by Pedro Iniguez
Maribel pressed her hands to her ears as the rooftop rattled, the sound like pots and pans crashing on the floor. A corner of the tin roof flapped upward revealing a wedge of night sky. She pictured the shadow people skulking above, pulling back the frame as they hunted for someone to devour.
“Mami,” she said pulling her bedsheets up to her chin, “the ghosts are back.” As if playing on her fears, the curtains on the windows—which were nothing more than holes in the walls—fluttered inward, like phantom feelers grasping for victims.
Her mother moaned. A beam of moonlight pierced the opening in the roof, partially illuminating her in the blackness of the shack. Her cheeks looked sunken in and her ribs protruded where her tank top had rolled up her torso. “It’s the wind, mija,” she said rolling on her side to face the wall. “There’s no such thing as ghosts.” Like a string of pearls, the outline of her spine pressed against her brown skin. A skeleton ready to shed its human host.
As the shack trembled and groaned, Maribel wondered as she always did, if their home had been haunted. Her mother had reassured her that it wasn’t. The sounds she’d heard were just the shoddy, rotting bones of the foundation like the creaking of old hinges, the scraping of branches against the roof, and the wind whistling through porous walls. Besides, the dwelling wasn’t that old, she’d said, so no one else had lived or died here before.
“What if it’s Papi’s ghost?” Maribel said watching as the corner of the roof peeled back farther. Five long shadowed fingers slithered down the wall below the open cavity. Her heart thrummed against her chest until it burned. She hoped, at least, that it was only her father’s ghost and nothing more.
Her mother grumbled into the wall, her voice low and muffled. “He’s not dead, mija. He probably just started a new family across the border.”
Just then the roof ceased its fluttering and the shadowed fingers receded. The moonlight gone, the world returned to darkness. Maribel lay still allowing her heart to settle back into place. Her mother’s snores took the place of the wind’s roar.
The heat soon swelled in the room and she began to sweat like when her mother roasted peppers over an open fire in the summer. It didn’t take long for her gown to stick to her body like a wet plastic bag.
Nights like this stretched on forever.
She clambered over the bed, careful her clothes didn’t catch on the loose springs jutting from the edge of the mattress. She slipped on a pair of chanclas and nudged the door open.
Before she stepped outside, she checked on her mother. Her obscured body rose and fell softly like a sleeping baby.
Across the basin, another gust blew in, the cool catching on the beads of sweat dotting her skin. She closed her eyes and smiled, allowing herself to enjoy the little comforts the night occasionally provided.
Throughout the colonia baja, the sheet metal roofs shuddered, but there were no shadow people prowling along their rusted surfaces. No ghosts, no monsters, nothing out of the ordinary. Besides the breeze’s howling, the shantytown had been tranquil this night. Nothing but the familiar cluster of homes built from crates, cinderblocks, corrugated steel and all the little things one could find floating along the river.
Makeshift towns like this were common throughout Tijuana. Clusters of roughshod dwellings and the poor people who inhabited them. It’s all Maribel had known. Before they had moved here, they’d lived in one on the western foothills of the city. When the factory had shuttered there, they’d relocated up north where a horde of new ones had popped up.
At her back the maquiladora sat perched atop the hill, its drain pipes jutting out the side of the cliff. Dark runoff flowed into the dry riverbed, bisecting the town in a river that ran murky and pungent. Some days it smelled acrid and left her choking; others it smelled like dead rats. Mother told her never to drink from it, even on those hot days when her throat was dry and her lips would crack.
The town knew the polluted water came from the American-owned factory, but her mother had told her working there was a blessing because it afforded them food. Not everyone in town was so fortunate. Some settlers were stranded deportees from other countries who couldn’t secure asylum or squatters with nowhere else to go. Some worked those long shifts at the maquiladora with mom.
She hated that her mother worked there from sunrise to sunset. The only time they spent together anymore was in silence at dinner or on her day off as they collected fresh water from the water truck. Maribel wished she were older so she could work at the factory with her mother, but that wouldn’t be for some time. She counted with her fingers. Maybe ten more years.
Since she didn’t have the luxury of school, Maribel would spend most of the day scribbling on the outer walls of the shack with the worn-down crayons a pastor had gifted her some time ago. Other days, she spent the afternoons in the company of other kids, making up games and telling each other stories. Sometimes the stories involved the monsters they’d seen or the shadow people that lurked on the fringes of town.
Some of the kids had seen them on nights like this, when they were hot or bored and strayed too far from their homes. The shadow people were a group of gangly ghosts that prowled the border wall, just past the colonia’s edges. And if you spotted them it was a sure bet you’d hear the cries of their victims soon after. Screams of “Ack! Ack! Ack!” as they were chopped to pieces and tossed over the other side of the wall. Some of the kids’ parents said that they didn’t exist. Others said the shadow people only came for tattletales, so it was best to mind your business and shut up.
Every now and then one of the children would go missing, never to come back. No one ever really knew what had happened, but the rumblings around the colonia said they had run away to seek better lives, or perhaps they’d joined the cartels and the allure of easy money. Maribel knew, though. All the children knew.
She shook the thought and glanced at the dark, endless sky. The stars weren’t visible, like most nights. If it weren’t for the moonlight, the town would have sat in complete darkness, each shack a tomb in a cemetery. That’s what this town really was.
A shiver ran along her neck and arms. Before she turned back inside, shrieks bellowed out over the thicket beyond the northern edge of the colonia. She waited for the adults to come out and investigate but no one did. Had the wind masked the screams as it tore through the trees and bushes? Maybe she had imagined it.
Again, the wails came. She wasn’t sure but she thought she heard the words, “Help me,” echo across the basin.
Maribel hesitated and took a step forward. Then another. Curiosity and momentum pushed her north along the inky river’s path where she thought the sound had come from.
A breeze carried the rancid smell of the stream whipping across her face. She stifled a cough with her hand as she felt her throat begin to burn. She lifted her gown over her nose and stopped suddenly at the exact spot where she’d seen her first monster. How long had it been? She’d lost track a while ago, most nights since having bled into one another like one long, blurry nightmare.
This particular memory was still vivid, though. She and a few other children had been playing that night, jabbing sticks into the river to see what odd things they could fish out. She was the first to spot it wading lazily along the stream. She recalled its bruised pale-blue flesh partially submerged in burbling water, its bulging eyes locked on her, unblinking. Apart from its lolling tongue, what scared her the most was its puffy, tight skin, like a latex glove ready to burst when you blew too much air into it. She screamed. The rest of the children scrambled home in tears.
By the time the adults came to see what had happened the thing was already gone. Flushed away into the void. Her mother had scolded her for making things up and getting everyone so worked up when they were trying to sleep.
She peered away from the river. The dense thicket where she’d heard the screams lay not more than twenty yards from where she stood, the border wall not much farther than that. The river flowed past the wall and emptied into an estuary in San Diego. Mother wouldn’t let her venture further than the outskirts of the colonia, though. That side was dangerous. Everyone knew that. That was alright by her; out beyond the tree line was where the shadow people were known to dwell.
Despite what her Mother had said, Maribel had always known this town was haunted and there were indeed such things as ghosts and monsters. Things moved freely in the dark here when the adults weren’t looking. Some nights it seemed they inched a little closer.
She thought about the screams again. Had she heard right? Maybe it was a wounded animal. Those were best left alone. Carrion for the birds, her mother had said anytime Maribel cried at the sight of an injured kitten on the side of the road. Keep your head down and worry about yourself.
She wanted to turn back home now. But what if someone really had called out? She couldn’t leave without offering help.
She regarded the wilderness ahead and paused, hoping to hear something again. Nothing stirred or chirped or rattled. Hesitant to take another step, she called out where she stood. “Hello? Is anyone there?”
No reply except her echo and the rustling of leaves.
She should have known it was her imagination. She had gotten so worked up over the wind ripping at the roof that the mundane now seemed especially frightening at night. She pivoted to turn home. If she was lucky, her mother still wouldn’t have noticed she’d been missing.
A long, grating screech erupted beyond the trees, sending birds darting into the air like black bottle rockets. A pair of glowing yellow eyes emerged from the dark of the thicket. She shielded her face with both hands, the light like needles in her eyes.
For a long while they watched each other, Maribel unable to move her legs no matter how hard she tried to pull away. Time stretched; the moment stuck in agonizing perpetuity. The watcher in the dark didn’t move. It only observed as she stood paralyzed, the warm tears streaming down her face. She wanted to cry out for Mami but her mouth wouldn’t let her form the words.
Maribel pressed her eyes shut. Her limbs began to tremble. A sliver of moisture ran down her legs, pooling at her feet. She tried to recite the Lord’s Prayer but the words wouldn’t come. She tried instead to think of her father but couldn’t remember his face. Her mind found no comforts to dispel the terror that lay ahead.
She opened her eyes and offered the thing another glance. The watcher squealed again and its fiery yellow eyes sunk behind the thicket. As the thing spun, she saw the broad side of a car drive off into the night. The land grew dark and the bushes and trees swayed softly again.
On the way home she wiped her tears. Maybe not tonight, but it would only be a matter of time before they got to her. She wouldn’t say anything to her mother. There’d be no point. Here, ghosts and monsters roamed free in a land that turned a blind eye to them. Maybe this town wasn’t satisfied just being haunted. Maybe it was waiting to make ghosts of them all.
Pedro Iniguez (He/Him) is a Mexican-American speculative fiction writer and painter from Los Angeles, California. His fiction and poetry has appeared in Nightmare Magazine, Worlds of Possibility, Helios Quarterly, Star*Line, Space & Time Magazine, and Tiny Nightmares, among others. He can be found online at Pedroiniguezauthor.com.
∼ Read November’s story, “Memories The Embodiment of Family History in American Folk Art” by J.L. Royce ∼