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Salto Mortal

Salto Mortal

 

“The key technique of Lucha Libre was a flip with a rear break fall, called a salto mortal (death leap) . . .”

—Heather Levi, The World of Lucha Libre:
Secrets, Revelations and Mexican National Identity

Three days ago, Paul had thrown Mary onto the kitchen floor and kicked her everywhere except her face. For the first two days, the only time she left her bed was to go to the bathroom, drops of clotted blood from her insides deposited like coins in the toilet bowl.

On the third day, high on oxycodone, Mary dreamed about the lucha libre. She hadn’t thought about wrestling since she’d left Mexico, but the hallucination was as bright and sharp as grief.

In the dream, Papa and Felipe were still alive and Mexico still existed. They were driving to Arena Mexico in Mexico City, sixteen hours in the rusty white pick-up. Felipe hadn’t wanted to go. He loved fútbol, like everyone else. Only nacos liked lucha libre, so why did they have to go all this way just for her?

The arena stank of fried churros, Coca-Cola, cigarettes, and sweat. Everyone else cheered when El Jaguar performed a salto mortal off the top ropes onto Dr. Wagner and then strutted around the ring as the rudo rolled in pain. She’d yelled at Dr. Wagner to get up, knowing that it was all a trick. You could never trust a rudo. It was what she loved about them. If the naguals had never invaded Mexico, maybe she’d be a ruda today, a villain in a lucha libre match in Mexico City.

In her oxycodone dream, Dr. Wagner rose while El Jaguar had his back turned. He put the técnico in a stranglehold, his eyes glittering behind his black and white mask. Then he spoke directly to her. “You must go to the CASFV near Don Haskin’s center and leave your husband forever.” When she woke, she wasn’t sure whether he’d spoken in English or in her almost-forgotten Spanish.

The Center Against Sexual and Family Violence. For almost a day after the hallucination, she stayed in bed, unsure of what to do. It had only been a dream. But then, almost without thinking, she called the center from the toilet, whispering while running the taps.

Afterwards, each movement like a nail scraped down her bones, she’d dressed in a pair of jeans and a high-collared shirt. She’d used enough foundation to cover the bruises, taken an extra oxycodone pill, and staggered a few doors down the hallway towards the study. Each step felt like a mile, but she plastered a smile on her face.

She expected the door to be closed, but it was slightly ajar. She peeked through. Paul’s back was facing her. An array of ghostly images floated in the air around him, but he paid attention to none of them, his focus taken up by the voice coming through his microphone headset.

She’d seen the tiny cameras by the backdoor, the garage, and the front door. She hadn’t known about the one in the bedroom or the one facing the shower. Thank God she hadn’t called the CASFV from inside the bathroom, the shower running, like she’d originally planned.

“What do you mean you’ve lost sight of it?” Paul said to some disembodied employee at the other end of his call. He was chewing red leaf tobacco, occasionally spitting the masticated mass of tobacco into a tin on the cedar wood desk. Talking to one of his employees who watched for naguals scaling the Wall.

She willed her heart to beat a little bit softer and stepped away from the door, heading back down the corridor. It was hard to walk quietly when each step was like a knife in her side.

“You played the speakers at low volume, bringing in juveniles only, right?” Paul said from the room. “And it’s one juvenile that went through El Gueto? No cameras at all?” His voice full of self-satisfied authority. “Why can’t you man the drone? You mean I’ve got to leave my sick wife here and come in? Yeah, she’s got the flu.” He lapsed into an irritated silence. “Maybe I’ll come in for a couple of hours tonight. I need the walk anyway, get away from all her whining.”

She’d reached the bedroom doorway when his chair squeaked. She turned and grabbed the doorframe, making it appear as if she’d just started coming from the bedroom.

Paul still wore his microphone headset, the employee’s tinny voice yammering in his ear. “Hey, you’re up?” From the false lightness, she knew he’d only just spotted the image of the empty bed.

“I’m feeling much better,” she said brightly. “I wanted to ask whether I can go to Don Haskin’s tonight and watch the wrestling?”

“Give me five minutes, Ahmed,” he said into his microphone.

He pressed a button on his watch and then her internet history floated in the air in front of them. He expanded the page with the lucha libre at Don Haskins and swiped through the page, using little finger gestures to expand certain sections. After a while, he nodded, satisfied she wasn’t lying. It probably helped he was always sweetness and light for a few days after he’d hit her. Paul navigated until he’d found a ticket in the disabled section.

“You won’t have to walk up the stairs,” he said. “If they ask for a disabled permit, give them my name.” Unspoken, she’d be surrounded by gray-haired pensioners, not young men. “It finishes at ten p.m.” He looked at his watch for a meaningfully long time and then he was talking to his employee as he headed back to the study.

She drove the automatic, so that the motion of shifting gears didn’t claw at her insides. It wasn’t until she’d driven through the University and arrived at the arena carpark that the fear started to claw at her thoughts. She was better off with him. She was nothing without Paul. She’d lost everything in her life once already. She couldn’t do it again. Besides, he’d find her somehow. She should just go and watch the wrestling. But somehow, he’d know. He’d know she was planning to leave him and then he’d kill her.

For a moment, she couldn’t seem to get enough air, like she was trying to breathe through a clogged straw. She checked her heartbeat on her watch. 140, like she was running up steep hill. She exhaled slowly until her heart rate dropped.

Inside the arena, she switched her phone off. Losing the signal inside was plausible. She swiped her smart watch at the ticket kiosk and then searched in the queue behind her for someone who looked alone. Eventually she found a fat middle-aged guy, his hair in a shaggy mullet, face red though it was cold in the air-conditioning.

“I’ll give this for thirty dollars,” she said. “They’re in the disabled section, but you’ll be right next to the ring. Long as you give me cash.” He hesitated, but something in her eyes told him how badly she needed the money.

It took her an agonizing half an hour to walk to the reconstructed zone, the new housing blocks covering the concrete where the railway lines used to be. Cars drove past, ignoring her. Ignoring her even when she sank to her knees in pain, sweat dripping, her hands shaking.

Only five minutes away from the safe house, the pain made her stagger and she grabbed at a nearby lamppost. How far had she walked? She viewed the distance travelled on her watch. Paul liked her to walk at least five miles a day, said her hips were too big. Of course she’d missed her target lately.

When she saw the address, she nearly cried with relief. After a break to gather herself, she limped to the threshold. Her hand froze just before she knocked on the door.

The watch. She was so goddamn stupid. Paul had cameras on every exit in the house, a GPS on the car and he regularly checked her phone’s location. She was a stupid, useless refugiada. He probably regularly accessed the watch’s online account. When he realized she wasn’t coming home, he’d start looking for her. When he did, the watch would lead him straight to the women’s refuge. She could move on, but the refuge itself couldn’t.

She needed to return to the arena. The watch only synced to the account at midnight. If she returned home and accessed her account, she could delete tonight’s exercise.

She hadn’t planned on walking back. In normal circumstances, it was at least a forty-five-minute walk. Now? Too long. She’d arrive at Don Haskins after the event had finished. If she hadn’t fainted from the pain beforehand. He’d know she’d been somewhere else and then he’d access her watch.

She needed to find a taxi, but they wouldn’t come near the reconstructed zone. On the way, she’d seen a playground that ran past El Gueto. She didn’t like going near El Gueto, but taxis wouldn’t come any closer to the Wall than Sun Bowl Drive.

She walked. It wasn’t until she was almost inside the playground that she saw the nagual.

It was sitting on a swing, looking for all the world like a normal child. Even this close to the Wall, children still played. But not this late at night. The only light in the playground came from a flashing blue-and-red strobe indicating it was curfew time. Naguals didn’t understand warning lights or curfews. Rather than stepping onto the playground and into the nagual’s field of vision, Mary shrunk back into the blackness between the sodium-white circles of light cast by the streetlights.

With the curfew, no one else was outside. The boy swung backwards and forwards, the rusted chains squeaking. If he’d been human, he might be six or seven. The same age as Felipe when she’d left him and the rest of the family behind. Copper-brown skin clean as soap, a shade darker than her own. Black hair that looked like it was delicately combed first thing in the morning and then a tangled mess a minute later. The nagual wore a new blue t-shirt, neatly tucked into the waistband of his navy shorts.

The t-shirt had a picture of a luchador on it. El Jaguar. Just like her oxycodone dream, and for a moment she doubted what she was seeing. But El Jaguar had been a popular técnico, almost retired by the time of the visitacion. It wasn’t inconceivable that a nagual had seen his image. Unaware he was being watched, the nagual swung with utter abandon.

A sun-faded plastic child’s bike lay abandoned at the playground’s edge. Shacks surrounded the playground, most of them tin sheets loosely tied together with wire. Diesel generators chugged everywhere, sending up tea-colored clouds of smog into the night air. An entire makeshift ghetto put down smack bang on what had been railway lines.

Each shack was filled with los refugiados. Most of them people like her, ones who’d arrived just before the visitacion. Almost none from after. In the panicked days after the visitacion, the army had shot hundreds, maybe thousands, of people trying to cross the Rio Grande and everywhere else across the border. Back then, they thought the naguals were better at imitating people than they really were.

In the distant darkness was the Wall. Looming and gray, with electrified barbed wire rolled across the top. The loudspeakers on top blared strange whistles and sounds like grinding gears. According to Paul, the sounds drove the naguals back into what had once been Mexico. Back into the purple fog that swallowed radar, swallowed drones, swallowed people.

Cameras dotted the Wall at regular intervals. While elsewhere they swept backwards and forwards like clown heads at a carnival, along this section they were still. No wonder the nagual had managed to make it across without Paul’s employee seeing it.

The gueto might have been under curfew, but the prohibition was only observed in the letter of the law, not the spirit. Near the playground, where a drone or cop car might pass, blankets covered the doorways. But further back, she could hear people passing from shack to shack or standing around in the alleyways.

Somewhere, a speaker blared reggaetón over the top of the generators, competing with a more distant stereo playing something old and lilting and gentle. Pedro Vargas. Voices called out to each other, a multitude of accents and dialects. Peruvian, Mexican, Argentinian. These weren’t the voices of her childhood, though. They were bitter voices, voices without hope.

If it wasn’t for Paul, she’d still be here. Every week, there were stories about women turning up dead in El Gueto. Here, more than anywhere in the United States. Endless limbo, poverty, drugs, outsiders coming in to take advantage of the desperate. It was a dangerous place.

The nagual dismounted from one swing and for a moment she was afraid he’d seen her. But he’d simply decided that his current seat no longer suited him and moved across to the next one. He resumed swinging.

What should she do? No one from El Gueto was looking into the playground. She had to get to the arena. But if she left the nagual alone, then eventually it would fashion a cocoon. The cocoons bent the light, so that they were hard to see. In El Gueto, there were plenty of places for the cocoon to remain hidden. Afterwards, the adult nagual emerged and Paul had shown her photos of what happened then.

She checked her watch. She was running late.

The nagual pumped his legs to give himself momentum. Nagual kids were meant to move like marionettes, all herky-jerky. This one looked more like a real human than any nagual she’d heard about. An evolved nagual. They improved from month to month, but she’d never heard of one being this good.

The thoughtlessness with which the boy pendulumed back and forward on the swing evoked a strange sadness within her. It wasn’t a child and never had been, but she’d been one once.

When you were a child, life was simpler. Back then, she’d watched the lucha libre, adoring the luchadores enmascarados.

She’d take the nagual home and claim she’d found it wandering in the arena carpark. Say she’d mistaken it for a real boy and taken him home. Just like when Paul had taken her in.

For a nagual this good, this evolved, Paul would receive a promotion. It had been so long since she’d deserved his love, but giving him this creature would solve everything. All she had to do was make the nagual follow her.

The first time she tried to call out, the pain of movement surprised her and she swallowed the words. She gathered herself and tried again.

“Hey,” she called, stepping under the streetlight so that he could see her. The boy jerked his head up, red-and-blue light strobed across his face. She limped towards the playground, trying to breathe naturally. The pain was bad enough to put a crimp in her thoughts and she dug her nails in her palms to distract from it.

“What’s your name?” she said. The nagual didn’t move. “Don’t you know about the curfew? C’mon, let’s get you home before the border patrol sees you.” She half-turned away and gestured for the nagual to follow. He didn’t budge.

Close-up, the little details were wrong. He was missing the little flap of skin at the front of each ear and nictitating membranes covered his eyes. The picture of El Jaguar was blurred and the letters on his t-shirt were shapeless blobs. More than a few feet away, though, she would have mistaken the nagual for a boy.

She bent over, ignoring the sharp stab in her gut, and pretended to read the nonsensical letters. “You into wrestling? Did you know I used to train? I was going to be a luchadora before I came here.”

Their eyes met. She’d seen footage of naguals with eyes that were more like spider’s eyes, shiny and unmoving. If not for the membranes, this nagual’s eyes would have been perfect. Paul would be so happy when she brought it to him.

“You like him?” she said, pointing at the blurred image of El Jaguar on the nagual’s shirt. “We can watch the lucha libre at my place.”

When she said lucha libre, the nagual dismounted from the swing. “Lucha libre?” he said in a clear Chihuahua accent. “Me encanta lucha libre.”

She stood there for a long time, aware that her mouth was open, but unable to do anything about it. At best, naguals were meant to parrot back phrases with no real understanding. This one clearly spoke some level of Spanish.

“Me llamo Marquetta,” she said, surprising herself. How long had it been since she’d called herself Marquetta instead of Mary? Paul had never gotten his mouth around her real name.

“Marquetta,” the boy said with evident relish, like he’d learnt a satisfying new swear word. “¡Qué nombre tan hermoso!”

“Come with me and I’ll find your parents,” she said. The nagual tilted his head and there was no understanding in his eyes. He didn’t speak English.

She struggled to retrieve the long-forgotten phrases and put them together, words like jigsaw pieces. Paul didn’t have the patience to learn Spanish and over the past decade, she’d purposely shed it, just like she’d changed so many other things about herself. She’d changed her clothes, her make-up, the way she spoke, even the shows she watched.

“Puedes mirar lucha libre a mi casa,” she eventually said and then she had his attention again. He dismounted from the swing.

“Tengo hambriente,” he said. Of course. Feed him, wait for him to cocoon and he’d turn into a monster.

“Vamos,” she said. “Tengo comida.” She held out her hand.

He took it without complaint and trotted alongside her.

In the darkness, they moved parallel to the shantytowns at the Wall’s base, eventually reaching West Sunset Drive.

The time was ticking away and Paul would have called her phone two or three times now, but reception was bad at UTEP. Anywhere too close to the Wall, reception was bad. Please God, let him just chalk it up to that. Sometimes she thought she’d rather drink bleach than take another punch.

As they walked, the nagual spoke in a rapid torrent of Spanish, but the phrases gradually coagulated into something comprehensible as she remembered what she’d forgotten. He was asking for explanations about everything they walked past. The barbed wire on top of the Wall. The speakers. The strobe lights warning that certain areas were out of bounds. What that type of car was. Why some people lived in the shacks in El Gueto and why some had houses with thick wooden doors and hulking SUVs in the driveway.

The way the nagual spoke reminded her of Felipe, full of wonder and excitement about the world. It took her a while to realize what he was doing. He was learning to become more like a person so that no one would know he was a nagual until it was too late.

Even then, she continued to answer his questions. What did it matter anyway? Once Paul had him, all her answers would be lost on the autopsy table. Maybe her, too.

Somehow, hearing the Spanish again kept the pain away. It was still there, partially buffered by oxycodone, but not so bad at all. The vague sense that maybe they should hurry, but it was too pleasant, strolling hand in hand and speaking Spanish.

Though they were holding hands, the nagual led her more than she led him. Sometimes, he’d turn down a street and she had to tug him back on the path back towards the arena. He was so strong, it was like dragging a sack of concrete and it wasn’t until after he’d realized her intention that he’d actually move the way she wanted.

The third time he drifted towards the wrong street, it became clear that he was trying to head towards where she lived.

“We’re going in that direction,” she said. “But it’s going to be quicker if we go in a car and it’s parked a different way.”

“To where the music starts?” he said.

“What do you mean?”

He didn’t answer her question. “Why did you come here?”

“My father sent me here.” She shouldn’t tell him a damn thing, but the words came tumbling out anyway. “I was going to get a real job, maybe as a waitress or housekeeper. Once I had a bit of money behind me, I was going to pay a coyote to bring everyone else. Our family had been farmers for generations, but my grandfather lost the farm after NAFTA.”

Talking about it felt good, made it easy not to think about what Paul might do to her.

“My favorite luchador is the grandson of El Santo,” the nagual said gravely. “I like the Jaguar, but I like El Nieto del Santo more. He can catch bullets between his teeth.”

She laughed. “I doubt that. Did you know his grandfather was the most famous luchador in all of Mexico?”

The nagual shook his head, his eyes wide. “My favorite was a really old one, too, Dr. Wagner. I watched him in a mask or a hair match, I can’t remember which. I think they actually passed the mask on from rudo to rudo down the family, there were four or five Dr. Wagners. I haven’t watched it for so long.”

“Why?” he asked. “How can you love something and then forget that you loved it?”

She forced the smile. For a child, it was all so simple. You loved something and that never changed. “The year before we left, things were bad.” The cartels had been fighting over a new drug, but the nagual didn’t need to know that. “I didn’t have time for lucha libre anymore.”

The nagual looked at her sharply and her insides tightened with the lie. Even when life had been at its worst, she’d still watched it. It was only after she’d met Paul that she’d stopped. They’d walked far enough towards the arena that they’d left El Gueto and were now on dull suburban streets, ghostly blue television light spilling out onto the sidewalk. Paul was probably watching television now, the images floating in the air in front of him. Maybe he was watching one of those forensics shows that cycled in and out of fashion. He knew a lot about forensics, what opened corpses revealed. Maybe he was sitting there, thinking about how he could kill her when she got home.

A water main had burst in the street. To avoid getting her shoes wet, she steered them alongside a fraying wire fence that separated the street from a basketball court. The blue-and-red strobe lights indicated that the court was out of bounds at night, but it didn’t look like it had been played on for a long time anyway.

“Why did you leave?” the boy asked. “Is the music the same for you?” He made no sense. Perhaps it was her Spanish, but it was the second time he’d mentioned music.

“No, no music,” she said. “My papa paid a coyote because I was old enough to be kidnapped and turned into a brewer. A week after I got over, the visitacion happened.” She looked at him sideways, but he didn’t react to the mention of the visitacion.

“What’s a brewer?” the boy asked.

“A cervacero? They were people turned into mobile drug labs. They piss out drugs when you give them trigger foods.”

The nagual giggled and she realized he was laughing at her use of the word piss. “That’s a rude word.” He tried it out. “Piss. Piss. Piss.”

Laughing, she raised her hand to mock-cuff him over the head.

The nagual stopped walking and the nictitating membranes slid across his eyes.

He bared his teeth, hissing. Barely visible behind the front row of teeth were pearl-colored stabs of fangs, like tiny mountaintops poking through his gums.

He groped for her wrist. She avoided his hand by stumbling back into the fence, instinctively throwing her arms up over her face and then folding herself down to the ground, making herself as small a target as possible. A scream in her throat, but she choked it back because when Paul hit her, screaming made it worse. Once she’d had an exposed nerve in a bad tooth and every time she’d talked, the flow of air cause a terrible burning scraping against the bone of her gum. Screaming was like that exposed nerve. Whether she screamed didn’t make his fist thud into her body any softer or any harder, but somehow it made his blows hurt more.

It took her a moment to realize nothing was happening to her. She opened her eyes. The nagual hadn’t moved, a puzzled expression on his face.

“That was badly timed,” he said. She inched herself upwards with a series of sharp gasps, every limb feeling rusted in place.

A frayed link on the wire fence had caught on her high collared shirt, ripping it open in several places.

He grabbed her by the wrist again and then placed a hand on her waist. He gently lifted her arm. “When El Nieto del Santo grabs someone’s wrist, he always throws them on their back.” He turned his feet so that his hips fitted under hers, demonstrating how he was going to flip her over his shoulder.

He hadn’t been going to hit her. This lucha libre-obsessed alien had thought it all part of the performance.

She started sobbing. Her body hurt, the oxycodone had started to wear off, and the adrenaline of finding the nagual had ebbed.

Most of it was the nagual, though. Perhaps it was simple biology, part of her mourning for the children she couldn’t have after years of Paul’s beatings. Maybe it was even because the nagual looked so much like Felipe, or at least how she remembered her little brother. It had been so long.

It made no sense to pretend she didn’t know what it was anymore. She knelt so that she could look the nagual in the eye. The movement made her wince. “You’re one of them,” she said. “A nagual.”

The motion of her kneeling made a rip in her shirt gape. He tugged the fabric aside to reveal flesh. The nagual inspected her with a child-like curiosity. He pulled the fabric aside to reveal the plum-dark bruise beneath.

“Did you get that in training?” he asked. They clearly puzzled him. “You need to work much harder on your timing.”

“No,” she said, her voice hoarse. “I’m not a luchadora. My husband. He hits me. She pulled herself away and stood, unable to stop herself trembling. She never said that before to anybody.

When she’d phoned the woman from the CASFV, she’d never directly said the words My husband, he beats me. Instead, she danced around it. My husband, we do not see eye to eye anymore. We do not understand each other. We have grown apart.

Why hadn’t she said it? Because if she’d said it, then all her love for him was false. She was false. Had she always been wrong about Paul? Had he ever loved her? He’d been so sweet at first and then his contempt had hardened so slowly that she didn’t know whether it had been there all along. She’d started to question herself until she believed anything he said about her. It was like she was a sandcastle on the beach and he’d been the tide. He’d carried her away, bit by bit, until there was nothing left of her.

The nagual waited for her to stop trembling. “Tengo hambriente.”

“I can’t give you food,” she replied. “You’ll go into your cocoon and when you come out, you’ll start eating people.”

The nagual giggled. “I want something to eat at your house,” he said. “I want to watch the lucha libre.”

“It’s very dangerous there,” she said. “My husband researches naguals. They’ll dissect you because you managed to get over the Wall.”

This seemed to genuinely shock the boy. “Because we come over the Wall? Why would they do that?”

“You’re not meant to be here.”

“But the music calls us. On the Wall. The machines on the Wall call us.”

Mary wanted to say that, no, the loudspeakers were meant to repel the naguals. But as soon as the boy had said it to her, she knew it was true.

Paul and his employees talked about nibbles and lures. They wanted the naguals to come over. One or two at a time, just to see what they did. They didn’t care about this nagual and the non-functioning cameras, because, after all, it was only a bunch of wetbacks in el gueto.

“You can’t come to my house,” she said. “He’ll shoot you.” Some small shift in her posture made her wince. “He’ll dissect you. He’s made me watch it before.” Bones tangled together like piles of coat hangers, shapeless organs that frantically strove to reorganize themselves, even as Paul dissected them.

The boy’s eyes widened. “Why would he do that?”

“Because you’re an alien. Because you came down here and you destroyed the country that I came from. There used to be people in Mexico. All the people that used to live where you live now, they were my family. They were my friends.” Despite her words, she felt no heat. The visitacion had happened, but so had a lot of other things. She couldn’t feel anger at the nagual.

“We didn’t kill them,” the boy said. “We didn’t know they were people. We were too busy imitating other things because we didn’t understand people at all.” He touched the gape in her shirt that revealed her bruises. “We still don’t understand you.”

“Then what happened to everyone? We were told you killed everyone in Mexico.”

The nagual told her. Sometimes she understood the Spanish immediately and sometimes they had to parry phrases backwards and forwards until she’d finally grasped their meaning.

The nagual had landed or grown or perhaps they had woken from a slumber of a billion years. They’d already been discovered when she’d crossed the border with the coyote. Even back then, the Americans were trying to talk to them.

They were a species driven towards imitation. To understand something was to become it.

The way the nagual told it, there was a point where they had imitated people enough for the first time to have some grasp of them as a conscious species. And when they tried to talk to the Americans, the bombs had dropped upon Mexico City. It did nothing to the naguals, but after, they found themselves in a mostly empty city. The bombs had dropped much further North than the Government had ever let on and most of the refugees had been shot in the panic at the border.

To preserve what they were trying to imitate, the Nagual rolled out the purple fog until they’d covered all of Mexico. They hadn’t really understood any of the visitacion or even what was happening now. The speakers on the Wall sang to them and some of them followed the sound.

There were still some people in Mexico, but to keep them alive, they’d changed them so that they were almost naguals. Some part of the survivors still remembered their human selves and played out their old roles, though they had no understanding of why.

Some of the survivors were luchadores and the naguals understand the lucha libre best of all. The combat, the roles between good and evil, the theatricality. Watching their half-human reclamations go through an event made sense to the naguals in a way that most other things didn’t.

Until recently, it wouldn’t have mattered that no one who followed the speakers ever came back. But now, they had imitated well enough to become conscious in a way that humans were conscious. The boy feared. The boy thought. The boy was.

Mary absorbed all this. “So, no one left remembers who they are?” Papa. Felipe. Everyone she loved.

“We are recreating what was there before. We will try to become them. We will try to understand.” The nagual tilted his head like a dog awaiting a treat from its master. “The music has stopped.”

She too listened to the night sounds. Traffic, the flow of the Rio Grande, music and distant shouts. An ambulance. But none of the strange music from the speakers on the Wall.

Paul would have realized she wasn’t coming home. He’d shut down the department for the night so he could come look for her.

When he found her, the questions would start. Did she go backstage to meet one of the wrestlers? Did she find a man to fuck in the parking lot? Was there some sweaty redneck in the toilets?

Then, the punches when she didn’t tell the truth, or did tell the truth, or because of something she’d done in the past, or something she was going to do.

She had nowhere to go. There wasn’t time to go back to the refuge. She hadn’t realized that she was crying until the nagual touched her wet cheek.

“When I watch the lucha libre, they never do this,” he said, examining the tears dampening his fingertip. “They bleed, but they never cry.”

“I’m scared.”

“Why?”

“My husband will kill me. I was going to leave him, but I couldn’t do it. I don’t have my papers. I don’t have anywhere to live. And now he’s going to kill me.”

The nagual touched its tear-stained finger to its mouth and then wrinkled its nose at the taste.

She removed her watch and hard-pressed the buttons until it powered down. The oxycodone was floating through her in waves, making her head swim and the pain was chainsawing at every joint in her body. It would have been smarter to give the watch to a stranger, but she was tired. So very tired. She slumped to the ground.

“Aren’t we going to watch the lucha libre?” the nagual said.

She shook her head mutely. “It’s too hard. He’s too strong. There’s no watching the lucha libre. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” the nagual said.

She felt the bass throb of a drone’s flight reverberated in her bones before the sound of the engine. Paul. Once the watch powered down, he must have figured she’d gone on the run and figured it was quicker searching for her by drone.

“Let’s play,” the nagual said. “I’m going to be El Jaguar. Who are you going to be?”

That made her smile through her tears. “I don’t know. I want to be a ruda.”

The drone floated around the corner. It was a disc with a central rotor, a pinhole camera on a stalk at the rotor’s top. A gun slid out from its interior, like a butterfly’s proboscis.

“You are a ruda?” the nagual asked.

“Yes, I’ll be a ruda,” she said. “Just like Dr. Wagner. Just like in my dream. He brought me to you.” Her words didn’t even make sense. Christ. She pulled herself up to her feet, the motion clawing at her insides.

The speakers in the drone’s side crackled into life. “Mary, is that you?” Paul said. At the sound of his voice, she flinched. Of course he knew it was her. The drone’s camera was high resolution.

A car turned into the street, its lights bathing them, and then the driver saw the drone and rapidly backed away.

“Why are you here, Mary?” Paul said. “Is that a boy next to you? Is that a nagual?”

Her heart thumped too fast, her mind returning to the masked face of Dr. Wagner. She hiccupped for breath. A panic attack, the helpless breakdown of a woman beaten so hard that her teeth would always be a little bit loose and the rare cold night would set her joints to aching though she was only twenty-five.

No. She gathered herself and placed her hand on the nagual’s shoulder. “It talks. It’s intelligent. I want to make an offer to your superiors, Paul. You’ve disconnected the drone from Washington, haven’t you? Turn on the feed and we’ll claim that we tracked down this nagual together.”

A cautious pause. “What’s your name?” he said to the nagual.

“He doesn’t speak English,” she replied. “I don’t know, they’re learning their language from lucha libre or something.”

The drone angled itself so the gun was pointing directly at the nagual’s heart.

“Tell him your name,” she said to the nagual.

“El Nieto del Santo,” the nagual said proudly and she didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

The hiss of empty air through the speakers. “What do you want in return?” Paul eventually said.

“I want you to stop hitting me. Can you promise me that? If you promise to stop hitting me, I’ll give it to you. Washington doesn’t have to know. Just patch your boss through and I’ll let him talk to the nagual.” The drone kept the gun upon the nagual. “It’s harmless, Paul. They only ever ate people when they didn’t realize we were sentient.”

“I know,” he said.

“Will you stop hitting me?”

“I’ve never done anything to you.” Even through the speaker he said it lightly, like the lie was the easiest thing in the world, like he truly believed it was never his fault. Strutting like El Jaguar in her fever dream, while Dr. Wagner lay prone on the canvas.

“You’re right. Forget about it.” She raised her hand to her shirt collar. “Your boss. Hand the control over to him and I’ll show him the nagual.”

A few seconds passed and then a different voice came over the speakers. “It’s Abraham Thompson here,” the man said. “Your husband said you’ve got something to show me?” When she heard his voice, she imagined an old black man with a pepper-and-salt beard.

“The boy next to me is an intelligent nagual,” she said calmly. “Take a careful look at his face.” She gave the drone’s camera a few seconds to focus on the nagual before speaking again.

“I want you to focus the camera on me for a second, Mr. Thompson,” she said. The drone spun. “I was going to a woman’s refuge when I found him.” She reached up to her collar and tore the front of her shirt downwards, buttons popping.

“Ms. Miller, what are you doing?” Abraham said, but he stopped talking when her torso was bare, covered only by her bra. She held her arms out by her side and turned slowly.

“This is what my husband, Paul Miller, did to me,” she said. Each bruise on her body telling a story. “This is where he punched me in the stomach. See this partial boot tread? This is where he kicked me. I know your company has a zero tolerance policy for domestic violence.”

Silence and then Abraham speaking flatly over the drone speakers. “I’ve got control, Mr. Miller. Please don’t try and take it away from me.”

Paul spoke frantically over the speaker. “She’s insane. We’re close to El Gueto. She’s gotten some thugs to beat her and set me up.”

She unbuttoned her pants and dropped them to the ground so that she stood in the street, only wearing her underwear. More people passed at the end of the street, studiously ignoring both her and the drone.

A long arc of skin on her thigh was as smooth as old leather. “Three years ago, he used a hot iron to burn my leg. There’s a hospital record. I told the doctor that I did it to myself, but I don’t think he believed me. There’d be notes.” She pointed to a long scar just over her hip. “Eight months ago, a pair of scissors. I gave a false name to the hospital, but they should have me on security footage.”

“She’s lying,” Paul said. “Christ, she’s lying.” A long sob from him. Christ, he was crying. Blubbering like a fucking child.

When she’d first met Paul as he ran through El Gueto, chasing some runaway nagual (flaps of skin instead of eyes and orifices, gill slits flaring along its neck), she’d been struck by how tough he seemed. His body made her think of a luchador, short, but thick and well-muscled. Un cuerpo corpulente. If she hadn’t been so young, she wouldn’t have been impressed that he’d stopped chasing the nagual to talk to her. But at sixteen and frightened, she hadn’t known how the face was a mask, how a man could change his role from técnico to rudo. She’d been young enough to subconsciously mistake looks for personality. She’d thought she needed a strong man to protect her. A luchadora didn’t need protection.

“How could you set me up like that?” Paul said, his words punctuated by little sobs. “After everything I’ve done for you, how could you set me up?”

“Mary,” Abraham Thompson said, his voice soothing. “Let me send a car for you.”

“No,” she said, her voice hard. “No soy Mary. Soy Marquetta.” Marquetta. Meaning war-like.

A pause. “Marquetta. Your husband won’t be an employee of our company. I’ll send a car for you and the nagual.”

She groped for the nagual’s hand and he took it without question. “Never trust a ruda,” she hissed.

Without a word exchanged between them, she and the nagual ran. It felt like her insides were splitting open with a hot, burning pain, but she gritted her teeth and screamed, half in pain, half in triumph.

A lucha libre match wasn’t strictly a matter of choreography. It was closer to an improvised dance. One luchador had to give the other the proper hold, so that his opponent could feel how he was meant to react. The arms of both partners formed a frame so that the losing luchador could fall painlessly and, more importantly, beautifully. The end was known, but the paths to the match’s completion were endless. One tug from her and the nagual was running alongside her. A shift in his hips and then she was following him.

Without any words between them, they returned to where she’d found the nagual, the blue-and-red light still flashing across the empty playground. The reggaetón was still blaring, but there was no more Pedro Vargas.

The pain was like a bell, ringing brightly and cleanly through her, but her mind was on some other level. She and the nagual walked through the shacks of El Gueto towards the wall. Despite the hour, there were still many people walking between the shacks, drinking beer, playing cards, shooting up. Once they were aware she was walking amongst them, the men watched her. The only light came from lights hooked to the diesel generators and when she was in darkness, they wolf-whistled and cried out “¡Oye, rechonchita!” but then she’d pass into the light and they’d see her bruises and fall silent.

They walked through El Gueto into the desert. They walked for a while, red dirt beneath her bare feet, the hills and the lights of El Paso behind her. The moon was a sliver and the pain sometimes took her legs from beneath her, but each time she stumbled, the nagual was there to catch her.

Spikes had been hammered into the Wall in order to provide handholds. At the top, a single narrow wire of barbed wire had been snipped so that a person could climb over. She was a bulky woman, a mix of muscle and fat, but she’d just fit through the gap. Underneath the first spike lay an empty packet of Red Man loose leaf chewing tobacco.

“There are other places you can climb the Wall?” she said.

“Yes,” he said, naming another dozen locations.

“After you eat, you spin a cocoon?”

“What’s a cocoon?”

“Do you eat people?”

Indecision played across the nagual’s face. “Not any more. Before, when we didn’t know what you were.”

She thought of her grandfather, the cornfields that were worthless after NAFTA. She thought of the cartels, the ravenous demand for drugs from the United States. She thought of the undocumented armies of workers, both desired and unwanted. She thought of the refugiados, the endless years grinding down their souls until what was left was as bitter as acid.

“They track you through those,” she said, pointing to the cameras. “Before you come over, destroy them. If you want to imitate us, come over when the music isn’t playing, when they don’t expect you. Don’t eat people. Don’t come over looking like children. And hell, don’t talk about lucha libre so much.”

The nagual placed his hands and a foot on the climbing spike. “You’re not quite right, you know,” she said. “The transparent eyelid. Lots of animals have them, but humans only have a vestigial one.” She tugged at the tragus, the little flap of skin at the front of her ears, and then opened her mouth to reveal her teeth. “Nothing significant, but people will notice.”

She patted the nagual on the rear. “Go.” It started to climb the spikes.

Marquetta flexed her hands and rolled her shoulders. It would have been an easy climb, if she’d been healthy. The thought of the pain that would accompany each step made it daunting. Still, she could make it. She’d always been strong, strong enough to wrestle some of the lighter men in lucha libre practice. It had been a long time since she’d trained, though. Paul had always liked her skinnier and prettier than she ever could be.

Just when she placed her foot on the first spike, Paul called out in English. “Bitch. You’ve ruined me, you know that? You’ve ruined me, you fucking bitch.”

She took her time turning around. Paul had his revolver out, the sights carefully aimed at her chest. The manual car was parked behind him. Tears and snot streaked his face.

She stared at him coldly. “What do you think’s going to happen, Paul? You can shoot me, but then what? It’s all over, Paul. They know what you are. They’ve seen beneath that mask that you wear.”

Paul’s finger flexed upon the trigger. Small things stood out. The way his hand trembled, his finger flexing on the trigger. How the tears had blotched his face. Paul marched forward, his boots kicking up clouds of dirt in the moonlight. He stopped only a few feet away, too far to grab the gun, too close for his trembling hand to make any difference to the accuracy of his shot.

The urge to close her eyes was almost overwhelming, but she wasn’t going to cover her head or look away from him. He’d have to kill her while looking straight into her eyes.

The seconds passed by while he didn’t shoot. She turned her back on him and placed her foot on the first spike.

Each step hurt and at each spike she expected a shot in her back, but there was nothing. She climbed the Wall, spike by spike, each step wrenching at her insides, tears running down her cheeks. Somewhere along the way, a shot rang out beneath her, but it didn’t hit her, so she didn’t care. Paul had shot himself. Paul had shot into the air. Either way, he had nothing to do with her now.

When she reached the top, the nagual was there. The space beyond the Wall was shrouded in the purple fog.

“What’s on the other side?” she said.

“Everything we’re trying to understand,” he said and then he stepped off. He vanished without a sound.

With a grunt of effort, she hauled herself onto the narrow gap where the barbed wire had been cut away.

El Paso stretched off to the horizon. Nothing but lights as far as she could see. It was beautiful and she could have loved it, but Paul had spoiled it for her. She’d come here and met the wrong man. That was all. She’d forgotten who she was. She looked down. Paul was splayed at the Wall’s base, a trail of blood leaking from his head, his gun held loosely.

She turned towards Ciudad Juárez. In the darkness, it was like she standing on the edge of a vast, dark ocean. All the television reports said the fog never moved and Paul had told her the same, but as she stood there, the fog rolled away.

Mexico stretched out beneath her. It was both cleaner and stranger than she remembered, the naguals rebuilding it from the fragmented memories of the remaining quasi-humans. Buildings that moved like flowers twisting towards the sun, streets filled with naguals that had imitated Santa Muerte instead of a real person. The Victoria Theatre, cleaner and larger than it had been, standing in the middle of the drifting sands of Médanos de Samalayuca. Chichen Itza floating like a toy boat in the middle of Lake Texcoco. Trucks driving through the front entrance of the Palacio de Bellas Artes. It was all there, but maybe it needed her to teach them. Someone who’d forgotten who she was could help them understand what they’d found.

The smell of fried churros, Coca-Cola, cigarettes, and sweat wafted upwards. The nagual was waiting at the Wall’s base, his hands outstretched to catch her.

Marquetta closed her eyes. She was standing on the ropes of the ring, the vanquished técnico lying prone on the mat. The crowd was screaming abuse at her, a spotlight focused upon her. The técnico was Paul. It had been a Luchas de Apuestas match, where the mask was at stake and the loser would reveal who he was. She’d finished him off. She’d won. Marquetta stepped off the edge as the crowd roared.

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Nick T. Chan

Nick T. Chan

Nick Tchan (writing as Nick T. Chan) is a writer from Sydney, Australia. He’s sold stories to Writers of the Future, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, and Galaxy’s Edge. Because he does not own a cat, he has long doubted his legitimacy as a speculative fiction writer.