I'll be giving away part one of my three-part urban fantasy series (La Bruja Roja) for the next five days. I originally wrote the series under the pseudonym Delia Fontana and over the year or so it's been available, Joy Sillesen has played with the covers, trying out everything from a neat grunnge graphic to the current trio of very paranormal covers. I've loved all the covers and wish I could use them all. This excerpt is from the opening of Aixa and the Scorpion. If you'd like to read more, go grab the freebie on Amazon. And I would LOVE a review if you like it.
AIXA AND THE SCORPION
When you live in a place called Sangre de Cristo, it almost goes without saying that sometimes not-so-ordinary things are going to happen. In the years I was growing up here, Sangre was mostly just a sleepy little border town straddling the line between Texas and Mexico.
Americans crossed the border in search of cheap drugs and cheap booze and donkey sex shows and Mexicans traveled in the other direction looking for jobs and opportunities and green cards.
We didn’t get many tourists in Sangre de Cristo, so while we weren’t entirely immune to the problems faced by people in Matamoros or El Paso, we were mostly insulated from the bad stuff.
At least we were until 2006 when the drug wars exploded and the fallout left towns on both sides of the border radioactive with cocaine and machismo.
By then I was already living in Austin, taking classes at UT, and trying to figure out my place in the world.
I am a modern woman, but I am heir to an old, old tradition. And the power that I have skips generations. It’s why my mother, who was born in Brownsville, fled the U.S. in the final weeks of her pregnancy, determined that I should be born in Mexico so that I’d be a citizen of both nations. Both nations and two worlds.
She died giving birth to me, which is like something out of a 19th century novel. My father, who had loved her very much, never forgave her for leaving him and basically abandoned me in Sangre de Cristo to grow up in my abuela’s house.
For my 14th birthday my father sent me a present—a Bratz doll—and then two weeks later showed up in Sangre de Cristo knocking on my grandmother’s door with more presents and a sheepish smile.
He’d come, he said, to get to know me and although my first instinct was to tell him to fuck off and die, one look at his face was all I needed to know that he was already halfway dead. So I forgave him.
I don’t think my grandmother ever did.
She had been opposed to the marriage because she thought my father was just trifling with my mother’s affections. And since my mother had never told her exactly why she’d left my father—not until after she was dead, anyway—my grandmother believed that it was because Tom Riley had mistreated her in some way.
Her assumption could not have been further from the truth, he protested and told me his side of the story.
My parents had met when she was put on trial for killing her abusive boyfriend in self-defense. My father was her lawyer and two days after he won an acquittal for her, they were married. He had been crazy in love with her, he told me.
Eight months after they were married, my mother had come home to her own mother, hugely pregnant with me and curiously tight-lipped about her motives for deserting her husband and leaving behind her life in the U.S. She had never explained herself to him, had never given him any reason. There was no other man, she had told him and then she had said nothing more and nothing he could say to her would convince her to return. And then she was dead and he was alone. “Not alone,” I had said to him, “I was here.”
“That’s the point Aixa,” he said, “you were here, and not in Texas. And your grandmother had claimed you and she blamed me for your mother’s death.” He saw the expression on my face and added, “I’m not offering an excuse. I’m just telling you how it was then, how I saw it.”
I thought he’d been a chicken shit but as I said, what was the point of hating him for who he had been? Before he went back to Texas, my father bought me a computer so we could keep in touch via email and when he went into the hospital for the last time, he sent me a plane ticket to Austin.
There had been a driver waiting for me at the airport and we went straight to the hospital from there.
I didn’t bother stopping at the reception desk to get directions. I knew exactly where he was. It didn’t occur to me to think that was odd.
His room was dark when I entered, lit only by the machines he was tethered to like some kind of Borg. There was a woman sitting in the chair next to the bed holding his hand and speaking softly. I assumed the woman was my American grandmother until I realized she was speaking Spanish and took a closer look.
The woman holding my father’s hand was my mother.
I’d seen her off and on since I first started having my period and so it didn’t seem strange to see her here.
She smiled when she saw me and called me mija and then she turned back to the conversation she was having with my father.
Feeling like an intruder, I backed out of the room and ran into my American grandmother, who was standing in the corridor smoking.
She was sunk in her own misery, but she must have seen something in my face because she said, “Is your mother still in there?”
I looked at her in shock and then reached for her cigarette. She handed it to me without protest. I took a shaky drag and handed it back.
“You can see her too?”
“Red hair like yours, blue dress with roses embroidered on it?”
I nodded wordlessly.
“We buried her in that dress,” my grandmother said. “It was your father’s favorite.”
I reached for the cigarette again, and this time I smoked it all the way down to the filter.
After that, we went back into the room together and although my father was still breathing, it was obvious he was already stepping into the shadows. My mother’s ghost was gone.
My grandmother and I each took one of his hands and just stood there silently.
“I wish you’d had a chance to get to know him,” my grandmother said.
“Me too,” I said, but not in a mean way.
Even without looking at her I could tell she was crying.
“Do you want to be alone with him?” I’d asked her, “to say goodbye?”
She’d turned to me with the kindest smile. “No darlin’,” she’d said. “This is a time for family.”
I didn’t feel like family and I didn’t stay for the funeral.
My father was cremated and my American grandmother sent me a portion of his ashes via DHL courier.
I sprinkled him over my mother’s grave so they’re together in death as they never really were in life.
And every year on the day of the dead I tended their grave and left marigolds and roses from our garden.
My abuela disapproved of me romanticizing their memory, but how could I not?
She would have disapproved a lot more if she’d known that I was nipping tequila from the bottles left on nearby graves, and that the reason I went straight to bed when I got home from visiting my parents was not that I was overcome by emotion but that I was afraid she’d smell the liquor on my breath.
I was basically a good kid but adolescence hit me hard.
My father left me money enough that I could go to college without worrying about taking a job to pay the bills. There’s more money in a trust that will come to me when I turn 30. It’s … a lot of money … and I haven’t decided what to do with it yet. Meanwhile, I see a lot of my father’s mother. When I was in school, she invited me over for dinner every week, and when I came home after my abuela’s death, we kept in touch by Skype.
She also comes to town three or four times a year to get some face time with the people who run an orphanage in her name. She built it after my father died and named it for him and my mother. She asked my abuela to be a part of it and she had grudgingly agreed. After she died, her name was given to the building’s library. I think my abuela would have liked that.
My American grandmother asked me to call her “Grace,” since we didn’t really have much of a family relationship. Over the years I’ve gotten to know her more as an older friend than a relative and to my surprise, I’ve come to like her very much.
It took her two years to get around to the subject of what she called her “second sight” and what we had shared the night my father died. Even then, she acted like she was embarrassed by her gift, which she said she’d received from her Irish grandmother.
To set her at ease, I told her about Sangre de Cristo.
I was still a little girl when I realized that Sangre de Cristo was not only on the dividing line between two nations but sat on another border as well, and that this second location was not marked on any map.
The old ones said that Sangre de Cristo was a halfway point, a way station between life and death and that the souls of the dead could travel in both directions as easily as the living—and not just on Dia de los Muertos, the day of the dead.
Most of the dead were just lonely, my abuela said when I asked her about this, adding that most of the dead meant no harm to the living. Then she would abruptly change the subject, which of course, only made me more curious.
“What about the others?” I’d pester her. “What about the ones that do mean harm to the living?”
My grandmother always waved away my fears, assuring me that no ghost would enter our house, not while she was there, and when she wasn’t there, her little dog, Angelita, would look after me.
That always made me laugh because Angelita was a fat little Chihuahua who loved everybody and spent most of her time dozing in the sunshine pouring in the open doorway of our house.
And then one afternoon I came home from school and found the dog dead on the doorstep, her fawn-colored fur rusty with dried blood.
For all her assurances that no ghost would ever harm me, my grandmother had never mentioned that one might one day hurt Angelita.
At first, I was so stunned by the sight of the dog’s butchered body that I couldn’t even make sense of what I was looking at.
Her chest was cracked open and her little heart had been torn out and stuffed into her mouth. Her bright brown eyes were dull in death, but as I leaned down to pick her up, they became mirrors. I looked into her eyes, expecting to see myself reflected there but I didn’t.
Instead I saw the face of … the thing … that had killed my grandmother’s sweet dog.
Oddly, I wasn’t frightened. I knew I was looking at something uncanny, something weird in the oldest sense of the word, but despite the malevolence I could feel radiating from it, I didn’t get the sense that any of his anger was directed at me, personally.
Still, the apparition was frightening. It was the face of something that had once been human but hadn’t been alive for a very long time. Its face was a mask of skin stretched over a skull so tightly it had torn in places, revealing dry bone beneath.
A black flame filled the sockets where eyes used to be.
The thing turned those burning not-eyes toward me.
But I wasn’t afraid as those eyes looked back at me and this time I could feel its rage and knew it was both general and personal. This was a thing that was full of hate.
I still wasn’t afraid, though, because I knew that I was stronger that it was.
I was eight years old.