“You know what I say to the cancer growing inside my body? You don’t know who the hell you’re messing with.”
THEY SAY THAT the first time is the most dangerous. Of course, “they” say lots of things that turn out to be bullshit.
Most of them warn, as the curandera had, that he shouldn’t be doing this alone. That there should be at least three for the ceremony. It was true that all the literature said so. But . . . he didn’t have two other people, which was pathetic enough he supposed. And anyway, he didn’t want anyone else here with him. This was his moment, and his alone.
Erasmo surveyed the items laid out on the floor in front of him, still trying to quiet the whispers of doubt tickling the inside of his skull. The random wildflowers he’d picked near the creek looked paltry and limp, not anything like the lush white roses that were recommended for the ceremony. Beside the flowers sat several mostly melted candles he had scavenged from Little Flower. He’d always found it wasteful the way that church threw away perfectly usable items. A small bundle of cedar was next in line, followed by the most important item of all: the offering.
He’d thought long and hard about this last item, endlessly cycling through different possibilities. But the only real option for the offering was the one he wanted to use the least . . . the only one that truly frightened him. He forced his eyes to settle on it now and immediately felt its power. His veins erupted in fire as he studied its contours, his blood seething as it burned through his body. Enough. He turned away, and the effect was broken, his blood cooling almost immediately.
Yes, this was all he needed. Fresh flowers to attract with their beauty and aroma. Candles to entice with their light and warmth. Cedar to protect. And the offering, specially chosen to make his invitation irresistible.
Wait . . . he’d forgotten something. Erasmo glanced around his cramped shoebox of a bedroom, trying to remember where he’d left it. He took the three steps necessary to cross his room and regarded the jagged mountain of books that rested precariously against the wall. One wrong move and they’d all come tumbling down. But what he needed was tucked inside one of them.
He slid out the book that he thought was most likely to contain the note he was looking for, The Demonologist, but nothing fluttered loose when he shook its pages. Next, he tried The Super Natural: Why the Unexplained Is Real, but it too wasn’t the right one. Finally, when he flipped through the yellowed pages of Ghost Crimes: Based on Actual Paranormal Cases, a piece of paper with his near-illegible writing scribbled on it slid out and floated into his waiting hand.
Erasmo glanced over the short, repetitive phrases that had taken him so long to perfect. He’d been somewhat surprised to learn during his research that anyone could write their own mantra. That the words themselves didn’t hold any particular special power. In fact, the chants’ only real purpose was to center people’s energy, and he was confident that the words he’d written would serve that purpose just fine.
It was time. Finally, it was time.
Erasmo dug around in his pocket and pulled out a worn book of matches that had only a precious few left. He ripped one out and struck it, the scent of sulfur filling his nostrils. He walked over to the cedar, took a deep breath, and picked it up.
This is what the movies and TV shows invariably got wrong.
For some damn reason they always burned sage for protection.
But sage wouldn’t do shit for you. Cedar. That’s the good stuff you needed if you really wanted to keep the evil away.
Erasmo’s hand trembled as he moved the lit match closer to the cedar. The small flame wavered, threatening to die, but somehow managed to resurrect itself. He held his breath when the fire was less than an inch away. This was it. This would be the official start of the ceremony. This was—
BAM! BAM! BAM!
The knocks on his door erupted without warning. Erasmo’s heart jackhammered in his chest, and he dropped both the cedar and the match. This couldn’t be right. He hadn’t started the ceremony yet. He hadn’t even made the offering.
Something was wrong.
Whatever banged on his door must be something from the other side, trying to get in without an invitation. Maybe he hadn’t burned the cedar fast enough. Or was it possible that he didn’t even need a full ceremony to summon—
“Erasmo, open the door.”
Erasmo stomped out the match, frantically picked up all the items, and shoved them into his narrow closet. He quickly scanned the room to make sure he’d gotten everything before opening the door. The woman who had raised him his entire life stood in the doorway, wrinkles etched deep into her face, as if someone had taken a finely sharpened knife and carved these bottomless lines into her pale skin. Her wide face, usually cheery and beaming an immense smile in his direction, was now tense and strained, sending a wave of alarm through him.
“I made some food for you,” his grandmother said, holding up a yellow, chipped plate. In the middle of the plate sat two steaming chorizo-and-egg tacos, dripping red grease onto the napkins beneath them.
This too alarmed him. The chorizo was the last of their food until his grandmother’s check came in, and they were supposed to eat it for breakfast tomorrow morning. He had triple-checked, making sure there would be enough for each of them to have one taco each. But now she’d made them for dinner and was giving them both to him. This made no sense.
Despite his unease, the smell of the spicy sausage made his empty stomach rumble in anticipation. Before he could object, she shoved the warm plate into his hands, walked into his room, and gently lowered herself onto his unkempt bed.
“We need to talk,” she said, patting the spot next to her.
But Erasmo knew what she wanted to talk about and felt cold tendrils of fear wrap around his chest. He desperately wanted to run and keep running until he was far away from the words that would soon escape her lips. He stood frozen, stupidly holding the plate in his left hand. His grandmother, seeing that he was too scared to move, pressed on.
“The results came back.”
His grandmother kept speaking, and Erasmo heard the words he’d spent his entire life in fear of. Each limb shook violently, and tears streamed down his face. Wails squirmed under his tongue, desperate to be born.
After she was done explaining, his grandmother stood up and walked over to Erasmo, fixing her gaze on him. “Everything’s going to be okay,” she said, steel in her voice. “I truly believe that . . . and you have to believe it too. Pull yourself together. I didn’t raise you to fall apart at the first sign of trouble.”
His grandmother then gave a slight smile, a look of resistance flaring in her eyes, and said, “Besides, you know what I say to the cancer growing inside my body?”
He shook his head.
“No sabe con quién jode.”
Erasmo looked back at her, confused. His grandmother always thought he understood more Spanish than he actually did.
She gifted him a gentle smile and whispered, “It means . . . you don’t know who the hell you’re messing with.”
Copyright 2021, Celso Hurtado. Excerpt provided courtesy of Inkshares.
Celso Hurtado was born and raised in San Antonio, TX. He has been a punk guitarist, worked in the political arena, and has played entirely too many hours of The Legend of Zelda. In his writing, he strives to surprise his readers, and make them think twice before investigating that creak in the hallway. The Ghost Tracks is his first novel.