I STARTLED AWAKE FROM THE DREAM.
“Ay, not this tontería again,” I muttered, pulling my hoodie down farther over my curls and shifting in my window seat on the plane.
Lately, my dreams have been full of teeth. It’s been nearly a year since I came back from my adventure on a magical island called Zafa, pero the island still lives on in my dreams. And my nightmares. I dream of baca dogs, demons running wild over ruined villages, while coconut-shaped Cucitos tear down anything they can get their gross, yellowing nails into. Storm clouds curl around the eerie white towers of El Cuco’s prison fortress, La Blanca, like a ghostly hand. The jaws of a dog-demon snap against its chain, El Baca’s howl swallowed by thunder.
It’s not like the dreams come every night, but they’re coming more often lately. I think it’s just nerves though—after all, today’s one of the biggest days of my life.
Pero this time was different—this time the dream took place in my world. A man in a Trujillo-era military outfit had sat in total silence, laying out goat bones in constellation-style shapes, etching symbols and figures into the bones. The man had continued his creepy ritual under the yellow light that hung from a chain in his room. Pues, I hadn’t known who this dude was, pero ever since they’d kidnapped my cousin Natasha fifty years ago, anybody in that uniform spelled trouble—whether it’s El Cuco or just some random member of Trujillo’s secret police, the Servicio de Intelligencia Militar (SIM).
I had no idea what the dreams meant, but it couldn’t be anything good.
I was about to try to squeeze out some more sleep, but then I felt a sharp, insistent pain in my right shoulder. I pried one of my eyes open to see what could possibly be attacking me. Pues, I should have known.
Lorena’s bony little fingers were jittering into my shoulder like a hummingbird.
“Ay por favor, Lorena, what is it now?”
“Don’t take that tone with me, baby sister! I’m trying to help you!”
“By severing my right arm?”
“No, genius,” Lorena huffed. “For your information, the pilot just said that we’ll be landing in thirty-five minutes.”
“Lorena,” I growled, “that’s thirty-two more minutes I could have been asleep!”
“Look, you little malcriada, I put a lot of effort into making you these flash cards and the least you could do is look at them! How are you going to do work on your movie if you can’t understand the language?”
She had a point, pero you can’t really give Lorena an inch on these kinds of things, so I faked snores until she gave up and tossed the cards in my lap.
“Desgraciada. I can’t wait until this moody teenager phase is a thing of the past!”
I tried to get my sleep rhythm back, pero it was a lost cause, and already the dream was fading from my memory. A couple of weeks ago I’d come home from school as fast as I could porque Mami said Lorena had big news and a guest on the way. Normally Mami is always good to roll out the red carpet whenever Lorena has a new girlfriend, pero this time things were different. Lorena’s guest was Professor Dominguez, the professor whose office had stored the magical sheet of paper that I fell through into Zafa last summer.
Turns out, Dominguez got a massive grant from some organization, The United Hispaniola Research Fund, to take the whole family on a trip with him to DR. The pamphlet looked super legit y todo, a shimmering silver medallion at the top with a proud goat looking out from the top of a mountain. After thirteen years of never seeing the island, all the delays, all the times our plans had fallen through at the last minute, today’s the day I see the Dominican Republic.
I was still a little annoyed at Lorena for interrupting me while I was trying to remember the dream, even if she’d just been trying to help in her Lorena way. Details started trickling back in. The man in the dream had been pale and sported a mustache so thin it almost looked like a trick of the light. He had moved a bone in the middle of the elaborate constellation display, causing a broad crimson line of light to flit from one bone to the other like the most depressing pinball machine ever. A smile had finally flickered across the man’s face, sweat pooling in the deep creases around his mouth.
And then the light had vanished.
The man’s smile had sputtered like an old car and died. His mouth had twisted with rage. He’d slammed his hands down on the display, sending the bones flying into the air where they hung, suspended for just a moment, before exploding with red light, leaving only the outline of the man. When the dust had cleared, there stood a different man in the rags of a uniform, hands clawing at his eyes. Or where his eyes should be. Pero when he’d looked up, his face had no eyes, no nose, only a mouth ringed with tiny fangs.
Minutes later, that image still gives me the creeps.
I couldn’t shake the feeling that I knew that faceless dude. Pero, on the other hand, wouldn’t I remember meeting a dude with no face? All these dreams must have been making me paranoid, entiendes? I squeezed my eyes shut tight to try and remember more of the dream, but it was no use; The Mystery of Spoonface and the Explosion would have to wait. I opened the window and let the glare of sunlight hit Lorena in the eyes just in time for the captain to announce that we were beginning our descent.
I looked out the window to see the first blue spots poking through the thin stretches in the sea of clouds below us. Pues, it looked like the ocean at the edge of the beach in Zafa. I smirked a bit remembering how much seeing the bleach-white waves with blue crests had freaked me out when I’d first arrived. I’d thought that would be the worst and most confusing thing I’d see, pero it barely cracked the top five.
Then the clouds thinned, the smirk fell off my face, and my mouth formed a perfect O as I saw the Dominican Republic, Mami’s island, for the very first time.
The ocean stretched out and out to what seemed like the edge of the world. I’d never seen an ocean before and now it made sense that the sky would be blue, like it was jealous of the sea. Beneath us I could see Santo Domingo, and even hundreds of feet in the air I could feel that it was everything I had dreamed and more, entiendes? The thin, winding streets sprawled out like a labyrinth, and even from our great height cars winked in the bald, yellow sunlight like sea glass.
I could have looked out at that moment forever. Pero then—
“Oye, hermanita, scoot your big ol’ head to the side!” Lorena whined. “You’re not the only one seeing this place for the first time!”
I responded with the peak of maturity and stuck my tongue out at her. “Shouldn’t have chosen the middle seat if you wanted to see.”
“You know I get carsick!”
“Pilar Violeta Ramirez, let your sister look out the window!” Mami whisper-shouted from across the aisle. “People are staring, yo me muera.”
Darn, we haven’t even been in the country five minutes and Mami already called me by my full name.
I bit my tongue and leaned back trying to ignore Lorena’s big smirk as she leaned over me with her equally even bigger head.
I looked at Mami across the aisle to see if she had cooled off and was excited to be home. Pero she had a far-off look in her eyes, and her mouth cut a slash across her face as Abuela squeezed her wise, calloused fingers around Mami’s own.
I tapped Lorena’s shoulder. She looked annoyed until I pointed at Mami and Abuela huddled over each other, eyes closed and whispering as if they were trading prayers. Lorena frowned.
Copyright © 2023 by Julian Randall