High School Winner
I wake up on my grave.
The humid soil is spongy against my bare skin. I breathe in and stand up, gripping the tombstone for support. It must be morning; yes, I am home. I am not used to waking up without the sight of Ana Lucia’s bunk above me in the Afterlife dormitories.
Shuffling toward the cemetery gate, I try to keep my balance. My bones click and shutter in their joints. It’s so early that nobody has arrived here yet. The buildings sing yellow and white, the color of buñuelos smarting golden when Mamá pulls them out of the oven. They haven’t changed at all. There is a woman just across the street whose earrings look familiar.
Speech grips me. “Mamá?”
She scoops a tottering child off the ground. No—not my mother.
Ana Lucía was right. The entrance is hard to adjust to. Nobody sees me when I enter a little restaurant, pass through the counter of a coffee shop, and brew a mug of coffee. It is all the same, as if preserved in a layer of film.
When I enter the first shop I see, I pass through the counter and make myself a mug, carefully avoiding the people. The coffee sluices down my throat, thick and dark. An old woman sits in a table, but other than that, the shop is empty. They’re all out celebrating today. A dove-eyed boy on a chair kicks his feet back and forth, studying a bowl.
You’re just quiet, I reason with myself. They can see you.
Whenever someone walks by, I jerk back to avoid contact.
Ana Lucía says it starts to feel real once you pass through a living one.
My family must be out watching the men set the kites loose into the sky. Last year I watched them ripple into the atmosphere as I placed marigolds for my grandmother Carmen. This year, I am the one being welcomed back.
As I head towards the door, no eyes snap to me, no slight shifts from the other people. I spot the little boy sitting by a table, his ears jutting out from a mass of black curls. His eyes snap to mine. I recoil.
For a moment I think he’s staring through me, but his gaze is sharp. “Can you see me?” I ask softly.
“Why wouldn’t I be able to?” he says, coming over.
“Where are your parents?” I say.
“They’re in the cemetery, helping with the kites,” he says. “Who are you?”
“Itzel?” he parrots. A broken tape recorder whirs with nervous energy.
“Oh—oh, you are here because it’s the Day of the Dead.” The recorder snaps and hums.
I feel the tightness tugging at my lips. “Yes.”
“It’s a small town. My sister says you died in a car crash. My friend Guillermo says you died of malaria.” He stares at me with question marks hovering on his face.
“Hodgkin’s lymphoma,” I tell him. “My white blood cells didn’t do their job.” Even though I can’t feel the cold, air sifts over my head. Chemotherapy scraped the hair away and left it a naked brown bulb.
“Was it quick?” he says. I wonder why he doesn’t ask me Did it hurt. Maybe this boy is dead, too.
I hesitate. “Yes.”
“Do you want me to take you to your house, Itzel?” says Osmin.
I smile. “As long as your parents will still be able to find you.”
As we are walking to the cemetery, Osmin asks, “What’s your Afterlife like?”
“What do you mean?”
“Is it a room, or a house? Is it sleeping forever?”
“You fall asleep and wake up in the afterlife. It’s just like this world, only the canillitas de leche are cheaper and the quilts are softer than the ones that Señora Rita sells in the center plaza.”
“Do you think it’ll be hard going back there after the Day of the Dead passes?”
“I don’t know. But the girls that I share a room with in the afterlife are on their third, fourth cycles, and they say hardly, because death is only a passage,” I say. And I’m not sure if I believe them. My limbs feel loose, disjointed; this is not how being human is supposed to feel.
We are here. A few hours—or days—there is no sense of time in the afterlife—have passed since I started my visit to Earth, and already the cemetery bursts with life. Girls dance like slips of ribbons. They are somebody’s daughters. An elderly woman ladles fiambre—meat salad—into plates; she is somebody’s grandmother, somebody’s mother. “Do you see your parents, Itzel?” says Osmin.
We enter the cemetery. Yellow blooms everywhere, tinting the edges of my vision and bursting in spots of gold. The marigolds are everywhere on my grave.
Mamá crouches to place a sugar skull at the base.
“Mamá?” I say softly.
My mother stands up and accepts a chunk of sugar-bread from a plump woman. I reach forward to touch her, but I only pass through. She laughs over a bowl of fiambre and helps another man with his altar. White makeup traces the soft bones in her face.
Osmin lets go of my hand.
I glance at him. “Where are your parents?”
“They can’t be too far. Look.” He grabs my hand and tugs me forward until we reach an area that isn’t so densely packed with people. “That’s us.”
Anita Santiago, 1981-2017. Esteban Santiago, 1979-2017.
Osmin Santiago, 2009-2017.
“How did it happen?” I ask. This is why Osmin can touch me.
“Flight U890 to Tegus, Honduras,” says Osmin. “It’s my first cycle, too.”
“Are your parents here?”
“They’re helping with the kites,” says Osmin. “I’m going to go join them.”
I smile. “I’ll see you in the afterlife.”
He melts into the crowd. In a few minutes, I see the barriletes rising into the sky, bright as stained glass.
When Mamá steps forward to dance, I meet her halfway.