The first thing I remembered was the color of the bike. Not who hit me, or where I was, or why I was there. Just the aquamarine sheen of the paint as my face collided with the crossbar, right before I blacked out.
No one came for me — not to help, or to finish the job, or to molest me in any way (as far as I could tell). But when I came to, I knew something was wrong. The skin on one side of my face was tight and sticky with blood, and I could see a layer of skin was missing from my knee through the hole in my jeans. The bike was gone — whoever’s it was — and as I stood, I thought I could hear the ocean, but there was no ocean. Only a rush in my ears and the inexplicable fear of drowning on land with a boiling sun overhead.
On my way out of the alley, I stumbled into a trash can and emptied its putrid contents — along with that of my stomach — onto my sneakers. Napkins (and garbage bags, apparently) being in short supply, I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand, and the back of my hand on the leg of my jeans. I turned the corner and felt the air leave my lungs as a word appeared in red before my eyes, as if it had been spray painted in the sky:
Then, just like that, it was gone, and I could breathe again.
I could never have imagined the myriad ways in which that word would come to rule my life.
Night fell. I had yet to piece together the events of the day — or however much time had passed — and I was beginning to think I had simply hallucinated, then passed out from the heat. Hungry, I found my way into a bright, bustling restaurant, and took a seat near the kitchen. My movements were automatic, like I had been there before, but for some reason I couldn’t remember if I had. Déjà vu, I thought, but still my stomach turned with suspicion.
Unable to pinpoint a palpable source of my unease, I tried to distract myself with the menu. Food had always been a comfort to me, and I hoped a few tacos would provide some solace. I smiled back at la mesera as she placed a glass of water before me, then watched her walk away, her long black ponytail swinging out of sync with her hips.
There were all sorts of people dining out that evening: teenagers, families of four (and more), whispering women and raucous obreros. None of them seem troubled, and I envied them.
Then a low, irritated voice broke through the buzz of conversation around me:
“…allende mi comprensión!” I heard, and my heart began to thump. Allende. I told myself it was nothing more than a coincidence, but still I tried to locate the speaker. Without turning my head, I looked and listened, but I could not find a mouth to match.
“Lo siento, patrón,” another voice said, and then I saw it: a vent in the floor beside my sneakered feet.
I don’t know what possessed me to slip past the staff and down the stairs into that basement — or maybe, now, I do — but someone was expecting me.
“¡Oye! Where you been, wey?”
The man who called out to me stood solidly in the center of the room. He was tall, with dark, close-cropped hair and a full-but-not-obtrusive mustache. His belly strained against the bright blue polo shirt he wore, but his jeans fit well. El patrón, I thought.
“I was out,” I said reflexively, in vague answer to his question.
He and the thin man in the dark clothes beside him chuckled. The air seemed denser in the basement, and I realized someone was smoking.
“That’s all there is to it then,” came another voice from the darkness. The other men turned as I squinted and saw a third man sitting in the corner beside what appeared to be a tree growing out of the floor. He held a large piece of fungus to his face like an ice pack on a black eye, and a fat, hand-rolled cigarette in his other hand. Then he stood.
“It goes against the laws of nature to keep a bird in a cage,” he said slowly, staring straight at me with feline eyes.
In that moment, I didn’t think anything could pull me from that gaze, but then a sparkling caught my eye. I turned to see a black and white portrait of a ghostly woman surrounded by birds taped to the wood-paneled wall, shining as if littered with minuscule stars.
I doubled-over again as if punched in the gut, like I had in the alley. ALLENDE burned before my eyes in red, just like before.
I heard the click of cocked pistols and looked up to see two barrels pointed at me, all levity gone from the faces of el patrón and delgado. El gato remained unmoved.
“He has the sickness,” said el patrón.
Delgado hoped to be unconvinced. “¿Eres de allende la frontera?”
Upstairs, Manuel Aguilar was rinsing a raw chicken breast. He knew he shouldn’t. He’d read it was a good way to introduce bacteria and increase the risk of food poisoning, but he had to do it. He’d gotten the rub wrong again, and he had no intention of being let go. He’d always wanted to work in a restaurant, but he had no formal training, and it was more difficult than he’d expected.
A gunshot sounded below the kitchen and Manuel jumped, dropping the chicken into the sink. He swore.
A second shot rang out, accompanied by yelling, and Manuel could hear the restaurant empty as patrons fled. He and the rest of the staff looked toward the manager.
“¿Pues?” he said. “Va, ¡todos salgan!”
Manuel watched as his co-workers left, uncertain. “¡Ándale!” one of them said, brushing past him, and finally his feet began to move toward the exit. But the thuds of tumbling boxes and a clattering of footsteps on the stairs behind him drew his attention, and he turned just in time for the owner of those feet to come barreling into him.
“¡Ay!” Manuel exclaimed as the two crashed into a rack of pots and pans. El agresor stood, and for a moment, both boys looked as though they’d seen a ghost — in a mirror.
“¿Qué…?” Manuel began, but his other self was already sprinting through the dining room and out the door.
Another set of footsteps sounded on the stairs, but slower. Heart pounding, Manuel looked to see a familiar figure emerge from the depths of the basement.
“León,” Manuel said, relaxing only a little. “Who was that?”
“Ah, Manuel,” the man said, sounding surprised. “You’re still here.”
“Igualmente,” Manuel answered. “What happened to your face?”
León fingered the purpling splotches on his cheek lightly. “A complication.”
My mind raced as I ran through the streets toward the neon lights, but I was no longer terrified. I was alive. I stopped at an intersection and laughed, hollered into the night air amid the skeptical street walkers and traffic surging all around me. I had done it!
Crashing into Manuel — a version of myself — had brought everything into perspective. There were risks in crossing over, and since no one had completed the journey and returned to tell about it, I hadn’t known to expect the memory integration and resulting disorientation. But what more logical way to remember where I came from than a collision with my foil?
As I strolled down the sidewalk in Manuel’s reality, his experiences flooded my mind. Non-Allende Manuel, I now knew, had a dog. His mother made masks and had gastrointestinal problems. But even on her worst days, she’d make huevos rancheros for her son, because he always left the eggs too runny and she didn’t want him to get sick, too.
I felt a pang of something like jealousy at the thought of a doting parent, but I refused to let myself be distracted from the breakthrough. I sauntered into a tienda and pulled a coke from the cooler to celebrate, only to be overcome by a heavy sense of foreboding.
Señor Gallo — or el patrón, as he preferred to be called — was dead. Delgado had been consumed by El Resplandor, and León…he had recognized me before I recognized myself. He had the most to lose from my discovery.
I shuddered and the cajero handed me my change with a raised eyebrow.
I shook my head. “No es nada.”
But as I moved toward the door, through the glass I saw a pair of amber eyes glinting in the moonlight.
“It’s all coming back to you, I see,” León called from the shadows.
I didn’t know what to say.
“How are things de Allende?”
The air grew thick and bile rose up in my throat, but I was in control. And as long as Manuel lived, I had the power no one else did.
See, León could commune with The Shining, and as long as she was feeling generous — or flattered — she would open his eyes and show him Allende. But it came with a cost: he would have only one life in all of time and space, and when that life expired, there was no telling what would happen to him, or his essence — a price he had been more than willing to pay, until I showed up.
“Ya sabes, ¿no?” I answered.
His eyes narrowed. “Tell me how you did it.”
“¿O que?” I said, taking another swig of my coke. “You’ll kill me? And never know?”
He pounced and swatted the soda from my hand, then pointed a gnarled claw in my face.
“You think you can just tear a hole in the fabric of space and time with no consequences? ¡No seas pendejo!”
León was right, of course — there were consequences. Some I likely had yet to determine. But I wasn’t afraid.
“It would only be stupid of me to tell you how to cross over,” I said, standing my ground.
I thought he might try to drag it out of me, but bystanders were beginning to stare, and he started to back away, wincing. Just then I noticed what I’d taken for a bruise on his face began to sparkle, like the portrait of The Shining.
I felt the rumble of the subway beneath me, and I knew what I had to do.
Manuel could see him ascending the stairs, exiting the subway into the night; walking the six blocks to his house; opening the door to his room; grabbing a pen from the cup on his desk to write the message:
Don’t trust León. Use your head. Mind the balance.
El Aguilar de Allende
Holding the paper in his hand didn’t make it seem any more real, and yet, he knew it was true. Ever since he’d run into himself, Manuel had begun to piece things together: he had another life somewhere, and it was in turmoil. Maybe impossible to reach. And soon, León would become one with El Resplandor, possibly gaining more control over both realms than any being before.
Manuel looked around his room, as if seeing it for the first — or last — time. His eyes moved toward the door, taking in the sounds and smells of his mother cooking.
“Mamá,” he called from the hall. “Voy a salir.”
“Ay, ¡el desayuno está casi listo!” his mother protested, but Manuel was already on his way out the door, backpack slung over his shoulder.
“¡Ya vuelvo!” he yelled from the street, straddling his aquamarine bicycle. Maren, he called her, perpetually nostalgic for the seaside town where he was born. He pedaled quickly, the contents of his bag rattling steadily as it slid from side to side across his back.
Manuel arrived in the alley sweating and out of breath. Daytime graffiti was risky, but, he considered, this was important. He removed a can of spray paint from his backpack and shook it, then watched as the word appeared in red on the wall with the movements of his arm.
The fight for freedom was on.
Daniel Evo is a visual artist influenced by the performing arts, especially butoh dance. He studied at ENAP-UNAM, at SOMA Mexico and at CASA Oaxaca. His creative processes are based on play, patterned improvisation, and involuntary choreography. Currently his contemporary art projects focus on creating spaces of freedom in relation to the construction of a utopian architecture from the body, using media such as sculpture, participatory performance, and video. He has exhibited his work in Mexico, Brazil, Italy, Argentina, and Switzerland.
Caitlin M. S. Buxbaum is a writer, teacher and “former” journalist born and raised in Alaska. She has a Master of Arts in Teaching and a B.A. in English and Japanese Studies with an emphasis in Creative Writing. She wrote more than 600 stories as a reporter for The Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman and has published several books through her company, Red Sweater Press. She currently teaches English as a foreign language online and serves as the Mat-Su Vice President of Alaska Writers Guild.