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A shock of light. Unbelievable light. Blood orange swallowing the Albuquerque evening. A pulling in, taking back, reclaiming something stolen. Halfway home from her Saturday-morning lecture, Calliope Santiago drove across the river toward West Mesa and the Sleeping Sisters, ancient cinder-cone volcanoes in the distance marking the stretch of desert where she lived. Only now she could see no farther than two feet ahead of her from the blinding light, the splotches in her eyes bursting like bulbs in an antique camera. She blinked, not sure what she was seeing. She meant to cover her eyes. Meant to shield her sight.
Instead, she clutched the steering wheel and keeled forward, belly contracting around her twins, less than two months from birth. For the second time, she'd become an incubator, something she was never more aware of than when she yanked against the seat belt squeezing into her gray tunic, sloshing the water balloon of her midsection that seethed with two fish.
The stereo played static, the music replaced with wiry scratches. She felt vaguely aware of an aura, as if morning sickness were on reprise. But this wasn't morning sickness.
She didn't know when she lost control of the car, only that it was spinning. Though she must have been screaming, she couldn't hear her own voice. She couldn't hear anything. Even the static had been replaced by a void louder than any sound she'd ever heard. She pumped the brakes as the car careened toward the guardrail. The brakes were useless. A canopy of autumn-yellowing cottonwoods in the bosque alongside the road lurched toward her, the initial burst of light staining everything — the leaves, the clouds, the reflection in the river below — deeply red.
Instinctively, she crouched low in her seat, curling herself into a caterpillar, her hands shielding her belly. Blood pulsed through her gut. Fetal hiccups. Bubbles popping. Just before impact, she recalled making peanut butter sandwiches with Phoenix, safe at home with Andres and her mother. Time, pliable as uterine strings when necessary, protracted wide enough for these thoughts: relief it was Saturday, relief for the empty booster seat behind her. Wide enough still for prayer. Rote memory took over and she began reciting scripture from childhood. Though she'd been estranged from her religion for years — since college, since she'd stopped bickering with her mother at the improbability of God, since she became an anthropology professor and found other ways of explaining human history, our shared stories, our deep-seated need for mythos — there in the car, under the palpable redness, in the moments before the crash, the only words that made any sense came streaming like rainwater: Thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. But after the prayer, a flickering. Cicadas buzzing and her bisabuela's voice in a dust storm. She was split between worlds, and the Ancient Ones grasped her tight.
* * *
The rail held. The river didn't claim Calliope or her babies. She awoke to kicking inside her — the familiar prodding on her bladder. Her pants, wet and smelling of ammonia, clung to her sore thighs and groin, and her forehead throbbed. She pressed her hand to the sticky clumps that matted her wavy brown hair to her face and pulled the blood-caked strands out of her eyes. She wiggled her fingers and toes, reached for her cellphone on the passenger floor. No signal. Odd — she was still in the middle of Albuquerque, cellphone towers nearby. How long had she blacked out? Her class had ended around noon, and in mid-September the sun didn't set until after seven, but the sky had gone utterly dark. She couldn't have been stranded in the car for nearly eight hours, could she? Something was wrong. The streetlights past the bridge remained unlit. Her fingertips tingled; she felt nauseous.
Though it ached, she craned her neck to check behind her and figure out the logistics of her crash. The car must have circled completely so the passenger side hit the rail. But that also meant she was facing backward in the road. Why hadn't any other cars crashed into her? Or maybe they had. She couldn't hear anyone coming for her, couldn't see beyond her window. The usual glow above the forest surrounding Montaño Road had been replaced by a darkness, strangely narrow and stygian.
She pressed her palms to her ears in suction-cup motion, trying to unplug them, unsure why she heard nothing but a steady droning, the low buzzing of hummingbird wings fluttering against her ears. She stepped out of her car and placed ballet flats to concrete, squinting as her eyes adjusted to the darkness, following the wreckage. Had she been knocked out again? No, she was awake — the city had been knocked out. East and west, along the side of the road, in the sagebrush-covered median, wedged or gaping or beetling over the metal rails, piled atop each other in appalling angles: cars and trucks and minivans, all crashed.
She staggered forward, calling Andres under her breath. Tucking one hand beneath the twins for support, with her free hand she pried open the rutted trunk like a tuna-can lid, withdrew the first-aid kit and a small pen flashlight that Andres had cached there along with other emergency equipment she didn't think she'd ever need, and stumbled to the nearest car.
"Stay calm," she called as she approached the driver's side of an upside-down station wagon teetering backside-first over the edge of the bridge. "I'll get you out."
No one responded.
"Hello?" She wished she'd paid more attention to her paramedic husband's stories about the people he'd rescued. The gory details made her sick, so she never listened.
Groaning with effort, she knelt on all fours to face the driver she suspected unconscious. Bracing herself for blood and guts or worse, she peered into the open window, shining her light into the car.
There was nothing. No driver. No passengers. No blood. Only embankment gravel.
Disoriented, she heaved herself up and tried focusing on her surroundings; she must have missed something. Water lapped the cragged edges of river rock below. Cottonwoods rustled. She hadn't heard anything else on the bridge. No screaming. No calls for help. No sirens.
Supporting her belly with one hand, she lumbered toward another car across the street. This one, a sports car, lolled in the median with no immediate signs of damage. No broken windows. No dents. It too was empty. Car after car. Where was everyone? Where were the rescue workers? The ambulances? The other victims? She stifled the urge to shout. There had to be a logical explanation. Maybe she'd been unconscious longer than she'd thought. Whatever explosion had caused her crash was responsible for the others. When rescue workers came, they'd missed her somehow, and now, late at night, she was the only one not taken to a hospital.
Why weren't Andres and her mother looking for her? Surely they would've worried when she hadn't returned from the university. Where was the search crew? How could they have missed her? She hadn't been obscured by anything. Her car had crashed in plain sight with the others.
Her chest tight, she scrambled back to her car and turned the key in the ignition, willing the engine to start, then pulled away from the rail, slowly, thankful for the screech of metal scraping metal, breaking the uncanny silence.
Electricity across the city was out. She couldn't see beyond the hazy glow of her headlights, high beams sloping up the road toward Paradise Hills, where she and Andres lived with Phoenix and Calliope's mother. Calliope had moved back to New Mexico for a job, and, if she was honest with herself, guilt over Bisabuela, her great-grandmother.
Every stoplight was dark; every intersection, empty. She tried the radio again but got static. Checked her cellphone. Still nothing. The half-moon crept through grayish clouds, offering a spearhead of light. At the edge of town, she drove up Boca Negra, the black-mouthed road that wound through the painted rock wall and signaled entry to the volcanic caprock that formed the Petroglyph National Monument. Atop the hill came the familiar expanse of unlit desert that surrounded her house and stretched miles westward. At the corner of her street, she scanned the scattered clumps of beige and terracotta two-stories, sighing in relief: both Andres's and her mother's cars were in the driveway. Next door, a curtain swayed, a silhouette of a face she couldn't quite place peering out at her. It was too dark to see clearly. Even if there had been lights, she didn't know any of her neighbors. She'd never taken the time to meet them.
In the driveway, the garage door wouldn't open. She pressed the clicker several times, hard. It was battery-operated and should have opened. "Phoenix?" she called when she reached her front door, unlocking and opening it. "Andres? Mamá? Are you here?" No one answered. She was lightheaded. Her voice shriller, more urgent: "Phoenix, baby? Answer me."
She groped her way to the kitchen and fumbled through the drawer near the sliding glass door, where Andres stored flashlights and candles. Her pulse spidering at her neck, she fished out a flashlight and clicked it on, then slid open the back door. Why she expected to find Phoenix playing on his swing set or in his sandbox, she had no idea. But she headed there regardless. "Phoenix?" She shone the flashlight at the swing set below the slide. "Baby boy? You out here?" Beneath the picnic table, a hazy shadow, a slight twitch of movement. Could it be Phoenix playing a game, waiting for her to find him? Or huddled and frightened? She moved closer, her breath ragged. "Ay, there you are, mijito." She bent down and shone the light under the tablecloth, revealing two milky eyes, tawny fur. A rabbit. Her stomach clenched. "Dammit." She didn't shoo the vermin away as she would have normally done, to keep its potential ticks and diseases away from Phoenix. She stood up, dizzy from the exertion, and once more shone the light around the backyard and beyond the fence toward the stretch of desert surrounding her home. If there was life in the scrub, she couldn't see it.
Back in the house, Calliope flashed light on the dining room table, still laid out for Saturday brunch. Red, pottery-style ceramic dishes atop colorful place mats. In the center of the table, a pot of menudo, a platter of chilequiles, refried beans and cheese. The menudo was cold and gelatinous, the chilequiles wilted and spongy, the beans like playdough, hardened and cracked. Calliope began to shake violently. The babies cramped together in her belly, compressed her bladder with her ribcage, everything wiggling and softening, her innards poised to release if she didn't wrap her arms around herself and squeeze. She swallowed back bile and tried hard not to vomit.
It didn't work.
She staggered to the kitchen sink and, clutching the tile, let go.
Once she'd stopped heaving, she turned the faucet on, but it only spurted air. She shook her head and chuckled mirthlessly. Of course there wasn't water. She sighed and cleaned her mouth with a dish towel folded beside the sink instead, scrubbing at her tongue with the cloth. She hadn't checked upstairs. Her family could have been bunkered in a closet, unable to hear her while she'd been wandering around downstairs. She felt foolish for getting so upset, imagining Andres laughing as she told him she'd vomited in the kitchen sink. You never can handle crisis, he would say, but I'm here now. It's all right.
She climbed the stairs, panting from the effort and the high-desert altitude, crouching at the top to rest, her hands pressed against her leggings for support. After catching her breath, she called out again, "Mamí? Sunshine? Andres?" She checked her master bedroom first, resisting the urge to lie fetal on the little mattress on the floor where Phoenix slept most nights for fear of the dark. She imagined him lying there, his body curved into a horseshoe beside hers while she read to him about dinosaurs and woolly mammoths. He loved having an anthropologist for a mom; he'd ask if she'd ever uncovered any bones herself, ever dug an animal from the ground. She picked up the blanket Andres had knitted for Phoenix as a baby and held it to her chest. Where was her son?
The master bathroom. The shower. The walk-in closet. The laundry room. Phoenix's bathroom, decorated with playful monsters, for which they'd deemed it "the monster bathroom." His bedroom. Her mother's master bedroom. The balcony.
Desperate from losing some twisted game of hide-and-seek, sweat pearled around Calliope's neck and armpits, gluing her tunic to her body. Even in the muggy hothouse of the second floor sans air conditioner, she felt cold. Feverish. She shivered uncontrollably toward her mom's closet. This was the last place in the house they could possibly be hiding.
How many times had Phoenix asked her to play hide-and-seek with him? How many times had she told him she couldn't? She was too busy writing an article or grading papers. Now she ached for the rare moments she had put everything else aside and counted one, two, three, four ... giving him the chance to find a good spot ... nine, ten ... Ready or not, here I come! He'd giggled from his hiding place. She'd played along. Where's my boy? Where could he be? Fee-fi-fo-fum. His delighted screeches as she swung open the door and "found" him.
She swung open her mom's closet and found clothes. Boxes. Shoes.
She crumpled onto a pile of laundry on the floor, atop her mother's dresses and suits, clasping Phoenix's blanket to her face and crying. Her stomach roiled, her mouth filled with paste, bile crusted her lips. She cried until she felt empty, the babies inside her quieted by the wracking of her shoulders, the rocking of her body.
Her eyes stung. She still tasted the vomit in her mouth. Once, when she was a child suffering a particularly bad bout of gastrointestinal upset and fever, her mother had become convinced Calliope was inflicted with mal de ojo from someone looking at her jealously before her father had abandoned them, before they had lost everything. Her mother had taken her to the curandera, who rolled a raw egg over Calliope's body then broke it into a glass of water. When her father left, her mother had blamed it on that case of evil eye. The curse hadn't been fully broken. Even Bisabuela said for Puebloans — one of the Acoma peoples — like her, it's not good to have too much, for others to envy you. It brings a witch's wrath.
Yet even now, even after she'd sworn off such twisted beliefs, Calliope felt the unmistakable tingling of curse. Where was her family? Who had been cursed? Them? Or her?
Minutes passed. Calliope sat silent, numb with exhaustion, unthinking, sweating. She might have sat there the rest of the night had she not heard the tap-tapping. Every few seconds. Tap-tap. Louder than raindrops. She scrambled to her feet and tottered downstairs, unsure if she should be scared, though her pulse quickened. The tap-tapping continued, a knocking at the front door.
"Who is it?" she asked, her voice barely a whisper.
She cleared her throat, then bolder, louder, "Who is it?"
Still no response.
She looked through the peephole, saw nothing. If she hadn't known better, she'd have thought the neighborhood kids were ding-dong ditching. She shook her head and laughed bitterly. "Okay, it's no one." Hunger or fatigue. She was losing her grip. How long since she'd eaten or drunk anything? Her stomach rumbled despite her nausea. "I'm alone and crazy."
Tap-tap, again. Lightly. Tap-tap.
Calliope cracked the door ajar.
Standing in front of her, a wisp so slight she appeared to hover on the welcome mat, the Korean girl from next door. Calliope had heard her earlier that summer, splashing in a plastic pool in the backyard, singing loudly while Phoenix played in their own yard. She didn't know her name or her parents' names. But she wanted to hug the birdlike girl on the front porch. The city wasn't empty. There were people next door. Maybe they knew where Calliope's family had gone. Maybe they knew what was happening.
"I can't find my mommy and daddy," the girl whispered.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Trinity Sight"
Copyright © 2019 Jennifer Givhan.
Excerpted by permission of Blackstone Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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