by KATARINA PALACIOS
We swept the desert when my sister came to town. Broken glass, insect husks, casings, cigarettes, small bones…we swept it all away, behind the garage. There wasn’t much we could do about the smoke from the forest fire up north, but we sprayed the air inside the house with jasmine and salt until our hands ached. It was a ritual for my sister. Nothing must frighten her. Nothing must upset her, for my mother truly, deeply believed that if Charlotte got scared, she might never visit us again.
Inside the house, Mom and I hid my desert photographs, too. “They’d be unpleasant for her,” Mom would always say. I never argued with her; she was right. But I always sensed a bit of glee as she pulled my prints off the living room walls.
Mom prepped the guest room for Charlotte by decorating it like some Santa Fe tourist trap. There were fake Hopi sand paintings, a woodblock santo of Michael the archangel, and a tin Nativity set. A stuffed kokopelli doll rested on her pillow. The shadow of a faux, needle-less cactus in a blue pot loomed across the floor.
For this visit, Mom added a vase of white roses next to the cactus, for her dear little Charlotte was getting married.
Charlotte had barely exited the taxi when Mom barreled towards her and scooped her into her arms. They laughed and squealed until, as if on cue, an eerie silence passed between them, and they both began crying.
When Charlotte broke from my mom, her face was bright red but all smiles, and she clasped my mom’s hands as they approached me.
“Congrats,” I said, holding open the heavy wooden door and motioning them to the sala. Charlotte touched my arm and mouthed, “Can you believe it?” as Mom rambled about the big party the next day.
I sat back and watched them unpack Charlotte’s suitcase from the bar in the kitchen. And as I watched, I wondered why Charlotte’s fiancé wasn’t with us, and why she wasn’t wearing a ring on her finger.
It all felt a little funny, like Charlotte had spun us another marvelous lie.
As a child, she was a monster. She liked to steal food from other lunch boxes, and instead of eating the food, she’d just throw it away. If she was caught, she lied. Her lies were never good and never believable, and no matter how many times she sat in time-out, she didn’t stop stealing and she didn’t stop lying. Most days, she was left to play alone, babbling to herself in some arcane language in the corner of the sandbox, while another poor kid asked his teacher where his sandwich went. And if someone confronted her, she would scream.
Our school was so small that everyone knew about my sister and each of her tantrums. Whenever she caused trouble, Ms. Miller would find me, her skinny arms crossed tight around her waist, and ask me sweetly, “Claire, sweetie, can you help me with your sister?” It was a ploy to prevent yet another phone call to my parents, who had both missed a significant amount of work dealing with Charlotte’s behavior. And while it would sometimes get me out of Language Arts, the other kids would swarm me at recess. What did your sister do this time? Was that her screaming? We heard she bit Ms. Miller. After a while, I grew sick of answering the questions, and I refused to help Ms.
Charlotte didn’t make it to the second grade. In the end, Dad decided to home-school her. “There’s nothing wrong with her,” he’d say. “She has such a huge imagination…why can’t we work with that?” Well, they tried, with limited success. I’d come home from school and find her drawing over her workbook assignments as Mom scolded her and Dad scolded Mom.
I don’t remember exactly when the folks decided to divorce. But one recess, some friends and I played “Bloody Mary” in a bathroom that was closed for repairs. The ceiling had been torn open, the bones and ligaments of some machine dangling above us. We covered the small frosted window with the cardboard out-oforder signs so it was darker. Charlotte was with us. I don’t know what happened, but she kept screaming. Then her scream cut out as if someone had unplugged a cord, and she tumbled to the ground. We thought she was faking it, like she did when she played Sleeping Beauty, usually just by herself. So we left her there.
But, well, a little while later, a teacher found her with strange bruises. Just pink smudges and welts at first, but they deepened and spread across her arms and on her neck. She looked red and beaten by the time our parents pulled us out of class. I could hear Dad screaming at the principal down the hall as Mom held Charlotte, wide-eyed and strangely silent. When she did start speaking at home, alone with Mom and Dad, she lied.
I don’t know what the lie was, but I remember how Dad glowered at me later that night and held his glare for what felt like an eternity. Like I had beaten Charlotte. Of course I hadn’t, I would never hurt her.
That was probably the last time he ever looked me in the eye. I don’t know if he feels any differently now. I don’t see him unless I can’t avoid him.
Whatever happened to Charlotte, Dad made it clear that he had to leave, to start some shitty farm in Kansas, and he was taking Charlotte with him. And Mom agreed to let this happen, to raise her daughters separately. She spent a lot of time crying about it.
But the first day Charlotte and Dad were gone, I saw my mom breathe the morning air with a long, slow inhale, and with a serene smile, she let it all go.
It was good to separate us. I never really forgave Charlotte. Lying, little Charlotte.
And now she had a lie with his own name: Victor, a rich boy from California. This boy met her in a coffee shop, asked her out for dinner, and suddenly they were engaged. Just like that.
I remember watching Mom’s face as we listened on speakerphone. Her plucked eyebrows jumped in surprise, maybe horror, when Charlotte said the word “engaged.” As Charlotte continued, Mom frowned, her brows nearly closing the gap between them. I tried to catch her eye as I mouthed, “Is she serious?”
But Mom, after a nervous laugh, grinned and said, “My Charlotte,
I’m so happy for you!” Then she turned her head away from me as I silently screamed, What is happening? A miracle, apparently.
I drove Mom and Charlotte to the picnic grounds, armed with streamers and white bows and cake. Along the way, Charlotte whined about the heat and the dust and the dead lizard she found in our kitchen. How could we live here? Were humans ever supposed to live here? Oh, and she had heard that the crime rate had risen significantly in the past year. Was it meth-related? Of course, it had to be…
Mom smiled and nodded from the back seat as I bit my lip and kept driving.
We had reserved a picnic area at the base of the Sandia mountains, with little brown pavilions and a wall of piñon trees behind them. Aunt Jessie and her five kids were already there, each of them throwing rose petals in heavy clumps in the sand. When Aunt Jessie saw us arrive,
she waved wildly, loosening the rose petals caught in her tie-dyed skirt. Mom hugged her first, and then she scooped Charlotte into the embrace, crushing her sun hat against Charlotte’s forehead. Then Aunt Josie hugged me, but her smile had softened.
“This is ridiculous,” I whispered to her.
“Try to have some fun,” Aunt Josie said.
And god, I really tried to behave. I kept away from the wine that Mom had smuggled in her bag. Standing on a splintered picnic table, I took pictures of dying prickly pears with their wilted brown pads and their rotting fruit. I tried to lose myself in the lines in that pile of needles, but it all led back to Charlotte and her sudden engagement.
What were the chances that Victor even existed?
A pit opened up inside me, a void that left me hungry and hateful.
Charlotte had a wide smile as she approached me, a white streamer tied into a loose bow around her neck. “So I’m going to need a photographer soon,” she said with a laugh. “Would you do it?”
What would that be like, I wondered. Taking pictures of an invisible groom in a sham of a wedding. There was sad, pathetic potential. Maybe I could get the money up front.
“Of course,” I said.
“I showed Victor your profile, and he really likes your work.”
Great. Her fake fiancé was a fan.
In hindsight, I should have stopped the conversation at that point. There was nothing more to know, was there? But I felt slighted. I felt provoked.
I forced a tight smile. “So what does Victor do again?”
“He owns a vineyard.”
“No, no!” she said with a condescending laugh. “He lives in Wichita. The vineyard is in California somewhere.”
“Which one is it?”
“I’m not sure. It has some Spanish name,” she said dismissively, as if she hadn’t learned a lick of Spanish while living in this damn desert.
“And where’s your ring?”
“It’s being made. I picked a pink diamond.”
I must have rolled my eyes, which is disappointing. I’m usually careful about that.
“What?” She touched my arm and crept closer to me. “What is it?”
“Are you actually engaged?”
“Of course!” she said with a bewildered laugh. “Claire, we’re getting–”
“Why isn’t he here? Shouldn’t he meet Mom?”
“Of course! He’s just traveling, but he’ll be here for Thanksgiving,” she said. “Dad loves him, and I know Mom will, too. And you–”
I grabbed her by the shoulders. “Do you realize how insane this is?”
The rims of Charlotte’s eyes reddened. “Is it insane that someone would love me, Claire?”
I had several responses to that question, none of them kind. But I also had a decent lie.
“Sorry, I just worry,” I told her, releasing her shoulders and pulling her into a hug. “I just want to make sure he’s a good man. I wish he was here. I could ask him a million questions.”
Charlotte exhaled deeply, blinked away the water in her eyes, and smiled again. When she pulled away, she reached out and held my hands in hers. “You don’t need to worry about me,
I returned to Mom and told her that I’d watch the wine for her. Mom just shook her head.
“Did you get a picture with your cousins?”
“I’m out of space,” I lied, twisting the lens cap back on the camera. “You know how this ends, right?”
Mom didn’t reply.
“Why are you letting this go so far?”
Mom sipped from her plastic cup and faked a smile. “Go out there and be happy for your sister,” she said.
Maybe if she was happy, that was all that mattered. That’s what Dad used to say, all the time, about Charlotte. He never said that about Mom or me.
On the bright side, the dead cactus photos turned out well. In the morning I could print them and try to find someplace to sell them. And if they didn’t sell, well, they would join the other rejects hanging around the house when Charlotte wasn’t here.
After we had all gone to bed and my room was pitch black, Charlotte barged into my room and flipped on my light.
“Can you give me a ride?” she said, her eyelashes wet and her nose red. “I lost something. Can you take me back to the mountain?”
“No,” I grumbled, rolling onto my side. “Turn off the light.”
“Please,” she whined. “Please, I can’t go by myself.”
With a loud groan, I cursed under my breath but softened my tone as I raised my head to meet her sad gaze. “Wait until tomorrow, we’ll go in the morning. Okay?”
“It won’t be there tomorrow.” She wiped her nose with her sleeve, leaving a wet black spot on her soft blue dress. “I can go wake up Mom and see if she’ll take me…” She looked away as if summoning our mother through the walls.
I sat upright and glared at her. Mom would absolutely take Charlotte on any stupid errand, no matter the pretense. But there was no way in hell I’d let my mother drive anywhere near the mountains this late. Whatever this emergency was, I’d handle it.
“Let me get my shoes.”
The night wind whistled and awoke the weeds and their leaves, stirring anxious crickets and flies, each leg and wing and leaf writhing and turning in the dirt like an uncoiling serpent. In rhythmic pulses the creatures sang or cried, one after the other. I rolled down the windows as we drove and welcomed their din, before Charlotte, unnerved by the yelp of a dog or a coyote, timidly asked me to roll them back up again.
In this desert, on this mountain, Charlotte would see cracked glass pipes, cigarettes, and bone. Why? Why were we doing this?
“It looks like this.” Charlotte shoved an earring in my face at a stop light. One large amethyst, one smaller topaz, trapped in sterling silver. “Can you see it?”
I squinted at it. “Didn’t I buy you these?”
“No, these are from California.”
“No, Charlotte, I’ve seen that exact same pair at Old Town.”
“Not this exact pair,” she said as she secured the earring back in her earlobe.
“We’re out here looking for a goddamn earring? Are you serious?” I eyed the road for a spot to turn around. We were going home. “Charlotte, the damn thing’s not worth the money I’m spending in gas–”
“Are you going to help me or not?” she cried.
“I’m driving you, aren’t I? Jesus Christ.”
We didn’t say much else in the car. She stared straight ahead with me, watching the road turn from gold to black as we approached the peak. Along the ascent, we passed a little chapel with a dirt parking lot. I could have turned there. I could have dragged her home.
The headlights, yellowed and fogged, skimmed the road with faded disinterest. A dead moth floated in the driver-side headlight, casting the shadow of a small, dark clump onto the road. That moth reminded me of Charlotte and I, playing with flashlights in the dark. In the amber beams we’d make shadow puppets on the closet door, each gesture devolving from rabbits to birds to worms, then finally, closed fists.
We passed the fire danger level sign, which had been set to “Extreme” for as long as I could remember. Even during that beautiful summer three years ago, when it rained hard and the Rio damn near overflowed. The bosque had never been so green, the Rio so full of fish. How many times did the beautiful weather and the beautiful cottonwoods make the local news? Every day. It must have been every day.
I’m glad Charlotte didn’t visit us that summer. She hadn’t earned it.
As we approached the turnoff, I looked to Charlotte and said, “If we don’t find it in ten minutes, we’re coming back in the morning. Do you understand me?”
Her brows lowered but she didn’t say a word.
“Ten minutes. Time starts when I park.”
A green barrier blocked the parking lot. The white headlights floated above the curve of the gravel along the parking lot. Beyond the gravel, tangles of grass twitched in the breeze, parched and starved. White streamers dangled from the rafters of the small green pavilion, and shriveled white rose petals rested on the withered cicada wings littering the hard ground. A length of cheap white ribbon, trapped in a thicket, fluttered its tail as the wind swept by.
I had hardly parked when Charlotte tumbled out of my car and dashed underneath the barrier. As soon as she left, I leaned over and closed the passenger door.
She scoured the ground and the tables with a tiny catshaped flashlight attached to her keys. With one hand, she held the light, and with the other, she stretched her fingers out wide and hovered her fingertips along the ground. Finding nothing, she stood on a picnic table and cast the little white light across the cracked concrete. With a loud, frustrated sigh, she moved to the grass, her light trembling in her hands.
Now she had to check the dirt.
Charlotte walked half-bent in slow, pensive steps, as if in dire fear of waking the earth. Her outstretched hand hesitated before brushing against the rocks and the weeds. She squeaked and drew her hand back, sucking the tip of her finger. With a deep exhale, she crouched down lower and shined the light in a clearing under a patch of reeds.
Then Charlotte’s little light died. She shrieked, turned to the car and looked me in the eye, her own eyes glossy in the light from the headlights. Then she threw her hands up at me, her skin blue and green and white. Help me. Why aren’t you helping me?
You’ve had plenty of help, Charlotte. I slouched back in the driver’s seat and closed my eyes. She made up a fake fiancé, so she could find the damn earring herself.
When I opened my eyes again, I saw Charlotte hobbling across the crackling grass. She had lost a shoe. The dimmed, bug-clogged lamps in the picnic area coated the ground in just
enough light to see a single heeled sandal toppled onto its side.
You stupid girl.
I thought of snakes. Hopefully she wouldn’t find a snake and be stupid around it.
Most snakes in this area were harmless, anyway. They just resembled and mimicked other, deadlier snakes. Happens with the bull snake and the rattlesnake all the time.
But, knowing that, when you look at a rattlesnake, you doubt yourself. You stare at the shape of its snout, you look at the diamonds down its back. Maybe that’s a rattle on its tail, maybe it isn’t. You can’t tell. Both of them can make a rattlelike sound.
Maybe it’s a bull snake. Maybe it’s harmless.
Maybe that’s what you choose to believe.
I stared at Charlotte’s shoe and watched her gingerly step onto the dirt with her bare foot.
God damn it.
Maybe I had a flashlight.
As I stretched towards the glove compartment, a tiny bit of silver winked at me in the dim light of the console.
You’ve got to be kidding me.
I reached for it and its little silver post jabbed me under my finger nail. Instead of cursing, I laughed, looked at the fumbling shadow of Charlotte outside, and laughed again. The damn thing had fallen right under her feet, probably on the way back from the party.
There was no stamp on the back of the earring, so I doubted it was even sterling silver. If gemstones could rot, the amethyst and topaz were well on their way, all dark and murky in their settings. I think I did buy those earrings for her. From a Navajo woman sitting on a blanket in Old Town. Twelve dollars?
No more than twenty.
With the earring in my hand, we could go home.
I could print out those cactus pictures. Maybe look at the classifieds online. Maybe there was finally something for me.
Charlotte could take a shower, curl up in bed, and smile, planning her sham wedding and spending my mother’s money.
I dropped the earring into a cup holder and sank deeper into my seat, hands folded.
Ten minutes isn’t enough time, is it? Besides, the earring’s little back clip was still missing.
Maybe she could find it.
The headlights bleached her long mousy hair and her face into a single specter. Her skinny fingers grabbed at the ground and the limbs of withered thorns and wispy grasses trembled under her. She stopped and stared down at the ground, her arms dangling under her. With one hand, then the other, she grabbed a handle of reeds and tore them from the earth, their remains clinging to her legs and her dress before floating back to the ground.
That’s it, girl. Put your back into it.
She got cocky and tried pulling out something deeply rooted with long tendrils and tiny prickly leaves. With two hands she ripped three of its branches, and for a brief second I saw one of her hands splotched with orange, maybe red. She coughed and her entire body shook.
Then she stood up and fell to her knees. I watched a large beetle stagger up her chest, falling and climbing, falling and climbing as it struggled towards her shoulder.
Charlotte looked up, all around her, her eyes shining in the headlights as she turned her head. “Hello? Where is everybody?”
She slowly rose to her feet, eyes locked on something just to the left of the car.
“Who is it? Claire? Is that you?” she yelled. “I can’t see…Who are you? What did you do with Claire?”
“Charlotte?” I called to her, lifting my back off the car seat.
“What did you do with Claire?”
Then Charlotte yelped and I watched her fall in a heap. My blood froze. The car chimed as I pulled the door and the cabin flooded with light. And I ran, screaming her name.
She lay on her side, eyes staring straight ahead, eyes locked on a patch of dying juniper.
I crouched down and grabbed her arms. “Charlotte, get up.”
“Let me go!” she screamed. “Stop!”
Charlotte twisted away from me and tried to scream, but it had morphed in her throat into a short, dry howl. Then she stared at me, her bright eyes down-turned at the corners just like Dad’s. In a second her horrified face softened as she glanced around.
“Oh no. Oh no, oh no.” The terror returned to her eyes as she snapped upright and yanked on my shoulders. “Claire, this is very important. I need you to find my–”
“Forget about the fucking earring, it’s in–”
“–Find my purse, find Victor’s number. I need to see him sooner, sooner than our appointment…”
She gripped my hand hard as she led me to the car. “I need to see him.”
An appointment with Victor…what the hell?
“We’ll…we’ll call him at home, okay?”
I tucked her in the passenger seat, snapping in her seatbelt for her. Her nose was wet and dripped on my arm. She stared at her scraped knees, dirt and tiny pebbles clinging to her skin. Her fingers met in her lap, lightly grazing each other.
A haze settled at the foot of the mountain as we drove back to the house. My thoughts floated by like dust, speck by speck, pausing in one place before twirling to another. What had just happened to Charlotte? How would I explain all this to Mom? And Dad…this was probably all his fault. And how would I tell Charlotte about the missing earring, and how would she react?
Well, we attack to distract, don’t we. I didn’t know what to say, and so I attacked.
“So Victor is your doctor.” “Counselor,” she corrected. “But he’s not your fiancé.”
“So you lied.” I let the words hang in the air like a spider on its silk.
She didn’t answer, her eyes dim as she gazed past the city, way past the faded mountains and mesas in the west, one hand now gripping the armrest like a guardrail.
“I knew it.”
Her voice scratchy and wavering, she replied, “How does it feel to be right?”
I couldn’t describe it at the time, but this is what it feels like.
It feels like I ran something over. I could stop the car and take a look, but instead I keep driving, hoping that any blood or remains would be scraped off by the wind and the road. By the time I reached my destination, I’d convince myself that nothing was wrong, that I had done nothing wrong.
And there was Charlotte: bright and clear, rail-thin and lovesick.
Lying, little Charlotte.
She sighed, released the armrest, crossing her arms in her lap. “You know, we don’t have to call him, I’ll be fine,” she said. “I’m fine.”
“How could you possibly be fine?”
She reached over and squeezed my hand. “I’m fine, I promise.”
Maybe she was. Maybe this was a sick act to teach me something. Maybe she had planted the earring for me to find.
This was just another Charlotte game, another game I didn’t know
I was playing. Another lie. Of course she was fine.
Charlotte said it again a few minutes later. “I’m fine. Don’t worry. It’s nothing.”
I spent the drive home twisting and turning that night in my mind, teeth clenched, my temple aching. We were ten minutes from the house but I wanted to keep driving. I wanted to fall off the edge of the earth and into the blue and the gray. By then I would have peace. By then I would know that Charlotte was fine.
If I just drove until I ran out of road, listening to the wind and its lies, then maybe, just maybe, I’d believe her.
Katarina Palacios is a writer living in Raleigh, North Carolina. Raised in Albuquerque, NM, Katarina brought restless dexter dreams to Raleigh, where she attended North Carolina State University and completed a bachelor’s degree in English with a Creative Writing concentration.