wanted to look at prostitutes, much less know them. No more than they wanted to see or know me.
But I wanted to know Cherise. She played the guitar, and her favorite color was yellow. She made beautiful paintings of children, chickens, sunflowers, and monsters. On one of her walls she had painted a tall monstrosity with red hair, yellow eyes, and a mouth out of a nightmare. Even though it gave me bad dreams, I loved it.
Cherise once had a son named Robert. He disappeared. Though he was only eight years old, the police told her he was a runaway, and the department didn’t waste resources on runaways. The injustice cut her, she told me. Cut her so deep, she never stopped bleeding.
Cherise dreamed of Robert most nights, and of the home they’d shared with her sister. The house had rose bushes and a big tree with the greenest, shiniest leaves in the world. Robert loved to climb the tree. She used to be afraid that he’d fall and break his neck. Sometimes, she wished he had. Then at least she’d have known it was a quick death, not the nightmare possibilities that haunted her.
I told her things I never told anyone: about the soldiers who chased a dozen women and children through the misty streets, of the gunfire and the laughter whenever one of us screamed. How my mother finally shoved me ahead into the fog, then turned to surrender herself while I ran on.
In return, Cherise told me all about Robert. I hung on her every word, hour after hour, day after day. At some point I realized that I probably knew more about Robert than anyone on earth, except Cherise herself. That was sad. Too sad to think about. Too sad to know.
One morning, Cherise told me, “You’ll have justice for your mother someday.”
“You had no justice for Robert.”
She gave me a terrible smile. “I did.”
Fear and curiosity overtook me. Had someone killed the man who did it? Had she killed him herself? “How? You say the police did not help.”
Now I was sure that Cherise had killed the murderer. “Then how?”
“You’ll think I’m crazy,” she said. “But that’s okay. There’s an angel out here.” She pointed to the painting on her wall. “An ugly one. A bad one that likes to eat.”
I looked at the painting’s nightmare mouth and fought off a shudder.
“But an angel all the same,” Cherise continued. “He has the reddest hair, and he protects us when he can. He couldn’t protect Robert, but he got the man who...” Her lip quivered, then she smiled. “He made sure I knew the man was dead. I haven’t seen him since. But I know he’s still out there.”
I looked at the painting, deeply troubled, as my curiosity abruptly died. I wished I hadn’t asked. I wished I didn’t know.
I visited Cherise every morning until one day she wasn’t there anymore. I wasn’t surprised. Nothing lasts forever, not even friendship.
That night, I dreamed of Grozny. Of explosions and high, fierce screams, of monsters prowling a grey wasteland swirling with ash and mist. Wind howled, moaning through the scorched skeletons of distant skyscrapers. I tried to hide from the screaming hunters, but there was nowhere to go. They came closer and closer, screaming to me: Come back. Come back.
I avoided apartments and people after that, instead spending my time in abandoned office buildings and decaying homes. I found a house I especially liked, with broken cars and lights that still worked.
All the doors in the house were gone except one. It was locked, of course. With nothing else to occupy me, I focused on breaking the lock. It took an hour, but I managed. The door opened to a flight of stairs. At the top of the stairs was another door. It wouldn’t budge and had no knob, so I peered through the hole. I saw a room with dirty windows, dusty furniture, and garbage.
I braced my shoulder and pushed with everything I had until I heard a muffled crack. The door slid forward an inch. I worked it loose from there, pushing against the massive weight until I made an opening just large enough to squeeze through.
The room was hot, stuffy, and coated in a layer of dust so thick that for an unsettling second I thought it was ash.
The door had been blocked with a wall of trash and deconstructed furniture. Looking at it made my skin crawl. There was something so meticulous about it, a broken logic to the puzzle. For the first time, I was aware that I was trespassing in a place that wasn’t mine.
In the corner, silhouetted against the hazy afternoon light, something moved.
“Sorry,” I said, and I backed away.
It stood up with a weird, boneless movement. My heart seized. I felt lightheaded and lost, on the verge of panic. Like I was trapped in one of my nightmares, cornered by a mist-shrouded screamer. Or watching a match tumble toward a puddle of gasoline.
A sheet of copper covered the its shoulders, shining brilliantly in the sun. Hair, I realized. Hair so long it fell nearly to the floor. I had just enough time to see that the creature was bony and deformed before it lunged at me. Then with a metallic crack, its head snapped back. A chain. It was chained.
“You need help?” I asked.
Suddenly I froze. What the hell was I doing? How stupid could I possibly be? This poor, starving thing was chained up in an abandoned house. I needed to run before whoever had trapped it came for me.
It spoke in a language I didn’t understand: liquid and atonal, like wind through ruined buildings. I heard panic in the syllables, and a plea.
I took a careful step toward it. “You are okay. I am safe.”
It retreated from my approach, sliding into the corner. The chain snaked behind it, clinking on the floor.
“You are okay,” I repeated.
It was shaking. There was something wrong with its skin, a disease or rash: papery and oddly flakey, marred with eruptions of blisters. Craters peppered its body, which was itself a mass of pearly scar tissue that glimmered in the sunlight.
“It’s okay,” I said. I reached out, skating the barest edge of my fingertips along its hands as though I were touching fire. The creature exploded, screaming. I screamed, too. Its face, its awful, inhuman face—
I covered my ears and stumbled back, fixated on its face: Rotten and wet, ivory bone peeking through strings of jellied flesh, and eyeless, with a mouth that opened and opened and opened, filled with teeth I could never have imagined. Translucent needles, once milky perhaps but yellowed now, stained and broken.
It did not stop screaming, and neither did I. It could not run from me. But I could run from it, so I tore out of the house and into the dying light.
Only when I was almost home did I realize that I might have met Cherise’s red-haired angel, or at least what remained of it. The thought was not particularly surprising, but it was depressing. How sad that a great avenger, an angel of retribution, had been reduced to a rotting bag of bones. Just another living ghost.
When I got home, I found my brothers in tears.
Fearing that something had happened to our father, I asked, “What’s wrong?”
“We got a letter. Mama’s grave,” they wept. “It’s gone.”
I felt the blood drain from my face, my heart, my very body. Had I looked down I would not have been surprised to see myself standing in a pool of my own blood.
Soldiers had shelled the cemetery to hell, then bulldozed what was left – the dirt and coffin splinters and body parts and ashes – into a mass grave. Our mother was among them, her hill surely bombed into oblivion. It was gone and I could never go back, never lay garland or gifts or Christmas trees on her grave. I could never be buried beside her. I could never be with her again.
I shoved my brothers aside, screaming, and ran to the top of the stairs, where I screamed again. My aunt poked her head out of her room. I screamed at her until my throat burned and my chest felt collapsed.
“Don’t stop screaming,” my aunt told me. “You have to let the war out.”
Then she closed her door, but not before I saw tears shining on her cheeks.
I could not think. I could not speak. I thrashed and wailed like a lunatic, like the monsters in the mists of my dreams, the screaming hunters who chased me through a dead and endless twilight. Perhaps my mother was among them now. No; my mother was no monster. But that was no comfort, because it meant she was gone, obliviated, vaporized to so much ash.
That night I dreamed of the screamers hiding in the swirling mist. But they were not alone. Among the ash and fog was fire: a bright sheet of copper framing a mouth that opened, and opened, and opened.
I woke in a cold sweat before dawn. Without thinking, I threw on my coat and tiptoed through my aunt’s rotting mansion. My father was sprawled on the living room floor, enveloped in a cloud of alcohol fumes. The sight enraged me. A scream tore its way up my throat, but I swallowed it and threw a blanket over him.
Then I crept out into the cold dark morning.
I found the angel’s house as the sun rose. I marched inside, slamming the front door savagely. Let the broken angel hear. Let it be afraid. Let it piss itself in fear. Let God strike me down for hurting it. I didn’t care. There was not enough left of me to care.
I found the ugly, blistered thing huddling in the corner of its stuffy room, shaking like a sick dog.
“What are you afraid of?” I screamed.
It shrank away, chain clinking.
“Me? Are you afraid of me?”
It uttered a soft cry.
“Good,” I snarled. “When you’re afraid, you listen.”
The angel listened as I told it everything.
I told it about my mother, how she loved Christmas and birthdays and Halloween, how she was the most perfect person in the world and how, like all perfect people, she had to die – hunted down by the soldiers who were supposed to protect us, shot in the street like a rabid dog. Or a good dog. Good dogs. My dogs, who were brothers, yellow mutts with wiry hair that made you itch, who ran away in a panic when explosions rocked the streets for the ten thousandth time, dogs I couldn’t save. I told the angel about all the friends that were with me one day and gone the next. Of my cousin who was ushered into a tank by soldiers and never came back.
I told it about neighbors who were killed before my eyes, how their corpses were used for target practice by grinning soldiers. Of skinny orphans that picked their way through burning streets, of the teenagers who howled with laughter each night because they would go insane if they didn’t. Of the troops who waited outside our houses to shoot us if we tried to leave. Of what it was like to go outside every morning to see how the world had burned, of the glass-littered streets and the scorched buildings through which wind moaned like the voice of an insane god, of shops with facades torn so cleanly away it was like looking into a giant’s dollhouse.
I told the angel about Cherise and her son Robert who liked to play in a tree that grew the shiniest, greenest leaves in the world. I spoke of my aunt and the husband who had blown his brains out because the war got inside him and wouldn’t get out. Of the children at school – the children whose parents starved them, the boy who found his mother’s head in the kitchen sink, the girl whose brother’s brain got carried away in pieces by ants. Of how I was lucky because my brothers and father were alive, lucky because we’d gotten away. We were free. We were safe. We didn’t have to go back to the misty wasteland and the screaming hunters. We’d escaped to somewhere better. But I didn’t care. I was still angry, angrier than all of them put together even though I was lucky.
The angel wept all the while, quivering and sniveling. I hated it for crying. I hated it for being weak, so I struck it.
Something happened when I touched its skin. A mad whirlwind of images, of knowledge, an overwhelming flood that coursed through me like lightning and threatened to break me apart: a family—children, a woman with coal-black hair, her pale husband—huddled around a fire while snow fell outside and frost crept across the window. I loved them all. I loved them more than I loved anything. But they were already dead. They’d been in the ground a hundred years, and I couldn’t bear it, I couldn’t, I couldn’t –
I tore away, gasping as the bright images flickered and died, leaving nothing but a sniveling, eyeless monster in a decrepit house in a ruined city.
I wiped the tears from my face and left.
I went to the angel’s house many times after that, by turns hurling abuse and sobbing my heart out. The creature never responded. It only cowered in its corner, which made me even angrier. But it felt good to be angry at something for once, instead of just angry.
“Look at you. A monster, an angel, a god, and this is what you do! Hide in an old house and cry!”
I hit it, beat it, kicked it. Touching it was like ingesting a miracle drug. When we touched, I saw things. No – I lived them. And slowly, I came to know the monster.
It wasn’t human, angel, or demon. It was a combination of them all. Once upon a time, it attached itself to a family not so different from mine. They came here to find something better. To get away from a war. Only you can never get away, because the war never leaves you. But families do, and the angel’s family left it, dying one by one until it was all alone. But the angel wasn’t good at being lonely, so it found another family, one that would never leave: a family of the forgotten, the displaced, the broken. A family of people like Cherise, the Somali girl, the boy who found his mother’s head in the sink. A family of people like me. It protected them when it could, punished when it couldn’t, and ate the people it punished whenever it had the chance. The only thing the angel loved more than its family was eating people who hurt them.
The angel was powerful. But it was old, and far away from home. Home was where it got its strength, which over the years withered to nothing. And then one day, the hunter became the hunted. A bad man trapped the angel and chained it, abusing it until it was less than nothing, until it had forgotten its own name…forgotten everything but Cherise.
My friend Cherise.
The angel loved Cherise, and watched over her until the bad man trapped it. The memory of her kept the angel alive through the torture inflicted by its captor until finally, the bad man grew bored and left it to die.
Only angels can’t die.
Then I came. And what did I do? I tortured the angel, too, because I saw it as something worthy of punishment for the crime of weakness. Something immensely powerful and incomprehensibly ancient ruined by a garden-variety sadist. A god brought to bay by a stupid man. I couldn’t understand. If I had ever had the chance to be strong, I would have made sure I stayed strong. I would have saved everyone who deserved to live, and tortured everyone that didn’t until they begged to die. That is how gods are supposed to be. That is what monsters do. What this monster refused to do. So it deserved to be hurt for being so weak and stupid. It deserved punishment. It deserved my anger.
But my anger burnt out, as anger always does, and my own cruelty made me hate myself. Without the novelty of the angel’s existence or the satisfaction I got from hurting it, it was useless to me. So one evening, I found a pair of bolt cutters in my aunt’s cobwebby shed and took them to the angel’s house.
When the angel saw the bolt cutters, it shrieked. The scream pierced my eardrums and tore through my skull. Unbidden, I thought of my aunt and her husband. The war got inside him, and it ate him. The angel’s scream sounded like war. Like something that got inside you and ate its way out.
I grit my teeth, slid the cutter’s teeth around the chain, and squeezed until it gave way with a dull snap. I picked up the chain and rattled it. “See? You can go.”
The angel looked up, wet runny sockets glistening.
“See?” I repeated. “You are free.”
After a long moment, the angel stood, pale body unfolding weirdly, and took a step. Its feet were so twisted and irregular that it walked on its toes. Not for the first time, I wondered what exactly had been done to it. But even though I wondered, I was glad I didn’t know.
It came up to me and leaned down. Up close, its copper hair was almost impossibly fine. The strands shimmered. The angel must have been beautiful once, before the rot and the blisters, before the scars, back when its teeth were white and its eyes were in its head.
Though it had no eyes, it looked at me. I felt it, and knew in my heart that it was seeing me. I looked back at it, caught in a dreamy, terrified delirium, wondering whether it was going to eat me. Its teeth would hurt. A thousand dirty needles, shredding my flesh to slurry.
Then it lurched onward.
I felt deeply and irrationally hurt. “Don’t ever come back,” I told it. “I don’t want to see you again. No one does.”
It staggered weakly out the door. I heard it thumping down the stairs. When the front door creaked open, I counted to a thousand.
Then I left, too.
I am good at forgetting things. Or rather, I am good at stripping things of their significance and reducing them to meaninglessness. I have to be good at this in order to survive.
The incident with the angel was no exception. I returned to my routine as if nothing had happened. And if sometimes I caught a glimpse of copper out of the corner of my eye, or perhaps a strange face peering around a corner, what of it? It could only be imagination or madness, neither of which were worth thinking about.
Weeks later, during yet another day of aimless wandering, a girl flagged me down. She was the skinniest person I’d ever seen, with red hair that stuck out from her shoulders like a haystack. She jogged over. Through her fishnet tights I saw bruises, and scabs were scattered across her skin like dark stars.
“Hey!” she said. “You’re Cherise’s friend, right?” The brief burst of warmth I felt – her friend, Cherise has been telling people I’m her friend!— evaporated with her next words: “You seen her around?”
I shook my head.
Goosebumps covered every inch of her exposed skin, even her bony shoulders. “You know where she is?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I visit her, and one day she is gone. I don’t see her since.”
“You hear anything from anyone? I don’t know, a john, maybe?”
“I don’t know John.”
Her eyes widened. Then she laughed. “Oh my God. You’re just a regular kid, aren’t you? And here we were all wondering if you were dead, too.”
Panic ignited. Like a match falling toward a puddle of gasoline. “I’m not dead!”
“I’m glad.” She stuck out a hand that was so skinny it looked like a chicken claw. “I’m Luna.”
And so began the strangest friendship of my life.
Luna insisted she was twenty-one years old, which I knew was a lie. She dressed like a bizarre cartoon character and wanted desperately to leave the city, but not without her mom. “I want to go to Vegas,” she’d say dreamily. “Or Miami. Somewhere hot.”
She hoarded board games in an apartment with a scorched wall and no sink, and taught me to play each and every one. She taught me a useful cache of swear words, how to shoot the small pistol she kept in her purse, and how to read tarot. She told me about her mom who’d gone to prison for selling pot – “Like that’s even worth the time it takes to book her”—and how she sometimes smuggled beer in when she went to visit. But she stopped visiting months ago, once her mom saw her track marks and threw a fit.
In return, I told her about my mother and the grave by the hill in Grozny, how I covered it with garland and Christmas trees.
“She must have been a good mom for you to do all that,” Luna said.
Luna’s ensuing silence made me uncomfortable. To break it, I asked if she’d seen Cherise yet.
“No,” she said. “No one’s seen her since July.”
I’d last seen her in July, too. It made me sad, but I didn’t want to think about it.
“You know she’s dead, kiddo, don’t you?”
My heart lurched. “Don’t say that.”
“It’s true. Someone’s killing us, and that someone got her.” Luna huffed bitterly. “So much for her guardian angel.”
“You know about that?”
“We all know about it. The scary part is some of us believe it. Speaking of scary, what are you doing for Halloween? I’m going to dress up like a daisy. A big ass daisy with my face in the middle of the petals.”
“Because I fucking love daisies.”
Things were perfect in an odd way. Luna and I spent most days together, two ruins wandering a ruin. I would have given anything for it to last forever.
But nothing lasts forever.
Luna’s favorite place was a park. It was overgrown, dirty, and laced with garbage, but it was green and earthy, filled with trees. At Luna’s insistence, I started waiting there for her. She preferred it to me loitering outside her apartment. I preferred it, too. As long as I was in the park, I didn’t have to see Luna’s life outside our friendship. I liked it that way. I didn’t want to think about it.
And I didn’t want to know.
As autumn veered toward winter, Luna grew skinnier and greyer. Her inner light dimmed, and with it our friendship. I still waited for her at the park each day. Sometimes she came. But she came less and less, until one bitter night, I realized I hadn’t seen her in three weeks. That was it, then. The end of another forever.
I stood up, shivering, and picked my way through the park. The ground was dead now, but on warmer days it had been green and blanketed in the daisies Luna loved so much. I couldn’t help but think of her as I walked. Deadness, where once there’d been something beautiful. Like always. Like everything.
I sidestepped a mound of blankets. My foot sank into unexpectedly soft dirt, sending me sprawling. I pulled my foot free, creating a hole in the half-frozen ground.
And in the hole, a glimmer of copper.
The world froze. I leaned in. Dirty red hair, coarse as a haystack, streaked with mud. Under the hairline, a patch of mottled skin.
And there, wide open and half-buried in the earth, a clouded, rotting eye.
I am good at stripping things of their significance, but I could not strip Luna of hers. The world did that for me. No one cared that she’d died. I couldn’t even find out what had happened to her body—whether she was buried or kept in the morgue. The thought made me cry. Poor Luna, laying in the morgue while other bodies were claimed by people who loved them, people who knew them. I didn’t know Luna, not really. But that was my fault. I hadn’t wanted to know her, any more than I’d wanted to know the Somali girl or the boy who found his mother’s head in the sink. I didn’t want to know my father or my aunt or her husband. I didn’t even want to know my mother outside of mothering. Because if I’d known all these things, all these people and all of their truths, I would be faced with the truth to end all truth: Things do not change for the better, they only change. Someone is always killing us.
And the war never leaves.
With no grave to visit, I kept vigil at Luna’s park. I relished the danger. I shouldn’t even be alive, not when so many other, braver, better people were dead. So why wait? My dreams of returning home to be buried alongside my mother were gone. The idea of being left in an American mortuary until my destitute father could raise money for burial made me sick. So why not die in a park, hidden away where no one would have to see me and no one would have to know? Maybe the killer would hide my body where he’d hidden Luna’s. Maybe my blood would drip in the same places hers had. Maybe no one would ever find me. I could stay there forever in the earth under the green trees, buried in the soft and quiet dark. I wouldn’t have to run through the grey wastelands. I wouldn’t have to be punished for getting away. Nothing changes when you’re dead. You only have a dark and quiet forever, a place to finally rest.
But the park did not offer me forever, and it certainly offered no rest. I grew tired of seeing it, of walking the paths and searching for something where there was only nothing.
One night, I suddenly knew it was the end, that this was the last time I would ever come to the park. So I went to the place where Luna had been buried and lay down.
I lay there until I shivered, and stayed until I got too cold to shiver.
After a long time, something pale glistened on the edge of my vision, followed by a flash of copper.
I was scared, but not surprised. “Some angel you are,” I croaked.
It did not answer.
“What do you want?”
“Do you want to kill me? You should. I hurt you.” I thought of its teeth. Dirty and fine and sharp as needles, teeth that could shred a living thing to liquid. I wanted that. I wanted to hurt and be made into nothing, to be slurped up and shat out and left to melt into the ruined earth.
As though reading my mind, it reached for me. Terror overtook me and I closed my eyes.
The angel touched my face, and somehow I knew everything.
The moment I cut the angel’s chain, it went to Cherise and found her, dead and broken, hidden in the rubble of a half-collapsed house.
Then I learned the worst thing, the very worst thing, the worst thing on the whole entire earth: If I’d freed the angel the day I’d found it instead of keeping it and abusing it, it would have found Cherise in time to save her.
But because of me, it was too late.
When the angel found Cherise, it curled up around her body and slept. Slept through killings, rapes, and beatings. Slept through the cries of people who needed protection. Slept through Luna’s murder.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered.
It knew I was sorry. It wasn’t angry. It was only sad, which made me sick. I deserved anger. I deserved hate. I deserved to die, to be shredded and slurped up and shat out.
I am leaving, the angel told me in words that weren’t words.
“There’s nothing better,” I said.
It looked at me. Deep in its sockets, something glimmered. New eyes, perhaps. I shuddered.
“The war never leaves,” I said. “It gets in, and it never gets out.”
It cupped my face, flooding me with hope and terror. I could have lived in that moment forever.
But nothing lasts forever.
The angel drew away, a living tide receding from a cold and rocky beach.
And like everything else, it was gone.
It has been a lifetime, and nothing that matters has changed.
The war never got out of me, and it never got out of Russia. My brothers spoke of going home and finding the mass grave into which our mother had been bulldozed. But they didn’t. I didn’t, either. The thought makes me sick. It makes me want to scream.
I have not been able to regrow the parts of me that were lost. I am still nothingness forced to exist in a world made for something. A void of howling winds, burned-out buildings and fierce, distant screams.
I don’t know what will become of me. Maybe I will be like the angel, trapped on foreign soil for the rest of my life and all that comes after, too lost to even know I’m lost. Or maybe death will free me and I’ll sail on the wind, a cloud of ash and spirit, until I disintegrate into nothing.
Perhaps I will go home one day. Perhaps I will grow old and die there, and be buried by what remains of the grassy hill outside Grozny. There will be no one to decorate my grave with garland or paper ghosts, no one to place small Christmas trees in December. But I will be home, buried in earth that grew me and my family. The ground itself will know me, and I will know it, and maybe that will be enough. Maybe I will finally rest.
Or maybe I will join the things in my nightmares, the mist-shrouded hunters that prowl the grey wasteland, screaming in rage and terror and tiredness. Not a ghost, or a monster. Just a thing no one wants to see, or hear, or know.
I wish you the best of luck,
Filipino Food Themed Camo
|submitted by ToastedSierra to Philippines|