By Jennifer Loring
“Why won’t you talk to me, Marcela? Don’t you like me anymore?” Soledad said.
“Nothin’ to say you don’t already know.”
A large, red egg of flesh had swelled over Marcela’s left eyebrow. Probably her mother’s work. Soledad had visited Marcela in half a dozen shelters all over the city, and every time there was a fresh injury somewhere on her little body. The girl crossed her arms over her chest, her knees pulled up as far as she could manage. A defensive, protective pose. The children trusted no one but each other, and even that trust had an expiration date once they exhibited symptoms of adolescence. Most didn’t expect to live that long when so many things could go wrong for them on the street.
“She hit you again.”
Marcela tugged at her fingers until her gaze fell upon Soledad’s own hands. “You’re marked.”
“Marked? What does that mean?” Soledad followed the girl’s stare. Crimson ridges where she must have scratched herself in the night rose from her skin. “Oh, I wake up with them sometimes. Need to trim my fingernails, I guess.” Soledad smiled, but Marcela was having none of it.
“You know the secret stories. You pretend like you don’t remember, but you made yourself forget.”
“And … how do you know this?”
She shrugged. “My cousin Solana tells me.”
“Do I know your cousin? Have I talked to her in one of the shelters?”
“Don’t think so.” Marcela examined the job fair bulletin tacked to a corkboard, then studied the windows, anything to avoid Soledad’s eyes. “Been dead a year now. She was a teacher. Somebody stuck her when she tried to break up a fight.” For all the emotion she expressed, Marcela might have been talking about the ham sandwich she had for lunch. Pain was easy to control when you pretended it didn’t hurt.
“Marcela, I’m very sorry about your cousin. But you said she tells you things. How is that possible?”
“She just learned to talk to me. Spirits don’t know how to talk to the living at first. I could see her lips moving, but I couldn’t hear her voice. Now I can.” Marcela frowned. “You know how it works.”
Ice-tipped needles pricked at Soledad’s arms. “What does she say to you?”
Marcela squirmed in her seat. Still she refused to meet Soledad’s gaze. “It ain’t over for you. You should know the Weeping Woman don’t keep her end of the bargain. And you ain’t kept yours.”
Soledad’s limbs trembled with an atavistic fear, though she did not know why a child’s words should affect her. She’d seen similar defense mechanisms in other kids a hundred times. Marcela’s world was a room without doors, permanently barring adult entry.
“Tell your cousin I appreciate the warning. I’ll see you again in a couple of weeks, okay?”
“Grown-ups never believe.” Marcela’s voice was as bitter as a January wind. “But you did once. You will again.”
She stands by the window, her cornflower skin illuminated by moonlight. Her eyes are as endless as the ocean from which she comes. She brings a gift of flowers, so many flowers of white, pink, and gold that they drip like sun-dappled water from her arms. Curtains of dark hair flow around her as if she is still beneath the sea, every part of her rippling and glistening.
Please believe in yourself as I believe in you, she sings, and it is wrong, all wrong, because she never speaks to adults. She is the savior of the children alone.
Say my true name. Say my name and I can help them.
I don’t know your name, Soledad replies, but she would not say it aloud even if she did. This is not the angel. This is not the Blue Lady.
Her beautiful face turns as white as a drained corpse. Her eyes melt in their sockets like candies and dribble down her cheeks. Blood tears from the empty black cavities spatter onto her skin. Ay, mis hijos! she wails, her fingers curled into claws. The talons find the scarlet rosary around her neck and she swings it, seeking young flesh to strike. Mis hijos! Mis hijos! She swings again, and Soledad lifts her hands to shield her face; the rosary cuts into her skin—
Marcela was no less sullen than she’d been the last time they spoke; perhaps more so, if it was possible. Bags as dark as bruises smudged the skin under her eyes. She curled her legs up under her cot and picked at the cheap cotton blanket.
“You look tired, Marcela.” Soledad recalled a story about a boy who learned to sleep with his eyes open. He’d been raving about demons coming for him. She hadn’t been surprised to learn of his death not long after, when a fire broke out in the shelter. A gang hit, the police said, but none of the kids believed that. Gangbangers wanted to see you die up close and personal. They didn’t set fires.
“She talks to me all the time now.”
“Who? Your cousin?”
Half a nod. “She say you did this. You brought this on us.”
The words stung like a slap, and Soledad blinked a few times. She didn’t want to lose her composure. “What does Solana say I did?”
“She say you gotta own up to it and make it right. We didn’t do nothin’ to deserve this. We already got nothin’ left ’cept our lives, and the Weeping Woman will take those too if you don’t face what you did.”
“Marcela, I know it’s easier to believe that demons and not people are hurting you and your friends. But sometimes people—”
“I know what people do,” she snapped. An intensity that hadn’t been there moments ago lit up her red-rimmed eyes. “I know my mama is a crackhead and that’s why we out here in the first place. I know gangbangers shoot kids. But I know something else, too.” Her lower lip quivered. “I know the Weeping Woman can take over people’s souls. Like she take over my mama. Like those gangbangers. Anything she can to kill us.”
“Why would she want to kill you?”
“You know why.” Marcela turned away and flipped open a spelling workbook. For her, the conversation had clearly ended.
Soledad tucked her notebook into her bag and rose to leave. Outside the atmosphere resembled a thick, hot stew more than breathable air, and rainclouds blotted out the sun.
She murdered her children, and God refused her entry into Heaven until she found them. Now she roams the world, forever searching, and disposing of those she finds who do not wear her children’s faces.
And when she has taken all the children in the world, will God relent at last?
Soledad is ten years old. She lives in a miniscule one-bedroom apartment with her father now that Mama is dead from the cancer. Without Mama’s income, and with the medical bills that quickly devoured their savings, the car, and virtually everything else they owned, they could no longer afford the mortgage on their house. Daddy sleeps on the couch because he believes girls need their privacy. He works twelve hours a day, sometimes more, at the convenience store on the corner. He graduated from an Ecuadorean university and used to do something important, until his boss fired him when he took too much time off to care for Mama. She hardly ever sees him anymore, but when she does, he always brings her a new book, or a fresh box of crayons. He is the brightest light in her universe.
But even the brightest lights in the universe will one day blink out.
It is the middle of the night when a loud knock on the door rouses her from sleep. Maybe Daddy forgot his keys; it happens sometimes when he’s tired. He hates to work late, but he takes the extra shifts so he can send her to a good school. “You’re too smart not to go to college,” he tells her. “I want you to get out of this place.”
When she opens the door, a police officer stands in the hallway.
“Soledad Vargas Rodriguez?” he asks. A lump the size of a fist has formed in her throat. Full names always herald the delivery of bad news. She’s seen it on TV plenty of times, heard it whenever she or Daddy was in trouble with Mama.
“Where is my father? Is he okay?”
“I’m sorry, novia.”
The policeman kneels down. His face is round and kind, the last kind face she will see in a very long time.
“Some bad people hurt your daddy. I need you to come with me now.”
“Can I see him? Please?”
He lowers his head. Soledad believes he genuinely is sorry.
“Your daddy passed away.”
Now the lump in her throat pushes the tears up, making her lips wobble as hot, fat droplets splatter her cheeks.
“How can he be dead? He was at work.”
“Some men came into the store and …”
She doesn’t want to hear any more, despite her question. The policeman apparently sees this in her face and stops speaking. He stands up and holds out his hand.
“We’ll have someone come for your things. Let’s get you somewhere safe.”
The cops place her in a temporary shelter while she waits for a foster home. They turn her case over to a judge, and she does not see the kindly policeman again, though he gives her a lollipop and a hug before he leaves. When someone — a caseworker, she assumes — brings her pink Barbie backpack stuffed with clothing and a few books, she puts the lollipop in a hidden zippered pouch inside. She wants to save it as a reminder that there are still good people in the world because she already knows she will begin to forget that in no time at all.
Lying on her shelter cot that night, she sees the burning man.
His mouth moves silently, forming words no living ears can hear. A soft blue glow, comforting in any other context, only highlights the horror that has befallen him. Flames lap at his charred skin, and holes in his chest and stomach leak blood. She knows what happened now.
But they cannot hear one another, and she watches him burn until he flickers out, leaving the image seared into her mind no matter how hard she tries to pretend she never saw her dead father in flames.
Soledad rubbed her eyes. She’d dozed off with her laptop on and running hot against her thighs. The screen saver flashed a slideshow of the Miami skyline at sunset. When she squinted against the glare of the screen, it looked like the city was on fire.
She switched it off, closed the lid, and set it on the bedside table. Marcela’s words had etched themselves onto her brain despite her best efforts to shrug them off. The kids felt helpless, victimized by nearly every adult that had passed through their lives. Marcela was merely lashing out at one in whom she perceived some kind of vulnerability. As a professional, Soledad was supposed to believe that, but it didn’t explain the things Marcela knew.
Soledad stuck her fingers between the slats of the blinds above her bed. Raindrops on the glass reflected lights from the bar across the street, and a puddle of neon shimmered in a pothole below.
A black Jeep sat outside the building. She could make out a figure in the driver’s seat but it did not move, did not honk the horn for whatever companion it might be waiting for, did not pick up a cell phone or drive around the block to kill some time.
The driver lifted its head. And though Soledad could not distinguish any of its facial features, she needed only the sensation of ice at the base of her spine to realize it was staring at her.
When she awoke again just before dawn, her alarm bleating its single tone over and over, she peeked outside once more. And when she saw that the black Jeep with its driver had not changed its position in three hours, she turned all of the lights on, showered with the bathroom door locked, and left for work through the building’s back door.
The girl had changed; that much was obvious as soon as Soledad sat down in the folding chair across from her cot. Her familiar shielding posture was more an attempt to fold into herself. Fresh red scratches marred her arms and hands where her mother had grabbed at her in a crack-induced rage—
Do you still believe that?
—and the bags under her eyes threatened to swallow her face. She was no longer sleeping.
“You don’t look well, Marcela. I think we need to get you to the free clinic.”
Despite her evident exhaustion, Marcela’s eyes darted nervously from side to side as though tracking something Soledad could not see.
“Your mother hurt you again.”
“Not my mother.” Unfazed by the shelter’s stifling heat and buried inside an ill-fitting hoodie, she rubbed her arms. Ceiling fans circulated the stale air but did nothing to cool it.
“You seen the Jeep last night, didn’t you.” It wasn’t a question. “She sendin’ them to keep an eye on you. She come at night. She seen my face. Her fingers are like claws. I can feel her inside of me, clawing.”
Soledad chided herself for not seeing the signs earlier. This was obviously mental illness.
“You watched the news when you was in the shelter.” Marcela’s voice was barely above a whisper. Her fingers dug at invisible nails beneath her skin. “You kept waiting to hear they arrested the kids who murdered Armando Rodriguez. But no one cared about an immigrant from Ecuador. The case went cold.”
Soledad pressed her hands into her lap so Marcela could not see them shaking. “Marcela, how do you know about my father?”
But she continued as if Soledad had never said a word, “The cop who was nice to you, he tried to find them. But the one in charge made him stop.”
“You can’t know this,” Soledad said, not meaning to.
“Solana talks to him. He say he didn’t mean to scare you that night in the shelter. He just wanted to say goodbye.”
“Excuse me, Marcela.” Soledad darted from her chair and into the hallway, tears already falling, the pain as fresh as that night fifteen years ago. She pushed open a metal side door and escaped into an alley, her breath hitching in her chest. Soledad sucked in the viscous air and thought she would suffocate.
She swiped at her eyes. She’d been a stupid, selfish child, and there was only one way now. But then, there had always been only one way.
She runs away after two nights in the shelter. She’s heard stories at school about kids in foster care, that they are beaten or just disappear into the system. She will not be like them.
She cannot go to another shelter, because they will just send her back to CPS. She sleeps on playgrounds, in abandoned buildings with other homeless people, wherever she can get a few hours without the cops taking her into custody. It is the first chance she’s had to grieve. She weeps in great torrents that will flood the world if she cannot stop, and she’s not at all certain she can.
One night she huddles in the corner of an abandoned hotel lobby as a storm rages outside — quite possibly a hurricane, though no one has bothered to notify the homeless or even attempt to evacuate them. Wind howls and batters the roof and walls like a great wolf demanding entry, blowing leaves and rain in through a broken window as a threat of worse to come. She fears the roof will collapse on all of them as soon as they attempt to sleep. A boy about her age, maybe younger, shuffles over to her corner, away from his parents who argue on the other side of the lobby over their last cigarette.
“I’m Ric,” he says. “You’re new.”
Unimpressed with his powers of deduction, she gives him a noncommittal stare, but he doesn’t go away. At last she relents. “I’m Soledad.”
“You heard the stories?”
“What stories? Everyone’s heard stories.” She is already exasperated with him and just wants to sleep, collapsing roof or not. The storm is like her grief, infinite and unassailable. They can understand one another.
“The secret ones. The ones that teach you how to live out here. I can help you, if you wanna stay alive. I can tell you what you need to know.”
She expects him to disclose which streets belong to which gangs and what colors not to wear on any of them. Which pimps haunting those streets are looking for virgin snatch, though most any little girl will do. But he doesn’t. Even when everyone else has long since fallen asleep and the wolf at the door shrieks and blows the roof tiles off, Ric whispers to her tales of demons and angels and spirits, and the lives at stake.
“God,” he says, casting his gaze toward the ceiling where a chandelier once dangled, “ain’t up there no more. Don’t know where he is, but he sure ain’t helpin’ us. It’s up to the angels now, but they’re outnumbered. They need our help.”
Ric’s surreal words turn over in her mind long after he returns to his parents. She can almost see the river that turned to gore when the demons touched it; she can hear the screams of dead children, their bones floating on the crimson water. She envisions a scarlet rosary as sharp as a blade, and eyeless sockets that spew blood or black tears.
“There’s no stopping that demon,” Ric says. “Not unless you’re a Special One, and there hasn’t been one of those in years. Not that any of the girls would ever tell me. They keep it a secret.”
“It’s always a girl. Crazy, huh?”
Her father’s killers are kids; she knows that much from the bits and pieces she’s gathered. Fourteen-year-old gangbangers looking for their blood in. Ric’s stories give her an idea, though. Everyone has heard the legend, dared each other at slumber parties, but Soledad doesn’t believe it, not really. Your mind can make you think you’re seeing things if you’re scared enough.
She needs to find a mirror and put her theory to the test.
There is still enough daylight streaming through the shattered, dusty windows to illuminate the lobby and the staircase to the second floor. One of the rooms might be unlocked, or the door torn off. One of the mirrors might still be intact. She climbs the stairs quickly, the lobby darkening below her as she ascends into the dying light. Most of the doors are closed, locked or swollen shut from the relentless tropical moisture. Some have been kicked in. Silver shards of mirror glass, splintered by fists or bullets, lie on the stained and faded carpet like shafts of moonlight.
Somewhere in the middle of the second floor, she finds an open room with a cracked but intact mirror. Soledad waits for the last of daylight to retreat from the window. She sits on the edge of the stripped bed, where mice have chewed holes into the mattress and made nests, and stares into the glass.
“Bloody Mary,” she says, her voice swallowed by the darkness. Louder: “Bloody Mary. Bloody Mary.” The words transform into a chant, and she feels herself drifting away into a space somewhere between reality and dream. The wall around the mirror glows, faintly at first like embers. Then the embers roar into life, creating an orange inferno that ignites everything in the room but the mirror itself. The glass remains dark, a gateway to Hell if there ever was one.
I can help you, if you wanna stay alive. I can tell you what you need to know, Ric had said. But she wouldn’t be out here if not for those gangbangers, who had not cared if Armando Rodriguez’s death left behind an orphaned little girl.
A woman’s ashen, eyeless face appears in the mirror. Empty sockets weep blood or black tears, Soledad cannot be certain. She hears herself gasp but it sounds so far away, as if she’s left her body. She has done a bad thing, a terrible thing. The face preoccupies Soledad’s dreams from that very night, the ones she tries to disregard as she grows older, buried beneath the guilt and shame and finally the layers of conviction that what she has done is not only acceptable, it is just.
The woman in the mirror is the scourge of the street kids, the commander of the demons Ric described last night. Soledad would recognize her anywhere. She feeds on children’s fear, the only thing every one of them can count on. She feeds now.
Her fingers curl around the red rosary at her neck. Glutinous tears run down her white cheeks like oil slicks.
I have children for you. Please listen.
The woman lowers her hand.
The ones who killed Armando Rodriguez.
Ay, mis hijos, mis hijos… she wails in Soledad’s head, though her lips never move.
“If you let me live, I will help you find your children.”
The infernal radiance dims, and the apparition fades into her oblivion once more. Though the Woman has not said it, Soledad understands she accepts the bargain.
She wishes for a moment that Ric never told her the secret stories. There were no angels looking out for her father. If they haven’t simply given up by now, they are losing badly. There is nothing they can do for her.
The next afternoon around lunchtime, Soledad searches dumpsters behind the fast food restaurants for a hamburger or even a slightly wilted salad. A bank of discounted TVs in a storefront window across the street captures her attention. The news flashes images of four bodies lying beneath an underpass strewn with gravel, beer cans, and miscellaneous garbage, shot at an angle to obscure their faces from the camera. She does not need to see them. Broken glass glitters beneath their corpses.
“…police say the young men are suspects in the brutal slaying of an Ecuadorean immigrant at a convenience store last month. Armando Rodriguez was shot several times and then set on fire just two blocks from his home. The victims’ identities have not been released pending parental notification.”
Soledad smiles to herself and nods at the bloody-eyed woman watching her from the reflection in the glass.
She will always know my face.
After biting the bullet and handing herself over to CPS, a decent family adopted her and eventually put her through college. It was what Daddy would have wanted.
And she kept her word. Her cases frequently fell through the cracks of the system, or ran away from their foster homes and lost themselves in street life. The state had the worst social work reputation in the country; perhaps she wasn’t the only one who had made a deal with the Devil. So much misery, an endless red river of violence and death, of bones and the screams of dead children, upon which the Woman could feed.
Soledad turned off all the lights in the apartment and stepped into the bathroom. She knew without looking that a black Jeep patiently waited on the street three floors below her window. Fear permeated every cell of her body, and it was fear that she needed most. She pulled the nightlight from the outlet below the light switch and tossed it into the garbage can. Then she gazed into the mirror one last time.
It wasn’t long, months or perhaps just weeks, before time became an amorphous, meaningless blur. Only dawn and dusk marked its progress now.
Had so much of it passed already? Marcela, a nine-year-old child just days ago; now she walked past with a backpack slung over one shoulder, a college student catching the bus to campus. She strode with an effortless grace, unbound from fear, a prisoner released from death row. She never turned away from the homeless lining the sidewalk, and often fished into her pockets for a spare coin.
Marcela should no longer recognize her, and yet something in her eyes, eyes forever haunted by her former life, suggested the grimy woman with the matted brown hair and sliced-up arms was familiar to her. No, it couldn’t be. The woman she thought of would be only thirty-four. This one looked at least fifteen years older than that. And yet in the silent exchange between them, Marcela’s eyes seemed to say thank you, and her mouth turned up in a tiny smile, before she vanished into another humid morning, the sun shining down on her like the light of angels.
But that light grew dimmer each day. A dense film was forming over Soledad’s pupils. She tried to learn how to sleep with her eyes open, because she could not bear to be lost within her own mind, to see that demonic face on the screen of her eyelids. Black Jeeps drove by several times a day, slowing as they passed so she could see the reflection that was not her own in the tinted windows.
The Weeping Woman was always scratching. Always feeding. Always hungry.
Jennifer Loring has been published in numerous magazines, webzines and anthologies, and received an honorable mention in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror for her story “The Bombay Trash Service.” Jenn is a member of the Horror Writers Association (HWA) and holds an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University. In addition, she is a staff writer/columnist for HorrorNews.net, as well as an editor at Red Adept Publishing. Jenn lives in Philadelphia, PA, with her boyfriend and a turtle named — what else? — Ninja.