Heavy rain pounds against my window. Lighting smashes across the horizon, illuminating the overcast sky. Gusts jerk the trees. I trace the water down the glass with my finger.
“Petra,” Mom calls from the kitchen. Bacon, warm bread and coffee overpower the ordinary scent of my room. “I’m coming,” I call out, pulling away from the window and pushing past the crowd of naked, crotchless men, women and children clustered in my bedroom. Their faces are smudged and smeared like a bad painting. Lifeless, muffled voices mutter random words, fragment and sentences around me.
“What’s for breakfast, Mom?” I ask, my distorted voice echoing throughout our one story home. “Is it bacon?”
“Igen. és kávét, szerelmem. Yes. And coffee, my love,” Mom responds, her frail, raspy whisper fading into the space between us. Using her long, slender wooden finger, she waves me over. Her joints crack and creak when we hug. The bark on her skin feels rough against mine. I look up at her face and she looks down at me, exposing her mangled wooden fangs when she smiles. “Petra. Éhség. Hunger.”
I smile and nod. “Yes, mother,” I respond, spreading my arms out. Mother places a large, thorny hand against my neck and shoulder. She grabs my right wrist with the other. “I love you, Mom,” I whisper. She tears my arm off my torso and gnaws through it like a rat desecrating a corpse. Mom pins me down and spreads her massive jaw open. Vines, bugs and gnarled fangs line the inside of the twisted roots creating her facial muscles. She gently pulls my head into her mouth. Her mouth slams shut. I wake up to Szófia glaring down at me. “You’ll be late for work,” she says, stern and impatient. For the past few weeks, it’s been like this. I haven’t been able to dream, much less live, in peace without Szófia intruding one way or another. “Only a few days left. She’s calling out to you. Get up, Petra.” Szófia continues glaring at me. “This will be my first and last attempt to rid this world of her.”
“You still haven’t told me how, Szófia,” I groan. Szófia remains silent. “It is of little consequence. You will feed her exactly 31 spirits as you usually do,” she says, staring at and through me with her lifeless, sunken eyes. I wriggle out of my sheets and get ready for the day. The coffee pot hisses then chimes and I pour the brew into my travel mug after putting on my scrubs. Szófia, as she has been since I welcomed her, continues reading her sister’s journals. What she lacks in literacy, she makes up for with determination. Or at least, I think that’s what it is. I’m unsure if she can read or not, but the amount of time she spends sliding her fingers across the pages seems convincing. I’m not reading to her, that’s for sure. I hope she isn’t here when I get back. I’m not sure where she goes sometimes, but I never feel like I can sleep when I know she’s in the house.
At work, I wave at some of my colleagues and go about my typical duties as an RN. Since the jar broke, collecting souls has been a little bit easier. I don’t have to worry about being inconspicuous or discreet. I brush past them and absorb them. If I understood Szófia correctly, since I broke the jar, I have its properties in some complicated, convoluted metaphysical way. It’s not ideal, but nothing ever is, I guess. A ghost passes me and I walk through him. He vanishes and I see his face in my mind. That makes 30 so far. I just need one more. I don’t know what exactly she has planned, but I relish at the thought of getting rid of her.
My workday continues as normal. I leave my shift and head to the bar. On the outdoor patio, Cassie and some of the girls from our high school are having a few drinks and smoking pot. Some of the girls are smoking cigarettes or hookah. I catch up, just long enough to finish a margarita and get invited to Cassie’s family get together tomorrow night, then head home. Another day down until I feed Őfelsége. Two left.
Another night. Another dream. Another awkward morning with Szófia. I watch tv and smoke a joint while she continues reading her sister’s journals. “You know, you’ll never read them all at this rate,” I say, adjusting myself on the couch.
“I already have, you clueless child,” she responds. “I’ve read my sister’s diaries, her daughter’s and your grandmother’s. I lived through most of your grandmother’s life. I watched her grow up and become a great young woman. Then, I watched her foolishly fling herself into Satan’s arms with reckless abandon in order to help me. A gesture your mother ruined, like the stain on our lineage that she was.” We sit in silence and raise the volume on the television. After sometime I grab my keys and head for the park to meet up with Cassie.
I greet her family, since they’re big on that. Must be a Dominican thing. I chat with her mother and grandmother, make myself some food and chat about the neighborhood and some of the people we know or grew up with. Cassie and I share a joint and grab some drinks, then sit at a table by the grills and aluminum trays.
“When did it become so difficult, Cassie?” I ask, munching on crunchy and salty tostones. “These are, like, OMG amazing by the way. If I used Instagram, this would be something I’d post. Mmm. So freakin’ good!” I exclaim, watching as Cassandra’s cousins and other family chatter among themselves. Tables lined with food in heated, aluminum trays shroud the air with a blend of barbecue, Caribbean and Hispanic spices. Older men and women ramble on in Dominican Spanish playing dominoes and drinking mojitos, Presidente beer and Piña Coladas, while the younger kids stuff their faces and play tag. It’s a beautiful day. Or at least, it would be, if I hadn’t become a vessel for Őfelsége’s food. I want to tell Cassie that this past month has been like being on acid or shrooms. I see some of the souls pacing around, walking through things or just standing there, doing nothing. But, then, I’d have to get into Szófia coming and going as she pleases. Giving Szófia permission to come in was a bad idea and I don’t need to hear it from anyone else right now.
“Thanks,” Cassandra says, holding saucy ribs in her hands. Sometimes I wish I could be more like her. She’s in great shape, her hair and nails are always done, but she doesn’t care about eating messy food, and she never makes a big deal about having a good time or being around people. Meanwhile, I feel like I do everything in secret, like some call girl in the shadows waiting for some guy to notice me. “My Gramma makes the best tostones, hands down. I don’t know how she gets them so crispy with the middle so chewy still. Anyway, how’s your new house guest? It’s been a few weeks, right? I’m surprised her and the demon haven’t killed each other yet,” Cassandra comments between bites.
“I really hope they do,” I respond, tilting my beer for a toast. Cassandra taps her bottle with mine. “Believe it or not, Szófia and Őfelsége haven’t interacted all. Őfelsége’s effigy still moves around the house and all the same-old-same-old stuff though,” I declare, dipping a tostone in ketchup then taking a bite. I nearly choke and quickly cover my mouth when Martine, Cassandra’s cousin, sits across from me at the picnic table. He smiles and says, “Sup, Petra? How’s things?”
I blush and look at Cassandra. Does she know what happened between us? Cassandra ignores him. Martine looks at her and shrugs. “What’s up, cousin?” he asks. Cassandra rolls her eyes and continues enjoying her burger. I look around and half smile, ignoring his eyes. I’m too weird for this.
“Don’t mind him,” Cassandra mutters. “He’s like the squarest dude I know. “
“Square’s good, sometimes,” I say, taking another sip of my beer and trying not be so obvious. “Yup. Square is good. Sometimes. Uh, so, anyway, Cassie, this whole Szófia and Őfelsége business is nowhere near what I thought it’d be. Since I broke the jar, life has also been easier. Sort of.” I squirm a little as woman walks through the table then through me. It’s all in my head. It’s all in my head. God, I really hope Cassandra didn’t notice. Judging by the fact that her guardians haven’t said anything, however that all works, they probably don’t notice anything either. I excuse myself and go to one of the public bathrooms in the middle of the park. The fluorescent lights buzz, then flicker while I rinse my face. It’s hard to sleep when my dreams are serenaded by ‘Where’s the note, Roger? Where’s the – my god, you shot me!‘, or ‘Deck the halls with bou-oh-oh god- Help! I’m having a heart – a heart-‘ or the worst one that’s been haunting me for a few days, ‘Mom, look, it’s the little man, again! Hehe! He’s waving at me from across the street! Hey, wait, Mr. C! Wait, I’m co-‘. Hearing the spirits talk if I can see them is one thing, but when they wail in my head just before I finally fall asleep it’s worse than waking up to Szófia glaring down at me. Her gaunt, pale face and sunken eyes are evil that I can see and can wrap my head around. Luckily, I only have one night left before Őfelsége eats and I can take a couple days to prepare for the next batch of souls. As long as I can keep myself from looking too sick or unhealthy, I should be fine.
The smell of rotten eggs and burnt rubber claw at my nostrils when I get outside. Another side effect of being a container for somewhat evil or corrupted spirits. I shouldn’t have broken that damn jar. Cassandra’s family is still eating, drinking, playing and having a great time when I reach them. I say my goodbyes and leave for home with a container of food.
“Tomorrow, Petra,” Szófia says, appearing beside me, staring me down. Her heavy presence suffocates me. She moves to journals on the shelf, sliding across the room like a queen on a chess board going in for the kill. “There are things out there, you know. Worse things than Őfelsége. Things that would love to keep her as a collectible or a pet.”
“Is that what you plan on doing?” I ask, tossing myself on the couch. She’s dead, scary and, apparently, crazy. Go figure. “So what you’re going to sell the demon that killed you and basically cursed me to another demonic entity for revenge? And, what, am I just the bait?”
Szófia scowls. Eyeing me down with a ferocious, violent intensity.