I woke up to a variety of things I came to enjoy during my many visits at my prima Josefina’s house: the beams of sunlight that poured through the leaves of the impressive tree outside, broke between the spaces of the dusty window blinds, and shone on the children’s movies that crammed the in-wall shelving, imitating a weak spotlight; the faded scent of fresh linen that clung to the clean yet gently used comforter that blanketed me from the chest down; the soft, satiny feel of that same comforter against my bare arms and legs, the occasional spot of rough, worn fabric making my skin itch; and the faint sounds of early morning television from just down the hall, where my cousin was presumably awake and surfing the web.
I yanked the covers off as I sat upright, my feet meeting the macaroon-tan floor. The linoleum was cool to the touch. I stood and stretched–
The fine hair on the nape of my neck stood at attention, matching my alertness. A wrinkle formed above my nose. Something isn’t right, I told myself.
Without a moment’s notice, I bent over to the luggage I had opened on the floor adjacent to the twin bed. The aqua suitcase housed merely a few articles of my clothing, and I was about to search for the outfit of the day when something caught my eye.
Something in my peripheral.
I began to stand once again, only to pause mid-ascent to stare at the new addition to the guest bedroom.
Piled on top of the glass-exterior dresser were bundles of clothes. My clothes.
All of my clothes.
What the hell–? I straightened, stepping over a box of VHS tapes to inspect the clothing. It really was all of my clothes. When did Papi bring my stuff? Why is all of it here?
My mouth went dry as I went over the possibilities. My mother sent me to live with my father a couple of months ago, and I spent many weekends down south at Josefina’s–but now that my eighteenth birthday had come and gone, was Papi kicking me out? I had really tried to find a job, but no one was interested in hiring a high school graduate with no experience. Where would I go?
Of course, my thoughts flew to my boyfriend. The reason I was sent away. Maybe I could live with him… My stomach churned at the idea. The hairs on the back of my neck were still raised in apprehension. No–it was something else.
Something isn’t right.
The panic set in. My boyfriend was the only one I could go to at this time. It would take him a couple of hours to drive to Josefina’s.
If he can get here in time.
The thought sent shivers down my spine. Everything felt wrong. The clothes, the room, everything. I didn’t know what else to do.
So I packed.
Midway through packing I found a simple outfit that I often enjoyed; a pair of light-washed grey denim skinny jeans, a black spaghetti-strapped tank top, and my matching slip-on ballet flats. Black was my color, and while I didn’t have the self-esteem to rock shorts in the summertime, I could wear a tank top. At least until I felt self-conscious enough that I threw on a bulky jacket.
Once I was dressed, my packing resumed–only to be interrupted by a soft knock at the door. “Ana–?”
As per her usual fashion, Josefina opened the door of her own accord. I’d done my best to acclimate to her and her mother’s open, affectionate ways over the years. The two were best friends, thick as thieves–my cousin told my aunt everything, they embraced often, and they told one another, “I love you,” even more often. These were things I had not experienced with my own mother, and they were observations that I came to see as normal and healthy for everyone else. In short, I envied my prima.
Josefina entered the room with purpose, an unexpected visitor in tow. We shared an aunt, the younger sister of both our fathers, who was just a couple years our senior. Due to her proximity to our own ages, Noemí felt less like a tia and more like another prima throughout our childhood. However, Noemí was currently enrolled in college out of state. What’s she doing here? I wondered to myself. Is she here for the summer?
“Ana Sofía, what are you doing?” she asked, gesturing to my overflowing blue-green suitcase.
Noemí had always been of a more athletic build, slender and of average height. While none of us had truly fair skin, hers would be the closest shade, her cheeks naturally flushed a warm coral. With her thick wavy jet black hair falling past her shoulder blades, Noemí would have made a perfect latina Snow White. In contrast, Josefina and I were always built of a heavier caliber. Chubby, curly-haired brunettes, our round faces framed by frizzy strands of carob-brown. As we got older, Josefina’s hair lightened, revealing her natural dirty-blonde roots. My hair did the opposite, becoming a dark chocolate mess. Unlike my cousin, who let her hair grow out by cutting the ends regularly, I could never do anything with my hair. Three times I had stood in front of a mirror and chopped off all my hair, and three times my mother had to drag me to a salon to see what could be done about my most recent screw up. My latest style was an A-cut bob that was slightly asymmetrical–but only if you studied my hair really closely.
Something else that had changed with time was our weight. Josefina was on a diet, going to the gym with her mother, and walked to her neighborhood plaza and boyfriend’s house. This had slimmed her down some, her normally robust abdomen now a cute paunch. Living with my father had given me a similar experience; as a personal trainer, Papi had begun putting me through “boot camp” style workouts from the time I was eleven. Seven years later and living in his apartment, I had a training regiment and dietary guidelines to follow. The diet slipped considerably when I visited other family, but I still tried my best to stick with it.
Even with all those differences, there were a couple of things the three of us shared. The first was our surname–as the daughter of our grandfather, it made sense for Noemí to share the same name as our fathers. Josefina was an only child on both sides of her family, step children excluded. I, in a bizarre twist, had three older siblings on my mother’s side, and a few years and an ex-wife ago my father had finally had a second child–my little sister, Mirenita.
All four of us girls, with the same last names, doomed to never pass on those names by tradition.
The second shared characteristic, something that dominated the majority of our family, was our eye color. We all sported deep, mocha-chocolate irises, with some leaning more towards caramel or maple syrup.
Noemí’s brown pools gazed into mine questioningly as she awaited my answer. Josefina was at her side, her own eyes warily darting between myself and the still open luggage.
I heard some sounds from elsewhere in the small home–laughter. Children’s laughter. I recognized the shrieks and giggles as belonging to Mirenita and Rubén, Josefina’s paternal step brother.
Suddenly, it was like I had inherited a sixth sense; my field of vision encompassed the entire house, focused on the parts where life dwelled. My cousin and our aunt were with me in the guest bedroom; the bathroom and two main bedrooms were dark, almost as if they did not matter. Rubén was pretending to be a monster, his arms raised in a comedic impression of claws as he chased Mirenita around the house. They came up the hall, veering left just before the doorway to the guest bedroom, sped through the little kitchen, past the dining room that almost never saw use, ignored the living room that was used more by the dogs than anyone else–
But someone was seated on the couch. Sitting upright, staring straight ahead at nothing in particular. Who is that? Where are the dogs?
“I-I have to go,” I blurted out, still tuned to the rest of the home.
Noemí and Josefina’s eyes grew wide. “What?” Josefina squeaked. “Go where?”
I could tell that she already had an idea of where I would go. I knew this without asking, just as I guessed the person sitting quietly in the den was her father. “I just…”
How would I explain this to them? What could I say to make them understand how I felt?
Who is… Where the hell are the dogs?
They were impossible to miss. Surely, her boxer and American bulldog were around here somewhere.
More shrieking and mock snarls from the hallway. Rubén had actually scared Mirenita; the five year old had begun to cry.
I let out an annoyed sigh. Seriously? I ignored my aunt and cousin, pushing past them as I ran out to the hallway. I expected to see my step cousin chasing Mirenita, but he was nowhere in sight. My little sister, however, was already over her tears, running through the kitchen and cackling.
“Miren–” I called out to her, but the sound of my voice only quickened her pace. My legs were much longer, considering our twelve year age difference, so I power walked after her, easily catching up. We had traversed the dining room space and were passing the living room when I reached out to grab the back of her shirt–
I shot a peripheral glance at the man sitting on the couch, and my heart began pounding against the confines of my rib cage. My eyes had widened so much, I thought they would fall out if they stayed that way. Mirenita out of sight, I sprinted back down the hall to my room, slamming the door behind me.
That was not my uncle.
I gasped for air, recovering from the recent adrenaline rush to escape that thing. Noemí and Josefina did not seem at all puzzled by my reaction to the thing outside. In fact, the two of them were very relaxed, smiling creepily at me.
Rubén and Mirenita were not in the room with us.
Shit! I spun around, about to open the door. “Mire–” I stopped dead, choking on my little sister’s name.
The entity from the living room had stood up off the couch, hovering a good six inches above the hardwood. It wore a long, soot-black cloak, and it cast a disturbing shadow on the floorboards as it slowly moved away from the sofa, turning to face the hallway. The being remained stiff in mid-air, like a marionette corpse on tight restraints.
It wasn’t until it began to slowly levitate down the hall that the entire home gradually filled with charcoal-grey smoke.
I backed away from the door, hyperventilating. Even though I couldn’t see my sister, I heard her giggles ring through the house, a layer of snark in her delivery. Whatever the hell is going on, I need to get out of here–we need to get out of here! I spun around to ask my other relatives for ideas–
Josefina and Noemí were unrecognizable. The two became distorted, losing the beautiful traits that made them unique, and their faces and bodies molded into grotesque beings. The skin deepened to a blood-red, blistering as three-inch spikes protruded from various points on their shoulders, head, and back. Their faces twisted from their horrible grins, revealing pointed teeth, parted as the two snickered and growled at me. Their hair fell out in clumps, their heights leveled out at eight feet, and their eyes were pitch black. Empty.
The two were indistinguishable from one another.
My heart was pounding faster, playing arrhythmic beats in my ears. My knees buckled, and my legs pushed me into a corner. Between my heartbeat and their laughter, I almost didn’t hear the door swing open.
It flung open steadily, letting out a menacing creak. Even more smoke billowed in, filling the room. I was just wondering where it was all coming from when my burning eyes caught sight of the flames that spread all around us. The whole house was on fire.
My eyes stung, tearing up from the heat and smoke. My skin burned at the proximity of the flames. I couldn’t move, couldn’t will myself to stand and run. The demonic goblin creatures that stood in place of my aunt and cousin had me cornered, a sitting duck for their master.
It entered at a sluggish rate, still stiff as it turned toward me. It was hideous; its face was a ghastly shade of bone white, its thin skin stretched taut against its skull. It had large, black eyes that stared blankly at me–but worst of all was its mouth.
Its thin lips were pulled back in a wide, welcoming smile. Unlike the other hellish creatures, there was no malice on this entity’s face. No ill intent.
Just a broad, pointy-teeth smile as it tilted its head down to study me.
I was frozen in place, unable to move or speak as the being raised a pale hand and pointed its index finger at me, briefly bringing my attention to its fingernails. They were more like claws or talons–
Its teeth parted, and I tried to hear it speak as what instead emitted from its mouth was a blood-curdling scream…
Everything faded to black as I lost consciousness.
My eyelids fluttered open, revealing an intact guest bedroom. The sunlight pierced through the dirty blinds, and the satin comforter felt unusually warm as it covered my abdomen. One of my feet had kicked themselves free from beneath the blanket’s scratchy underside. My suitcase was on top of the dresser, lid down but unzipped. There were no extra clothes–they would still be at Papi’s.
It was just a dream, I assured myself, taking a deep breath. It was just a–
The bedroom door creaked open moderately, and my eyes shot over in a panic.
“You okay?” Josefina asked. She was still in her pajamas, a hazelwood finger twirling a couple strands of her dirty blonde hair. Her caramel eyes studied me, and she wore a worried frown on her pink lips.
“Yeah,” I lied, still breathing a little heavily. My eyebrows furrowed as I gestured to my prima with a nod. “Why?”
“I…” She hesitated. “I heard you scream.”
My eyes widened as I propped myself up on my elbow. “I screamed? Me?”
“Yeah,” she nodded, motioning back to her room. “I woke up awhile ago and I thought you were asleep, so I was on my computer–but just now, I heard you scream. I wasn’t even sure if it was you at first–I’ve never heard you scream in your sleep before.”
That’s because I’ve never screamed myself awake before. I decided to keep my thoughts to myself. Sitting up, I gave my little cousin an apologetic half-smile. “I’m sorry I freaked you out, Sefi. I just had this crazy dream…”
I opted to discuss the dream with her over breakfast, so I hopped off the bed and led her to her kitchen. She idled by the refrigerator, watching me rummage through her cupboards with concern. “You sure you’re okay?”
“Yeah, I’m sure,” I chuckled humorlessly, attempting to lighten the mood. I pulled down a couple boxes of cereal and presented them to Josefina. She took the one she wanted, and I settled for the one still in my hands. “Once we sit down, I’ll tell you all about it. Then you’ll know why it was so crazy.”
A whole five minutes later, Josefina and I were seated on the same dining room table that rarely saw use, spooning sugary cereal and skim milk into our mouths. I sat with my back to the kitchen, Josefina across from me, and the den was to the left. Her pooches lounged on the suede sofas, and I was often unsure of its color because of the thick layer of dog fur that covered it.
In between bites I relayed my dream to her, going into as much detail as possible. Her eyes widened as she ate, her flaxen blonde and cedar brown hair a frizzy, curly mess behind her head. When I wasn’t studying her reactions, I was peering into my bowl, watching colored sugar particles tint the milk’s natural color.
Because I had taken the time to lay out the details to her, Josefina had finished her breakfast before me, patting her lips dry with a paper napkin as she stood to place her bowl in the sink. “Now I get why you screamed,” she visibly shuddered, walking around the table and disappearing behind me. I could hear her place the ceramic bowl in the sink and turn the faucet to wash her dish and spoon. “That doesn’t sound like a dream–it sounds more like a nightmare.”
“Seriously,” I agreed, refocusing on my cereal. It was on the verge of sogginess.
“Do you think it means something?” she asked, though I could barely hear her. Josefina’s words were drowned out by nothing, replaced with an ear-piercing silence.
It stood up off the couch, hovering a good six inches above the hardwood. The cloaked figure cast a disturbing shadow on the floorboards as it slowly moved away from the sofa, turning to face me. It remained stiff in mid-air, a terrifying white puppet in black garb…
I trembled in place, my body immobilized by fear as the pale-faced spirit raised a bony finger to its wide-eyed visage, its thin lips puckering in a hush gesture.
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Mommy of two ☆ Witch without a coven ☆ Founder of the Sisters of the Shadows ☆ Professor of Charms & Incantations I & II and supervisor of The Arcane Citizen, a student-run newsletter for the Academy of Occult Arts ☆ My web series are now available at https://vocal.media/authors/natasha-penn ☆ https://linktr.ee/nattypenn for all social/support links
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