Exorcism (This story appeared in Fiction International, 2011)
Driving into the parking lot, she saw him waiting, although he did not look at her car. Everything on his face was stricken and turned inward.
Only after she came out of the car did he register. He watched her advance, nodding slightly to show her that yes, it was him. She saw him look at the paper she was holding, and it seemed as if she did not dare touch it with more than her fingertips.
“Sorry I’m a little late,” she said, and his eyes came back from across the world for a flickering moment. They both looked to the ground. He cleared his voice to fill the silence.
“Antonio Reyes,” he said boldly, to get it out of the way. His voice was gray, like his hair. “Mrs. Mitchell?”
She nodded, and her lips tightened as if to smile. She shook a hand that was dry as the dust, warm. A wrinkled labyrinth of lines had gathered the years on his palm, like the trunk of a tree.
“Thank you for coming,” he said. “The girl, she sent you the message.”
“Yes,” she said, looking in his eyes, her eyes searching for what her voice could not ask.
“I don’t know her,” he apologized. “Tony...”
She nodded. His face twisted slightly, and his skin looked sun-beaten, innocently aged.
She did not give him the paper, and he looked at it in her hand again.
“I wanted to know...” he said, “if you could tell something was wrong – you know, in the summer.”
She let out the breath she was holding in since she’d come out of her car. Her eyes watered.
“No, there was nothing. In fact I always thought...”
“He’s a good boy, very smart, right? He’s my smartest one. You see, nobody in the family went to college before. My oldest son Javi, su hermano, doesn’t have no patience. I taught him to work hard and he has a good job, but he never sticks to one thing. He didn’t put himself through college. I don’t know... What did I do wrong?”
“Tony of all people – I would never have guessed,” she managed to say. She looked at him, wounds seeping from his whole body. His shoulders hunched as if waiting for a blow, standing there in the parking lot. The little taqueria did not have much business at that time, and the three cars in front of it looked abandoned.
Around them, the air was losing light, moving to evening.
“You wanted this...” she said, holding out the paper. He did not take it but glanced at it as if she were holding a strange, sick animal.
“I had someone come to the house...” he said, a sliver of shame entering his voice. “My sister told me, she said to do an exorcism. She brought somebody she knew.”
She looked at him, eyes narrowing. Her hand retreated, half hiding the paper at her back.
“Why?” she said, and it came out as a whisper.
“It was... My son told me he was scared of something, like there was an ugly thing, algo feo, in him, that he never felt before,” he said, wiping his cheek with a calloused hand. “He heard a voice tell him things in his head. I can’t repeat them to you, you understand? When they did the exorcism, the whole family was there...” He looked at the ground. “The voice didn’t go away. He just didn’t want to talk about it no more. I didn't know what to do. I went to church, I prayed. I was afraid. I told him, hijo my son, go to church.”
She opened her mouth to say something, but she just returned her eyes on him, waiting.
“My brother said to get him to a doctor, a head doctor. I don’t know, what does the doctor know about it? His brother talked to him. He’s close to his brother.”
“He never saw... a doctor?” she asked.
“We’re God-fearing people, Mrs. Mitchell. The preacher talked to him, he told him to go to no parties no more. You understand how it is. You’re – educated.”
He covered his face with his hand, as if searching his memories with closed eyes.
“How long had he been hearing voices?” she asked, and the small distance between them grew.
His hand withdrew from his face.
“A couple of months,” he said. “That’s it. He turned nineteen a while ago.”
Blackbirds darted from a tree.
“I had no idea he was going through that,” she said, trying to breathe out, let go. “He always had a smile on his face,” she said.
“Yes. He’s a happy kid. You should’ve seen him growing up. Joking with his brothers all the time.”
He paused, sticking his hands deep into his pockets, looking for something.
She looked away. The dusty Texas wind made her eyes water.
“In my class, he talked a lot,” she said, her voice straining to comfort. “He was very quick to answer – and he loved stories. He always smiled.”
“I wanted to show you his poems. I’ll send them later, with the computer,” he said, straightening his body.
“He got really concerned with, you know, los pobres, poor people, he wrote it like a rap song or something. You’ll see.”
“He was one of the best students in that class,” she said, her voice fading.
“He liked college. He signed up for the fall already.”
She looked at him. His tears sparkled with pride.
“You wanted this, right?” she said and held the paper up for him. He took it quickly now, reading it right there, squinting, holding his chin in his hand as he stooped over the words. His son’s words.
“What’s it about? Is there anything bad in it?” he said, folding the paper in half, tucking it into his shirt. His sweat would soak it soon.
“It’s about a love story, Ethan Frome.” She held in the guilt, because she knew there were words there, of fictional despair, words he may think she should have noticed. “It’s a literary analysis, I didn’t see anything strange in it.”
“The night before...” he said, “he went with his brother to a party. “He drank some, but not a lot.”
She breathed in. It was coming, the thing she could not avoid was coming. She had given him the paper, and now she was ready to leave. She was nodding, looking at her car.
“They were up in San Antonio, and they were staying at a motel. They went back and his brother says he looked at Tony, and Tony... mi Antonio,” he said trying to control his voice, “he was looking back at him with some eyes that he’s never seen on his little brother before, like something dark was taking over him. His brother says he’ll never stop seeing that look in his eyes.”
She stood there, frozen.
“The next day... That’s when he found him, on the motel bed. The gun was next to him.”
She looked at his face again, and she knew the image that he hadn’t even seen, that he had laid there in front of her for her to remember, was the one he would have in front of his eyes for the rest of his life.
“I just wanted you to know, because he liked your class,” he said, when the silence had become too dark.
“I’ll remember...” she said.
His body shifted slightly away from her. He was letting her go now.
He watched her walk to the car, his hand on his chest, holding the paper. There were no voices left in that parking lot, and the car drove away into a town where other fathers, other sons, went on.