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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Book of Lost Saints

Daniel Jose Older

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CHAPTER ONE


His name is Gómez.

He carries a butcher knife in one hand, a chicken in the other. The chicken doesn’t flap, doesn’t tremble, just waits, watching everything. Back. Step back. The blade is sharp but the face is kind, hardened but kind, and the blood splattered on the apron is old.

Isabel sent me, says a little girl’s voice—my voice.

Gómez scrunches up his face, as if he’s a giant and I—she?—we are one of the little people they speak of that live in the forests outside of town. (Town? A town on the outskirts of a big city, a confluence of voices nearby. A market…)

Her sister, Gómez says. He nods. I see it now. Then he turns, holds the chicken down on the counter and thwunk beheads it, and the blood gushes then trickles onto the floor. Then he angles his body just so, after a conspiratorial wink down at us, and does something to the chicken.

It takes him a few minutes’ worth of sweating and mumbling carajo and adjusting his shoulders, and all the while the sound of a heart beats languidly around us: Ga-gung! It had somehow been there all along and now just gets louder and louder. It is gigantic, so big it must belong to the whole world.

Finally Gómez turns back around and hands us the paper bag, already wet from the newly dead bird and heavy—too heavy.

He doesn’t notice the heart that beats through the plaster walls of his shop, the tiny interruptions on the surfaces of puddles out in the street, the way the whole universe rattles with each ga-gung.

Careful out there, he says, watching us struggle with the weight of the bag. But of course we’ll be careful—the streets are full of soldiers and walking bad dreams.

When we look down, the thunder of that heart bursting through us, blood has already dripped onto our pretty … new … shoes.

* * *

“¡Ramón!”

A gruff and familiar voice, it yanks me forward along the pathway of that slow beating heart, away from those tiny bloodstained shoes, into a small ugly room with only a couch. On that couch, a gigantic man sits up, blinking awake.

“¡Ramón! ¡Te toca a ti!”

That is not my name.

I have no name. I have nothing, am nothing.

But I know that voice, and, distantly, I know the face of the man in front of me, who now rubs his eyes and glances around, bemused. Stubble from a few days without shaving crescents the bottom of his light brown face; his mouth hangs slightly open as he blinks away the fluorescent glare from above.

I know him, knew him once.

Once, when I was whole.

Shreds of it echo back to me: an old book, hurled across a cluttered office. A tower blocking out the sun. The smell of the ocean. A few indistinguishable splinters of voice, the creases of a face. Gunfire and the pound of wood against flesh.

That’s it. The fractured puzzle pieces. Useless really.

I have been here all along. Whatever happened to me, I lingered. I held on and remained, as my body turned to dust and my mind rejoined the swirl of whatever it is that minds swirl up into. At some point I must’ve become we and the little parts of me scattered into a great pulsing collective of minds. And we watched.

We watched.

We watched and we waited, processing, sometimes judging. Sometimes we dithered inwardly or sneered, that faraway crinkle in the fabric of the world you sense. We cringed when everything goes wrong, or exalted in some sweet conflagration.

But now I’ve been spat back out. Pulled, really. A second chance?

If I existed, if I’m more than just a nameless thread in some ghost tapestry, then I must know why I’ve been released, why I came back.

I must know everything.

Ramón puts both hands on his knees and grunts but doesn’t get up.

He is, let’s be honest, a lug.

Maybe it’s because he just woke up … but no, that’s a charitable lie. He shakes his head, looks around a second time, and I want to yell: Again, Ramón? Have you not already seen this pathetic little room enough times? But I can’t yell, I can’t wave, can’t sing—I am nothing.

He cracks his neck, sickeningly, then scratches his balls, yawns. The entirety of me, whatever that is, each simmering phantom speck, feels ready to blow. Maybe I should just let myself be enveloped back into the ether and be done with it, if this is what being back among the living consists of.

Finally, he rubs both hands up his face and into his wild black hair. “¡Ya voy!” he bellows. Then Ramón rises and suddenly the room seems smaller. He’s not fat so much as just large in every direction. He’s got some belly sag, sure, and arms like great napping iguanas, but it’s his height that seems to dwarf this tiny waiting area. He has to crane his neck to not crack the fluorescents.

He hunches his shoulders up and down a few times, then looks up, directly at me, and freezes.

A hundred seconds seem to fly past as Ramón slowly leans forward, squinting.

He sees me.

I am nothing, but he sees me.

And, taking his face in for the first time, I see him too. Recognition tugs at the edges of my memory, the first piece fits into place.

I know this. His beating heart beckoned me, his blood summoned mine, or whatever remnant of a lineage is left to me.

Ramón is family.

And he sees me. Face still squeezed into a fist, he cocks his head to the side, then reaches up and slicks back an unruly cowlick.

I whirl my attention to the part of the room behind me, and there is Ramón again, this version somewhat mustier and blocked by stickers.

I release something from myself—a sigh, I realize. It is long and exasperated and perhaps it comes with the slightest of sounds, a gentle whoosh of air, because Ramón pauses his mirror preening and glances around with a furrowed brow.

Then he shrugs and steps directly into the empty space I occupy and I gasp. The world becomes a press of fluid and organs, meat! All shoved up against each other, against me, and saturated with billions of thoughts, dreams, memories, lies, meandering, impossible threads all tied in knots and strewn through each other, through Ramón’s interior, through me.

I can read him, know him, this man.

He is my nephew.

My nephew—he freezes again and this time I know it’s because something really has registered, some part of my shimmering, impossible presence has made itself known to this flesh-and-bone behemoth.

He does not see me—I am within him, after all—but Ramón feels me. Of that I am sure. I know because I feel him feel me, sense the icy slither of my presence work its way through his consciousness.

“¡Ramón!” that haunting, smoke-stained voice hollers again, and the moment is broken, the body lurches forward and I release it, watch the back of my nephew’s shaggy head duck and disappear into the darkness of a corridor.

And me—I breathe in and out in my long, impossible breaths, grasping desperately for my faraway phantom memories, and remain.

* * *

Until it seems like I can’t anymore.

Because I am vanishing further, becoming even less than the barely there that I already am. It doesn’t seem possible, but this most fragile of holds I have on reality is about to give—I feel its tender fibers stretched to shatter point. It’s as if the collective mass of ether I emerged from has already swamped me with those heavy coils of emptiness, will soon drag me back into that nothing.

I don’t have much time, and I don’t know what it is I’m here to do, but I know it starts with finding out who I am, was, and the only key I have to that just lumbered out the door.

I flush forward; the room blurs past and then the dank corridor and then a resounding boom hammers through me, through everything, and I wonder if we’re under attack somehow; people are screaming. Then another follows, louder, and I’m turning in circles in the darkness, tangled in my own panic, lost between point A and B, a disaster.

Bright lights reach me in a flickering crescendo from down the hall. Not the hideous fluorescents—these splatter a rainbow of flashes across the peeling posters on the walls around me. As another clattering roar blasts out, the lights shimmer to match it. Forward. Forward through the corridor and out into a magnificent, pulsing world awash in sudden brightness amidst the shadows and writhing bodies, and that sound!

That sound. It rages at first, a hellish screech—no, many screeches intermingling like a tangle of lost souls stretching upward into the night as the steady thud of some war drum pounds and pounds beneath. But the notes seem to find each other, to slide into formation and sweeten, sparkle. I warm to this music, or it warms to me. And I move, over the heads of these squirming, fussing bodies, up into the darkness. We are in a converted warehouse of some kind. Below, the dancers unleash and there, on the stage, a single figure moves between different tabletop setups, controlling it all.

Ramón.

I hurl down toward him, fascinated, and the music grows and bursts around me: a church choir. Horns. Some high-pitched whistle I have no reference for. Beneath it all that burning beat, relentless.

I circle Ramón. His hands move from a keyboard to a turntable, back to the keyboard, then another turntable. He moves without thought, fear, doubt. He just moves, and every time he does, something happens in the air around us: The wall of sound falls away as suddenly as a crashing wave, and then we’re left with just that pounding rhythm that rises; now crashes and shimmers, disperses. And then all that’s left is the high clacking of two sticks.

Dak … dak dak … dak dak …

The crowd erupts into first cheers, and then claps. Not applause, though—they clap in time with those sticks: A hit, a breath, then two more, a pause and then two that seem to answer the first three.

Dak … dak dak … dak dak …

There is something so simple, so elemental about that easy call and response and the fact that everyone knows it, that we know it.

We.

A hundred schoolkids clapping at the same time, laughing, but holding the beat, that pulse beneath, and somewhere, I am among them in that smiling sea of cheeks and foreheads and black-brown hair. Somewhere.

But what matters is: I have a place, a place that knows me and I know it. It has a rhythm, a people. A we beyond that impossible ethereal mass.

The world around me becomes that much crisper, like someone adjusted the focus on it.

Each of Ramón’s wild strands of hair reveals itself in perfect detail, the dandruff on his black T-shirt, the beads of his bracelet, the tiny buttons and lights on his setup. Ever so slightly, I inch forward, feel the squishy embrace of all that muscle and flesh. I allow myself to be enveloped in it, in Ramón, and then I am with him, fully, a part of his cellular machinery, his mind and memory.

It’s still just the clacking of sticks ringing out—dak … dak dak … dak dak—and the whole club clapping along, but all of Ramón rocks with the deep downbeat below it, that pulse that hits before and between and through each clack. It moves silently through me too, as I move through him, and then it’s very suddenly not silent anymore. I feel it coming a half second before he moves: A hunger erupts in him for that space to be filled and then with the flick of a wrist the record he’d been holding spins free and the beat quakes through the club as the dancers burst back into motion.

Ramón pushes more buttons; sends more rhythms booming and popping into the mix. I feel each one rattle through me just before it falls into place, feel the hunger become anticipation and then satiate with something real. Something you can move to.

No wonder Ramón is such a slug: He is exceptionally good at something and it comes easy to him. It always has, that much is clear. These machines surrounding him are extensions of himself and he works them as such.

Across the rage of this sound, the perfection of these chattering rhythms, more pieces fall together.

None of them make much sense: a place I am from, scattered shards of terror, yearning, rage. A flicker of something else: love, maybe.

But the butcher shop, with its heavy secrets inside the corpse of that chicken—that memory belonged to me. That much I know, and if I accessed it through my passage here, along the thought lines of this big strange man, then he will be my ticket to salvation; he will be the catalyst and through him I will find myself.

The music pounds on into the night, and deep within the warm, pulsing world of my nephew, I simmer, remain, and conspire.


Copyright © 2019 Daniel José Older