I remembered Tegan Abate. She was an athletic girl with brown skin and pale eyes who wore her sable hair in a layered cascade down her back.
Looking back, there were so many things wrong with her whole story and who knows how many years she was crying out for help. Tegan had always drifted on the edges of our social circles. Never so far out as to be an outcast or even a loner, but never close enough that we got to know her. Not that we were trying all that hard. Like many suburban kids in the nineties, our lives were a comfortable farce that we supported only because it was more assuring than the unknown. However, it was not until a wet summer’s day many years later did I regret my childish oblivion.
”Hi, Tegan,” I stammered to the woman standing at my door. I tried to revive my old talent for wide smiles, but thirteen years of adulthood waylaid my efforts.
”Melissa,” she nodded and I could tell that the millstone hanging around her neck was larger and older than my own. “May I come in?”
”Oh!” I am sure she could tell I wanted to say no. I hemmed a moment longer, but she did not withdraw her request. “Um walk with me to the store.” I grabbed my keys from a hook by the door and led her toward the elevator bank at the end of the corridor.
”Your wallet,” she said, her voice flat and calm. I pretended not to hear her and closed the door behind me.
”What are you doing in Philly?” I wished my voice sounded lighter and more carefree, but all I could muster was shrill curiosity.
”What do you remember about me?”. She gave me a look that dared me to bullshit.
I took a chance anyway. “Sporty, kinda quiet, lived with your dad over by the junior high school”.
A spasm of anger passed across her face then was gone. “I need you to help me,” she said through gritted teeth.
“Yeah ok,” I said as one of the elevators opened, “I think you came to the wrong place.” I flicked my fingers at the empty car and turned back down the hall.
“You owe me, bitch,” She shouted. I stopped dead in my tracks. A wild surge of anger rose from my stomach and choked my retort in my throat.
“It’s just a small favor,” she said, her voice breaking. There was a long silence in which the elevator closed and left and my anger turned to guilt.
“I had nothing to do with that, Tegan,” I did not turn around to face her, but I could hear her breathing become quick and shallow. “That’s all behind us and I don’t want it in my new life.”
“Your new life!” she squeaked, “Did you stop being Melissa Gonzales?”
This time I turned around. “Sure did,” I sneered and flashed the glittering ring on my left hand. This set her off. I backed down the hallway as she shrieked a string of obscenities and accusations at me. I made it to my apartment door just as the building security guard emerged from the elevators. My neighbors peeked from their doorways as the guard forced the screaming woman onto the elevator.
“What the hell was that?” my next door neighbor, Kyle Andrews demanded once the elevator door closed. He stormed to the middle of the hallway and waited for me to answer.
“An old classmate,” I smiled weakly. His living room shared a wall with the small bedroom I used for my work. I suspected that some of my ceremonies had caught his attention and that he was on the verge of figuring out the root.
“This is a good building,” he said giving me a meaningful look, “We’d like to keep it that way.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” another one of my neighbors, Keisha Jones, Esq., asked, stepping out into the hall.
“It’s ok,” I said waving her off. “It won’t happen again.”
Kyle and the rest of our neighbors retreated to their apartments, leaving Keisha and I in the silent hall. She closed her door and scurried over to me.
“Are you ok?” She whispered, we watched the elevators as if they would produce a fire-breathing version of Tegan.
“No,” I said and went into my home.
“Well?” Keisha asked, following close behind me. Her eyes were alight with curiosity and concern.
“A girl from back home,” I said collapsing on the couch and trying to figure out how to explain Tegan. “I don’t even know how she found me.”
“Was any what she said remotely true?” Keisha went into attorney mode making me strain to remember what Tegan had shouted. “I can’t have my favorite girl going down.”
I looked up at Keisha and smiled. Thanks to her patronage, I made almost as much as my husband. In fact, she was the reason we were able to afford to be her neighbors.
“Her father died of natural causes before we even got there,” I mumbled thinking back to that night we all got bored and decided to prank the Abates, “but Tegan said we scared him to death.”
“Is that what happened?” Keisha asked, still in lawyer mode.
“That’s what the coroner said,” I could hear the doubt in my voice.
“But you think otherwise?”
“The star quarterback was with us that night,” I said remembering Devon Smith’s sun burnt face as he reached down from the top of the stone fence to help me over into Tegan’s yard. “he had a big scholarship to Texas A&M.”
“If we give her the help she asks for, is she the type to go away?” Keisha’s brow was furrowed. I could tell she considering all outcomes.
“She’s gone,” I sighed, “Where would I even find her?”
“That shouldn’t be too hard,” Keisha said and looked at her watch. ‘give me her full name and be ready for anything.”
Two days later, Tegan and Keisha were back at my door.
“Come in ,” I said without a bit of welcome in my voice.
“Thank you,” Tegan’s demeanor was contrite and her eyes were peaceful. We arranged ourselves on the living room furniture and waited for things to happen.
“Ok Tegan,” Keisha said in her court voice, “How do you want Melissa to help you?”
“Your husband works for Urban Outfitters,” she smiled shyly, “Get him to consider my designs for their house wares“
I stifled a laugh. My husband hadn’t worked in the design dept in years. “That was a summer internship.” I said softly, “He’s in marketing now.”
”Ah”. Her face fell a bit.
”But I think I can still help.” I noticed that Keisha shot me a crazed look, but there was no way I could explain. “Come with me.”
I led them back to my workroom. The small bedroom was dim and permeated with the fragrance of smoky resins. The walls were lined with alters to the saints and spirits I served.
”What is this?” Teagan asked breathlessly. She paused at the door and I could tell she was trying to make sense of what she saw.
“Lie down,” I ordered and pointed to the cloth cover table in the center of the room. She hesitated, but Keisha herded her into the room. I delighted in Tegan’s obvious fear. Keisha and I exchanged smirks as she struggled to heave her trembling body onto the slab. As soon as she was on her back, I went to work. I strategically placed five black candles on the table around Tegan’s body.
“Is this some kind of magic?” Tegan asked as I sprinkled black dog’s hair over her body.
”Ok so you want to be a designer,” I said soothingly. Her whispered response was lost beneath the strike of a match. I touched the flame to a container of resin and inhaled the heavy perfume. The spirits in the room rustled as the sacred smoke wafted across their altars.
Eagerly they poked and prodded my psyche. Who was this troubled woman? And why was she so angry with their faithful servant? I held my peace until I was centered then called out to a single name.
Keisha gasped as his stern presence filled the room. Bothwa was the oldest spirit in my pantheon. Older than civilization and older than humans, he existed beyond the confines of any religion or moral system that I knew. However, he was willing, effective, and absolute. To date, I had only called on him for my most devastating work. I called his name twice more then waited.
He did not answer
The spirit of mi abuelita, the cuandera who passed her knowledge on to me, broke the silence and admonished me for my actions.
I taught you better mija!
I pushed her back without an answer, knowing that she loved me too much to punish me for my insolence. The other spirits remained silent in deference to Bothwa. Finally a bone chilling cold filled the room; he was listening.
“Bothwa,” I smiled, “I offer this woman, Tegan Abate, to you as a sign of my devotion and gratitude for all that you have done for me.”
“Oh!” Tegan cried as the black candles around her flared into flaming columns. She struggled to sit up, but Bothwa was already on her. I watched with detached fascination as he toyed with her. Her pale eyes were wide with terror and I wondered if she could actually see him. She lasted longer than most and it looked as if Bothwa was trying to possess her. A tinge of fear rippled through my gut. I had never had to deal with an embodied spirit.
“Ahh!” Tegan gurgled and curled into the fetal position. The sharp tang of blood wafted into the air and the black candles dissolved into puddles that dripped onto the floor.
“I thank you for accepting this offering,” I said. Slowly the cold subsided and I could sense Bothwa was pleased. I turned to Keisha, who looked like she’d shit her pants several times. “Call 911”
“What?’ Keisha asked, her eyes wide and glassy.
“Call 911,” I repeated, “I think she had a seizure.”
“Yeah, um ok,” Keisha said catching on. Her trembling hand groped for the doorknob, but her eyes were still on Tegan’s crumpled body.
The paramedics arrived quickly followed by the police and then the detectives. They moved uneasily in and out of my ceremony room as if they were not sure what they were seeing was real.
“So she came to you for a spell to get a job?” the lead detective asked for the fifth time. His voice was just as skeptical as it had been the first time he asked the question. I nodded and kept up my mask of concern. “And she didn’t tell you she had seizures?’
“Correct,” furrowed my brow and placed a trembling hand over my mouth.
“And you sold her this service?”
“No,” I said, keeping my eyes down, “she was an old friend on mine from high school. I did it for her for free.”
“Ma’am are you aware of the laws of our state?” the other detective asked, fingering the cuffs dangling from his waist.
“Laws protect the customer’s money, but they cannot decide the customer’s faith,” I gave him a proud look and turned to Keisha.
“Those laws don’t apply, detective,” she countered, “nothing of value was exchanged for the service.”
The detective opened his mouth to speak again, but was silenced by a most unearthly screech. We all looked over at Tegan. She had thrown off the paramedics and was trying to wriggle her way out of the gurney’s restraints. At first the noise coming at her mouth sounded like nonsense, but soon I realized she was speaking in Spanish, backwards.
I jumped to my feet, my eyes riveted on Tegan. “We have to get out of here,” I whispered to Keisha.
“If she dies we’re taking you in, ma’am,” the second detective said gleefully. He mistook my fear for guilt.
“Its standard procedure,” the lead detective stated. His voice was calm, but his green eyes moved frantically around the room, absorbing all of the details. “Where are you going?” He asked, noticing our retreat.
“She is not safe,” I said, continuing to back out of the living area. At my words, Keisha turned and flat out ran for the ceremony room. Suddenly Tegan stopped yelling and I ran for it too.
The screams of the men were the worst. Keisha and I held each other as Tegan ravaged the room. I ran though the spirits and deities in my mind hoping to get a fix on who had passed through. Who was bold enough to claim Bothwa’s offerings? For a moment the wrinkled face of mi abuelita flashed in my mind, but I shooed away the image, not wanting to deal with her guilt trip.
“She’s coming!” Keisha squealed. We scurried to the back of the room and that is when I noticed something terribly wrong. We were alone. The Iwa, my ancestors, and even the tiny animal spirits were gone.
“What’s wrong?” Keisha grabbed my arm and studied my panic stricken face. I composed myself and shoved away my fear.
“We’re going to have to fight our way out,” I said and handed her a ceremonial dagger from one of the altars. It was her turn to look panicked. She grasped the hilt and tested the heft.
“Ok,” she said quietly, accepting her death. She crossed herself and prayed quietly. I turned and rummaged through the remains of my power. I grabbed a gilded machete and tucked a protection amulet into my pocket. I doused myself in holy water and half-heartedly flung a bit in Keisha’s direction. I wanted to keep the odds of survival stacked in my favor.
The lock clicked with a fateful metallic ring and I watched in absolute terror as the door swung open to reveal the blood drenched creature that had once been Tegan. I hoped it would speak so that we could perhaps bargain our way out, but there was nothing but silence.
The attack was straight forward and swift, but I had a fool proof plan. As the Tegan cleared the central altar, I grabbed Keisha’s arm and flung her directly into the arms of her death. I sprinted out of the room, out of the apartment, past curious neighbors and into the stopped emergency elevator. Keisha’s screams followed me and for a moment I wanted to warn my neighbors to take cover, but I needed all the time I could get.
As the heavy steel doors closed, I noticed a small figure in the far corner of the elevator. The woman wore a simple cotton dress trimmed in colorful embroidery. Her hands were wrinkled and bent and her hair hung in a silvery sheet over her shoulders.
“Abuelita?!” I squealed.
“Mija,” her voice was grave. She walked over to me and I knelt to receive her blessings.
“I have closed the way,” she said and took my face into her hands. I looked into her eyes and to my horror they were dark and empty save for strange figures flashing around her orbs. I studied the images and began to tremble. I saw Tegan arranging Keisha’s body on the central altar in my apartment then falling, lifeless, to the ground.
The weight of their meaning crashed upon me and I fell out of my grandmother’s grip. As I lay trembling on the floor, it was obvious who had taken Tegan from Bothwa. I had betrayed her teachings and so she had taken back all that she had given me: every spirit, every power, and now, my life. When the doors opened, I did not resist the cops who rushed the elevator.