Author: Guede Mazaka
She wakes up among beeps and clacks, white burning holes in her vision and red trickling from tube to tube. She doesn't know whether it's coming or going.
On the first day, she asks for her daughter. And when the intern tells her, offhand and callous, she almost breaks his neck.
On the third day, she asks for her husband. And when the doctors fall silent, her heart wants to fall through her chest, scarlet clump of nothing. But then the wall of people part, the oldest nurse shoving through, and a belt of knives drops into her lap.
//He left. He said…he couldn't stay-he would could back when you forgave him.//
Carolina finally cries then. An amazed mutter goes around the room, stunned at the sight of the vicious bitch giving in. They're all fools anyway; she is doing no such thing. She cries tears of sorrow and anger and determination, because she knows and he knew that she had already forgiven him, long ago. It's him that can't accept it, and him that is slipping away into the darkness.
She will not allow that.
He is hers, by blood and suffering and love, and-especially now-she refuses to let anyone take him from her. Even death.
On the seventh day, she staggers and crawls from the hospital. Her limbs are filled with cold sweat and dragging pain, and her chest nearly bursts with fire. There's a lopsided numbness to one of her legs that has sunk into her flesh and marrow, and for a moment, she wishes she were in the earth, not breathing. But she's wearing the blades, heartbeat close to her skin, and the fevered memory of his farewell kiss on her brow, mark of hell.
He wakes to screaming blackness, and clutching unseen shadows. He doesn't know where he is, where he was, who-
"Sheldon Jeffrey Sands." Gaunt feminine voice, traces of former richness only highlighting the parts that have been carved away. "You said it enough times."
She's not the marker he's used to, the dense crouching presence that changed his bandages, fought his howling with overwhelming silence. The hands that lifted and pulled and pressed down, large enough to roll his mind into tiny pills and poke them into his raw throat. And he is, despite all his clawing and denial, slowly unraveling without-
"El," she says, reading the bits of his reason that are flayed and stretched over him. "He had you."
Fucking Christ, so many ways to take that and none of them right, none of them devastating as the dribble of healing water on his lips, the feel of warm breath on his soul as he was carried from the streets. Little broken monkey, all tin scrap and bent coils, yet he'd been melted and recast and then-
"He left you." Bitter words, harsh with intervening time. And then Sands knows.
"Carolina. But I heard you were dead."
"I am." She's mocking him, tone branding him a fool, and she's right. "So is he. So are you."
He clenches his fingers in the soiled blankets, scraping out the leather-cordite-sawdust scent and the dying particles of heat that is all that remains of the other presence, and he lays his head in her hard lap, feeling the scars and the bones, so like his own. "Where?"
Her hand on his neck is a warning weight, threatening to crack his spine in two. Nice try-it's his turn to laugh as he rolls over and gives her a good look at him, at his refilled sockets-fuck all doctors, even the helpful ones-and the manacle cuts that sting his wrists. "Don't think I'm not coming with you, darling. It's not my fault he picked me up and shoved his fucking music through my eyeholes."
//Skinny American shit//, she growls, and he knows they'll get along just fine. Two cripples, scrabbling themselves down the fucking eternal roads of the dead lands. Hoping to meet up with their third and be whole again.
El is standing in the middle of the wasteland his hands have shaped, surrounded by his morning's work of torn and burnt flesh. Blood is lapping at his boots like a faithful dog, and he wants to laugh. Because none of it-none of the fire and flood, the heart and mind and voice of one nation with many faces-none of it has touched him. A few black smudges, some singes on his clothing, perhaps. But no more.
"It's the damned that are immortal," Fideo comments from the edge of the courtyard. "When you don't want anything, then you can't be killed."
"Do you?" His friend isn't drunk now, spinning slow and uneven with his arms outspread. Fideo's gone mad on the spoiled liquor of disillusionment, his eyes too open and too clear, and he laughs when El still cannot, seeing the future. //Do you? Do you want nothing yet?//
And El begins to answer, but he cannot do that, either. His tongue cleaves to his mouth, and the guns in his hand begin to burn with the heat of the sun. He holds them as long as he can, but they bring him to his knees, down in the stench and shit and squalor, and he drops them. Digs in his pocket for a bandage, some temporary skin to replace that which has scorched off, and he turns up gold and plastic. The heart that was stolen, that he had vowed to retrieve and return but now finds he can't live without. And the eyes that were taken, that he had sworn to leave be but now finds he can't see without.
//Necklace and sunglasses. You're asking for it, El.// Fideo has a terrible smile, all false white and dagger true, when he's sober. He dashes his empty bottle against the wall, then cocks his head as if listening. //Why? Why keep them safe?//
//I love her. She saw what I could do and she didn't care. And…he saw the real Mexico, and stayed. He hears the same music I do.// El stares at the small, fragile remnants of them, then carefully opens his case and stores them where her knives used to rest. //It's stupid, but I want something to last after me. I have-my daughter is dead, and the doctors said Car-said there wouldn't be any more. So there's only the revenge. Them, living beyond the rest.//
//It won't work. It won't work. You don't understand-they're you, then. One falls, all fall. One rises, all rise.// Silver flashes into Fideo's hand, and he looks at the gun in his hand as if it were a crystal ball. Now his grin is grim, a wilting skeleton the day after the festival ends. //Listen. I already told Lorenzo that if he blamed you, I would skin him. I would've done this anyway, sooner or later, but I'm doing it now because you've been a good friend. El.//
El's head starts to come up, horror shocking his nerves, but-
//I'll pay your debt//, Fideo says, humor at last reaching his eyes. //God knows you've done the same for me, over and over.//
Then El is running across the courtyard, skidding down just in time to fall in hot scarlet pools. His tears drop on a frozen smile, his fingers shakily push down cooling eyelids. And then he breathes, air lacerating his mouth and throat and lungs until it's too much.
Ironically, it's Sands that Lorenzo finds first. The man is blowing from town to town, half of a shadow. Too curious, but also too fast. Or maybe that's his more curvaceous partner, but the rumors aren't very clear.
It's ironic because Lorenzo's never even met the fucker. It's ironic because Lorenzo is looking for Carolina, whom he's just discovered is still alive, and so he's searching in the local bookstore. And it's ironic because when he first sees Sands, he thinks the man is reading a newspaper.
Then the shades tip down to show blindness, and the paper tips up to show gleaming blackness. One of El's old guns, Lorenzo recognizes, and so he stops. Demands to know where the fuck that came from. And when Sands tells him, reluctance disguised amid a flurry of sarcastic wit, Lorenzo has to sit down. Think.
Because it was his friend, and he's listened to enough nightmares, enough daytime horrors, to know that Fideo was Fideo and El had nothing to do with it. Because it is his friend, and he cared for Fideo long enough to know the signs when he spots them in El.
Because it's the way Sands' jaw tightens, ever so minutely, whenever he refers to El. The way the lenses of his sunglasses are almost a perfect match for the ones Lorenzo came across in El's guitar case, when he was trying to lock away all the guns, and the way he smells of Carolina's perfume.
//I know where he is//, Lorenzo says at last, head clamped between his hands. //You and Carolina want to go?//
"Yeah." And the deliberate manner in which Sands acknowledges that can't hide the eagerness with which he puts away the gun, pulls out the cell phone. Or the tremble in his fingers as he dials.
Lorenzo swallows, and for once the sourness in his mouth dissolves. The stale air in the store stirs into a breeze, stiff and stormy. When they step out to wait for her, he can see the big-bellied gray clouds clotting together, low in the sky. But it's water and ozone he smells, not blood.
Afterwards, he turns from the car disappearing down the road and starts to head for a bar, then thinks better of it. He ends up tucked into the arch of a crumbling cathedral, tuning his guitar to the thunder.
Carolina wrinkles her nose as she edges into the room; it reeks of vomit and decay, like a ten-day-old corpse in the gutter.
The moment she and Sands are both inside, a gun snaps up and aims at them.
"Don't you fucking dare," Sands hisses, dropping his cane and stalking over to the bed. It's uncanny how he almost but not quite collides with this and that. "Don't you even-you goddamn Mexicuntbag, I should-
The hand shooting out and grabbing his shirt is slightly less surprising, as Carolina can remember cracking open the case that first time, only to have tall dark wounded seize her wrist. Fire had shot up her bones then, and it'd never stopped burning. The tinder heaps even higher now, seeing all this slow rot, and in a second she's yanking El off Sands.
As soon as the American's free, she lets go and rubs her hand on her skirt, glaring down at the red-rimmed eyes of her husband. //If you touch us-either of us-again, you'd damn well better mean it. I-goddamn it, she died and you left. You left, you bastard, and you didn't even leave anything for me.//
El flops back on the mattress, gun across his eyes. //Either I've drunk too much, or I haven't drunk enough.//
"Bullshit. Give me any more of that, and I'll make you lick it up with a smile." Sands is furious. He's been angry for as long as Carolina's known him, but this is different. This is opening the gates to let the inferno out on the town. "You…you…fucking God, there aren't words. There's bullets-fuck, there's bullets-but you see, I can't. You made it so I can't."
"I wanted Marquez dead just as badly as you." It's stuffy in the room, and sweat is already soaking Carolina's clothes, dripping down her face. She claws the salt slicks off her cheeks, not wanting to know what part of it came from her eyes, and what part from her skin. //What right did you have to take that from me?//
//What fucking right do I have?// And El's up, off the bed and flinging his gun into the wall. Tough, thick plaster and mud, so it only cracks, but doesn't give. //What fucking right do you have to come here? To-to-I don't want this. I don't want this.//
Her chest is caving in on her, crushing all the words to powder. She sucks in air to scream, to yell and beat at him, but Sands interrupts her.
"Well, get over yourself, you dumb fuck. You're alive. You lived. Some other people didn't. It's not related. It's what they did, what other shitheads did to them-not what you did. We're what you did." Something dark and ugly and hurting twists Sands' mouth, and he wrings out the next few words. "Or didn't do. Wanna die? Fine. Just remember, our blood's in your hands."
Then Carolina understands, and then the rage suddenly empties out of her, hole smashed in the bowl of her mind. She looks down at her wedding ring, then pulls it off and holds it out to El. //Didn't this mean anything to you? I don't care what you are. I'll stay.//
His eyes flick from her to the gold circle, back and forth, back and forth. Then he slumps down the wall, back trailing a wet mark as his sweat and dirt stains the plaster. //When you don't want anything…//
Seeing them, so close El can feel Carolina's uneven gait on his palms, Sands' blindness lurking in the backs of his eyes, he suddenly remembers Fideo's words. And he finally knows what his friend was trying to do.
It's bad luck to turn down a gift of life. Especially when he can't give it back.
The only things he wants in the world now are sitting right in front of him, broken unbowed and demanding he stand up again. Keep walking the dust, wading in blood. And he starts to think that maybe, with them, he'd be able to do that.
"Well?" Impatient, just like El remembers, Sands gets off the bed and tries to make his way over to El. There's too many scattered bottles, torn sheets in the way, and he trips. Crawls, his hands spread in front of him. "Let me guess. You're getting off on this. Me, fucking fumbling along like-Christ!"
And that's all he says after El grabs his wrist and swings him up against the wall, studying his face. Fragile and hostile and El knows the sharpness of the jaw, the generous curve of the lip, sneering and uncertain. He knows about the near-madness lying just beneath, and the inappropriate humor, and the sheer vivid tenacity. //Carolina?//
Light and heavy steps, alternating, come up to his side and kneel down. He takes Sands' other wrist and tucks it into the same hand that's holding the first, then pulls the other man's back flush to his chest. Tilts up the chin with his free hand, so she can see as well. //You trust him?//
History springing into her eyes, diamond melting into familiarity. They don't need words for him to open into her hand and for her to gently close him up. Her smile flashes relief at him, and then she leans forward to kiss Sands.
They're not kind to each other, nipping and groaning; Carolina's nails dig red crescents into Sands' bare arms and Sands nearly rips free of El's grip, rocking and twisting into her. But there's a strange rightness to it, like watching two flocks of birds clash into each other and mesh to one.
El lets go of Sands and they stop, turning up to ravage his throat, his lips. In the whirlwind of teeth and tongue, he can't keep track of which is where. So he doesn't bother, reaching out for whatever he can. Full soft breast fills his one palm, hard curve of waist the other, and Carolina's head moves down with a sigh to leave Sands' eager mouth.
She's yanking at the rips already present in his shirt, tugging off his jacket with a little more care, while he drifts his fingers up her chest. Strips Sands of his shirt and holds the other man still so he can drink deep of moaning mouth, clean out his own and replace the foul taste that'd nested there for the past few days. Nails scratch at El's pants, over his back, and he rolls sideways so Carolina can see to that. Sucks on Sands' tongue till the other man is a whimpering mess, all twitches and sprawl, then twists about to catch Carolina by her waist.
//I didn't think you would follow//, he confesses to her hair, smashing the curls. But they spring back, and their scent fills his nose with flowers and smoke. He strokes the dress off of her and buries his face in her breasts, relearning the taste as he swirls his tongue over the smooth golden skin. His fingers follow the lines of her spine, hips and then spread so his index fingers trail between her thighs. //I didn't want you to. I was afraid…//
//I know.// Her hands smooth down his back, almost motherly except for how they dive down and tickle his growing erection. //Actually, I probably would've tried to kill you, in the first days.//
"Nasty violent bitch that she is," Sands mutters as he tries to sit up. El and Carolina exchange glances.
He knows her body: how it moves, when it will fail and when it'll win through. Even the weakness in her leg is only a temporary change; he's already engraving its peculiarities on his heart. And so when he releases her, when she falls away from him, he's no longer scared.
"Fuckers," Sands snaps, wiggling beneath Carolina. She's landed across his chest and arms, pressing them to the floor, and El climbs onto her to help trap Sands. Then leans down to sink his teeth into the cords of Sands' neck, the other man stilling to tenseness beneath them. Sands' breath speeds up as with one hand, El awkwardly pulls the jeans off of him.
Carolina clutches herself to El's body, lips working over his chest and down his breastbone. She takes his nipples between her teeth, lightly biting as air whistles between his teeth. //If you ever go off again--//
"-hunt you down and kill you ourselves," Sands chimes in, tone lashing and brutal as the bend and writhe of him is pleading. His tongue licks the underside of El's jaw as El fumbles around for something, anything…the hotel lotion.
That goes onto El's fingers without delay, and he rears up so he can lift Sands' leg. Manages to get the first one into shuddering flesh before Carolina scoots down and encases him in blindingly hot tightness.
Sands laughs when El loses his balance and tumbles down on top of the other two, then snarls and works a hand free to snatch El's wrist and shove another one of El's fingers in. "Jangle-fuck, you do not pull out until I damn well-"
"-scream?" El pushes in a third and twists till Sands is jerking, wordless whimpers sounding like they're been raked from his throat. Then Carolina is bucking onto him, her long legs wrapping around El's waist, and he clamps his other hand to her hip and drives into her.
//I can't leave//, he gasps as they move together, lightning sluicing into his flesh. Alchemy changing dead ashes to live coals. His fingers follow the same rhythm as they plunge in and out of Sands, plucking cries out until they string themselves in the air, turning the small, stuffy room into one instrument. Singing and wailing and rewriting.
And breaking, and creating. He feels Carolina's razor gasp all the way to his toes and fingers, and as if in sympathy, Sands finally screams a bare second later, spasming beneath her. She clenches and squeezes the light from El's vision, his own hoarse yell vibrating through the hollowness that remains.
But it all comes back, life and sight, Sands limp on the floor but curling toward El, Carolina tucking her face into El's neck.
"You taste disgusting," the other man pants. "When's the last time you showered?"
"After I buried Fideo. Three days ago, once I'd gotten him back to his birth town." El closes his eyes for a moment, silently thanking his friend. "I…think I broke the shower here."
//Idiot.// Carolina playfully pulls at his hair, like she used to when making fun of him. "Then you have to come with us, because our room's works just fine."
And he will go with them, and stay, and live on. Because he wants nothing now, and has everything.