I Left the Desert
I’m calling mi padre on the old blue landline.
I read a conspiracy theory once that our private conversations are secretly recorded as soon as we begin a call. That’s how the FBI tracks landlines—how everything you say on a landline is fair game because that’s how landlines work and how the FBI works, but we’re alright, because we don’t talk about border crossings or drug deals. We talk about what mi padre sees working the graveyard shift at the gas station back home in Luestra, the deep western intersection of earth and sky—the failed best kept secret now with a population made up primarily of ghosts from the Alamo who have wandered from their mission in San Antonio into this vast desert of nowhere.
He once told me about a woman who appeared suddenly at the gas station without any car in sight. She wore golden hoop earrings and a lily-white headscarf that shone on her midnight-dark skin, and she offered to reveal mi padre’s fortune in exchange for a bottle of beer and a pack of bubblegum. This woman, mystical wanderer of the empty highways and sand dunes at two in the morning, read mi padre’s hands like a tragic poem, la poesía, whispering and incanting like the sojourning Alamo ghosts. She spent many minutes wandering the canyon-deep creases of his working hands before telling him that his soul would only ever be sanctified through unconquerable pain.
“Are you sanctified yet?” I ask him every time we speak, tonight included. We speak in Spanish—because mi padre prefers it, but also because my dorm roommate is trying to learn the language and it helps her to listen to our conversations. After we have spoken for nearly an hour, Izara falls asleep—face down on our small foldout table. She isn’t inherently mystic, but she wears big hoop earrings that remind me of the faraway fortune teller. Or maybe that woman wasn’t even a fortune teller—maybe she was just desperate to get something for nothing and lucky enough to con a simple man into giving it to her. Supervivencia del más apto. In a way, she had all the fortune in the desert.
“Not yet, but I’ll let you know when my shift ends.” He laughs, and I can see his sun-weathered face in my mind, scratched like old leather, grinning celestial.
“Ask him how many hours since he’s had a customer.” Izara raises her head to rest in her hands.
“Izzy wants to know when the last customer was.”
“Uh, let me check.” His voice shifts away from his phone, and I know that he is leaning towards the analog clock above the door with black hands thinner than spiderwebs. I place the old phone between us so that she can hear his staticky response: “Four hours and fifty-three minutes ago. This place is dead empty tonight. I should probably go restock the beer cooler. I don’t really understand how it always gets empty so quickly with so few customers, I think the ghosts must be taking it.”
Izara starts to giggle, but I glare at her knowingly, so she stuffs her mouth with her fingers, biting her knuckles with her teeth—whiter than the fortune teller’s headscarf. My father, supernatural in his own right, believes deeply in the spirits of Luestra. Izara, a level-headed Massachusetts girl, has never met the Bible belt apparitions who haunt the small towns—begging with cardboard signs that say GOD SAVE TEXAS and slowing down the fast food drive-thru lines. Though the ghosts cannot eat, the spirit soldiers still crave the hamburgers and milkshakes. They stare at the faded neon signs as they drive by in their astral pickup trucks. I used to work the evening shift at a chain restaurant during the summers, and we all knew that when the pasty-skinned boys drove up in the old red Chevrolet, we were being haunted. They never bought anything, but they liked to hang around, sometimes until closing time, talking to the girls behind the counter.
My best friend back then, Alice, who seemed to be in love with every man she ever met, swore that she would charm one of the ghosts into kissing her. She disappeared one night just before the end of her shift. I didn’t know what to do, so I picked up her purse to take it to her house the next morning before school. Her mom let me up into her room, where I found her asleep on top of her sheets—mouth full of some unidentifiable substance.
“Wake up, Alice.” I pulled at her shoulders, turning her over so that she could choke the grit out of her mouth. I realized, then, that her mouth was full of spit-damp sand, which splattered over her stained mauve carpet. “What happened?”
“I kissed a ghost.” Her voice was distant and raw, but she looked somehow changed. “I kissed him and he disappeared and then I woke up here, in bed.”
I eventually learned from Ximena Abril, the ancient widow who lived across the street from the house I grew up in, that Luestra apparitions are made of the desert sand itself. Ximena, condemned as insane by nearly everyone, claimed that there were secret messages in the positioning of the stars that only she could decipher. She knew a whole lot about ghosts because she was nearly a ghost herself. The midsummer sky told her one night that the spirits rose from the dunes themselves. I visited her every week or so until I finally left Luestra. She often spoke in tongues of madness, but occasionally she would utter wisdom that made me wonder if she was the only sane person in the town.
When I visited Ximena, all she ever talked about was the ghosts. In retrospect, all anyone ever did in Luestra was talk about ghosts—the beings that shared our town and our desert and our sky. Like Alice, everyone was sort of in love with them, or at least, the idea of them, in one way or another. I think that I left because I never felt that way—I never really cared about them. It was as though no one else realized that there were ghosts in every city and town, and though Luestra shared a special connection with the dead, our ghosts were only a tiny fraction of the millions of spirits in the world. Sometimes, I wonder if back in Luestra they consider me insane like Ximena because I left. I’m not as interested in small town ghosts, but I like the idea of being compared to her—of walking the fine line between madness and wisdom, fully understood by no one.
“Well, goodnight, I guess,” mi padre chuckles. “The coolers won’t restock themselves.”
“I love you,” I reply, but I am speaking to a phone line now dead like the Alamo ghosts. I turn to Izara, whose dark eyes are strained red with exhaustion. She takes a sip out of the neon energy drink can beside her.
“What do you think that woman meant when she said that your dad would only be sanctified through pain?” she says suddenly. “It’s such a weird statement—why would she even think to say something like that?”
“Maybe she’s a real witch,” I smile. “Anything is possible in Luestra.”
Izara’s wild eyebrows furrow. “Why did you ever leave, Jazmín? If it’s as magical as you say, why would you forfeit all that for this place?”
“I like college, and I like Washington, DC. I like it a whole lot here.” I wave off her remarks. “Plus I grew up in Luestra, so the insanity was all pretty normal to me.”
“I don’t really see how that could ever be normal.” Izara frowns.
Izara is right—Luestra isn’t normal, and I didn’t leave it because I found it so. The Luestra that I was born into was a tenuous equilibrium of supernatural phenomena and hollow remnants of la patria, the darkest place on earth. I have seen boys invoke saints in supermarket parking lots before they bust in with stolen guns and rob the owners bone dry. I have seen women’s faces plastered on telephone poles because they have gone missing, caught up in the unforgiving mouths of the dunes and the desert that does not set its prisoners free.
When the sojourning mystic told my father that he would only be sanctified through pain, I believe she was reading the fortune of the entire town in the cracks of his hands. Her prediction: Luestra, owned by spectral soldiers, would always be ruled by its history of suffering. In this history, I would have been sanctified every time my professor handed me back an essay that I had written stained red with correction. I would have been sanctified when the white boy who sat next to me in English class told me that I didn’t belong here. I would have even been sanctified when Izara stepped on my toes in the student kitchen. But I am no longer a part of Luestra, and sanctification is my father’s fortune—the town’s fortune.
To get to this big city college, I crawled through possessed deserts and the secret messages of the night sky—not to be sanctified, but to get away. I know the story of my father and the story of the ghosts, but Luestra is not my story. Like windswept sand, I have carried my mystic memories far away with me. I tell myself that I will build my own story where I do not need sanctification to survive. Here, in this new city, I will find my own ghosts.
Emma Rose Gowans, a fifteen-year-old second-generation Costa Rican-American, aspires to use her writing to connect diverse groups of people through emotional experiences and share her heritage. She is a two-time graduate of the South Carolina Governor’s School For the Arts and Humanities summer programs, and is previously unpublished. In her free time, she enjoys playing tennis, studying, participating in various extracurricular academic activities, and all things fashion! She can be contacted on her Instagram: @emmarosegowans.