She was everywhere.
The spot where his toddler bed used to be. He could look right through the tile and remember the positioning of every irregular spot on that green carpet they had, the one he’d stared at and traced and maybe had an accident on. When she brought nectar into the room it was always white. That’s something she did for the sake of the carpet. Not that he noticed at the time. She told him later: she came in on a school night with a white glass of nectar, and when she stepped onto the tile, she laughed at herself and said it was a force of habit. Everything else in the room used to be green but not the same type of green as the carpet. Nothing was the same type of green as anything else, actually. She’d told him later, when they were looking at the banana-leaf wallpaper, it was the best they could do at the time.
The picture of a horse. He drew it for her, most likely. Not that he could remember, but she probably took one look at it and said it was beautiful, even though the figure was right on the horizon line and the intrusive shade of blue he’d chosen for the sky made its failure to cover the whole area even more prominent. But he shouldn’t be critiquing his old stuff. She wouldn’t have done that. She didn’t think that way.
The sitting area with its despondently cheerful pillows and rug. She told him the pillows reminded him of home. The rug, that too. She wasn’t looking at him when she said it.
His homework. It’d been ages since she helped him with homework. Not since elementary school for sure. But he always had the book displayed on his desk to look busy in case she came in with a glass of nectar, spilling out her thoughts in Mach-1 Simlés. He didn’t pick it up. The desk book lived there. He’d spent §1 for the decoy and had another one in his inventory that actually went to school with him.
The calendar next to his door. The last time she looked at that calendar was to ask about his symbols. Blue squares for visits with friends, yellow stars for birthdays and holidays, red circles for tests. She asked how come he put blue squares on the calendar given that his friends never called in advance when they were going to visit. The squares were added after the fact, he told her. Gave him a visual record of how his social life was going. She asked about the red circles every Friday. You see, he told her, there’s a lot of jargon in Biology and Mr. Seidel wants to make sure they learn it all, so he gives weekly quizzes. She scrunched her face and told him that didn’t sound fun. He told her at least they’re okay quizzes. Not hard ones. And Wednesday, Summer 11th between it all. Blank. He turned away.
The card table. She preferred the chair facing toward the windows. Every time she sat down, she pulled it forward and it would make the same noise. She said they needed to put a rug underneath or something because that’s how tiles got worn down and these tiles were nice ones put in during the remodeling. She never did.
The bar. Lord. The bar. Ever since he was tall enough to climb on the stools, he’d come home from school and perch on one to talk shop. He’d tell her what the hot lunch options were for that day and she’d tell him how to make them from scratch. Not only that, but the ways the dish could get messed up and how to fix it. If he sat down in one of those stools, either one, years of knowledge would flood back. She kept the bar clean, perhaps too clean for a heavy-traffic surface, but wiping down the counter became a reflex if you worked in restaurants as long as she did. That’s what she told him. The pink stain in the prep area was his fault. He was right on the cusp of being tall enough to climb onto the stools, the age where seasonal crafts weren’t uncommon, and she wasn’t expecting a tiny construction-paper mask to shriek at her across the bar when she was experimenting with a beet syrup. He apologized and even cried, but her smile never broke. She told him that’s what beets do. You just expect them to make everything pink. Everything. And then she laughed. She never said anything about the stain again.
The old high chair he used. Now it’s not like his toddler memories were well-formed, as much as he wanted them to be, but seeing the chair made him feel a foot tall again, looking up at her smiling face, like a hazy halo, like a faded photograph.
The mic. She never used it but laughed when he got hold of it. One time he botched a knock-knock joke he’d heard from a friend, and botched it spectacularly at that. He’d ended up with some absurdist punchline. What was it? He couldn’t remember the setup, let alone what nonsensical resolution his barely-school-aged brain thought was clever. She would have remembered. Her Salty Llama came out of her nose and made a puddle on the floor.
The tortilladora. He couldn’t see it but knew exactly where it was. It was in the cupboard furthest to the left, along with the masa flour, and whichever of the two of them got to it first made the tortilla dough that morning. He kept his nails short because he enjoyed the flour’s coarseness against his bare palms. That’s also the way she did it. By the time the griddle was hot, both of them would be up, taking turns flattening the dough in Grandma’s cast-iron press. He didn’t consider it a chore. Neither did she. But he didn’t feel like making the dough this morning.
The knife rack. He’d been confused when she first brought it home. He asked, did you go somewhere after work and pick those up? Because that doesn’t look pleasant to have in your inventory. Then she told him it was a special gift from work, and when he was old enough to work in a kitchen, he, too, would get a magnetic knife set. He asked if he could use them or if they were just for decoration. Of course she said yes. No hesitation. But he didn’t feel like he’d earned the hanging knives, so when they were cooking together, he used the ones from the regular block. That way they could both chop white onions at the same time. She’d slow her chopping down so her prep work would be done exactly when his was, too, all while narrating her every thought if it was a new recipe or peppering him with questions about his day if the recipe was muscle memory for both of them.
A fridge full of food. Most of it hers. The dishes she made never spoiled. Over a hundred servings of empanadas, entire pots’ worth of tamales, aguas frescas in eight different flavors. Camarones al coco if you looked hard enough, along with the other seafood dishes his brother loved. At least the fridge could stay how it was.
He’d done some stress-grilling last night and left a group serving of cold carne asada for breakfast. He sat at the kitchen island with a plate of meat. Every part of the metal kitchen looked cool and sterile, including the sharp barstool Hector could feel through his robe, but there was no place else he’d rather be.
Stomping echoed on the living-room floor behind Hector. He didn’t turn to look. As the footfalls got louder, he found his grip on the fork tightening and his teeth clenching with more force than was necessary to chew the meat. And if he turned, he didn’t know if he could contain his aggression. The noise stopped, but Hector still felt the vibration through the stool legs as the figure reached the kitchen floor. His father passed by without saying anything.
If Hector were watching, he would have seen Mike pause twice while opening the fridge, once with his hand on the handle and a second time when faced with hours of Claudia’s handiwork, as Hector himself did. Unable to disturb it, as Hector did, he took a serving of the only decaying meal. The fridge door closed behind him. Mike examined his portion of grilled meat and found it to be well-executed, not deserving of even good-natured ridicule. At least not now. He looked up from the plate to see Hector vigorously chewing his food, head angled strictly downward. Mike gestured with the plate of cold carne asada. “Thanks for breakfast.”
Hector continued his alimentary assault without looking up. If he had to stay in this forsaken house, his father had to learn what life was like without an audience. Mom wasn’t there to react anymore. And he had another thing coming if he thought Hector was going to put up with his bullshit.
Mike hesitated, then stepped closer to his son. “Are you going to school today, buddy?”
He’d had to miss school yesterday because of the funeral. And despite it being a red-circle day—dammit, Mr. Seidel—going to school would be better than staying here. Heck. Stranding himself on Sixam would be better than staying here. He didn’t say any of that.
This time Hector did raise his head, but it was to look behind him and make sure neither dog was blocking his escape routes. Which reminded him, they needed to be fed.
“C’mon, you can’t keep avoiding me forever. I’m your father.”
Taking his plate in one hand, Hector filled the dog bowl, avoiding Mike’s gaze even in the reflection of the cabinets—the ones that’d no longer be polished compulsively—and side-shuffled to the living room without facing the occupied half of the kitchen. He chose a seat at the dining-room table and picked the last cut of meat off his plate.
Mike couldn’t stay in the kitchen alone. Working up the strength, he moved to the dining room, heading to the seat across from Hector.
“You know, you don’t have a choice. Wherever you go, I’m just going to follow you.”
No. Hector, indeed, had a choice. Now that he’d finished his meal, he could move to the couch, turn up the volume on the TV, drown out whatever his father tried to throw at him. And if Mike followed him there? Move somewhere else. They could keep playing this game until school started, maybe for the rest of their lives, even, and the only thing Hector knew for sure was that if he gave in, he lost.
For once, Mike was glad his son’s back was to him, given how flustered he must have appeared by that point. But confidence had served him well and it wasn’t his time to abandon it. He followed Hector to the seating area. “Look, I know this is a hard time for you. It’s hard for me too. We need each other right now. We’re family.”
He claimed a seat on the couch shortly after Hector did. “Look. I get that you’re upset and you’re acting out.” Hector had taken out his phone, and Mike still had breakfast to eat, but there were more pressing matters. “I know you’re doing this to push my buttons. You know you can just talk to me, right?”
The way Hector held his phone, Mike couldn’t see anything unless he stood up and twisted himself around to look at the reflection in the window. Probably some standard teenager thing, a distracting flashy-light-type game or a text from one of those Feng girls he and Kendra were always talking to.
“You have to talk sometime. You can’t keep this up.”
Now this is what was wrong with the current generation, socialization so stunted by technology that they didn’t recognize a direct command from a parent when it came up. How he was able to ignore what Mike needed—what the family needed—in favor of his own “needs,” if staring at a screen could be considered that, was beyond anyone Mike’s age. They, the parents, had countered it with messages since Hector was a toddler about how family was the most important thing, and that if you ever doubted that your family acted in your best interests or even loved you in the first place you should shut up because that was impossible and you’re being selfish, and yet it still skated over their tiny little heads.
He kept texting.
“It’s just us now. Charlie’s gone. Your mother’s gone. Kendra’s… she’s Kendra. It’s just us now.”
Mike saw Hector’s eyes dart away from the phone at Charlie’s name. Not quite toward him, but halfway. Charlie, that was a good kid. Always did what he was asked. He couldn’t help but wonder if Hector was a little jealous of his older brother, of the achievements he’d racked up and the great relationship with his father he had. But all this was possible for Hector, too, if he could only cooperate.
“Hector, you should see the way you’re acting right now. It’s ridiculous.”
“Seriously?!” Hector screamed with such force, Mike was surprised that the windows and television screen stayed intact. Classic teen tantrum. At least the phone went back in his pocket. “Do you seriously not get it?!”
“Of all the—oh for—you’re the one who’s not getting it! You’re throwing these accusations around, but you don’t understand! Look. Think for a minute. You’ve got one living parent left. Did you even stop to think about how your behavior affects them? Are you even old enough to realize your actions have consequences? No. You don’t think.” Mike’s gaze got more intense as his eyes thinned. “You know what your problem is? It’s that you need someone to blame. It can’t just be a bad thing that happened. No. This has to be someone’s fault. There’s got to be a Bad Guy who caused all the problems. And it’s not you, never you.”
He had Hector’s attention now, and he kept going. “You want to blame someone? Blame yourself too. Throw yourself into the mix. You joked with her. Does that make you a murderer?”
Mike rarely yelled. Jokes and snide remarks, and a constant smirk, sure, but the shock made Hector momentarily forget he was free to leave the living room. Considering the options, he could cycle through the previous three areas—get in a little cardio while his dad let off steam—or go back to his room, which would box him in. Ah. Or he could go outside. The weather was pretty nasty, and besides, Mike wouldn’t risk the neighbors seeing him behave like a jackass.
“If your show didn’t do anything, why wasn’t I in danger?”
Hector wasn’t paying attention during his spin-change and began to walk toward the front door.
“Why wasn’t I in danger, Hector?”
Not a question for him. Because you’re a Joke Star, Dad? Because you can manage humor? Hector stepped out of the light. The doors closed themselves behind him.
“And the pleading!” By now, Mike was yelling at the front entrance, taunting him in its stillness despite the muffled thunder from outside. He couldn’t stop himself. “You got to her before Aileen or I could. It was a guaranteed resurrection!” He rose his voice. “We had death flowers!”
Mike was alone again, with no one to see him hang his head.
“We had death flowers.”
Everything blurred for Hector: the trees shrank upwards and vanished into the stormclouds, a reflective pool formed where the sidewalk sank into the road, the droplets percussing his umbrella drowned out the usual outdoor sounds—and the garden she tended every morning while he made faces at her through the kitchen windows, he couldn’t even look toward. And for how she whispered to herself daily about the food in Simpeche, how the colors were brighter, the city more alive, the fruits bolder and the music sweeter, he finally understood why she had to leave.
ANNOUNCEMENT: So the comic, Haunted, did start last week. I’ve heard from people who prefer email updates that they didn’t get an update when Haunted 1-1 was published. This is because Comic Easel creates a special post type for comics. WordPress doesn’t list comics in the ‘Recent Posts’ feed on the main site, nor does it know to send followers an email when the comic updates. I’ve been searching online for hours, trying every search term I can think of, found nothing, and the plugin’s main site died years ago. So, my apologies for the inconvenience. To navigate from here, the menu bar now has a Haunted section that redirects to the latest comic, as does the sidebar.