Author: Guede Mazaka
Someone has bloodied the moon.
It is rusted over with dull brownish red, a great splotched hole in the aging sky. Clouds gambol and boil their great gray curls all about the moon, but somehow never cross its face, leaving its eerie, foreboding light to creep over the land. It is a single malign eye glaring unblinking at the busy, busy little ants below.
One ant dares to meet its gaze.
El has been feeling strange lately. Off-kilter. A scuffle to the left of normal, or what passes for normal in himself. If he cares to think about it, he could trace the feeling back to the night of the day of the dead. He doesn't seem to move quite the same. Not worse, not wounded, merely differently than before. He doesn't seem to see quite the same. Not better, not brighter, merely differently than before.
Fideo hadn't noticed, not until El had stopped by the side of the road and began to stare, uncharacteristically, at the long-familiar sky. Lorenzo had noticed, the moment the three men had come back together after the chaos, but he hasn't dared to mention it. Now he does.
//You're dead//, he blurts, uncomprehending and nervous. Smiling uneasily, Fideo tries to turn it to a joke, but the words slip into the shades about them. //He's always dead. That's why nobody can kill…//
//Me?// El finishes, eyes glinting as he looks back at his friends. //But I have died//, he objects, tone almost kindly.
//What happened a few months ago//, Lorenzo starts, oblique and hesitant, //It changed everything, didn't it.// His last words are a statement in stone, falling through the thick air to throw dust upwards. And in the pattern of the dancing motes, Fideo sees.
//No. Nothing changed//, the other mariachi says somberly, flipping out a hip flask with indecent haste so he could swig down dulling fire. When his chin comes down again, his unfocusing eyes catch the blur of confusion in his companions' faces. Fideo tries to explain once more, slurring, //The nothing is different. That's what changed. The nothing.//
//What the hell are you saying?// El asks, skeptical and amused. Lurching from side-to-side already, his friend staggers forward and claps him on the shoulder, then gulps the rest of the alcohol. Searing disinfectant for the soul. //Time for us to leave you, my brother//, Fideo tells him, sorrow and relief warring over the words. //Find yourself a crossroads and play this//--the other mariachi pats the guitar slung on El's back--//and then you'll see.//
Blinking, El turns to his other friend, who walks forward, eyes newly shadowed, to embrace him. //We'll come when you call. Always//, Lorenzo vows. But it's a goodbye, nevertheless.
El hugs the youngest of the three fiercely, and says gruffly, //Thank you for watching over my case.//
//'s noth-wasn't a big deal//, Lorenzo demurs, stepping back to sling Fideo back upright.
And then they are one and two, tracing their own directions. The small, fond grin on his face slowly drifting away, El turns to the west. Veiling him in burgundy and black, the moon dogs his steps with a brooding, bruised countenance.
A mortally-wounded man can drag himself much farther than he expects, as CIA Agent Sheldon Jeffrey Sands discovers. Draining blood also drains away the pain, the worries, the sensations of dirt clumping to torn flesh and skin scraping away, and leaves nothing but simple resolve behind. No sight means no sense of distance, and no sense of distance means no knowledge of failure or success. Maybe Sands has been clawing over the same patch of ground for the past few hours. Maybe he's brought himself to the edge of the earth. He doesn't know, and so he can assume whatever he pleases.
He chooses to believe in the stones his fingers have run up against, the stones of the well his arms are hooking painfully over to pull him upright. He's thirsty, and he's been wishing for water for forever, it seems.
And then someone puts a ladle to his mouth.
He can't help but jerk back; the past few hours haven't seen his trust (if he ever had any) in humanity grow. And Sands knows that he's well-known among the lesser, cannier elements of Mexican society. There's only so many gringos that go where he goes, after all, and none of them have anything resembling his style. The peasants that live on his beat may not meet his eyes, and they may not seem to notice his bodies, but that's only practicality, after all. Cower to the top dog. Then rip out his throat when his leg breaks and he can't run with the pack anymore.
It's practicality like that that Sands is constantly betting against; human stupidity is much more suitable to his wants and needs. He's lost the dice this round, though.
But he's still thirsty, mouth coated inside with slick wetted dust, body watering the ground with one-way blood spillage. Sands slumps forward, and this time it's the other that withdraws. Like the schoolyard bully dangling the one lousy dollar just beyond reach. Whoever the hell it is, however, has seriously misjudged Sands. And Sands' current abilities.
The American lunges into the dark for the water and loses the balance. Falls right into the well, sinking fast and not feeling particularly inclined to rise up for the third time. For one, his legs and arm are spliced day-old noodles, stiff adrenaline having leached out long ago. For two, his eyes are shocking him to death. First turned to sticky thick drippings on his cheeks, then baked by the heat into a layer of hard clot lining his sockets, and now, finally, being blasted clear out. Somewhere along the line, Sands thinks he drowns. And dies.
Except he's having a conversation, sort of, and he shouldn't be able to talk if his lungs are really, truly nothing more than two more bits of sewer floating around under Mexico, contributing to the cholera and just general diarrhea of a sick, sick nation.
The dialogue goes something like this:
Yep. Who the fuck are you?
How much? And don't ask for my soul; that's already spoken for.
It is. Heart and mind.
Well, considering the recent downturn in the economy, I suppose I could manage a ten-year lease. You dig?
And then everything turns inside out black white baby shit brown brown brownish red drying bloody--
--and Sands splutters up and out to throw up over the side of the rim, wrinkles going from skin all the way down into the bone from his nice long swim. His hair's stuck to his face, and so naturally the vomit gets trapped in it. Makes for a beautiful, beautiful end for him.
Except then Sands raises his head and fuckall-but-he-can-SEE.
And after that, he starts to notice that it's a little off.
And he reaches a limp hand up to-yes, those still are sockets. Empty sockets.
For the first time in his not-especially-long-but-very-fucked-up life, Sands faints. Right back into the water, and he nearly goes under, too.
If he'd been conscious, he could've found out just how in all the saints and their impotent pricks he managed to spend two months and several hundred miles' worth of time and travel. But he's not, so he doesn't find out. And neither does El, after that two months and several hundred miles from the capital, when the mariachi returns to his dingy little hotel room and finds a somewhat-blind, definitely unconscious man oozing quite a few gallons of water into the bedsheets and shitty rotten-plank flooring.
When he finally woke, Sands was in a bathtub, cold metal chilling his temple and a presence he somehow recognized before he even lifted his head. "Ah. El," he muttered, sneezing out the last of the water.
"Sands," the other man replied calmly. "What are you doing here?"
"And here would be…" the American trailed off questioningly, slowly pulling himself up-the gun pressed-okay, sideways, at least, so the porcelain didn't crush all the blood out of his shins-which should have large gaping holes in them. Momentarily forgetting about the gun (luckily, El had very good motor control), Sands felt frantically along his legs, then his arm, and finally, resignedly, over those two certain spots of his face.
"What are you doing?" El asked, though he sounded considerably less wary and considerably more puzzled. Slowly, just barely avoiding a major freak-out, Sands turned toward the voice and let his eyelids go up.
He heard the gasp, and he saw the body wrenching backward. In wavering red, like he was staring at a pillar of fire instead of a man.
//Holy Mary, Mother of God//, the mariachi breathed, even his jadedness stunned. //What happened?//
In reply, Sands said faintly, "You're only holding your gun by two fingers and a thumb."
He got to forty-nine before he heard the sound of El's breathing again.
"You have no eyes," the other man said, carefully and precisely as a grammar teacher, as if it would help straighten the surrealism. Then the column grew a branch, with one flame forking off the end. "How many?"
"One, you fuckmook," Sands retorted indignantly, giving the cockshitter the finger right back. He wished the red shape had some more details; right now he really, really wanted to see the look on El's face. "Can I get out of this now?"
Eventually, the mariachi grunted a yes, though his fingers still held the invisible gun Sands' way. Moving stiffly, hissing at the screaming kinks in his muscles, the American clambered out of the tub and promptly smacked himself against the toilet. "Fuck!" he snapped before he could catch himself.
He didn't need to see in order to know El's brain had just lit up into Cinco de Mayo lights. "You can't see everything?" was, of course, the next question.
Unfortunately, Sands couldn't right then think of a way to duck it, and he had to answer, reluctantly, "No. I think I only see outlines of people." He got the impression that El was waiting, and even more grudgingly added, "I can see you and me, sort of. Ink blots."
"Okay," the mariachi acknowledged vaguely, obviously not processing things very quickly. Still rubbing at his leg, Sands sighed and felt for the edge of the toilet, then plunked himself down to wait. And then he remembered, and asked again, "Where are we?"
"In Mazatlan," El dropped casually. Apparently, the mariachi was capable of picking up on subtlety, because then he followed up with, "Where did you think we were?"
"Culiacan," Sands replied, feeling his stomach drop down one leg. "It's not still Dias de Los Muertos, is it?"
"It's January 1st," El told him laconically. The American wanted to strangle the smug bastard-and that was when Sands discovered the other little alteration in his life.
So did El. Crossing over in half a stride, the mariachi seized the other man by the collar and yanked him off the toilet. "What was that? What'd you did, you fucking shit?" El demanded, shaking Sands furiously.
"I don't know!" Sands yelled back, grabbing at the hands, clawing and kicking at El. "How the fuck-you complete dicklicking dumb fuck! How the hell would I know? I didn't even know where I was!"
The shaking stopped, though El kept a firm grip on the American's neck and leant his weight down to pin Sands' legs to the ground. "What happened to you?" the mariachi asked, voice low-pitched to a furious grate.
"Got blinded, got shot, got shoved into a well and woke up in your goddamned bathtub," Sands rasped back tersely.
"Bed," El corrected, easing some of the pressure off. Judging by the nerve-screaming that followed, Sands was sure he'd just gotten both knees dislocated. And probably his brain, because El couldn't have just said what he thought the man had said. "Come again?"
"You were in my bed," El expounded, darkly amused by the sudden heat in Sands' cheeks. "Wet to the skin. So I dumped you in here."
"Thanks, man," the American snapped sarcastically. "I'm still wet." Crimson flames reached down and started burning-undoing-his buttons. Filled with an abrupt panic, Sands slapped away the fingers. "What-"
"You're complaining," was the frustratingly placid response he got, as El wrestled Sands' wrists over his head and held them down with one hand, while the other continued stripping Sands. "So I'm changing your clothes. They stink, anyway."
The mariachi, however, stopped after he undid all the buttons in Sands' vest and shirt, which gave the prone man an obscure mix of relief and disappointment. El just sitting there, staring down at his half-naked body, on the other hand, gave Sands a strong feeling of grievance. "Hell's bells, limpdick," the American sighed, annoyed. "Either you do it or you don't. Just get it over with."
"You-you think I want to rape you?" El managed to stutter out. "I-I'm searching for weapons. And you're not my type."
"Oh." Shifting surreptitiously, Sands attempted to move the half-risen bulge in his pants out of sight. Unfortunately, El looked down, and then said disbelievingly, "You want me to-"
"No! You're-it's body warmth, okay? I'm soaked and I'm gonna catch pneumonia if you don't let me up soon," Sands babbled, trying to squirm back into the wood floor. "What the fuck were you staring at, anyway?"
All of the hot weight suddenly lifted, the red blob retreating back into the next room, and Sands shot up, gasping. He lifted his head just in time to see El throw empty space, and reflexively snatched the…towel, shirt and pants. "I was not staring," the mariachi muttered uncomfortably. "I was remembering. A dream."
"You knock me around in your sleep?" Sands asked facetiously, voice half-muffled in the towel he was rubbing over himself.
"No," El said, sharp as a razor, though the cut didn't seem to be toward Sands. "I was watching someone else. Many someones. Men beating a woman, and then sharing her. And then we walked in and they all melted away. The men and the woman."
"How very symbolic," the American drawled, dropping the towel to one side and peeling the rest of his clothing off to exchange them for the loaners. The pants, thankfully, were plain jeans and only a little loose about the hips and waist, but the shirt dangled ridiculously over his hands. Gritting his teeth and hoping for the best, he began to roll up the cuffs by feel. "I don't remember dreaming anything," he replied.
"You look like a child." Huffing, wet rattails plastered to his face, Sands turned with what he hoped was an imposing expression on his face and growled, "So fucking what? I kept Barillo's little girl from coming after you, and even if Ajedrez was an eye-gouging cunt, she knew how to shoot."
"I didn't know he had a daughter."
"Well, he did. Christ, I flirt a little and she runs all the way to daddy and uncle doctor for a blinding." Something timidly raised a hand in the back of his head, and Sands abruptly dropped down to rummage frantically in his old clothes. "What the hell?" he said incredulously. "I had an entire harness of guns when I went into that goddamned well. Where are they?"
A hand stopped his searching. "I can give you one," El told him.
Smirking, Sands faced the fire. "You trust me already? What if I shoot you?"
And then the smugness scraped off his face. Tone cynical and bored, El observed, "I do not think that is a possibility."
He was right, fuck all child whores. But there wasn't anyone else except him. "Great, I've gone from villain to sidekick," Sands complained, though resignation was already working its magic. "Now what?"
"We're going to a crossroads," the mariachi tossed back offhandedly, getting up to grab something and something and the other thing. He pressed a pistol into Sands' hand, then reached under an elbow and put Sands on his feet. "I need to play."
It used to be that the world made better sense when El didn't think. Thinking wasn't really a necessity with black and white, them and him. He had to stop and readjust when Carolina came along; them and him became them and they, five-chords became seventh-chords, but the overall melody was still the same and he soon learned it by heart.
Ever since Fideo and Lorenzo had left him and picked up their own lives again, though, El had had to sit back a bit, take in the new landscape. And as Fideo had suggested, leaning back against the splinter-aged pole of a road sign served very well as a vantage point. Or as a listening post. El'd been told that the dead tell no tales. Now, he knew that that was wrong. They told many stories, but they'd lost the words and so their voices to most were nothing but the scuttling breezes over the plains, the weird leap-skip of wind-tossed trash in a city street.
The first time he'd gone to the overlap of two roads, he had heard them clear as the priest's croon over the coffin. The first thing they'd told him was that he had been hearing them since their day in the sun.
The second thing hadn't been a thing, after all. It had been a list. Of names. Delivered together in what El had suspected was actually one voice, from one…speaker. Wary and tired, he had given no response, but a few of the names had been in the next town and he had paid them a visit. That night, the dead had been quiet. But the next week, when he had revisited his old haven, had poured the shot of tequila over his friend's grave and had drawn a fragment of ballad from the tense air, his dreams had been…
He hadn't slept. But El had forced himself to stay a few days, wanting to prove his lack of obeisance to anyone, or to anything. And while doing so, he had discovered his deafness.
Deafness was too strong a word. Call it, rather, a flattening-out of tone. El heard the townspeople's tears and laughter and rage through a thickly-absorbent wall of apathy. Only the dead voices resounded with any kind of emotion, lent any kind of feeling to El's music. And so the mariachi had gone up to the rooftop for his last sunset in peace, and he'd serenaded the town in thanks while the skies had erupted into a violent kaleidoscope of purples and yellows and oranges.
In the weeks afterward, he had walked Mexico for the dead and paid their visits for them, hearing nothing but their moans and wanting nothing but their silence. And then another man had dropped in, scattering the dead like birds fleeing before a gunshot, ringing his own overpowering melody in El's head. For a moment, El might have been grateful. Before he'd recognized Sands.
Who currently was clinging fiercely to El's side, shivering. True enough, it was winter and even in Mexico, the nights could be chilling. Somehow El doubted that that was a valid explanation. The American tripped over another rock, and sighing, the mariachi wrapped an arm around the other man's waist to help guide Sands. "You know that people are staring," he whispered to the head half-buried in his shoulder.
"They're not staring at two guys cuddling up," Sands hissed back, absolute conviction stamping his words. "We creep them out, don't we?"
Chewing over that, El examined the averted faces passing to either side of them, and found exactly that. Fear and admiration staining the eyes of each passerby. "It seems so," he conceded. "Can you see them?"
"Yeah. But they're blurry and, well, gray. Except-" the fingers twisted in El's coat suddenly flinched "-that one. The man at the window, back there. With a scar-"
"-across his temple?" El asked sharply, but quietly. "Like from a bullet?"
Sands was silent for a second, cleaving stiffly to the mariachi. When he spoke again, his voice was more than tinged with dreading prescience. "He's not alive."
"He was this afternoon," El informed him, not feeling quite steady himself. "That's where I was when you…you…"
"Were deposited," Sands grinned blackly. "And I never even liked Bruce Willis. Or that pansyass little kid."
Not pausing to wonder over the reference, El queried, "Is that why you're hiding under my coat?"
"Eat shit, skullfuck," Sands replied, succinct and matter-of-fact. "I'm not dressed for this weather. And you have a nice trenchcoat. Who died?"
"A Colombian." Shrugging, El pulled the both of them down a side-street and cut past a cracked fountain. "The CIA were looking for you."
"Really." Sands didn't sound very enthused. "And what happened there?"
"They made a little too much noise, and the President wanted them thrown out," El replied nonchalantly. "Your President said no, and everyone thought there might be trouble when suddenly the CIA found a body they thought might be yours. And then there was an accident, and the place where they'd put the body so they could test it and find out for sure burned to the ground. So the CIA gave up and went home."
"Well, then. Isn't that nice. I'm dead!" the American said cheerily.
"We're here," El replied, nudging Sands over so the man could feel out the building corner by which they were standing. "There's piss by your left foot."
Spitting out an oath, Sands began to jump back, then froze awkwardly and demanded, leg suspended in air, "What else is there?"
El started to answer, thought better of it and instead reached out to prop the other man up against the wall beside him. Then he unslung his guitar case and set it down gently. With exquisite care, he flipped the latches and lifted out the burnished instrument within. In the dark evening, frozen moonbeams cut everything in clear silver shapes, turning El's guitar to white gold. He quickly tuned it, humming softly under his breath, and then picked out a few experimental chords.
Adobe was more of an ice bitch than Sands had ever suspected. Just touching it left his bones frosted over, and in the thin button-down shirt, he was rapidly approaching glacial. He crossed his arms over himself and hunched slightly in a futile effort to trap heat while El stretched out his apparently-immune fingers. The fucking singing legend. Some hero, letting the guy next to him freeze-okay, maybe Sands had screwed the man over a few. Forgiveness was supposed to be divine, wasn't it?
Warmth abruptly draped over him in the shape of a body-hot coat. "So is vengeance," El mentioned absently, still fiddling with the strings.
"What?" Sands barked, curling into the fabric. He puffed a few times on his hands before he noticed he could see red palms and digits, but no breath, though it had to be cold enough. So he shoved the hands into his armpits instead.
"Forgiveness is divine, but vengeance is mine-"
"-saith the Lord," Sands finished moodily. "Gotta stop saying everything that pops into my head," he mumbled to himself.
"You weren't," El interjected, too coolly. Fucked again, Sands snarled to himself. "So that's your deal?" the American questioned harshly. "You're telepathic?"
"No. I only hear things that I shouldn't." Apparently done messing around, El began to step forward into the empty-of people, anyway-roads, but Sands hastily grabbed an arm. "Hey," he said curiously. "Why this one? We passed bigger intersections."
"This one has a song," El explained, half-turning. "A few hundred years ago, there was a wisewoman living near here. Sickness came, and when it did not lift, the people blamed her and slaughtered her in this place."
Sands had used to read stories like that for shits and giggles when he'd been younger. When he was older, he'd seen and mostly caused so much more bizarre shit that ghosts had become boring. But inexplicably, listening to El now raised the fine hairs on the back of Sands' neck. Wait-on one side of his neck. Simultaneously whipping around and shifting toward El, he scanned behind him. And then Sands managed a rather spectacular leap that took him and El stumbling into the center of the crossroads.
//Shit!// El snarled, just barely keeping a grip on his guitar. Grabbing onto Sands' shoulders, he went to yank the other man forward and ask what the hell was wrong with the gringo, but the American came rushing up, nearly tripping on the hem of the trenchcoat, and plastered himself to El's front.
"She's smiling," Sands whispered, sounding as close to frightened as El had never heard him, or had even imagined hearing him. "And she's fucking rotting, El. Clapping goddamned stumps together."
"We aren't going until I play," El declared obstinately, despite his not precisely feeling easy himself. Though, he very quietly admitted to himself, Sands was absurdly cute when the other man was shrinking back and biting his lip like that.
"Then play, for Christ's sake!" the American demanded, voice almost breaking on strangled hysteria. "Holy motherfucker, first clear thing I see after that goddamned eye-scrambler, and it has to be…"
At that point, El shut down his mind and went back to what he'd known the longest: music.
He sang the song he'd overheard the other day, passing by when the neighborhood women were washing their clothes in the fountain. And as he stroked the quivering chords from the wire strings, he heard the first voice begin to twine around his. An old, female voice, cracking under its age and rattling wetly on the lower notes. He could feel Sands sucking in breath raggedly by his throat, but El pushed the sensations, the sounds out of his head and concentrated on hitting the right pitch and chords.
When he reached the second refrain, he could hear men and women, young and old echoing him.
When he reached the third refrain, the voice, the same that had called out the list of names, took over and something ripped into El's fingers. Yelling and furious, he flung the guitar down and then the world blotted, silver and black running together into his head.
(Sands was still with him.)
It was the woman from El's dreams, the crying bruised face and the crazed eyes, that stood before him in the endless desolate plain. Only now she had no clothes to be torn, no hair to be wrenched about, because blood and boils clothed her, and fine white powder fell from her scalp in an unceasing waterfall. Her lips were writhing, saying something, and he knew it was important, but suddenly he couldn't hear and he couldn't follow the curves of the lips because they had fallen off, shriveled cigarette butts ground under her heels as she strode forward.
(Sands was cutting nails into his arm.)
She flung open her arms, and her ribs mimicked the sweep, cracking apart to show white bone and red tatters of flesh and dripping green pus from anywhere, everywhere, and El was gagging on his own bile but choking it down because he knew it would be the exact same shade as the maggots flickering in her belly. Her eyes bored into his, black black blacker than his despair and his anger and so hard they pierced his heart into flopping rag bits that slid down into his fracturing ankles.
(Sands was falling with him.)
Kneeling up, he saw her repeat herself again and again and he still couldn't make out the words, and he tried to tell her so when suddenly, unexpectedly she had skin, fine pale doll skin with rosy pink highlights and glossy raven's-wing hair and gorgeous earth eyes, glinting tree leaves and lazy streams and when they came closer he saw the harsh loveliness of the desert. She embraced him, and he bowed his head in unworthiness and then everything peeled away and he was screaming, screaming in pain and blood and birth-
(Sands was screaming too.)
Naturally, they don't wake lying in the street, crushing rubbish and dirt beneath them. That would waste time, and moreover, be dull: having them get up on cramping legs, brushing themselves off to the tune of their bickering. It would be too everyday, too normal, and it would seem by now that Sands and El have lost their bearings for that place.
They're in El's bed again. The sheets aren't even close to dry, but neither man feels like calling down for another room. Nor can they muster the energy to even walk across the hall, kick in the junkie neighbor's door and step over his blissed-out body to steal his nice, clean, unsoaked sheets (done by his mother during her last visit and never used since he never makes it past the TV). Though Sands can, remarkably, still talk. "A woman," he says, perceptively.
"Women like being fought over until they get hurt," El replies, somewhat more intelligently. "Then they want to fight."
"She didn't have hands, either," Sands reminds him.
"We do." If El was resigned to his role before, now he's positively recognizing it. His enthusiasm, however, leaves something to be desired.
"I really can't get away," Sands murmurs. El in his vision is a bonfire, and to his touch is a comforting warmth. He shifts closer, but his limbs misjudge the distance needed and he rolls both men off the bed. At least the floor has dried, though it creaks ominously.
"No, you can get away from her," El corrects, "But she won't go away from you." He drags and Sands hangs on until they're on slightly more solid planks, on a rat-bitten rug El vaguely recalls being there. "I'm out of names," the mariachi confesses. "The man you saw tonight was the last."
"Here," Sands contradicts. "I've got a map. In my head."
"I have a car." Amazing himself, El is beginning to fall asleep.
"'s great for you," Sands returns, yawning himself. "I need stuff. Like clothes, and bullets and guns, and yeah, sunglasses…"
"Shut up," El mutters, and because the snappish little American still has his coat, he pulls Sands closer so it will stretch over the both of them.
They give in to sleep.
Through the half-open window, the moon is shining brightly, scrubbed white and full.