A/N: This takes place around the mid 1930's. I'm never totally certain of Jasper's timeline, since he seems to really like being vague about stuff, but I picked that era to coincide with Edward's early personal struggles, as well as Rosalie's (even though neither of them are in this story…)
Hope you like it!
When we finally pull into town, I'm still wearing the crown of marigolds.
They aren't like the dainty marigolds of home, that decorate the window boxes of little old ladies who live in court apartments. They're enormous spheres of a million petals, a rich shade of gold rarely seen outside of sunsets and egg yolks. Lovely flowers full of life.
There's a field of them down by one of the little roads that was supposed to be a shortcut, growing in an unguarded patch that seemed to go for miles. It was an unexpected thrill when Joe had stopped the car, and I'd picked an armful of them. I'd felt the mischief of a being a bandit, and the righteousness of someone who steals something for its beauty.
"Is this the little town with all the mummies?" I ask, and Joe pulls the car to a slow stop in front of a small but elegant hotel. Like a lot of things in Mexico, it's architecture looks surprisingly European to me.
The architecture of the town around it is surprisingly European as well. There's an almost Parisian-style fountain in the middle of a square, and bougainvillea trees growing along red clay walls and over open arches. By the soft blue light of dusk, it has the flickering warmth of dying embers. A place that probably blazes with colour by daylight.
"Las momias!" Joe says proudly, "Sí!"
His Spanish is much better than mine. I only know a few words, and I'm certain that I say them all wrong.
I pull the flowers from my hair, not wanting to look like a fool when we go inside. Joe gets out and goes to the trunk of the car to get our luggage. It's not really our car. Joe's brother lent it to us. He was also the one to convince us not to spend any money on a wedding and have a real honeymoon instead. The plan is to spend eight weeks driving around Mexico, and then get back to New York for Thanksgiving.
We're about halfway through our trip.
In a way, it's nice to be out of America. Far away from the mad scramble to get out from under, or just scrape together a few extra dollars to get by on. It's nice to be out of range for radio reports on the threat of war, crime in Chicago, and the scandals of the Hollywood crowd. It's nice to be alone together.
But Mexico is drier than I'm used to, and all this driving on dusty roads has made me thirsty. All I can think about is getting a glass of water.
"Come on, Señora!" Joe calls playfully.
I finish fixing my hair up, and pull my compact out of my purse. My nose and cheeks are already turning red from too much sun, so I give them a gentle dusting of powder. In the small silver circle of the mirror, I can see Joe at the trunk, lifting out a heavy brown Samsonite case.
Behind him is another figure, barely visible. He's standing in the long shadow of a building with a hanging wooden sign. The sign has some Spanish on it that I can't read. I can't see much of him but a vague outline, and a suggestion of paleness. He must be another tourist like us. Harmless.
I stare at the reflection, transfixed.
I can't look away.
He frightens me.
It's not like the fear I've felt walking down the wrong street alone, but it's similar. And deeper. It feels somehow primal. Like the fear of disease, or the fear of spiders. Or the nameless fear that they say comes to us all. But it makes no sense that it would come to me, here and now, looking at the shadowed reflection of a stranger.
I should run.
But then the fear starts to change. My heart slows to long, languid beats. I feel serene, so relaxed from head to toe that I could fall asleep. It's a feeling equally as foreign to me as the sudden fear, but oh so much more pleasant. I like the lazy calmness. It feels like a smooth, expensive drink of whiskey on a perfect day.
I can't resist it.
"Honey?" Joe says, like it's the second or third time he's tried to get my attention.
"You want to go get a room, or are you spending the night in the car?"
I smile because I can't think of anything I want to do more.
"You got a little too much sun on the road." Joe decides with a nod, and he opens my door and helps me stand up.
I feel wobbly. Like a baby deer first figuring out its own legs. Woozy, too. Maybe he's right, maybe it was the sun.
We make our way into the lobby. It's lit up by old-fashioned gas lamps hanging on the wall, like in a Victorian mansion. The desk is ornate, with a big leather-bound registry book and a golden bell on top of it. Behind it, a man with a black moustache is reading a novel. He only looks up at us when we're standing right across from him; but when he notices we're customers, he brightens up and smiles cheerfully.
Joe introduces himself in Spanish, and asks a question I can't translate. It must be about whether there are available rooms, or what the nightly rate is. The man answers him so fast, I can't even make out the little words I know. Like el or sí.
My mind feels so sluggish.
The haze of that strange euphoria starts to wear off after a minute. I'm not half so happy now. Around the edges, I can sense the fear creeping in its place. I think of wallpaper, peeling off in the corners of a moist room.
"Joe Brackett," He introduces himself, and the desk clerk writes it in the registry for him, "Y mi esposa, Catrina."
"Catrina?" The clerk's eyes glitter and widen. He looks amused as he rattles off another few sentences I don't have a hope of translating.
"Sí." Joe smiles.
The clerk makes a motion for us to wait, like he wants to get something from the back room. I don't want to wait. I want to go upstairs. My heart is speeding up, back to its normal rhythms. Or is it faster?
I don't like standing in the lobby with my back to the front door.
He comes back with a picture frame in his hand. Maybe it's of a relative, or a sweetheart, also called Catrina. He puts it down on the desk, so that the image is facing us. It's an ink drawing that looks like it was cut out of a newspaper.
The drawing is of a woman's skeleton, wearing an ornately decorated hat.
Beneath it are printed the words Calavera Catrina.
I tremble a little.
The clerk starts babbling on again, and I stare at the picture. My stomach tightens. I think I'm going to be sick.
"He says Catrina sort of means Rich Lady," Joe explains, "This is a famous cartoon down here, and he thinks it's funny because next week is the Day of the Dead. This Catrina is kind of a mascot or something, and he thinks you should stick around to help amuse the spirits."
"Amuse… the…?" I can't even finish the idea.
I'm afraid. I know it's silly, it's just a little cartoon. Probably political or something, but I don't want to look at it. I close my eyes, and feel myself fall backwards.
Joe's strong hands catch me.
Joe speaking Spanish.
I'm shaking. I can't find the strength to open my eyes. From the darkness I can recognize the sensation of being lifted up and carried.
A rattle of metal. The creak of an opening door.
"Just going to put you here while I draw a bath for you, honey."
He sounds worried, so I try to open my eyes while he puts me down on an unfamiliar bed. I see only a glimpse of a room with white plaster walls, and then the darkness again. But this time, sleep comes with it.
"Honey," Joe shakes me awake, "Honey, you gotta drink this."
I sit up against the pillows. My shoes are gone, and most of my clothes. I'm wearing just my slip and bra. I must have been deeply, deeply asleep because I don't even remember Joe undressing me. I'm tired now, aching and raw, but my mind feels less fuzzy.
He puts my hand around a glass of room temperature water.
"No ice?" I ask. The glass is still somehow cold against my hand, even though I know that it's not chilled. My voice is weaker than I want it to be. A whisper.
Joe looks a little concerned, but not overly so.
"The guy downstairs said that anything too cold would make it worse. Besides, a little town like this? They don't have any ice. They probably think it gives you ulcers."
I take a long, soothing sip before I remember something they said to us in the last town. The water in the south isn't safe to drink. My eyes go wide, and I turn to Joe.
"Is it clean?"
I must look silly, because he laughs at me while he nods.
"They boil it in a big pot downstairs, and then they keep it in jugs for the tourists. We gringos have weak stomachs. I asked them all about it while you were sleeping."
"Oh." I drink the rest of the water slowly, "Was I asleep for a long time?"
The sky outside is dark. Fully dark. The last rays of sunlight have disappeared over some flat horizon that I can't see through the windows of our room. The stars are out. I can't see the moon.
I finish the rest of my glass of water, and Joe helps me stand up from the bed. I'm still woozy.
He slips me into the bathtub, full of water that makes me shiver at first. I notice that I don't have any sunburns on the back of my neck or the top of my chest. Just the stripes across my cheeks, and the little dot on the tip of my nose. The bath is working. I'm starting to feel more like myself.
"I'm going to bed." Joe tells me, while I'm drying myself off. He sounds tired.
By the time I'm in my nightgown and ready to join him, he's already asleep. The room is dark except for the light I left on in the bathroom, and it feels too warm. I go to a door that leads onto a small balcony and open it for some fresh air. It's strange how cold the nights get here. Almost like the country is a different place in the dark.
I step onto the balcony. The floor is still warm beneath my bare feet.
Far away, in a bar or nightclub, music is being played. The whole town is silhouettes, just shapes of buildings and suggestions of objects. I can't see anything by starlight. But I feel like someone is living among the shadows, stalking the streets like a cat in the jungle.
The man I saw in my compact mirror. I think of him for no reason, and I wonder if he's out in the darkness. The darkness so heavy that someone could be across the street, looking up at me, and I wouldn't even know it.
I back away into the room and shut the door.
The bathroom light is still on. I don't bother to switch it off. I don't want to be in the dark.
I climb into bed next to Joe, who's snoring softly. He looks so vulnerable. My chest rises and falls in bursts of breath that come faster than I can control. My jaw is tightly clenched.
My hands and feet are cold.
I lie there, next to Joe, and I stare at the ceiling.
He keeps sleeping, but I can't join him.
I'm afraid to sleep.
I'm afraid, and I don't have the first clue why.
Dawn breaks in pale blue, and settles into a clear and brightened sky. Joe rolls out of bed and doesn't even realize that I've been lying next to him all night. Paralyzed. With the warmth of the sun comes an easiness, and I feel like I can let my guard down. Funny. I could sleep now, but there wouldn't be any point.
"Catrina, you forgot to switch this light off." He grumbles from the bathroom. He sounds annoyed, like I'd wasted electricity at home. Probably still too groggy to realize that things like that don't matter in a hotel.
"Sorry," I manage to say, and it feels like the first word I've spoken in a thousand years, "It got so dark in here, I didn't want to trip over anything on the way to bed. I was still a little light-headed."
He doesn't answer, he just goes about his morning. Shaving. Getting Dressed. Whistling that song he always whistles.
When it's my turn, I close the bathroom door behind me and I lock it. I'm not a woman who needs to get dressed in secret, but this morning I want to.
My reflection looks drawn, and as tired as I feel. Apart from the rose-coloured burns, my skin seems washed-out and pale, despite all the sun I've been getting.
I decide to braid my hair in the Mexican style. Already I'm refusing to wear any kind of wide-brimmed hat, even though the conversation isn't happening yet. I know that Joe will want me to wear something to protect my face from getting too much sun again, and I think that if I do my hair like this, he might lend me one of his baseball caps.
"Are you excited to see the mummies?" He asks through the bathroom door.
The mummies. I forgot all about them.
"Aren't they out in the desert?"
"Out in the cemetery. You'll be okay, we'll fill the canteen with water for you."
"I don't know if I should," I finish my hair, and start to work on my makeup, "Maybe you should go by yourself, and I'll stay here."
"You can take pictures for me."
"Honey, if you don't come see them yourself, you'll regret it," Joe tells me, "You were the one who wanted to head down here to look at them in the first place. I know you're not feeling well, but you look a lot better than you did last night. Once you get going, you'll perk up."
I finish getting dressed, and he lends me a cap when I ask him to, and he refuses to let me stay in our room. I try to talk him into trying a restaurant or getting a bottle of tequila and getting drunk all day, but he just laughs at me. We're going to go see the mummies.
The graveyard is on a hill, and as we walk towards it, Joe talks about how quickly they bury their dead in this part of the world. Within a few hours, he tells me, because of the heat. I'm only half listening. There's an adobe wall in front of us, and an iron gate with statues of angels on either side of it. They look like children, curled and sleeping in feathery stone wings.
Beyond them are the grave markers. Some are simple wooden crosses with charms and jewellery draped over them, some are stone slabs with names carved into them and tin picture frames with portraits of the dead nailed into the front. There are above-ground marble boxes, a few painted bright and friendly colours, and more and more stone angels of endless variety. Everywhere are melted candles and dead flowers.
"Next week, the families of the dead are going to come clean everything up," Joe tells me, "They'll bring new flowers and new candles, and have picnics on the graves."
"Picnics?" I blurt.
"That's right, honey. We can stay if you want, but it might be nicer to see the holiday in one of the bigger cities. Probably get some nice big sugar skulls to eat." He winks, boyish and charming. It reminds me why I wanted to have this honeymoon in the first place. I laugh and stick my tongue out at him. He's been talking about eating a sugar skull since we started the trip.
The mummies are kept in a catacomb, or so Joe calls it, on the very far end of the cemetery. As we walk towards the entrance, I notice a breeze on the hill. It's soft and refreshing, even though it barely has enough strength to it to push a stray hair across my face.
Next to the entrance to the catacombs sits the old man caretaker, in a chair that's been placed in the longest and deepest of the adobe wall's shadows. He's very short, with neatly pressed pants and neatly tied shoes, and a pair of thick glasses. He watches us walk over to him, and he doesn't stand up. He doesn't smile or nod or wave. He just waits. Like a lizard that doesn't want to move off its rock.
"Hola," Joe says, and nods at the caretaker, "Nos gustaría ver a las momias…"
"I speak English," The old man replies, "The lady wants to see them too?"
The day isn't half as bad as I thought it would be. I still feel drained and a little sun sick, but I'm getting back to my usual self. I'm excited to see the mummies now, and glad that Joe talked me into it.
"They are not pretty…"
"That's alright. I wasn't expecting them to be."
He still seems against the idea as he gets up from his chair and walks over to a set of doors in the ground. They look like the entrance to a root cellar, with a chain and lock keeping them closed. The old man takes a key from his pocket, twists it in the lock and pulls the chains away. He swings the doors open to reveal a twisting staircase that leads into darkness.
Joe goes first. I follow behind him, stepping carefully. Each stair is barely big enough for the length of my foot, so I descend almost on tiptoe. I have no idea how the men are managing to stop themselves from falling on their faces. There's a glow that breathes in and breathes out along the last leg of the stairs. It comes from a room at the bottom. I wonder if it's from torches lining the walls, like in a blood-and-thunder dime novel.
It's cooler down here, but only slightly, and still so dry. The room is wider than I thought it would be, the smooth ceiling only a few inches above Joe's head. In an alcove to the left, blocked off by a chain and an unfriendly looking sign that I can't translate, I glimpse a stack of skulls against the wall. I've seen photos of similar things beneath the churches of Paris. The sight is so cartoonishly spooky, I don't mind it in the least. I can barely remind myself that the skulls were once human beings.
But when we follow the caretaker into the next room - when we see las momias - it's different. There's no doubt that these were once people. They're lined up next to one another for display, along a low shelf that runs the length of a hallway leading into another chamber. Each one the colour of leather, the skin pulled back along features that seem impossibly similar from one mummy to the next. The mouths are all open. Screaming silently. The arms tight, folded onto their chests, the elbows look like the sinew and bone of a bat's wing. Some of them have hair still. Some of them are small, and I know that they're children but I hope that they're not.
All of them are screaming.
Joe is talking, speaking English, but I still don't pick up on anything he says. This time because I can't look away from the ghoulish horror of those faces. He and the caretaker are discussing how the mummies are made, the temperature of the ground here. Why the bodies are in this chamber instead of in coffins. I hear only half of the questions, and none of the answers.
One of them is standing towards the end of the hall. She's a woman, you can still see the curves of her breasts and a certain fullness in her lips. She has delicate shoulders and high cheekbones. She was lovely once, I'm sure. Her long dark hair is in two braids, and in her eternal grasp is a bouquet of marigolds. Equally as dry and dead as she is.
"How did she die?" I ask before I can stop myself.
"Her?" The old man nods at the mummy in front of me, "Very sad. She had her throat torn by wild dogs. I remember the story. It happened when I was a boy. Sometimes people die this way."
I don't know why, but I feel certain he's lying.
Everything is fine until we're drinking little glasses of tequila at a café with outside tables. It's the end of the day now, and the sunset is beautiful. Like the ones I'd imagined would be in Mexico, but hadn't seen yet. There are layers of soft pinks and purples, and the top of the sky is the colour of a blue ink bottle and dotted with the brightest stars. Over the horizon is a burst of deep red, slowly moving down and away. All of the shadows are lean and jagged. Like bony fingers.
The soft breeze of the afternoon is gone now, but the hairs on the back of my neck are standing up. I feel like something is watching me.
I've felt it since we sat down.
"Joe, let's go back to the hotel." I say urgently, reaching across the table and grabbing his wrist.
"Huh?" He says, "We only just got our drinks. Plenty of night left, honey."
"No, Joe. I - I don't want to stay here, in this town. Let's go back to the hotel and check out. We can pack fast, and night driving shouldn't be any trouble on these roads. They're so flat and straight…"
He looks confused. Unhappy.
"What are you talking about? I already paid for the night at the hotel. He won't refund me."
"Please, Joe. I'm frightened."
"Frightened?" He laughs fondly, "Those mummies gave you a scare, huh? I'm kind of surprised, I didn't think they'd bother you…"
"No," I tell him, "Not the mummies."
There's a click, a twisting and metallic click, like a key being turned in a lock. I look over to the wooden door of the café and it's closed. The shutters in the windows beside it are also closed.
"Are they closing?" Joe asks, "We haven't even paid for this bottle…"
The lights behind the shutters dim and go out.
I look around to the windows of the buildings nearby. All of them are dark. The curtains are pulled, or the shutters are fastened tightly. The doors, sometimes open to let happy conversation, soft music or the aromas of home cooking waft into the street, are all closed as well.
Joe and I are alone at our table.
Let's go back, I'm about to say. But it feels silly that I was so nervous a moment ago, and instead I laugh softly.
Everything is so pleasantly still. So peaceful with the locals gone away, and the night just belonging to me and Joe and the man standing across the street.
He's tall and lithe, wearing clothes that remind me of old sepia photographs of soldiers and boots that aren't in fashion, and haven't been for fifty years. His hair is too long, softly wavy and honey blond. His skin is impossibly smooth and white. Like chalk. Or milk in a glass.
His eyes are dark, so dark you can't even see where his pupils are. And there are purple bags underneath them, making him look very tired.
I'm tired, too. But I'm happy to see him.
I'm glad he's here.
He walks to Joe first, and twists his head to one side. He lifts Joe from his chair like a child lifts a doll, and faster than I have time to really notice what's happening, he bites into Joe's throat. I expect blood, like in the news footage of lions in Africa. There is some, but it doesn't get very far. The man catches it with his mouth as it pours in the thick, red rivers towards Joe's collar.
The weather is so lovely, I swear I could fall asleep.
Joe's turning pale, his eyes glassy. His body sort of convulses a few times. Maybe his heart is trying to beat. My own heartbeat is slow and powerful and a little painful, too.
Finally Joe stops moving. His eyes are empty.
The vampire turns to face me, wiping a small dribble of red from the corner of his mouth. For a split second, I think that I ought to scream - but the idea soon passes. It fades into bliss, along with everything else.
His eyes are brighter, the dark circles faded. But he still looks so tired.
He moves to me gracefully, and grabs the front of my blouse in his fists. He lifts me from the chair, and I can feel the seams under my arms begin to strain. The pain is fuzzy and distant from the rest of me, though, which is peaceful and utterly at ease.
I smile because I can't think of anything I want to do more.
He bites into my neck. Strange that I can feel no breath of his, neither hot nor cold, with him so close. The pain is sharp at first, then dull and aching. In the beginning, I don't mind it. It's only after, when I'm too cold to feel much of anything, and the world is leeching into black spots of nothing, that the fear comes back.
I open my mouth to scream.
No sound comes out.
A/N: Please excuse any horrible mistakes I made in regards to the setting, I've only been to Mexico once and that was when I was four years old. I don't remember any of it.
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