The Shepherd

By José Cruz

The cross is bigger than he remembers. Its tumescent beams stand atop the church’s peaked steeple, their size symbolic of great sacrifice, the ruptured cement below roasting in the fire of a four o’clock sun.

Carlos sits in the crumbling Chevy, windows rolled up, desperate to feel every inch of the heat. Blood-warm apprehension pools in the small of his back. The iron head of the hammer tucked behind his belt clings to his skin, eyes of the Virgin Mary glistening wet from the prayer card that hangs from a noose of rosary beads on the rearview. His own eyes move up to the mirror’s crusted glass; the face of his father stares back at him from behind a piecemeal beard.

It’s the second time he’s come back to the truck since his arrival; he resumes watch of the church’s wide mahogany doors as if expecting them to open through force of will.

He knows that the stage is waiting for him.

The hammer suddenly feels brittle in the bony cradle of his pelvis, desperately unfit for the task that’s called him here. Inside the blazing truck, Carlos wonders if any of it is possible–if memories could really shatter under the swing of a mallet.

Worrying the spiral scar on his right arm, he charges from the pickup in a sudden burst of bravado. His courage melts quickly in the sun; he makes it just outside the church’s entrance.

The neighborhood to his back rustles with activity. Children stumble thankfully from choking bus to minivan and old men water hedges one last time before cold snaps and Florida migrations set in, all of them doing whatever they can to keep from looking at the church. The pavement thrums with the mild buzzing of yellow jackets stirring from their nests. Even with the noise, Carlos can still make out the whispers crawling from beneath the doors though the exact words remain unclear. They stop who is innocent as soon as his fingers graze the metal handle, only to resume when he turns and considers letting this place burn in the back of his mind forever. Inside the cab, the Virgin Mary swings gently from her noose.

Turning around, he rips the tattered X of yellow tape screaming CAUTION from the doors and, slipping the hammer from his belt, starts going to work on the padlock clasping the links of chain to the handle. The sound ratchets through the air, smiles wiped from mothers’ faces as they ignore their children’s questions and drive away, old men shaking blistered heads as they drown their violets in sulfur water.

The smashed padlock clatters to the ground. He waits for the bones in his hand to stop ringing before finally pushing through. A bated whoosh from inside matches his own panting breath. He breaches the threshold, lets the cavernous darkness settle over him as the doors slowly seal shut.

This is a reunion. The two parties receive each other.

* * *

It’s a story the boy has heard before, the one about the dogs. His father tells it to him some nights before bed, the two of them propped up against the Power Ranger pillows. The boy closes his eyes at intervals to conjure the scenes in his mind, his father weaving the tale in a soft, lilting tenor. The tattoo on his father’s arm—a Max Fleischer cherub fitted with boxing gloves, the boy’s name rolling in cursive beneath—appears as a ripening bruise in the approaching dusk.

One day near a village in San Salvador, a boy found himself walking down a road. His father points to the window. The sun was just beginning to set. The sky was bloody under threads of skin.

The boy was all alone. The road he followed ran next to a great volcano. He could feel the mountain groan beneath his hardened feet, and for a moment he was frightened that it might erupt before his return. But when the boy looked up, what he saw instead was a flock of sheep running down the mountain’s side, as if something had frightened them. He realized soon enough what it was.

The boy digs his toes into the chilly sheets, anticipating the next movement.

Two dogs stood in the distance: one black, one white. Each had eyes of fire and long, thin faces like old men. The dogs stared at the boy who did not move. The boy stared at the dogs who did not move. But the boy knew who they were, even before the dogs finally began climbing down the mountain rock on their hooved feet. They were El Cadejo.

The boy grins, for he loves the smoky taste of this haunted word.

El Cadejo were the spirit-dogs of the mountains. One was good, the other evil. The good cadejo was sent by God to protect travelers in need. The evil cadejo was sent by the Devil to steal souls for his Master. They lived on the great volcano and ate the purple flowers that hung from their stems like bells when they weren’t hunting for sheep.

The boy interrupts: The black dog was the bad one. Right?

His father stops, considers this, and then shrugs. Sometimes. Sometimes the white cadejo is the bad one. It depends on who’s telling the story.

Silence. Then, the son: So, what happened next?

His father flashes a toothy grin. You’ve heard this one before. You tell me.

The boy compares the small, smooth hands resting in his own lap to his father’s callused fists. The dogs fight for the boy’s soul.

The father twines an arm around the boy and hugs him close. That’s right, Charlie.

It’s a lie Carlos has told himself before, the one about his father.

He never heard bedtime stories as a child. Even if his father had been there to tell them to him, in reality his English was only mildly intelligible, at best. When the man from his fantasy speaks, Carlos can always understand him perfectly. He can’t even remember the last time it was he and his father had touched. Did they embrace? Did they shake hands? Did they say they loved each other?

As for the dogs, he thinks he must have recalled them from a book of ghostly legends he borrowed from the library as a kid; now it was all appropriated material he’d use to construct this false childhood for himself in the hollowing hours of night, piecing together his past like a patchwork suit. Each time he would stand back and see how it fit him, but no matter how many versions of the scene Carlos envisioned he would end up rolling onto his side as Jessie slept soundly next to him, closing his smoldering eyes against the pathetic need that throbbed coldly within him, a beggar in stolen clothes.

The tattoo was real, though. This Carlos knows, but even now as he tries to recall its finer details they, like everything else about his father, begin to dissolve like a negative exposed to the light.

* * *

His mother told him his father was taken away by angels.

Carlos realized early on that this was not true; as a teenager he became formally acquainted with terms like “border-jumping,” “green cards,” and “ICE.” It was one of the many soft lies she told him throughout his life, but these days he found himself wondering about that. About a lot of things.

For eighteen years Carlos had stood at his mother’s side through a procession of men who she went through as if to wash the mistake of his father off her skin, but each and every one of them was abandoned as soon as there was enough beef in the fridge and sufficient repairs had been made to their home. His mother nursed whatever guilt she felt with Long Island iced teas and disability checks. Carlos recounted the faces of his surrogate fathers in between the veiled hostilities that soon became the vocabulary of his home life.

His rare visits to the house were still peppered with the awkwardness borne of those eighteen years; the last time he dropped in his mother began to reminisce on his toddlerhood, a time she had no doubt enjoyed because he hadn’t yet learned to question her motives. She had recently dyed her dirty blonde hair some hideous shade of platinum, and though there weren’t any glasses in evidence Carlos could detect the fog of booze. At one point in the conversation, she smiled dreamily at him, freckles crinkling, and said, “Did you know back then I used to call you my little spiclet?”

He had never really been revolted by her whiteness until that moment, but later Carlos couldn’t decide what bothered him the most: the genuine blush of affection in her voice or the fact that his inherited whiteness made him uncertain if he had any real right to be bothered by it at all. He was, in the end, only a mutt, and it seemed hypocritical to feel outrage for a heritage to which he was always a stranger.

“She’s unbelievable.” Jessie sighed. “But what are you gonna do? You only get one mother.”

Carlos shook his head as he walked through the front door of his house. “Yeah, but don’t they have exchange programs for something like this? Can’t I get a return on a broken parent?”

Jessie’s laughter purred through the phone’s earpiece. Settling down onto the couch, Carlos allowed himself a smile and let the sound lift him for a moment. Visits to his mother’s were usually followed by calls to his wife, mostly to vent incredulous anger. A few minutes chatting with Jessie during her lunch breaks had the power to quiet his humming blood. He was replaying the sound of her laugh when he heard her speak again. “Sorry, hon,” he mumbled. “Caught me daydreaming. What was that?”

She paused. “Do you ever think about trying to find your dad again?”

For a few seconds Carlos sat with the phone pressed hard against his ear, trying to remember how his mouth worked. “Dad” was such a small word, but it had sharp edges. Like his mother, he had fallen into the pattern of referring to his father by his first name, as if he was the neighbor, or the dog. Aside from memories and resemblance, that name was Carlos’ only inheritance from his father, a name he had only begun to use in the last few years. As if that could somehow make up for everything.

But his mother insisted on calling him Charlie.

Well, Carlos is what it says on my birth certificate, he reasoned, which was immediately followed by the thought, well, where was that loyalty twenty years ago?

Shame drew Carlos’ throat tight as he shifted on the couch and heard the snicker of rosary beads sliding to the floor. He leaned over the stack of half-finished job applications and plucked up the fallen prayer card. Midday migraine light turned the Virgin Mary’s throat into a white-hot slit. Carlos flipped the card over and saw his own name and date of birth written in his father’s wobbling, childish scrawl. The only birthday card he ever got.   

“No,” he whispered into the phone. “I really don’t.”

* * *

The lambs shuffle into the church’s nursery on wrinkled feet. They do not touch or bump together as they file into the room, not even accidentally. Their naked skin, still fiery from the bleach and the hoses, is partly the reason for this, but mainly it is because at this point they have all learned to mistrust physical contact. Whatever curiosity they might have possessed towards each other’s bodies was broken the second they were herded into the nursery on that first day, a whole other lifetime away.

The matron calls out to them. Her voice sparkles champagne-rich from the silent rocking chair where she sits. The only other furnishing in the room is a puppet stage, scabbed and bent, leaning to the side like a slumbering animal behind her.

The matron invites the flock to sit. The lambs obey. They all picked their spots on that first day in the nursery, and now they’ve kept them.

The matron smiles down at the lambs, reaches out, and grazes the cotton ball whorls that puff out from their handmade masks. The masks are the only article they wear, the skull-buzzing odor of Elmer’s Glue still thick in their lungs. They all sit completely still as the matron rises from her chair and walks among them, caressing their new papier mâché skin.

Such pretty faces, she says. Such clean, white wool.

* * *

The church’s interior slowly comes into focus. There’s enough drowsy light leaking in from the front windows for Carlos to discern that the building is an intact relic, a ghostly coating of dust the only visible concession to neglect. The lobby is Spartan in decoration and design: a few depleted armchairs ringing the wall, anemic plants fainting across cracked pots, a small podium standing at attention like an upright coffin.

Taking a breath, Carlos begins walking towards the doors of the sanctuary when a dark blot forms in the tail of his eye. He turns, slowly. A large, framed photograph stands in a nest of ratty garland on a shelf behind the podium. Its subject resolves itself as he draws nearer.

A chilly stream of memory rushes through him, and he feels his fingers curl around the hammer. In the photo, a bearded man stands inside a room made of meaty logs; it could be a beach house or a camp bunk. His gangly arms are held aloft. Whip-scars swarm across his body. The exposed slashes seem to cover every inch of skin–from a distance he appears as a single raw, angry wound. Eyes of blue stone peer up through a thorned crown with a look of appeal or blame.

Sunday mornings, pale knuckles around his mother’s hand, staring at the picture from behind her legs, telling her that he was afraid

The two first-born sons appraise each other. Carlos wonders who the model in the picture was in real life, and what happened to him afterwards.

His grip begins to loosen on the hammer. This isn’t what he’s come for. His purpose lies elsewhere. He switches the hammer to his left hand, slams the photograph face down on the shelf, and continues towards the sanctuary.

A gentle tinkling forces him to stop. Carlos turns and casts a final backward glance.

The picture has been righted. Behind him, Christ weeps tears of broken glass.

* * *

About twenty minutes into the job interview, the office manager dropped the other shoe and asked Carlos if he spoke Spanish. It was a familiar question. He answered the same as always. He met her query with a small, guilty smile. “No,” he told her. “I really don’t.”

“Really? Why not?” She tilted her head, playfully disheartened, but there had still been the expectancy of an answer in there.  This was the part he always had trouble with.

In the past he had opted for the honest approach—“Oh, my dad just wasn’t around to teach me,”—tagged with a shrug, but all this accomplished was bringing the mood down and making him look the orphan hard up for sympathy. More recently he’d taken an equally playful, ambiguous route.

“Just never got around to it, I guess.”

The office manager nodded; her tight-lipped frown told him that she’d gotten the message despite his best efforts. “It’s not a problem,” she added quickly. “We just got kind of excited cause we thought you might be bilingual. Usually, you see someone with a name like that and…” She didn’t need to finish. It was a story Carlos had heard before.

Then it was his turn to tilt his head. He’d said that he hoped he hadn’t disappointed them. She assured him that no, of course he hadn’t, but by then Carlos had already drawn back into the cave of himself and all he could hear was the endless whisper of his own voice quietly calling himself a fraud.

After the interview, he sat in his parked Chevy with the radio tuned to a Spanish station. Two commentators bantered at the speed of machine guns. He closed his eyes at intervals, his forehead straining as he focused on snatches of conversation in the hopes that they’d awaken in him buried talents and a keen understanding. He locked in on a phrase that one of the commentators drew out in slow relish, batted it back and forth in his mind before attempting to speak it aloud. The rolled ‘r’ sound stumped him; his tongue flapped helplessly in his mouth. The two commentators burst out in laughter.

After five minutes of thinking about this, Carlos started the truck and pulled out onto the highway, the alien chants of the music that commenced following him all the way home. At the start of each new song, his mouth grew a little drier.

Three weeks later he started his new job at the same office, the service coordinator of a national water company. The phone calls he received begged and demanded him for help, and whenever he gave his name and the customers returned his calls later, they asked the operator if they could speak to Juan or Diaz or Luis again, please.

* * *

The black goat looks upon the lambs from on high.

The puppet rears its galloping head towards the audience, hair ragged with mange, lidded marbles peering out from under a set of massive, curved horns. The lambs subconsciously trace the spiral of the horn’s twin along their arms as the matron weaves her tale in the dark.

The black goat is not to be followed, they are told. The black goat is Untrue Father, sworn enemy of the Shepherd and all whom he keeps. The black goat is Illusion, for there is none in the field but the Shepherd and his flock. To leave the flock and follow the black goat is to be eternally damned, to soil their souls with the grime of false promises and give themselves over to the care of the invisible.

This is The Show, the lambs’ nightly Sabbath and sole lesson.

The atmosphere of The Show is ruined, as it is every evening, when the puppeteer controlling the black goat slowly rises from beneath the stage, his corpulent face all but hidden under jaundiced spectacles and a drooping mustache. The lambs draw their breath in at the sight of the hammer in his left hand.

The black goat is the Great Enemy of the Shepherd, the matron says.

Gently, the puppeteer places his right hand upon the stage.

The matron’s eyes shine like distant candlelight. The black goat must be punished, she tells them.

Slowly, the puppeteer raises the hammer and starts to go to work.

All but one lamb turns away. The boy in back watches the scene from behind his breath-warmed mask, tracks the steady swing, feels each blow grind against his ribs. The curtains are soon speckled, the puppet reduced to rags. The slick hammer drops to the stage, and the puppeteer draws back into the shadows from where he was born without a sound. The watchful lamb traces the scar on his arm and dimly recalls another branded man from his past.

A rusty squeak scissors the air. The lambs turn just as the slumped, hissing figure in the wheelchair crawls towards their circle. The matron beams through a sheen of tears that glint amber in the nursery’s polar light. Six arcs of shadow trail from her fingers as she reaches out to the lambs, her voice marmalade-sweet.

Rejoice, she tells them. Your Shepherd is here at last.

* * *

His footsteps shouldn’t be echoing.

The church’s sanctuary still has all of its nicked wooden pews, its snowy tapestries hanging above the pulpit like battlement flags. Even the parchment hymnals remain, tucked behind benches, waiting for chanting resurrection. Underneath the reverberating stomp of his boots Carlos hears who is innocent the soft whispers from before, the dry susurrus of voices offering up prayer. He reasons the draft from his passing is rifling the pages of the hymnals, but it doesn’t explain the muffled sobs trickling from the pooled shadows beneath the pews.

The sanctuary is colder than the lobby in spite of the towering stained glass windows streaming Technicolor sunlight into the room. The windows snare the heat in their refracted patterns, robed saints with flowing-locked heads bent in obfuscation, palms open in acceptance, perfectly rendered in tired compositions. The room’s frigid air makes Carlos’ damp skin awaken to second life.

The last window on the right depicts a scene different from the rest. A Doré-esque figure in purple garments hurtles from the sky on wings made chitinous by the glass. An upraised arm covers the face as if in agony or shame. A hole has been punched through the window’s tapestry, shattering the rolling green hills of the pasture below the figure into a mouth of jagged teeth.

Carlos stops and peers through the aperture. In the church’s parking lot he spies a girl hunched over a mountain bike, squinting at him through the bronze dusk, her dirt-caked face immovable as rock. She seems to regard him as an invader. Carlos reaches through the hole, spreads his hand out in a gesture of acceptance. With uncanny swiftness, the girl whips her bike around and begins pedaling furiously away from the church. Carlos draws back slowly, but the broken window still manages to trace a stinging river down his forearm. The cut is not deep, but it is enough. He looks back. A scarlet bead winks from a jade fang; the parking lot is empty. He knew the church would not allow him entry without a token payment. One wound for another.

Arm clamped to his chest, Carlos slowly moves past the sighing pulpit and begins the long trek down the hallway to the church’s nursery.

* * *

Carlos had seen the Shepherd a few times before those numberless days in the nursery. It was mostly around the church, like in the craft classes the sweaty youth pastor would host after Sunday services, or in the dark mirror of the boys’ restroom. But sometimes Carlos could spot his silhouette passing beneath a storm drain or hanging from the branches of the moaning pine that overlooked the playground at school. Sometimes, he would be in the wheelchair.

The Shepherd was old, though Carlos never did find out what his exact age was, a crumpled white man in an equally crumpled and white suit whose single note of color was a shimmering purple tie that trailed down his front like a dead trout. In spite of his wasted appearance, Carlos found the old man’s presence assuring in its own way, a figure that could be relied on to be there at all times, even when he wasn’t.

Carlos was heading out of the nursery one afternoon when he felt a firm grip upon his shoulder. He turned, surprised to find the Shepherd kneeling next to him when he had been certain the old man had been standing at the other end of the room only a moment before. The Shepherd smiled, his face a dried riverbed. When he spoke Carlos thought he could see his jaw work as a solitary unit, like a ventriloquist’s dummy.

The old man pointed. “Charlie, was it?” His rasping drawl tickled Carlos’ ears. He felt himself nod.

“I’ve taken notice of you. You’re an exceptionally intelligent boy. Quite an aptitude with words.” The Shepherd’s polished lips curved slyly. “But it seems to me that you rarely speak them aloud. You’re not really the shy type though, are you Charlie?”

“No,” Carlos replied easily. “I guess I just feel like what I have to say doesn’t really matter to anyone.” He stopped, suddenly confused.

The Shepherd chuckled. “Fear of looking foolish is a legitimate concern. But those people who would laugh at you aren’t the people who matter, Charlie. I would never dream of laughing at you. I believe you have some very important things to tell the world, and I want to be the one to hear them first.”

Carlos looked up at the Shepherd, saw the skin of his face bulge out softly in spots, heard the dried snap of tiny fluttering legs, and he was suddenly overcome by an intense desire to please this man. His eyes began to water, and in their warm murkiness he thought he could see parts of the Shepherd’s face begin to run together.

“Who are you?” Carlos asked.

Flesh creaking and tugging, the Shepherd flashed a toothy grin in the dark.

“Who is it that you need?”

Something sharp began to move inside Carlos’ chest. He heard his voice under a low ringing that turned the rest of the world silent. “Will you stay?” he asked. “Will you stay if I’m good?”

The doll’s mouth clacked, and oaken fingers brushed his skin. The Shepherd nodded, drew him into an embrace. Carlos had the impression of glass wings settling over his face.

“That’s right, Charlie.”

In the next second, Carlos was running from the nursery, gasping to keep the cries from breaking free. He turned and cast a final backward glance. Through a haze of tears, he saw the Shepherd quietly watch him go from the opposite end of the room.

* * *

Carlos didn’t own any photographs of his father. (“Can’t you see the resemblance?” he’d ask Jessie, fingers framing an invisible portrait.) The only physical evidence he had of the man’s existence was two mug shots accompanying their respective arrest reports on the county sheriff’s online portal. One charge for marijuana possession; the other, one he preferred not to study.

Googling his father’s name one night, he combed through the infinite results. “Carlos Humberto Dominguez” wasn’t exactly exclusive, and it didn’t help that his father had regularly altered his name in order to daunt the law. Carlos tried looking up distant cousins and aunts from half-remembered conversations. He found possible accounts on Facebook but didn’t know how to proceed, or if these people even spoke English, or if they’d even want to help him if they did. His grandmother in El Salvador had presumably been bilingual, but she had been beaten to death by her second husband. (The elderly  murderer  was released from prison and remarried several months later.)

Carlos began to consider hiring a private detective before abandoning the idea for fear of cost and ignorance of where even to start. There was the other fear, too, of what such a course might uncover—his father leading a happier life with a second, more faithful family, a shallow grave, nothing at all.

In lieu of accomplishing anything or giving further thought to his apprehensions, Carlos stared into the laptop’s blurry screen for the next hour, back to the scraps he started with: two mug shots, and a life full of ghosts.

* * *

None of the lambs move at first. Fear and exhaustion anchor them to the ground.

Come now, step forward, the matron says. They see her look out across the room and then they hear the same question that they hear every night, the question that none of them can answer in words.

Who is innocent, she asks.

The matron’s voice betrays no emotion, yet they can all feel the promise of punishment coiling in the air about them. The only response to her invitation is the rattling breath from the figure in the wheelchair. Guilty eyes dip towards the floor. Some weaker lambs begin to cry. Their companions do not comfort them. They are children, and they know only of private despair.

A brittle voice sounds from the front of the flock. One of the lambs asks for her nana.

The matron suddenly appears over her, a shadow,  a spider. She asks the lamb if she knows how she came to be in the nursery in the first place. In her grief, the lamb does not know how to respond, so she buries her head in her hands instead. The matron explains that the lamb’s grandmother only wanted to help her and that now, having received her consent, the Shepherd can give the lamb everything that her nana could not.

The lamb can only repeat the word, “please.”

Kneeling down, the matron sweeps the lamb’s mask away, exposing the tear-stained skin beneath, the red hair glossy with sweat. The matron holds the lamb’s head in place so that she can see nothing but the figure in the wheelchair and asks her to look and to see: her mother has come back to her.

The lamb whispers “please,” a few more times before her cries stutter to a stop. She stares at the figure as if seeing it for the first time. Recognition dawns in her eyes. The matron pulls the lamb to her feet and bids her on.

The lamb takes an unsteady step forward, glances back for the validation of her flock and, seeing only the lumpen expressions of their masks, moves on. She calls to the figure, testing the word “mommy” on her tongue, unsure if it can be trusted. The sound of her voice stirs the figure in its seat, and for the first time since its arrival it looks fully into the nursery’s light.

Hunger steals into the heart of every lamb in that moment, and the nursery soon burbles then echoes with the sound of their cries. The unmasked lamb’s face breaks into a delirious grin and she falls, laughing, into the figure’s lap, cradled in the crook of its skeletal arms as she paws at the wattles of flesh hanging from its throat. Mommy, she squeals. You’re home!

The other lambs pound the floor with bony hands, their voices cracking as they watch the figure’s face shimmer and take on the reflection of all their treasured memories of sisters and uncles and best friends lost to the edges of the universe, each memory now turning to them and whispering only to them, You are my one and truest love.

An incandescent, violet glow begins to throb within the figure’s chest. The unmasked lamb hugs her mother close, drawn to the glow’s warmth. None of the others in the flock notice the boy in back rise up and walk over to the stage. They are too distracted in their devotion to see the red hammer gripped in his hand, too enraptured in the heat of His love to stop him before the twin claws sail down and sink deep into the figure’s mummified chest. The unmasked lamb falls to the ground screaming, her loose hair snared in grasping fingers. The figure’s wooden jaws snap open, wide and wider, and all that anyone can make out in the blinding light that follows is the ferocious hum of yellow jackets taking flight.

The One and Only Father. His scream is the wind; His mouth is the sun.

* * *

Carlos didn’t hear his father’s last phone call from the penitentiary himself, only got it secondhand from his mother later on. His imagination weaved in the rest. He wondered what his last words were. Did his father curse them? Beg for forgiveness? Tell them he loved them? They were all preferable to the frantic call his mother told him about, the way his father had shouted, “Kathy, they’re sending me back—” before the line clicked dead. And that’s when the angels came.

Angels. No—that wasn’t right. She’d said something else—“agents.” Wasn’t that it? It must have been. Perhaps he’d misheard her. Perhaps he’d only wanted to hear her say something else.

Perhaps she hadn’t told him anything at all.

* * *

Earlier that day on his drive over to the house, Carlos suddenly recalled the date and pulled into the nearest Walgreen’s, purchased a Mother’s Day card decorated with too much glitter, considered grabbing the box of Queen Anne’s that he knew she liked before finally resolving to just leave it at the card. He’d done enough.

The card later laid splayed open on the kitchen table, a crippled dove. She’d taken it with an automatic smile and told him that gifts weren’t necessary, but Carlos knew that it would’ve been a different kind of visit had he arrived empty-handed. They sat across from each other now in silence, milky fog steaming from his mother’s vapor cigarette in languid curls.

David, her latest acquisition, was busy clearing the yard of branches felled by the last thunderstorm. The two of them were engaged, had been for just over a year with no wedding on the near horizon. Every time the subject was broached Carlos could still feel the resentment crawl across his skin. Both had neglected coming to Carlos’ own wedding three years earlier, the mailed invitation going unreturned, and the notion that Carlos might now have to watch this surly little redneck step up to the abandoned throne made him almost sick with rage.

He wished he could just give up his father like she had.

“I’ve been thinking about the church again,” he said.

His mother’s face registered no reaction, but he saw the muscles in her neck stand out in starker relief. “What about it?”

A knot in him began to unwind. “I have dreams about it, sometimes. They get so real that it starts to feel like they’re actually happening. Like I’m there, but I’m not. Like this is happening to someone else, but I’m stuck here anyway, so what’s the difference? It’s been hard for me to tell the difference between lots of things lately.”

He looked at his hands. “In the dreams, I’m sitting in the pews and I can feel someone sitting next to me, just in the corner of my eye. My head turns slow, really slow, but every time I finally look over he’s gone, back in the corner of my eye again. And when I wake up it feels like he’s still there, and it takes me a while to get rid of him, before I don’t see him anymore. Sometimes it feels like he’s with me wherever I go.” He looked up at his mother, and the tears in her eyes mirrored his own. “God, Mom,” he said. “What did you do?”

A hardness set in her then, and she sat up straighter to face the attack head-on. “I raised you by myself for eighteen years. No help from anyone and in pain every day of my life. You think that was easy?”

“I seem to remember a lot of guys spending time around here. I don’t think you worked as hard as you imagine.”

“Imagine nothing. Food in your stomach says I worked hard. Presents every year under the Christmas tree says I worked my ass off for you.”

“I didn’t need presents, I needed my fucking father!” His outburst caught him off-guard, and he blanched at finding himself gripping the arms of his chair.

His mother’s eyes sparkled with black mirth. “You never wanted a fucking father, Charlie. You never wanted any man coming into this house. Not even Carlos.” She paused, weighing the next cut. “Or have you forgotten about that too?”

His hands ached to hold her, to shake her until he heard the delicious snap of her neck. How could she bare him like this?

“You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” he said, but there were no teeth to it, the words falling to the ground stillborn.

She shook her head slowly. The absolute worst thing was that she looked like she truly pitied him. “You goddamn idiot. I did everything for you. I gave you a chance.”

Carlos struggled to hold her gaze. “No, you didn’t. You left me to die.”

They regarded each other through the scentless haze of smoke before his mother looked off into a distant corner of the room. “Then I guess that makes us even,” she said.

He wished they could love each other like they were supposed to.

His mother never rose, not even when the front door punctured the inner wall as he stormed out of the house. David was stationed at his worktable in the garage, stowing away tools, his sweaty beer belly exposed. Carlos was halfway down the driveway when he heard the smirking voice ask, “Well, what the hell is it this time?”

Stopping, Carlos turned, walked into the garage, and strode back to the truck all without saying a word, the roar of the gunning engine and the sounds of his own screams drowning out the blows on the windshield and David’s voice shouting for Carlos to give him back his fucking hammer.

* * *

The nursery is smaller than he remembers. As he enters, he’s struck by the way the settings of life’s defining moments later assume a scale symbolic of their importance. The pain in his arm has turned down to a low, steady ache. He spots the light panel on the wall and flicks a switch. A single rack of fluorescents glimmers to life. The rest are extinguished, leaving most of the windowless room in murk. Carlos weaves between the little wooden chairs and tables, his steps muted along the alphabet rug. Crayon portraits of families standing outside their too-small houses hang from clothespins on copper wire.

The air is stuffy, suffused with the bite and tang of construction paper and permanent markers. They accent the darker odor that hovers below them, the flat metallic scent from the large bloodstain starting to crust into the carpet. The smell from the stain is stronger than Carlos’ own wound. He swallows, trying to wash the taste of it from his tongue. There isn’t any tape marking where the body had been.

The face on the 8 o’clock news had been flayed by drug abuse, but her red hair had lost none of its luster. The reporter said that she had broken into the church through the front doors, and a trail of broken glass had led from the sanctuary directly to the nursery. Her suicide, the price for returning to the past, had awakened too many dormant rumors in the community, and so the church had been closed for good this time.

Carlos can still see her face from that last day in the nursery. She had looked so happy in the arms of the Shepherd. He had recognized her on the news despite the changes, just as he could recognize the girl who was unmistakably her daughter as she turned from him and pedaled away into the sunset.

He forces the thought from his mind. Culpability lurks, ever eager to claim him, but he can’t stop now. He’s not responsible for any life but his own. It’s just a stain on the ground.

His heart grows sluggish as he scans the nursery. He almost misses the puppet stage squatting in a far corner of the room. The tarp that he rips from its frame kicks up a wistful cloud of dust. Like the nursery, it’s smaller than his memory allowed, the crude castle spires flanking the stage barely reaching the top of his head. The boards, he notes, are surprisingly spotless.

The hammer in his hand seems to radiate a physical heat. He envisions the stage’s boards buckling under its crashing fall, dreams of feeling the crack of timber sing through his muscles, and for a brief moment he knows peace.

He reaches out and runs the flat of his hand against the grain. A great swooping sounds overhead. Carlos turns and catches a glimpse of sepulchral wings spreading wide, covering the nursery in darkness. A lone, cold light shines from above upon a bent figure sitting in one of the wooden chairs. The figure’s face remains hidden, but the light allows Carlos to make out the faded form of a child boxer tattooed on a muscular arm.

Speech abandons Carlos first, then his legs.

The man looks upon him from on high. His face never moves towards the light.

There was a time–maybe you don’t remember–when your mother brought you to see me. We went to Jones Beach that afternoon. The sand was gray. It’s not supposed to be that color, I think. Do you remember any of this, Charlie?

Carlos’ feet spasm from the tide’s frozen kiss. “I remember,” he says.

We walked along the water and we talked. I think that was the first time we ever really did that, alone, together.

Carlos keeps his eyes on the ceiling. “Mom was watching us from the blanket down the shore.”

That’s right, she was. Do you remember what I asked you that day?

He nods. “You… you asked me if I would let you be my dad. You said that you would really like it if I said yes.”

She wanted you to say yes too, Charlie. More than you know. Did you let me be your dad that day?

“Yes.” Carlos pauses. “I thought I did.”

What happened then? After I came back home?

If he doesn’t run to this man now and hold him fast he’ll be lost forever. “Please. I don’t want–”

The man fills the nursery with his voice. What. Happened.

Sunday morning, pale knuckles against the open back door, watching his parents struggle in the switchgrass, telling himself that he was afraid

“You drank too much. Got in a fight with Mom. There were cops.”

Why?

Carlos stares at the faceless man. The words feel too immense, too dangerous. He cannot trust them. Or what they’ll do to him if he says them. But he feels his lips peeling away from each other and he hears it, he hears it all: “You hurt her. You broke her rib.”

How can he bare their lives like this?

The man nods. What did you think of me then, Charlie?

“I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t know who you were.”

The man holds his hands up. Shafts of light pour through ragged holes in the palms like the sun reclaiming the land from a storm. Do you know who I am now?

Carlos stares until his eyes begin to smart and his vision swims. “Yes. You’re my father.”

If I’m your father, then don’t you want to find me? Don’t you love me?

An orbit of silence passes between them before Carlos can answer. “I do, and I don’t,” he says.

The man’s fingers close over the wounds. Why now, Charlie? Why the stage?

Carlos looks up to the unblemished boards. They seem to swell and grow as he rests his head against the floor.

“It’s where they told their lies. Where they taught us how to hate ourselves properly for everything that had to happened to us. I thought I could forget about that, what they did to me. To us.”

Forget about it, like me?

“Yes,” he says after a moment. “Like you.”

Carlos watches the man rise up from the corner of his eye. You don’t have to destroy it.

Tears scrape winding trails towards his scalp. “I don’t have any other choice.”

The man steps across the room and hovers before him. His face remains hidden, but Carlos can feel the darkness of his eyes settle upon him. Don’t you?

The cold nursery light begins to flicker. Memories churn and swirl before Carlos as the man lies down next to him, and now he smells the hot beer on his face and feels the sinking weight against the Power Ranger pillows, his father wrapping an arm around him and pulling him into the hard shelter of his chest as his mother screams for help from the backyard. She can’t stop screaming. Carlos would bite down on his fist to silence her but the man holds him too firmly.

What is that you want, Carlos?

Somewhere, a little boy is listening to a bedtime story about the dogs in his heart, smiling up at the best friend he never had.

The earth tilts, and Carlos feels the man slide forward until he answers the question through his son’s lips. “I want to be whole.”

When he reawakens, the nursery is empty. A wooden chair lies on its side but, aside from this, all is as before. Carlos climbs to his feet and stares into the abandoned room for a full minute. Before he makes his way from the nursery, he turns and places the hammer upon the stage. The stuttering fluorescent light finally surrenders to the shadows as he passes through the door. Nothing calls to him or stops him.

And he never looks back.

* * *

Curls of heavy mist pour into the lobby through the church’s yawning mahogany doors. Carlos swats them away, clearing a line of sight as he walks out to the parking lot. The sun peers balefully through a pearl ocean, shedding enough light to  reveal that the street has been emptied of both houses and denizens. The horizon is now studded with rolling green hills made almost black in the settling dusk. Topping these hills are the crumpled forms of hundreds of sheep, rivers of blood gleaming in twilight as they flow earthward.

The mist parts up ahead. Carlos can see the two dogs assessing him from the dirt road that twines through the hills. They watch him as he takes a final glance over his shoulder. The church remains, tall and looming, an immovable fixture of the landscape. The lightest of smiles touches his lips though its cause eludes him.

The dogs rise on weakened haunches as Carlos approaches. Their muzzles are damp and matted from their feastings, their flanks a constellation of battle scars. The sun has set but their lantern-eyes show the way as they turn and lead him through the mist. Their loping movements are submerged, balletic in the smoky air.

As they run on, Carlos discerns the scarred profile of a volcano rising in the distance, feels its groaning in his feet. In a sudden charge the volcano paints the sky with molten brushstrokes, each blast reverberating through his ribs. The heat is pleasant on Carlos’ skin, and the glow of the eruption lights his face in heartbeat time. He listens to the fiery music of the dogs’ panting breath, to the gentle trickling of the hills keeping time with the throbbing blasts from above as his monstrous flock bare bone and flash fang over the fate of his soul, and though Carlos knows the road ahead will split and each dog will follow its own course, he looks ahead to the bleeding mountain and decides that now he will let his own feet take him wherever they want him to go.

____

Copyright 2018 José Cruz

Jose Cruz is the author of two (now three) published stories; his fiction has previously appeared in Nightscript and The Year’s Best Hardcore Horror. His nonfiction work has appeared in print and online venues such as Rue Morgue, Diabolique, bare•bones e-zine, and Paracinema Magazine, among others. He lives in Southwest Florida with his wife, daughter, and pupper. Find out more at The Haunted Omnibus.