Recent Publications

I Sought Solace in my Bookshelf: on love, violence and literature at Buzzfeed Books

Move Over, Lovecraft…Fantasy Writers of Color are Coming Through at The Guardian

Dust at Lightspeed/iO9

Animal, a short story at Nightmare Magazine

Snowpiercer and the One White Dude To Rule Them All at Al Dia

NPR’s Latino USA segment on race, sci-fi and publishing featuring NK Jemisin, Nalo Hopkinson and me

The FanBros site interviews me about what I’m up to

 Jamie Moore and I interview the great Kiese Laymon about race, publishing and craft

On the Spirit World and White Supremacy in Publishing: an Interview with Latino Rebels

Specter Magazine interviews me about writing

Kimbilio Fiction interviews me about writing

Diversity Is Not Enough: Race Power Publishing at BuzzFeed Books

Gentrification’s Insidious Violence and the Truth About American Cities at Salon

Anyway: Angie, a short story in the Bone Street Rumba series at Tor.com

Thom Hartmann interviews me about the White Savior Complex in slavery narratives

 12 Fundamentals of Writing ‘the Other’ (and the Self) at BuzzFeed Books

One Hundred Years of Weird Fear: On Lovecraft’s Literature of Genealogical Terror at BuzzFeed Books

What’s Like The Craziest Shit You’ve Ever Seen?” at The New Haven Review and Gawker

It’s time to take the white savior out of slave narratives at Salon

Whitewashed TV isn’t just racist, it’s boring at Salon

Another World Waits: Towards An Anti-Oppressive Sci-Fi & Fantasy at Apex

How I Found My Voice As A Feminist Of Color at Salon

An Interview With Ashley Ford

Victory Music a short story with audio

Set Truth On Stun: A Roundtable Discussion on Reimagining An Anti-Oppression and SFF

Borges’ Birdman and The Roots of Story a guest post on process and dreams

Writing From The Crossroads of Life & Death a guest post on EMS and writing

Skin Like Porcelain Death reprinted from Salsa Nocturna

 

Magdalena

(originally published in Salsa Nocturna)

 

In a couple of hours, Magdalena will walk out of a forest and into a field. I’ve imagined

the moment so many times now. One of her spaghetti straps’ll be hanging down her

shoulder and she’ll still be carrying the machete with her. She won’t be smiling. Face so

serious you’d wonder if she’ll ever smile again. But she will walk out into that field and

far, far away, and leave the terrible past behind her.

“So you’re saying you still think about her?” Big Cane breaks into my imaginings.

Probably because he’s bored. We’ve been floating amidst the manicured bushes in front of

this library for two days now, waiting, watching, watching, waiting. Not glamorous at all,

this ghost hunting work.

“Every mothafuckin’ day, B. Well, okay, not every single one. But many. And especially

as today started coming up.”

“This was when you were still alive that you knew her?” His enormity demands he

always be looking down at whoever he’s speaking to, but otherwise, Big Cane is the least

condescending white person I’ve ever met, dead or alive. When he looks at me, I believe

he really does see me, not some cavewoman cartoon he caught on TV in whatever

century he lived in, not some pitiful, overweight, punk rock colored chick that needs

saving. It’s something in his eyes.

“Yeah. This boarding school I went to.” I always pause there. Don’t ask me why. “For

troubled teens.”

I hope I’m right about Cane, because I’ve told him more about my life than I’ve ever told

anyone else ever. He has a way of just prying stuff out of me, probably because he really

doesn’t try, just makes his little noises and occasionally sews together sentences and then

I get to babbling. Which I swear is really unlike me, except when it’s not. That particular

grunt means, “I see” with an added connotation of “What are you gonna do about it,

then?” We spend a lot of time together, me and Cane.

I shrug and move my neck in circles to ease the soreness of so much of the same. “I don’t

know if Imma do anything, yet. There’s something to be said for letting go.”

“Hm.” Amen.

At the coffee shop across the street, life bumbles along its insanely dull daily routine.

We’re in Riverdale, a gushy suburban corner of the Bronx and not a damn interesting

thing has happened here since 1947. Probably not true: a few night clubs and assorted

shenanigan holes are scattered around on Broadway, not far away, but this block right

here? Duller than death. You’d never guess there’re three parasite phantoms poised to

feed on an entire room full of pediatric souls in the daycare center behind the coffee shop.

“Oh, look, that same mom with the two kids from yesterday,” Big Cane points out.

“Mm.” I’m getting to be more like him with each passing day of this insane stake out.

Good thing I like him.

“‘Cept she’s a little later today.”

“Indeed.” Kill me now.

Cane adjusts his position, stretches those gigantic arms forward and then up above his

head. “So…I think you should do something.” A rare declaration of opinion from the

ancient giant.

I frown. “Suggestions?”

“Nope.”

“Great.”

*

Magdalena strolled into fifth period English class late and chewing gum one chilly Friday

afternoon, and slid into the seat next to mine. She wore a purple dress and you could tell

she had those kind of breasts that just lay there against her chest and that she didn’t give a

fuck what people thought about that. Halfway through the class she slid a folded up sheet

of lined paper onto my desk with a drawing of a penis riding a mule, its grotesquely hairy

nutsack straddling the saddle like fat little legs. I tried to suppress a cackle, caught some

saliva in my windpipe and erupted into a coughing fit.

When I recovered and Mr. Davis stopped glaring at me, I drew devil horns on the donkey

and a backpack on the penis with a little baby penis poking its head out, papoose style.

That was the first time I saw Magdalena smile. It exploded like the tearing of two

tectonic plates across her face; transformed her in seconds from a snarling teenager to a

bright little girl. Her two front teeth were huge and one laid slightly on top of the other

like it was trying to hold it back from picking a fight with the world. Then she

disappeared the smile, perhaps never to be seen again, and concentrated on drawing the

mama penis and her mule.

*

“I think it’s time,” I say, more because I’m bored than any real reason.

Big Cane shakes his big head. “Not yet.”

“Soon?”

A nod and the slightest of smiles.

“How will we know?” I’m not usually this impatient but Magdalena’s big moment is

rapidly approaching, and it’s drenching my thought process with a swirl of gruesome

images. Not the walking out the forest ones. Other, uglier scenes, that I’d rather not think

about. “The Council gonna send us a message or something?”

Cane lets out a gentle chortle and rubs his big fingers into his eyes. “Council ain’t tellin’

us shit except come to XYZ location, wait and move when it’s time to move. The

parasites been holed up in there for two days, gathering strength while the kids come and

go. And you and me are the eyes and ears of the Council right now, Krys. That’s it.”

“So we just wait ‘till some magical moment? How do we decide what to do?”

“Look, you wanna talk about what you’re really talking about?” Cane says instead of

answering. I hate that he can see right through me. I also love it, but right now I just

bristle and shrug. I am, after all, still a teenager.

Cane shrugs too and it looks like a mountain range going for a stroll. “Suit yourself.”

I let a moment or two pass, because I don’t want to seem too anxious, and then say, “It’s

an anniversary thing. The day and hour she turns eighteen and… The day something

horrible happened to her, years ago.” Cane nods and I say, “On her eleventh birthday,

actually.” I’m not sure why I added that detail; maybe I needed to see Cane flinch like

that, to know there was still some living, feeling thing under all those translucent layers

of muscle and fat. But then I feel bad, because now the sadness in his eyes won’t go away

and it’s too late to go back. “Her father.”

Cane looks like he’s been slapped and for what it’s worth, a part of me is relieved. You

never know how someone, especially a man, is gonna react to information like that, and I

was afraid he’d just go on being the big stoic impenetrable badass he always is and that I

would hate him for it.

Terrible, how far and wide the tentacles of a single act can spread.

*

I wasn’t crying as Magdalena finished telling her story but I was definitely making stupid

little sobby noises and frowning a whole lot. It was three am on the morning of her

sixteenth birthday. We’d snuck out of our dorm and holed up in a little makeshift nest

made of stolen blankets and flickering candles in the cramped props room behind the

auditorium. I hiccupped and sniffled but Magdalena just sat there calm as could be like

she was talking ‘bout what she had for breakfast. Then she told me about the promise

she’d made to herself. A covenant, she called it, fiddling idly with one of the silver spikes

sticking out of her lower lip. A covenant. Then she frowned.

She still had babyfat on her face and her hair was tied back beneath a red bandana. I felt

so big and solid next to her wispy little frame, but for the first time in maybe ever that

bigness didn’t feel like a bad thing, an awkward thing, it just felt like what I was. I wished

in that moment that I could bottle the certainty in her eyes that made it so simple and

obvious to just be me. Wished I could manufacture a lifetime supply for every moment a

stranger’s gaze told me the opposite.

*

“It’s time.”

I look up from my memories. Cane is poised like a giant tiger that’s about to obliterate

some unknowing gazelle. The bastard’s actually smiling about the magnificent asswhupping

he’s about to deliver and that’s why me and Big C are peoples. Because I’m

smiling, too. Life, death, struggle, whatever: It’s complicated, laden with strife and

disagreements, regret, poisoned hearts and betrayals. We’re all survivors of something.

And nothing helps all that muck disappear into the ether, at least momentarily, like truly

wailing on some deserving fool of a soul-sucking phantom.

I don’t know what silent cue Cane took from the universe to tell him our moment had

come. He never gives me a straight answer when I try to ask; instinct I guess. A thing I’m

only beginning to understand. Either way, like he says, he just knows.

At a nodded signal, I pull my bow and arrow from my back and aim at the sky above the

coffee shop. Feels so good, so right to stretch my arms after so long sitting and waiting.

Just right. I take an extra second to double check my aim, imagining the havoc I’m about

to unleash. I don’t really need to, but this is no time for arrogance. Children’s lives are at

stake.

I release, feel the projectile erupt from my bow, stretch upwards in a glorious arc, cut

through the late afternoon sky above the heads of a dozen oblivious passersby. It hangs

there for a solid second, as if unsure whether or not to give in to gravity, and then

plummets. The warhead at the end is a sharpened canister: the spiritual equivalent of a

shock grenade. It won’t do any real damage but should stun everybody enough to give us

the upper hand.

Inside the building, fourteen kindergarteners stand in a tangled shadow web. They can’t

see it of course, can’t see anything in their semi-comatose state, but those misty lines

stretch between the three hunched over phantoms. The parasites are fully in some kind of

hellacious meditation, all bent on their soul-sucking ways. They’re draining these kids of

their life force. The kids’ll live but they’ll just be shells, no vitality. Failure to thrive, it’s

called in medical textbooks. The rest of their sad lives will be a failure to thrive. At least

that’s what would’ve happened. Instead, my warhead comes dancing out of the sky,

swoops through all those layers of concrete and wire mesh and finds its mark smack in

the middle of the feeding.

Cane and I burst out of our hiding place. People walk down the street like it’s just another

day in Riverdale, strolling, shopping, going about their business. We cut through them, a

sudden breeze against the flesh of the living, and push into the building. The arrow has

done its job well; the parasites stumble every which way, their long interconnecting

tentacles flapping in the air uselessly. The kids blink awake; a few start crying and

running around in circles.

I bring my bow down hard on the first parasite I pass, smashing it into the ground in a

pathetic ghostly heap. The next one is recovering some; it lurches up at me and I meet it

with a fist in the face. The thing crumples again and I move on, stepping gingerly over

the collapsing ghost web.

*

After Magdalena told me about her plan we sat quietly for a few minutes. This band she

likes, Culebra, screamed and wailed on a gritty little speaker box she brought and the

only other sound was us pulling on the joint, coughing occasionally. If it had been totally

quiet, no music, no smoking, nada? I think she would’ve been able to hear my heart

sobbing. No tears came out, although Magdalena’s story has pulled the floor out from

under me. I just let the sadness become a sleeping snake, curled up inside me. I let it rise

in my chest, squeezing a little tighter with each puff of smoke.

After a few minutes, Magdalena opened up that big smile once again. “The other part of

my plan is this”:”

“Tell me.”

“Every year until then,” she said like she was coming to the end of a really corny ghost

story, “on my birthday, I will make love to a beautiful woman.”

I burst out laughing, but Magdalena had folded her smile back away. I stopped laughing

and we just looked at each other across the candlelight.

*

“Go,” Cane says. He has his own covenant, the protocols of manhood. He follows them

religiously and they don’t allow him to put words to what’s on his mind. But he doesn’t

have to. A certain tremble erupts in those ghostly pupils and it tells me everything I need

to know. “Go,” he says again, but he’s really saying Go, because it happened to me too.

Because I survived and lived a long healthy life and so should she. Go.

When I hesitate he nods towards the last writhing phantom and says “I got this” in a voice

so hoarse and serious I almost hug him. But that’s not the move right now and I know it.

The move is get out of here and find Magdalena. Fast. So that’s what I do.

*

“Actually,” I said when Magdalena put her pretty, uneven lips against my neck, “I like

boys.” I still cringe when I think about it.

“Me too,” Magdalena said between slurps.

I was lying on my back. Lying perfectly still, because if I moved, the whole moment

might shatter. “I mean I’m not gay.”

Magdalena didn’t say anything, just worked her mouth down my shoulders and along my

arms.

I didn’t know whether I was relieved or disappointed when she stopped kissing my toes

and nuzzled up on top of me like a kitten sleeping on a baby bear in one of those feelgood

postcard photos. I mean, I was praying the whole time, to an entity I knew no name

for, and cringing too, and I suppose all my prayers and my shame and pleasure got mixed

into one sultry, complicated sludge that got sent up to Whomever and that was that.

I said, “I thought you were going to make love to me,” trying to make my voice neutral.

“I did,” she said and I felt her smile against my chest.

First, I felt sad, because maybe in her strange, broken world that’s what making love was.

No vaginas, no ins and outs, no gooey juices; just a whole mess of the gentlest kisses in

the world placed with the utmost care on each available body part and then a good

cuddle. I watched the top of her head rise and fall with each of my breaths. I had never

felt so peaceful in all my life. Maybe that was what making love was in my strange,

broken world too, and it was everyone else who had it wrong. I smiled and was grateful it

was too dark for her to see the tears sliding out of my eyes, down my face and onto the

stolen blankets.

*

This is where she said it would happen. I move quickly through a clearing; I’m just a

translucent flash in the darkening sky and then I’m gone, disappeared into the shadows of

the forest.

Perfect spot for a killing, really. There’s no one around for miles; we’re well away from

the main road in a vast park in the murky nether region where Brooklyn becomes Queens.

I glide forward on intuition mainly, because once I enter the woods it’s anyone’s guess

where she might be. Maybe it’s the beginning of Big Cane’s magic being born in me too; I

feel myself getting closer. Then I see her.

I’m too late. Sort of. Magdalena’s standing by a concrete opening in the forest floor,

maybe the foundation of some building that never got built. It’s full of murky rainwater

that looks like it’s been there for eons, all sludge and dead leaves and trash. Doesn’t

matter. What matters is the lifeless collection of limbs piled in the mulch at the edge of

the pool. The ground is dark with blood and blood is splattered in a frantic design across

Magdalena’s white t-shirt and jeans. She’s crying. Wipes a hand over her sweaty brow,

slathering blood all across her face. She’s still got the machete in one hand, and as I move

towards her, she places the tip of the blade against her belly and closes her eyes.

This isn’t how it’s supposed to go. I admit I had no plan. But I thought maybe I’d make it

here before the deed was done. I’d figure out some way to prevent it but still cause the

stupid guy enough holy terror to keep him from ever doing anything so foul ever again –

maybe castration as a last resort – and then Madgalena would walk away, out into the

field and on into the rest of her life.

I wrap around Madgalena, feel her shudder as my translucence covers her. She can’t see

me; I’m only a memory, a whisper, but I’ll be a whisper at the forefront of her

consciousness, I’ll be memory enough to blot out all the seeping terror. She trembles, her

body still stiffened, ready to strike.

I’m just new to the afterlife but I have some swagger to my magic. I squeeze tighter,

throw all my spiritual strength into making my ethereal almost nothingness break through

into that flesh and blood dimension. And Magdalena still stands there on the line,

wavering slightly in the early evening breeze like some baby oak tree.

It’s a few minutes before I realize that whatever I’m doing isn’t working. She’d thought

there would be some sense of relief, some triumph and closure after all that waiting and

plotting. Instead there’s just an emptiness so deep it infects me too: A total devastating

void. Magdalena lets out a sob and tightens her grip on the machete.

I was a pretty devout atheist in life. That night in the prop dock was probably the one

prayer I could put my name to. Since I died I’m not so sure. Hard to deny that there’s

something else out there when you are that something else. Cane, on the other hand, was

a true believer all through life and still hangs out in the back of some church in

Inglewood on Sunday mornings, smoking his hand rolled cigarettes and trying not to get

mistaken for the Holy Spirit. He says every soul is like a tiny shard of glass that reflects

God. He says when you’re dead, you’re just a soul, and the reflection is even stronger, not

muddled by all that flesh and blood and “‘living people shit”.’

Right now, at this moment, I’m gonna go with Cane’s view of the world, because it’s the

biggest source of strength I can find. I’ll be that super-magnified shard of divine light if

that’ll make some glimmer of hope filter through me into Magdalena’s sad soul. I’ll be

that. That emptiness keeps trying to overtake me, the sudden absence of life lying in a

crumpled pile in front of us, the sudden absence of mission and fire in the girl I’m

surrounding. My mind keeps trying to get distracted by the horror that just happened, but

I force it back into focus.

At first I think I’ll imagine-up a beautiful future for Magdalena, one where she’s peaceful,

not haunted by today or that day eight years ago or anything else that’s happened in

between. But I need something more solid than a dreamy sunlit apartment and a warm

cup of tea. Instead, I dig up a memory: The last week of my life, when every cell in my

body wanted so badly to live. Cancer won, but the imprint of that desire, that thirst for

life bubbles up inside me now and I let it overflow into Magdalena.

I slide my arms down hers, ease along like a second skin across her. My whole being is

vibrating with that memory, the lion’s roar to live, and I let it vibrate from my core all the

way through Magdalena and out into the forest around us.

A minute passes, or maybe ten. I lose track. Lose track of my own trembling, transparent

body and all my joys and sorrows. Lose track of which is me and which is her or whether

it matters, which of us is teetering on the fine line between life and death. Both I suppose.

And then Magdalena lets out a long, shaky breath and I know we’ve won. Death will have

to wait its turn for her. She lowers the machete, squats down and pushes the pile of limbs

that was her father into the green water. The last pale appendage disappears with a

gurgle. Magdalena stands and then walks out of the woods and into the field.

Workshops

These workshops are available for all ages and can be tailored to fit different times. Shoot me an email to discuss pricing and availability: danieljose@ghoststar.net

 

THE STORY OF POWER AND THE POWER OF STORY

In this 3-hour workshop we will break open the rules and preconceived notions about gender and race, tracing their affect on our daily lives back to the cultural, institutional dynamics that created them. Using these power maps, we’ll explore tools for incorporating the analytics of oppression and resistance into the narrative arts.

 

FUNDAMENTALS OF STORYCRAFT

This 3-hour interactive intensive explores the basic elements of story: plot , character, context, and conflict. Beyond these fundamentals, we’ll discuss the strategies for taking our narratives to the next level, touching on deeper concepts of craft and thematic structure.

Conversations In The SFF Culture Wars

There’s been a lot of hoopla recently about this issue, including the #DiversityInSFF hashtag and assorted follow up blogs, comments, arguments. Really, it’s a conversation we’ve been having since long before I got involved in the sci-fi community, and it’s good it’s getting some large scale traction. Below are two pieces of the conversation I’ve been involved with:

The great Roxane Gay wrote up Salsa Nocturna as part of an essay in The Nation on the changing face of SFF.

And I hosted a roundtable discussion at Strange Horizons with some authors and industry people about re-imagining an anti-oppressive SFF: Set Truth On Stun.

Salsa Nocturna: The Publisher’s Weekly Review

 A delicate mix of horror and humor permeates this striking and original set of 13 linked supernatural noir tales. Carlos Delacruz is “barely alive at all, a botched resurrection, trapped in perpetual ambiguity.” Naturally, he works as a soulcatcher for New York City’s Council of the Dead. Carlos and Gordo, an old Cubano who finds musical inspiration among the muertos, serve as common threads in a tapestry depicting the growing restlessness of the dead under the Council’s bureaucratic rule. Colorfully depicted New York neighborhoods are secretly populated by an army of ghosts—including birds, mysterious giants, and the trapped souls of an African burial ground—as well as the eccentric soulcatchers themselves. Older gracefully draws together the stories of a young man who finds an unnerving set of dolls at his girlfriend’s home, a child abuse survivor out for revenge, and serial killers both spectral and human, securing himself a place among the rising stars of the genre. (July)

The Crate

Originally published in Crossed Genres

When you first stood up in that board meeting your long black and gray locks dropped like a waterfall all the way down to your ass and your stony serious face looked like it would forever refuse to smile. I liked that about you. Never had time to tell you, but it was that ferocity that got me. You were short and slender, but clearly a mountain. A lone black woman at the head of a table of comely white folks in a giant white marble castle. The only African thing around less than 400 years old, not counting my half-black ass.

You welcomed me and gave me a stunning introduction but you never let on that you were happy I was there. Never creased your mouth, didn’t even show your teeth. As I watched you I put the pieces together. I could sense a glint of excitement in your voice, a tiny, restrained pep in your step. Wasn’t a detective for nothing you know. It wasn’t the board’s idea to bring me in and it wasn’t my connections or my impressive list of scholarly work that sealed the deal. It was you. Working every angle, letting each party believe they were taking the initiative. Threading us all along like a master criminal.

I gave my presentation and wowed the shit out of them even though I was only half there. My mouth was rattling out the same old words I been saying to audiences for the past ten years since I retired from the Department, but my brain was back in investigation mode, working its way along each step of your crafty plan like a pilgrim along the stations of the cross.

At the cheesy reception after the meeting, we both played the part. By that time, I was already your co-conspirator without even so much as a whispered conversation. Perhaps you knew this would happen, but I’d like to imagine you were pleasantly surprised at how smooth I slid into my role. Or did you know I’d been waiting for more than two decades for you to come along and set everything into motion? I sure didn’t. Not till it happened anyway.

I shook hands and grinned. It’s a grin I’ve perfected over the years, makes white people very comfortable- a grin that says, we’re both in on the joke, and it’s okay. When the room cleared and you and I stood there all alone, silence was our friend. It was not the pregnant, obtrusive silence that pesters the vaguely acquainted but mutually attracted- it was the soothing quiet of a warm night shared between two satisfied lovers. I could almost feel the breeze, even through all those layers of marble.

Always the designated trickster, I mocked you lightly about such a bigdeal job-head of a museum and whatnot- and for a second thought I’d touched a nerve. You shot me the killer face- the face that if we’d have ever made it into the bedroom would’ve become a running joke between you and me, right up into our bedpan nursing home years. Then you finally smiled, perhaps for the first time ever, and it almost knocked me over. Knowing you, it was probably on purpose, getting me off guard with those angry eyes and then letting that shine loose on me.

We were both trying to ignore the Eshu. At that point, he was in a crate about three floors beneath us. Imagine putting Eshu in a crate- what a ridiculous and inadequate container for a vibrant child of God. The very idea is absurd. Almost as absurd as putting it on a pedestal for tourists to gawk at. But it is that very lack of irony that has again and again shaken the lofty halls of white culture, so there’s a certain charming inevitability to the whole thing.

Even after folks cleared out, we still made banal small talk as if there were inquiring ears nearby. Felt safer that way. I kept chuckling even though nothing was that funny, and you, surely against your better judgment, channeled the giddy school girl you’d long since left behind. Eshu’s long hands must’ve been reaching all the way up from his crate, past the glassy-eyed sarcophagi and foaming Chinese dragons, and right into our armpits for a long overdue tickle.

We settled into a comfortable rhythm, might as well have been two palm trees rustling back and forth to each other in the night. Both knew we were just passing time to let the building clear out. Laying in wait for a whole other kind of alone. Shifting your weight playfully from one foot to the other, you told me how you used to be a community organizer until the non-profit dependency dance drove you to museums; a similar dance with different steps. Maybe I told some dumb stories from my days walking the beat to get you juiced up, the way I used to with young ladies at parties. You didn’t seem all that impressed though.

When the security guard passed by and waved goodbye amiably (almost like he was in on the whole thing), we knew we were alone. Well, Doctor, you said with a sardonic grin and a slight bow, would you like to see the magnanimous stone that you have come to enlighten us about?

I would enjoy that, yes. Smooth. To my utter shock, you offered me the empty space between your elbow and your body. We walked arm in arm, like husband and bride, through the marble halls and down into the basement.

I almost wished we’da had the opportunity to put the thing on display, complete with big horror movie style subway ads and autographed copies of my glossy book. Imagine the shock. Eshu is, after all, just a big rock. This one was as strong and vibrant as any I’d ever seen- or would be when it finally woke up- but still: tourists prefer a smiley face on their exotic primitive art exhibits.

It was laughing inside us, louder and louder as we got closer to it. It probably didn’t know exactly what was going to happen, but it could smell freedom coming. I took out the rum and said a combination of prayers I’d learned over the course of my study. Prayers that slipped as easily from my lips now as casual conversation. Old old words that I infused with my own hopes and fears and whispered out into that dusty storage room.

First nothing at all happened. Not a damn thing. I don’t even think we were breathing. Then I felt, rather than saw or heard, the Eshu stirring from its three hundred-year slumber. Grudgingly at first, the crate began rocking back and forth. Then I heard it splinter and the wood planks cringed and then shattered. Your fingers wrapped around my arm. I could feel your smile on the back of my head. Could feel the Eshu’s smile rising like a sun, encompassing the whole room. I think that’s when the little piece of it lodged inside of me. The stone shimmied and tumbled forth as we jumped out of its way.

Immediately, the air felt staticy and crisp around us. You could taste the heat of all those electrons rubbing against each other. We ran lovingly after the old god, two little kids chasing an ice cream truck, and found ourselves in the first floor lobby- the one with all the towering dinosaurs, but our Eshu was nowhere to be found.

“He’s been here,” you said softly. “But he’s moved on.” A crash came from the Egypt Room and you grabbed my hand and yanked me along. Now we were thirteen, escaping to the roof of the PJs on Marcy Ave to stare at the sky and make out. The floor of the museum was rumbling and soon the alarms would go.

“Was there any plan for this part?” I asked when we paused to catch our breath at a stairwell.

“No plan,” you panted. “Eshu is the plan.”

We both laughed and hoped we had taken all our vitamins earlier.

We caught up to it bouncing against a wall in the Hall of Modern Art. Everything had been destroyed. Shattered glass oceans sparkled across the floor. “We have to let him out or he’ll tear apart the whole building.” But the police were already nearby; you could hear their furious yells and boot-stomps between Eshu’s thundering wall-smashes.

I wonder sometimes if this part was in your plan too. When the cops rounded the corner, all they found was me. They came on in a rage- that exasperated cop rage I remember so well from my years on the street. I let my body fall loose to the blows and grabs, gave in to the manhandling and tried to keep the smug grin off my face as I imagined you and the Eshu tumbling out the back fire exit. Truth is, I’d never felt so free in all my life.

From the clippings you’ve sent me, I see our little plan was a success. The Eshu is raining a solid supernatural ass whupping on most of our city’s corrupt institutions. And some of the non-corrupt ones too. I thought the take over of the school system was a nice touch- clearly they needed to start from scratch. And yes, you’ve proven your point about that Audre quote you always mention with the master’s tools. I can just see you trying to hold back that smug smile. Imagining you’ve gone underground. I also found the hidden message you put in the crossword puzzle clues and I’m flattered you plan to break me out of here, because after two and a half years, the excitement is definitely wearing off. That little piece of the Eshu stayed with me and every day I feel it growing and laughing inside me. Now I am its crate, a ridiculous, inadequate little container for a vibrant child of God. And this cell- this cell is my crate. It is ridiculous and inadequate too, and I am a vibrant child of God. Please come get me soon.

Tenderfoot

Originally published in The Innsmouth Free Press

I remember Delton Jennings. Bumped into him pretty regularly on my late-night sojourns and the guy was nice enough, if you could get past the rambling and hygiene issues. But this flattened mass of flesh, blood-crusted hair and organs? There’s a name tag where they guessed the foot would’ve been and without it, I wouldn’t know old Delton from a ham sandwich.

The one thing that is impossible not to notice is the smell. It’s not the pee-plus-beer-plus-a-quarter-century-of-body-odor combo that Delton usually rocked. It’s something more animal-like. As if he’d been wrestling in a zoo and lost.

I concentrate hard, watching the air around him for those little shining satellites that tell me what’s going on with folks, but nothing comes. He’s already been dead at least six hours and rotting in this morgue for three, so whatever memories his corpse carried could easily have fluttered away. But then, slowly, a few flashes return. It’s the sound of leaves rustling, something huge moving through the underbrush. A jolt of utter terror courses through me – I assume it was Delton’s, ’cause I don’t frighten easily. I hear a high-pitched shrieking – something not human. A few flashes of light burst out of the darkness and the inside of my head turns somersaults. Then everything goes black.

I’m dizzy when I open my eyes. It’s not that I’d been expecting Little Bo Peep, but dealing with this giant, screeching monstrosity seems a little out of my pay grade. My creepy, translucent bosses at The Council Of the Dead are gonna need to hear about all this, but there’s a few more leads to check up on first.

I like to get a strong Puerto Rican coffee after I visit the morgue. It’s the perfect palate-cleanser for all that creepy sterility. I sip the extra-strong, extra-sweet brew out of a little plastic cup as I walk up Nostrand Ave towards Eastern Parkway. The ghostly dickheads upstairs have selected my half-dead-half-alive ass to do this job, for some nefarious reason, I’m sure. I’m the only one like me, far as anyone knows, and it gets lonely, but the Council always finds a way to use my situation to their advantage.

The rain keeps starting and stopping like an anxious lover, who doesn’t know if he should spend the night. The sky has been clouded over all day, but the true evening darkness is just beginning to settle in. I finish my coffee and walk into the sloping park that’s nestled between the Botanical Gardens and the library.

Brett Colson crouches like a scruffy gargoyle in his regular perch, on an old bench halfway up the slope. He’s talking to himself, but waves at me genially as I approach.

“Bad business with Delton,” I say.

It takes Brett some effort to pull away from whatever conversation he was busy with before I showed up. “Bad indeed,” he finally manages.

“You see him before it happened, anytime?”

“Carlos, me and Delton been running these streets together for damn near twenty years. I seen Delton every day.”

“So, what’s the deal?”

“I dunno, man.” Brett fists up his face in disgust. “D disappeared one night last week, showed up again, reeking like he was rolling around with some circus animals. Couldn’t get the smell off him.”

The smell came before he got stomped. I have some recalculating to do. “Didn’t say where he went?”

“Didn’t remember. But that’s not so odd for Delton. Thing is, though, he actually got hisself cleaned and everything at the shelter on Fulton, and still couldn’t get that prehistoric foulness of him. We woulda teased him ’bout it, but it was all kinda creepy. Now I’m glad we didn’t.”

“Damn.”

“Did you know D had a dentistry degree?”

“I didn’t know that.”

“Yessir, went to school and everything. Had a wife and kids once upon a time, too. His degree’d-up ass still landed next to mine on this here park bench.”

“Look how she swings.”

Brett pours a swig of his bottle onto the grass and takes one, himself. I wonder if Delton will turn up in the afterlife, maybe even end up back here, and keep his old drinking buddy company. You never know.

***

Like drunk teenagers with too much toilet paper, cops have strewn that ridiculous yellow tape haphazardly across the upper park area. I find that if I act like a real dick and scowl a lot, I don’t even have to flash the fake FBI badge that the Council Of the Dead gave me – the street grunts just assume I’m some high-up brass they’ve never met and do whatever I tell them. But I’m not in a mood to take chances, so I exaggerate my grimace, lean hard on my wooden cane and flip out the silver shield. With a few arbitrary curses thrown in for good measure, the two uniforms guarding the crime scene fall right into line.

You can tell the new guys ’cause they have a lot to prove. It’s written all over their faces. This one’s named “O’Malley” and he’s masking how mortified he is with an exaggerated, brotherhood-of-cops chumminess.

“What’s going on, Agent?” he chuckles, like we’re old college buddies. “Didn’t know the feds wanted in on this one.”

“We don’t,” I say curtly. I don’t like forced friendliness, especially when I’m in character. “Just swinging through for a looksee. Where’s the kill spot?”

O’Malley makes an I’ll-take-him-you-stay-here sign to his partner, who just rolls his eyes. I follow the kid up a winding path into the darkening underbrush. “You shoulda seen the body, man,” he yammers. “It was like someone ironed him.” I’m too busy trying to weed out all the new-guy excitement this guy’s projecting so I can focus on the crime scene. So far, though, it’s just your basic city-park deal: the slow pulsing of plant life arching towards the sky, a flurry of insects and the scattered frenzy of a few midsized mammals scurrying for trash. Oh, yes: and the unforgettable aura of homelessness – that pungent, lived-in-clothes desolation.

“Here we go, boss.” O’Malley waves his light over a dark stain on the path. “This is where the bum got done.” I scowl at him and walk up close to where Delton’s blood is slowly absorbing into the cement. There’s not much left for me that hasn’t been swallowed up by forensics or the urban wilderness. A few candy wrappers and beer bottles are scattered around – remnants of Delton’s last supper, no doubt – and a little further away, a used condom and an old hat. None of this is particularly helpful. I take a step into the total darkness of the underbrush. It’s here I realize that there’s something else odd about the park tonight. It’d been bothering me since I stepped in, but I couldn’t put my finger on it, like a humming you don’t notice until it stops. There are no ghosts here. Usually, any city park hosts a whole cross-section of spirits. This park’s particularly alive with the dead; you can see ‘em fluttering in their strange circles, like glow bugs, any time after sunset. Well, I can, anyway. But tonight: it’s like an empty schoolhouse. A silence so deep it curls up inside my ears.

Then, all at once, I’m inundated by a rush of thick, pungent wind. The trees around me tremble and send up a mournful shushing. Back on the path, O’Malley shifts his weight uneasily from one foot to the other. The leaves convulse more frantically. I hear the snapping of branches. Something huge is moving very quickly towards us.

I smell it before I see it; that same old-feces-circus-tent stench from the body. O’Malley yells something unintelligible and I duck as three gunshots ring out behind me. There’s a flurry of motion – the huge fast thing lets out its deafening shriek and thunders even faster towards us. It’s only a fuzzy flicker – tall as a two-story building, long matted hair and all shiny-transparent like a jellyfish. It bursts out of the trees and knocks me on my ass.

For the first year after my death, I got the heebie-jeebies each time I rolled up on some runaway spook, but after a while, you get used to it, and I haven’t felt much of anything for quite a while. This situation, on the other hand, has reached some place deep inside of me and crushed all that cool-headed resolve. Find out what’s going on, the Council message had said. Okay, I found out: there’s a huge hairy freak show in the park. Done. I hear that inhuman shriek, mixed with the wet, crunching sound that’s probably the end of Officer O’Malley. I don’t look back, don’t think. I just run. I don’t stop running ’till I reach my friend Victor’s spot in Crow Hill. I ring the bell until I collapse in a heap on his doorstep and only then, do I realize I’m bleeding.

***

“Really, babe? Penicillin? You gotta be fucking kidding me.”

“You can’t crush up some aloe, love muffin, and make this all go away, okay? That gash is deep as shit.”

“Oh, is that all I do? Crush up some aloe? Victor, I swear to God, if Carlos wasn’t here bleeding all over my couch, I would stab you in the neck.”

It’s comforting, really, the gentle love-hate routine that Victor and his girl Jenny banter back and forth over me. I wake up smiling, in spite of the dull throbbing in my flank. The brand new thing called “terror” is only a faraway echo.

“He’s awake. Put the kettle on, Vic.”

“You’re the Tea Master General; you put the kettle on.”

“Victor….” There’s a serious threat in Jenny’s voice. It might be the threat of no ass for a month, but whatever it is, it works. When I open my eyes, it’s Jenny’s calm, slender face that’s looking down at me. She’s one of these new-age urban herbalist types, straight out of Minnesota or Ohio or somewhere, by way of some fancy liberal arts school. In spite of it all, she’s grown on me. Victor’s a paramedic with the FDNY. The combination makes for some fiery dinnertime showdowns about the best way to manage a broken bone, but the make-up sex is sensational, from what I can hear one room over.

“You’re gonna be all right, Carlos,” Jenny says. “I’ll keep Victor busy making tea so he can’t get to you with any of those synthetic death medications he loves to gank from the station.”

“Actually, synthetic death medication sounds like it might really hit the spot right now,” I say. When I sit up, it sends splintering pain all up and down my right side.

“Lie down,” Jenny scowls. “And shut up. I’ll let you know when dinner’s ready.”

Dinner is fake chicken, mixed with something green called “kale”, but I eat it, anyway.

“You gonna tell us what happened?” Victor asks. By the way he gets a little rounder each time I visit, I’m guessing he still sneaks in a few pork sandwiches during those long nights on the ambulance.

“Probably not,” I say.

“Really, you should go to a hospital, man. That wound is nasty.”

“You know damn well I can’t do that.” We have this argument almost every time I show up at their door with some otherwordly injury. My heart barely beats at all. My complexion is a dull, brownish-gray. Medically speaking, I’m dead – a partially resurrected, gimp-legged half-wraith. Treatment at a hospital would mean answering far more questions than I care to. Much easier to just come here, where I only say what I need to and get some form of dinner on top of it.

“What’s up with the elephants?” Jenny asks. I look at her with raised eyebrows. “Elephants. You wouldn’t shut up about them when you were writhing around on our couch.” She flails her arms in the air and affects some version of a Spanish accent. “‘Oh, the elephants! Estop the elephants! Oh!’”

“Okay,” I say. “I got it. I have no idea what you’re talking about.” But my mind is racing. Is that what I saw flashing out of the underbrush?

“That’s what did this to you?” Victor gapes. “I’ve never had an elephant injury before.”

“No,” I say. “It was…hairy.” The frenzied memories aren’t leaving me with much information to go with. “It was huge and hairy and it stank. That’s all I got.”

“The Hindus believe that elephants used to be able to fly,” Victor informs me. “Until one of them fell out of a tree onto a great meditating sage and he cursed away their wings.”

“Whoopee,” Jenny says. “I know how to google, too.”

Victor grunts.

“Elephants,” I say, retreating deeper and deeper into my mind. “Elephants.” I look up at Jenny and Victor. “Can I use your phone?”

When the regular old fully-dead Council agents want to get in touch with headquarters, they just use that special afterlife telepathy shit and it’s done. My halfnhalf ass has to use the phone. I receive all their irritating updates and directives perfectly clearly – comes through like a radio blasting inside my head, but for whatever reason, it doesn’t work the other way. They rigged up a phone line and answering machine somewhere in that vast, misty warehouse they’ve taken over in Sunset Park. I call the number, leave my message and wait for the reply to blare through my skull.

“It’s Delacruz,” I say (as if anyone else calls them on that line). “Updating on the Delton Jennings park murder. Checking on a possible link to a phantom pachyderm.” I feel stupid saying that, but it sounds better than “ghost elephant”. “Check and advise on any recent circus or zoo fires. Also: an Officer O’Malley with the NYPD was injured or killed earlier while I was at the scene. Advise on status. That’s all.” Is that all? Is it ever all? I hate updating. I hang up and sit on the bloodstained couch to wait.

The reply takes a little longer than usual. When it does come, it rustles me from a troubled nap. Council Of the Dead to Agent Delacruz. A dull ache begins to spread across my forehead. Your orders are to detain, but not destroy, the subject. Do not, under any circumstances, damage the ghost elephant. I hate my job. Capture it and bring it to headquarters. That is all.

I don’t know if I can all-the-way die or not, but I have a feeling I’m about to find out. Just the thought of going anywhere near the park sends a shudder through me.

“I’m out,” I say, poking my head into the kitchen.

“You’re not even better, yet!” Victor says.

It’s true; my flank still burns every time I move. I shrug and then scowl in pain.

“See?” Jenny says. “Just lie back down on the couch for a few hours.”

I shake my head. “Thanks for dinner.”

“You’re a pain in the ass.”

***

Whenever something sinister seems to be brewing at the Council Of the Dead, Riley is the dude I politic with. They usually partner him up with me on assignments, and he’s the closest thing to a friend I’ve got in the Underworld. Also, he has an uncanny ability to wreak havoc on authority figures and an entire network of likeminded phantoms, scattered throughout the Council, that he goes to for information.

He materializes next to me at the Burgundy Bar. The Burgundy Bar is a rundown saloon in Red Hook, owned by a one-eyed drunk named “Quiñones”. It’s mostly a bunch of dazed alcoholics in there, so no one pays much mind when I sit at the bar, carrying on a full conversation over drinks with someone that ain’t there. Long as Quiñones gets his little package of twenties at the end of each month, care of the COD, he’s perfectly happy ignoring whatever hints of supernatural activity sputter up at our after-hours spot.

“What’d you find out?” I mutter at the gently-glowing apparition beside me.

The drunks can’t see or hear Riley, and he enjoys taking full of advantage of the situation. “Found out you stepped into another dead people clusterfuck,” he says loudly. “Get me a Henney.”

I nod at Quinones. “A Hennessy for my friend.” He winks at me like I’m some happy retard and busies himself with my order.

“It wasn’t an elephant,” Riley says. He loves knowing shit I don’t.

“What the fuck was it, then?”

“I got a guy coming, Dr. Calloway. He’s gonna fill us in on some shit.”

“What’s the word on O’Malley?”

“The cop that got squashed?” Riley lets out a belly laugh.

“He got squashed squashed?” I say. “Or just kinda squashed?”

“No, he’s gonna make it,” Riley chuckles. “But the thing got his shooting arm. Looked like God took a spatula to it. Just flat and splayed out. Like Wile E. Fucking Coyote.”

“Wow.”

“They had to take it off. He’s got early retirement, line-of-duty compensation, and now your freakoid park killing is big news. Press all over it. Major Crimes Division investigating. A hot mess.”

A sparkly, bearded form fizzles into existence in the barstool next to Riley. “Carlos, meet the good Doctor Calloway.” The ghost nods at me and looks around nervously. “Doc, thanks for joining us today. You will note: no afterlifers besides us two are present and everyone else is drunk as fuck and can’t see you. You are free to speak freely.”

Calloway nods again. His fingers fiddle endlessly on the bar. “What’s the what?” I say.

“The what,” Doctor Calloway says, “is that the Council Of the Dead is engaged in the systematic categorization of all things phantom.”

“This we knew,” I say. “Get to it.”

“Which includes building a secret zoological theme park for the afterlife.”

“A ghost zoo?” I say.

“Essentially,” agrees the doctor. “For the purposes of both study and entertainment. And they are particularly interested in tracking down specimens that haven’t previously been analyzed.”

“Eh?”

“Meaning, things that were around before we had the ability or technology to really find much out.”

“Extinct shit,” Riley explains.

“It’s all very sinister, really,” Calloway says. “Like a prehistoric Noah’s ark.”

“Charming,” I say. “So, my friend in the park?”

Mammuthus primigenius,” says the doctor.

“You tangled with a wooly motherfucking mammoth,” Riley translates.

I order three shots of rum. “It seems,” the doctor continues, “that certain species continue to move in migratory cycles, even centuries after they are extinct. The COD charted a pattern of savage disasters – unexplained building collapses, mysteriously crushed vehicles.”

“Flat dudes,” Riley adds.

“All bearing that unmistakable stench so common to long-dead pachyderms, left like footprints behind the stampede. The Council calculated a few routes and determined when the herd would be passing through our fine city.”

I down all three shots in quick succession. “Go on.”

“Their team of forensic zoologists, of which I am occasionally a participant, proposed that the ancient pachyderm may share a common behavioral trait with the modern elephant: an almost-fanatically protective drive in relationship to their young.”

Riley’s looking ornery about me hogging all the shots, so I order two more and give him one. “Using a method too complicated to get into right now, they secured a sample of baby mammoth dung.”

“Then they kidnapped a vagrant that no one would miss,” I put in, “and covered him in it.”

“Precisely!” exclaims Calloway, looking a little too impressed with the whole thing for my taste. “Turns out, mammoths were very attuned to scent. They could tell what kind of mammoth it was that produced the feces, how old, whether it was an ill mammoth or healthy one, all kinds of fascinating information.”

“Fascinating,” Riley says.

“Fascinating, indeed,” the doctor nods.

“So, a ghost momma mammoth returns to the park after the herd passes through,” I say. “She’s thinking she’ll find a stray ghost baby mammoth there and take him along.”

“Instead, she finds Delton Jennings,” says Riley, “and makes a bum pancake.”

“But why’s she still there?” I ask.

“Once she was inside,” Calloway explains, “the COD put the area on a kind of spiritual lockdown. She is trapped within the boundaries of the park.”

I slam my hand on the bar, perhaps a little harder than is really necessary. “That’s why there were no ghosts in the park!” A few drunks look over at me with their shut-the-fuck-up faces and I settle down.

“Only trouble is, they had to put down such heavy barriers to hold her, now nothing dead can get in or out. It’s a no-go zone, now. If they take them down to go in, she’ll make a break for it before they can subdue her.”

“Leave it to the COD to come up with a plan so brilliant that it doesn’t work,” Riley chuckles.

“That’s where I come in,” I say. “Detain, but don’t destroy, the subject. Send the halfie in to catch the momma, cut open the damn boundary from the inside and lure her right into their little Underworld entranceway in Prospect Park. Fuckers got me doing their dirty work again.”

“That’s your job,” Riley reminds me.

I grunt moodily. “Where’s the rest of the herd?”

“Oh,” Calloway throws his translucent arms up in the air. “They’re long gone, stampeded out across the Atlantic Ocean a few days ago.”

“Great.” I finish my drink, grab my walking stick and head for the door.

“Where you off to?” Riley calls after me.

“Gotta sleep off this rum and figure out what the fuck to do.”

***

I wake up the next afternoon to the sound of Victor and Jenny’s grunting, passionate reconciliation. It’s almost as comforting as their bickering – a sweaty, breathless reminder of life amidst all this death. Outside, the sky flirts with the beginnings of night. I’m trying not to think about my date with the giant, prehistoric ghost in the park, but it’s not working. I’m not comfortable being on the same planet with that thing, not to mention subduing it. And I like even less the thought of turning it over to the probing curiosity of The Council Of the Dead. But Riley’s right: it is my job. I let myself out quietly, without disturbing the festivities and head to the Puerto Rican spot for my coffee.

The park is mostly shadows. A few sad lamps let off eerie glows; pathetic little constellations that reach out into the woods. Now that I’m expecting it, the lack of anything supernatural at all is jarring, a scream of white noise. How do you people do it? I wrap my fingers around the walking stick, which conceals my ghost-killing blade. It is my only comfort right now, and I pray with all my might that I won’t have to use it.

The police grunts are gone, but, as if to prove their utter disregard for the rest of the world, they’ve left behind a little makeshift cop memorial to O’Malley’s arm. It features a few corny snap shots of him, a candle and some empty liquor bottles. If I hadn’t promised myself that I’d walk as slowly and calmly as possible, I would scatter it into the weeds. I make each move matter; inch forward at an agonizing pace. The momma will come, but she won’t come angry. I find my spot, a few feet from Delton’s grisly stain, and wait.

I wake up from pleasant dreams of a beautiful, dark-skinned Puerto Rican woman, who only wants to stare in my eyes, but instead, I’m looking directly into a tower of ghostly fur. Momma mammoth has found me. She’s standing about five feet away, studying me. I close my eyes again, make a concentrated effort to suppress the urge to run and vomit at the same time. I breathe deeply until my heart rate returns to the melancholic six beats a minute that I’m used to. I open my eyes again and she’s still there. She raises her furry trunk towards me. I let it explore my whole body. The trunk lets out little snorts as it probes my cane, then proceeds up to my face. It’s wet and smells foul like Delton did. But I am alive. She’s not trampling me, yet. Perhaps the rage has subsided some.

Slow like honey, I raise my hand out, palm to the sky. The snout snorffles its way through my fingers and then retreats back to its owner, apparently satisfied. “I’m going to take you out of here,” I say, very slowly. “I’m going to break the barrier.” She just stares at me, her humongous body rising and falling like a furry tide. “To find your herd.” Maybe I’m imagining things, but she appears to perk up a little. Her breath quickens. Of course, she was alive millions of years before anyone thought to say “herd”, but a halfie can hope.

I take a step backwards, beckoning her with my hands. “C’mon,” I say, in the friendliest voice I can muster. “Come to the edge. I’ll take you to freedom.” It’s hard to say that word, knowing that where I really have to take her is quite the opposite of freedom, but I’m trying to push that out of my head for now. Getting all sappy doesn’t make this job any easier. “C’mon, Mama.”

I think what really gets me is her first step forward. I keep cooing, “C’mon, Mamma, come to freedom,” but by the time we’ve reached a full stride towards the edge of the park, tears are streaming down my face. I will never, in a million years, be able to explain why. We keep walking along, a strange night procession through the park: me crying and cooing, waving my hands in little circles towards myself and the ghost mammoth, lumbering along cautiously.

When we reach the stone wall around the park, I try to collect myself. I wipe my eyes with my sleeves, like some chick on a talk show, and take a few deep breaths so I can stop making those damn little hiccupy sobs. “I’m sorry,” I say to the mammoth. “It’s been a rough week.” She’s glaring furiously at the invisible force field that the COD has rudely erected around the park. Surely, she has already had more than a few unpleasant attempts to escape.

I pull my spirit-killing blade out of its walking stick sheath and the she-mammoth lets out that ear-shattering shriek and rears up above me. Her legs kick the air a few inches from my face. I take two steps back and slash behind me with the blade, trying to feel out the damn force field. I’m cutting air. She lands and I swear New York must be registering a minor earthquake. Her tusks are aimed right at me, two great translucent curved swords reaching out to run me through. She stomps forward.

I slash some more, and finally feel that satisfying pressure against the blade that means I’ve found my mark. The force field gives way, ripping open around us. The great ancient matron stops mid-charge and regards the air that was once her prison wall. A crowd of relieved phantom park critters trickles back in through the new tear. The mammoth watches them scuttle past and then she looks at me. I make a show of sheathing my blade and step over the wall, so she sees it’s alright.

“See?” I say. “It’s safe now. C’mon. Come over. You’re free. You’re going home.” Damnit – the word home chokes me up again, but I recover quickly. She’s huffing and puffing as she reaches her trunk cautiously towards the wall. When nothing happens, she takes a single step forward. Then another. “C’mon, ma, c’mon,” I say. She lumbers out of the park and then we’re standing on Eastern Parkway at four o’clock in the morning, me and my new friend, the momma mammoth.

I’m trying to figure out how we’re gonna make it to Prospect Park when I feel her warm trunk wrap tightly around my waist. Panic sweeps across me like floodwaters. I can’t breath. I can’t move. I can’t even see straight. The whole world turns upside down and then I’m deposited gently onto her mountainous back, looking down on the street. I catch my breath and right myself, reaching one leg down along either side of her body. If God, or whoever, brought me back to life just so I could live this moment, it was worth it. I take two firm fistfuls of ghostly fur and the momma mammoth jolts into a run. Without regard for which streets are populated or who might see us, she barrels headlong towards the park.

The Council Of the Dead has a very strict rule: do not involve humans. Don’t fuck with their lives, don’t appear to them if you’re a ghost, don’t let on that you can see ghosts if you’re not one. In short: leave the greatest mystery of the afterlife a damn mystery. But the Council Of the Dead also kidnapped Delton Jennings, covered him in mammoth shit and sent him off to be trampled. So, if tonight, a few nocturnal stragglers are startled to see a dapper and ecstatic gray-skinned Puerto Rican fly past with tears in his eyes, I couldn’t really give a damn.

The wind ripples fiercely around me, cleansing me of all doubt and indecision. What is left is pure exhilaration. We gallop down the Parkway, cut a left across Grand Army Plaza and burst like a furry ghost rocket into Prospect Park. There’s no more decision to make. We rush along towards the turnoff that would lead to the waiting arms of The Council and their infinite imprisonment. I could urge the mammoth to turn off. She trusts me now. Instead, I smile as we thunder past.

The Park is alive around us. The early-morning birds twitter a high-pitched symphony and the city forest ghosts erupt into a flurry of activity as we pass. We break out of the wilderness and speed down Ocean Parkway at a steady, ass-breaking canter, through Midwood, Gravesend and over the Belt Parkway. Ahead is the infinite Atlantic darkness. I take a deep breath of ocean air and laugh out loud. Some doufy early-morning joggers pass and try to ignore me, the crazy laughing man floating in the corners of their eyes.

When we hit sand, she’s walking. Her body heaves up and down beneath me. I pat her gratefully. Then I grab hold of some fur, dangle down along her wooly flank and drop onto the beach. Side by side, we stroll to the edge of the water. I imagine a whole army of ghost mammoths, thundering out across the waves somewhere, but all I see is darkness and a few stars. I don’t have to tell her to go on now; after a brief pause, momma mammoth launches herself out onto the water. I plant my ass in the sand, light a cigar and watch her flickering glow disappear into the night. There will be hell to pay in the morning – eyebrows raised, forms to fill out, suspicious interrogations. But all that is tomorrow. Tonight, for the first time since I died, I feel alive.

THE END

Salsa Nocturna

Originally published in Strange Horizons
People say that all musical geniuses die in the gutter, and I’ve made my peace with that, but this is ridiculous. Anyway, it’s a boiler room, but let me start at the beginning: the whole gigging around at late night bars and social clubs really began drying up right around the time the great white flight did a great white about-face. Mosta my main night spots shut down or started serving cappuccino instead of El Presidente. Two of my guys moved to Philly. Things were looking kinda grim, to be honest with you. I mean, me, I knew it’d work out in the long run—it’s not that I’m an optimist, there’s just certain things I do know—but meanwhile, the short run was kicking my ass. Kicking all our asses really.

So when my son’s girl Janey came to me about this gig at the overnight center, I had to pay her some mind. Janey’s a special kid, I gotta say. I couldn’t ask for a better woman for Ernesto either. She keeps him in line, reminds him, I think, where he is from, that he’s more than that fancy suit he puts on every morning. And she makes us all laugh with that mouth of hers too. Anyway, she comes to me one morning while I’m taking my morning medicina with my café con leche and bacon, eggs and papas fritas. I always take my high blood pressure pills with a side of bacon or sausage, you know, for balance.

“Gordo,” she says. My name is Ernesto too, just like my son, but everyone calls me Gordo. It’s not ’cause I’m fat. Okay, it’s ’cause I’m fat. “Gordo,” she says, “I want you to come interview at this place I work on Lorimer.” You see what she did? She made it look like I would be doing her the favor. Smart girl, Janey.

I eyed her coolly and put some more bacon in me.

“They need someone to watch the kids at night and later on maybe you can teach music in the mornings.”

“Kids?” I said. “What makes you think I want to have anything to do with kids?”

There’s two kinds of people that really are drawn to me: kids and dead people. Oh yeah, and crackheads on the street but that hardly counts because they obviously have an agenda. Kids seek me out like I’m made of candy. They find me and then they attach themselves to me and they don’t let go. Maybe it’s because I don’t really buy into that whole “Aren’t they cute” shit, I just take ’em as they come. If I walk onto a playground, and I swear to you I’m never the instigator, it’s like some memo goes out: Drop whatever game you’re playing and come chase the fat guy. Family events and holidays? Forget it. I don’t really mind it because I hate small talk, and if there’s one thing about kids, they give it to you straight: “Tío Gordo why you so big?”

And I get real serious looking. “Because I eat so many children,” I say.

Then they run off screaming and usually, I give chase until I start wheezing.

It beats How’s the music business? and Oh, really? How interesting! Because really and truly, I don’t care how everyone’s little seed is doing at CUNY or whatever.

I’m not bragging but even teenagers like me. They don’t admit it most of the time, but I can tell. They’re just like overgrown, hairy five year olds anyway. Also, notoriously poor small talkers.

Janey told me exactly how it would go down and exactly what to say. She’s been doing this whole thing for a while now, so she speaks whitelady-ese like a pro. She had this Nancy lady down pat too, from the extra-extra smile to the cautious handshake to the little sing-song apologies dangling off every phrase. Everything went just like she said it would. The words felt awkward in my mouth, like pieces of food that’re too big to chew, and I thought that Nancy was on to me right up until she says—That sounds terrific, Mr. Cortinas.

You can call me Gordo, I say.

It’s called a non-profit but everyone at the office is obviously making a killing. The kids are called minority and emotionally challenged but there’s a lot more of them and they show a lot more emotions than the staff. It’s a care facility but the windows are barred. The list goes on and on, but still, I like my job. The building’s one of these old gothic type numbers on the not-yet-gentrified end of Lorimer. Used to be an opera house or something, so it’s still got all that good run-down music hall juju working for it. I show up at nine p.m. on the dot, because Janey said my sloppy Cuban time won’t cut it here so just pretend I’m supposed to be there at eight and I’ll be alright. And it works.

They set up a little desk for me by a window on the fifth floor. Outside I can see the yard and past that a little park. I find that if I smoke my Malagueñas in the middle of the hallway, the smell lingers like an aloof one-night stand till the morning and I get a stern/apologetic talking to from Nancy and then a curse-out from Janey. So, I smoke out the window.

It’s a good thing that most of the kids are already sleeping by the time I arrive, because even as it is I can feel my presence course through the building like an electrical current. I can’t help it. Occasionally a little booger will get up to make a number one or number two and not want to go back to bed. I make like I’m gonna slap ’em and they scatter back to their rooms. Soon they’ll be on to me though.

A little after midnight, the muertos show up. They’re always in their Sunday best, dressed to the nines, as they say, in pinstriped suits and fancy dresses. Some of them even have those crazy Spanish flamenco skirts on. They wear expensive hats and white gloves. While the children sleep, the muertos gather around my little desk on the fifth floor foyer and carry on. Mostly they dance, but a few of them bring instruments: old wooden guitars and basses, tambores, trumpets. Some of them show up with strange ones that I’ve never seen before—African, I think—and then I have to figure out how to transpose whatever-it-is into the piano/horn section arrangement I’m used to.

Look, their music is close enough to what I’d write anyway, so either they’re some part of my subconscious or it’s a huge supernatural coincidence—really, what are the chances? So either way I don’t feel bad jotting down the songs. Besides, I started bringing my own little toy store carry-along keyboard and accompanying them. Course I keep the volume low so as not to wake up the little ones.

There’s a jangle to the music of the dead. I mean that certain something that’s so happy and so sad at the same time. The notes almost make a perfect harmony but don’t. Then they do but quickly crash into dissonance. They simmer in that sweet in-between, rhythm section rattling along all the while. Chords collapse chaotically into each other, and just when you think the whole thing’s gonna spill into total nonsense, it stands back up and comes through sweet as a lullaby on your mami’s lips. Songs that’ll make people tap their feet and drink melancholically but not realize the twisting genius lurking within until generations later. That’s the kind of music I make, and the dead do too. We make it together.

Tonight was different, though. The muertos didn’t show up. They never scared me. If anything they kept me company in those wee hours. But this, this silence, made me shiver and feel like I was both being watched by a thousand unfriendly eyes and all alone in the world. I looked down that empty hallway. Tried to imagine my brand-new-long-lost friends making their shadowy way up towards me, but it remained empty.

Just to have something to do, I made the rounds. Each troubled young lump in its curled up spot. Some nights when I don’t feel like doing my music, I read their files. Their twisted little sagas unwind through evaluation forms and concerned emails. Julio plays with himself at meal times. Devon isn’t allowed near mirrors on the anniversary of his rape. Tiffany hides knives in case the faceless men come back for her. But night after night, they circle into themselves like those little curlup bugs and drift off into sleep.

One bed, though, was empty. The cut out construction paper letters on the door spelled MARCOS. A little Ecuadorian kid, if I remembered his file right. Untold horrors. Rarely spoke. The muertos being gone was bad in a supernatural, my-immortal-soul kind of way and Marcos being gone was bad in a frowning-Nancy-in-the-morning, lose-my-job kind of way, and I wasn’t really sure which was worse. I turned and walked very quickly back down the hallway. First I spot-checked all the rooms I’d already passed just in case little man was crouching in one of the corners unnoticed. But I knew he wasn’t. I knew wherever Marcos was, there would be a whole lot of swaying shrouds with him. Remember I told you sometimes I just know stuff? This was one of those things. Besides, I don’t believe in coincidence. Not when kids and the dead are involved.

When I got to the end of the hallway, I stood still and just panted and sweated for a minute. That’s when I heard the noise coming from one of the floors below. It was just barely there, a ghost of a sound really, and kept fading away and coming back. Like the little twinkling of a music box, far, far away.

To the untrained eye, I appear bumbling. You can see my blood vessels strain tight to support my girth. My hands are ungainly and callused. For a man who makes such heart-wrenching, subtle melodies, I am not delicate. But if you were to watch me in slow-mo, you would then understand that really I am a panther. A slow, overweight panther, perhaps, but still, there is a fluidity to me—a certain poise. I flowed, gigantic and cat-like, down the five flights of stairs to the lobby, pausing at each landing to catch my breath and check for signs of stroke or heart attack. Infarto, in Spanish, so that in addition to perhaps dying you have the added discomfort of it sounding like you were laid low by a stinky shot of gas.

The lobby is covered in posters that are supposed to make the children feel better about having been abused and discarded. Baby animals snuggle amidst watercolor nature drawings. It’s a little creepy.

The noise was still coming from somewhere down below, definitely the basement. I wasn’t thrilled about this, was hoping the muertos had simply gathered in the lobby (perhaps to enjoy the inspirational artwork) but can’t say I was surprised either. I opened the old wooden door that leads down the last flight of stairs and took a deep breath. Each step registered my presence unenthusiastically. At the bottom, I reached into the darkness till my hand swatted a dangling chain. The bulb was dim. It cast an uneven, gloomy light on a cluttered universe of broken furniture, file cabinets and forgotten papier-mâché projects.

I followed the noise through the shadows. I could now make it out definitively to be a melody, a lonely, minor key melody, beautiful like a girl with one eye standing outside a graveyard. I rounded a corner and then held perfectly still. Before me hovered all my friends, the muertos, with their backs turned to me. I tried to see past them but they were crowded together so densely it was impossible. Ever so quietly, I crept forward among them, their chilly undead shadows sending tiny earthquakes down my spine.

The muertos were gathered around a doorway. I entered and found myself in this dank boiler room. At the far end, little Marcos sat calmly in a niche of dusty pipes and wiring. He held my carry-along in his lap. His eyes were closed and his fingers glided up and down the keys. Between myself and Marcos, about thirty small muertos, muertocitos, bobbed up and down, their undivided attention on the boy. You know—I never think much about those who die as children—what their wandering souls must deal with. Who watches over them, checks on those small, curly-bug lumps at night? The ghost children were transfixed; I could feel their love for this boy and his music as surely as I felt the pulse pounding in my head.

And, to be quite honest with you, at first I too found myself lost in the swirling cascade of notes coming from my little keyboard. It is rare that I feel humbled, rarer still that it would happen because of a ten year old, but I’m not above admitting it. The song filled the heavy boiler room air, so familiar and so brand-new. It was a mambo, but laced with the saddest melody I’ve ever heard—some unholy union of Mozart and Perez Prado that seemed to speak of so many drunken nights and whispered promises. It tore into me, devoured me and pieced me back together a brand new man.

But now the song has ended, breaking the quiet reverie we had all fallen into and ripping open a great painful vacancy where it once had been. The rapture is over and we are just in a boiler room, which is about as good as a gutter when it comes to places to die.

I’m strong, and not the addictive type, so I shake my head and welcome myself back to the strange silence. But the muertocitos are not so quick to move on. A furious rustling ripples through their ranks, and the small, illuminated shadows nudge towards Marcos. The boy looks up finally, and turns to me, eyes wide. He starts to play the song again, but he’s afraid now. His heart’s not in it and the ghostlings can tell. They continue their urgent sway, a tough crowd, and begin to edge closer to him.

I carry a few saints with me and I find more often than not, they do their part. They tend to really come through when my more basic human instincts, like caution, fail. This is definitely one of those times. I surge (cat-like) through the crowd of wily young ghosts. Their cool tendrils cling to me like cobwebs but I keep moving. I scoop up little man and his living body feels so warm against me compared to all that death. He’s still clutching the keyboard. Eyes squeezed shut. His little heart sends a pitter-patter pulse out like an S-O-S.

I decide if I pause to consider the situation around me, I may come to my senses, which would definitely mean an icy, uncomfortable death for myself and Marcos. So I make like a linebacker—fake left, swerve right (slowly, achingly, but—gracefully) and then just plow down the middle. They’re more ready for me this time, and angrier. The air is thick with their anger; any minute the wrong molecule might collide and blow the whole place up. Also, I didn’t gain quite the momentum I’d hoped to. I can feel all that stillness reach far inside me, penetrate my most sacred places, throw webs across my inner shrines, detain my saints. It is seriously holding me up.

But there is more music to write. I won’t be around to see my legacy honored properly but I have a few more compositions in me before I can sleep peacefully. Also, I enjoy my family and Saturday nights playing dominos with the band after rehearsal and my morning café con leche, bacon, eggs, papas fritas and sometimes sausage. Young Ernesto who’s not so young and whatever crazy creation him and Janey will come up with in their late night house-rocking—there are still things I would like to see. Plus, this little fellow in my arms seems like he may have a long, satisfying career ahead of him. A little lonely perhaps, but musical genius can be an all-consuming friend until you know how to tame her. I have room under my wing here, I realize as I plow through this wee succubus riot, and many things to tell young Marcos. Practical things—things that they don’t teach about you in books or grad school.

Is trundle a word? It should be. I trundle through those creatures, tearing their sloppy ice tentacles from my body. The door comes up on me quicker than I thought it would, catches me a little off guard and I’m so juiced up thinking of all the beautiful and sad truths I will tell Marcos when we survive that I just knock it out of my way. I don’t stop to see how the mama and papa muertos feel about the situation; I move through them quick.

At the corner I glance back. An intervention of some kind seems to be taking place. The muertos have encircled their young. I can only suppose what must be happening, but I’d like to believe it’s a solid scolding, an ass beating like the one I would’ve gotten from Papi (God rest his troubled soul) if I’d trapped one of my younger brothers in the basement and made like I was gonna end them.

When we reach the c’mon-get-happy lobby, I notice that dawn is edging out onto the streets. Marcos’s song must’ve been longer than I realized. I put the boy down, mostly because I’m losing feeling in the lower half of my body and my shirt is caked in sweat. Wrap my fat hand around the banister and slowly, languidly, huff and puff up the stairs behind him. I pause on the landing, listen to the quick, echoing tak-tak-tak of his footfall bound up the next three flights. He will be curled in his bed by the time I reach the second floor, asleep by sunrise. At six, the morning crew will come in, smiles first, and I will chuckle with them nonchalantly about the long, uneventful night. Tomorrow evening, as I show my new student a few tricks to keep his chops up, my friends will return. In their Sunday best, they will slither as always from the shadows of the fifth floor hallway. And this time, they will bring their young along with them.

Copyright © 2010 Daniel José Older