The Ghosts in Our Hair | Fiction
The outlets don’t work. When they do, a hissing comes out like a cartoonish stick of dynamite. The lock catches, forcibly keeping us out of the house until we lift the door in the right way. There’s a gash in our TV, splitting the screen diagonally in two. Water is leaking out of the refrigerator, water drops becoming new patterns on our tiles. Open windows and extra blankets are our central air and heating. I stay awake to the sound of termites slowly chewing through the walls.
A repairman could come in and fix these problems. But they can’t fix the sink that cries itself to sleep. The invisible children in the attic that steal all the good bolis flavors from the freezer. The tree in the backyard that sings corridos at five in the morning.
My mother cleans and cleans and cleans. Trying to mask the deterioration with shiny floors and Fabuloso. She ropes her children into her Sisyphean chores. I usually end up cleaning the windows until the water spots are gone. April handles the sweeping up of the long black hairs we all leave behind. Marty changes all the lightbulbs since he’s the only one tall enough to reach them without a ladder. Ours broke two years ago while my father was trying to fix leaks in the ceiling.
My father believes that ignoring the problem is the best way to solve it. Maybe it would go away if only we would stop complaining. We’re good at keeping straight faces for the most part but when he catches a grimace or a tear the lectures start. Tales of having no running water when he was a kid, only having electricity when the skies were clear and that we should be grateful that things aren’t so bad. We could live with this.
There would be a metaphor here if we had time to think about it.
The fan in our room goes out while I’m reading a book and April is curling her hair. A small pop comes from the wall. The tiny red light goes out on her curler. Laughter echoes from the attic. She screams. Half her hair is the carefree, wavy style she spends hours doing and the other is hanging straight down. She hates it, calls it limp and boring. Her screams are carried down to the hallway and into my mother’s room. Muffles come from behind my parent’s room door. Pleading from April and resignation from my mother. There will be no fixing the outlets until she’s complained enough to our father.
I decide to head over to Jonah’s house. He has air conditioning and no magic shit plaguing his house. That’s what I tell myself as I reach inside my purse and stroke my finger against the rough edge of a plastic wrapper.
Jonah lives four blocks over, so I don’t take my bike, preferring to leave it in its safe little corner in the garage. I keep my head down and my hoodie up, hoping to cover the wings that decorate the space next to my eyelids. I keep my lips bare until I’m at Jonah’s door. I ring the doorbell and use my front-facing camera to make sure the pink lip gloss is perfect. Usually, he’d give me shit for wearing a hoodie in ninety-degree weather. Instead he moves to the side and I walk in.
His mom isn’t home, so this time we chill with the door closed. Keeps the heat from entering, he says. I nod and keep my face next to the fan, hoping I remind him of a model every time my hair is blown slightly back. He takes out a DVD case with no cover out from his bookshelf. He slides the disc into its place and turns on the TV. The rental place across the street from our high school finally went out of business. We went the last day and grabbed all the leftover DVDs for fifty cents and made a promise that we would watch all of them, no matter how bad.
We sit on the floor, using his bed as back support. A blonde-haired woman in a fur coat and matching hat speaks to a thickly bearded man in a language neither of us understands. Jonah says Swedish and I guess Russian. He lost the remote to the player. There’s no subtitles. Play, stop and eject are the only options. His arm is warm against mine. The woman pulls out a gun and shouts something harsh to him. Silently, he approaches her, slowly takes the gun from her hand and kisses her.
I snort. Stupid.
Jonah looks at me. He asks me what’s stupid about it.
I shrug. I don’t have a real answer. Romances were not my thing. I never buy into the happily ever after, cheesiness movies ooze. People get together and stay together because they have to, not because of love. The love never lasts.
We both face the TV. The kissing has evolved into two naked bodies pressed against each other, dancing. My eyes don’t leave the rhythm of their curves. His arm is burning into my skin. He traces shapes into mine with his fingers.
Later, Jonah would say he didn’t know who kissed who first. But it was me. The burning that was just in my arm slowly spread throughout my body.
He doesn’t ask where the condoms came from. The bed bounces under his weight. Not knowing what to do, he takes off his clothes, expectant. I close my eyes, peel off my jeans and climb on top of him. I keep the hoodie on. There is only the sound of the movie and the bed creaking under us. The fire keeps climbing up my body.
The couple on screen are smoking cigars in bed, purring at each other. The ashes disappearing and never staining the sheets. The whole room smells like sliced oranges. We’ve burned up the blankets with the fire that has died out now. I panic. My mother will know and my father’s anger will leave purple under the skin where people can’t see.
No amount of vanilla body spray can mask the scent of the oranges. I run home and dive into every scent of cream April has in her drawer. Hibiscus, cinnamon, cherry blossom, and peppermint all cover my body. Still the citrus seeps through. My skin is a shade lighter from all the white that has been absorbed. I stay hidden until dinnertime.
The aroma mixes with the smell of carne asada and black beans. I nibble on a slice of bread, forcing something to go down. April keeps shooting glances at me. Her hands were stained pink for a week after a sleepover with her friends. Marty is oblivious as always, the only one devouring the food placed in front of us. I catch my mother’s eyes once and then it’s back to looking at the paper plates. Dinner continues without a word. My father leaves for his place in the living room once his plate is cleared.
I would’ve preferred anger, an argument I could combat, a swing I could take. I escape to the backyard. The sun has gone down, but the heat remains. Sweat climbs down my face and stings my eyes. The tree starts to wail about lost love. My parents’ bedroom faces the backyard. I see the silhouette of my father standing. My mother walks up to him and places a hand on his shoulder. He abandons an open embrace and the pair of shadows becomes one.
Kelly Duarte is a Guatemalan-American writer whose work is based in Latinx culture and fantasy. Her work has appeared in Palabritas, Neon Mariposa, The Wandering Song: Central American Writing in the United States, and more.