"Ah! Doña Lena! I'm glad to see you! Mama just told me I was overdue to go see you." Bernardo's accent came into full use now that he was talking to Lena, but it was the accent of the younger generation, missing much of the crisp pronunciation and inherent politeness found in the older woman's. "She thinks I'll go back to my old ways unless you keep reminding me of what happened."
"I'm glad I could save you the trip, Bernardo. Here you go." She reached into the bag from the candle store and pulled out a large white seven-day candle.
Bernardo took it, seeming overly grateful for it, and reached into his pocket and pulled out a twenty dollar bill, which he handed to Fidelina.
"You remember how to do it?" She asked him very seriously, the note disappearing into the folds of her dress.
"I couldn't forget if I wanted to." He smiled as though at an inside joke.
Fidelina scowled back at him. "I hope you wouldn't want to forget."
His smile vanished and he turned a little pale. "No. I wouldn't want to."
"Good. As long as we are making sure that you want to remember things, I want you to remember that night for Jack, here."
Bernardo looked a little ill now, but he puffed out his chest and managed to sound a little belligerent. "You want me to tell him? Why would I do that?"
Fidelina's grandmotherly smile returned and filled the room with reassuring warmth. Bernardo relaxed visibly, but was still hesitant. "Jack is a friend of mine, and I am helping him learn about some things he does not yet understand. I was hoping your experience would serve as an example for a lesson I want him to learn." She leaned in towards Bernardo. "That way I can help him -like I helped you."
Bernardo nodded his head. "Yeah, okay. If you think that it will help someone else, too, I'll tell them."
He got a nervous look on his face, took a deep breath, sat down in the nearest barber's chair motioning for them to do the same and then he began his story of what had happened to him on a night five years earlier.
Bernardo stumbled and fell, then slowly righted himself and continued walking down the dark road. The moon was high and waxing, making it easy for him to follow the reflective white stripe along the side of the empty road. Off in the distant night a coyote howled, long and forlorn, and Bernardo stopped to listen. He swayed precariously, then threw back his head and screamed back at the distant night crier. He toppled backwards and landed hard on his tailbone, but was unfazed. Turning over, he put his palms down on the pavement and walked his feet forward until he could stand again, then he proceeded on down the road.
He was on a mission and he wasn't about to be deterred by anything as stupid as a wrecked car. He stuck his right hand into the pocket of his oversized baggy jeans, leaning way over his knee to reach the bottom, and pulled out a wad of metal. He stopped walking long enough to look at the jingling lump of metal and separate his angel-blade knife from the now useless keys. He turned and looked back at the purple and gray primer colored Cadillac laying upside down on the side of the road and wondered why he had bothered to take the keys with him. Listing to the right as he raised his arm, he hurled the keys back at the twisted wreck.
The keys went wide and missed, sending up a small puff of moonlit dust.
Bernardo wobbled in place for a moment before unzipping his pants and aiming himself at the car, sending a yellow stream of defiance arcing after the keys. With a grunt, he strained to get an extra push in a vain attempt to cover the thirty yards with the amber stream, then, shaking off and putting himself away, he stumbled onward. Straining to push had made him realize his ribs were sore, but feeling them with his fingers told him he was fine. He absently brushed at his hair and found his forehead sore, too, but his fingers had no blood when he examined them.
He stopped and looked at his hand for a long time. The small tattoo on the back of it had caught his eye. It had been years since he had really paid any attention to it, now it was going to be his undoing. It was a caricature of a Hispanic face, with a goatee and sunglasses wearing a fedora hat, and under it was the word Sancho.
It was the mark of his gang. They wore it on the back of the hand so that their affiliation was always visible. Most gangs either used various types of colored clothing or wore their marks where it could be hidden, especially when they were in prison, so that another gang couldn't single them out, but Los Sanchos were proud, and wanted to show everyone who they were. Besides, if any other Sancho caught you hiding it, they would know you were hiding something, maybe two timing your gang.
Appropriate, he thought, dropping his hand back to his side. Sancho was the generic name throughout the Hispanic world for the man who was having sex with your wife while you were out somewhere else. It was an appropriate final irony that the two biggest mistakes of his life were symbolized by the one mark on his hand, as they were coming to a head at the same time as a consequence of each other.
After a few steps he felt something wet on the back of his leg and stumbled to a stop to investigate. He turned a half circle, trying to look at his own backside, before reaching into his back pocket and pulling out a flask. The neck of the metal flask was bent and caved in and liquid seeped out over his hand. He cursed and tried vainly to stop the leak. Giving up on stopping the leak, he fought with the cap to open the flask and found it too bent to unscrew.
Bernardo growled with anger and tipped the flask over his face, licking at the small seep of amber colored liquid. He stumbled, again,and fell hard on his tailbone, again.
This time he felt the pain spread out around his lower back and he grunted loudly as he shifted his weight over onto his left buttock. He licked at the golden fluid again and was rewarded by a burning tingle on his tongue.
A wave of relief seemed to flow through him as the bourbon laced with cocaine numbed his throat. He dug his knife out again and thumbed the button to eject the blade strait out of its hilt. He dug at the hairline crack in the metal flask until the hole was wide enough for the liquid to trickle out, then tilted his head back and waited until the last of the liquid had drained into his mouth before he swallowed.
The insides of his cheeks and his tongue went numb, and his stomach warmed. He waited for the rush of confidence to come, then resolutely stood up and marched on towards his drug dealer's house.
That thieving cabrón and his pinche ramera wife, he was going to show them!
He could feel the weight of the semi-automatic pistol thumping against his calf as he walked, and it felt good. It felt like power, and the feeling made him stand a little taller and put a confident swagger in his step. Nobody took advantage of him! Nobody!
He had pulled the gun out of the glove box and stuck it in the lowest pocket of his baggy pants before crawling out of the wrecked car. It wouldn't do to have a stolen gun found in his car, besides which, he needed it to finish this night's work.
The gun weighed solid in his pocket and he idly wondered if he should have brought more ammunition. He had filled the clip and put an additional round into the chamber for good measure, but had decided against carrying more shells. They would just clink and rattle and if the ones in the gun weren't enough he wouldn't have time to reload anyway.
Besides, the way he felt now, he might just kill them with his bare hands.
He had known Marco was shorting him on his supply of coke and weed all along, but that was just part of doing business. Especially out in the middle of fucking nowhere like this. You had to take what you could get and be happy about it. But that puta Antonia...
She had used him. He had thought it was love, and that's exactly what she had wanted him to think.
He stumbled in the moonlit night and looked around. He'd thought he heard thunder, but the night was clear. He shook his head and continued on.
Realizing he was still carrying the worthless flask, he tried one last probe with his tongue to check for any lingering drops then hurled it out into the night. The silver sides flashed moonlight back at him as it spun in the air, and he had an impulse to draw his gun and shoot at it before it landed. The gun, however, was way beyond his immediate reach in the ankle pocket, and he had to content himself with watching the flask bounce off the ground and disappear behind a tumbleweed.
He bent over, teetering precariously as he fumbled with the button on the pocket before withdrawing the handgun. The barrel glinted blue in the moonlight and the weight of it in his hands felt good. He rubbed the coolness of the gun across his cheek and forehead. It felt refreshing in the warm air of the dry night.
"Pinche cabrón!" he yelled in a sudden fit of anger and frustration. He quickly spun around and, wobbling slightly, fired a shot at his now distant wrecked car. The muzzle flash lit his face and the report stung his ears, followed by the tinny sound of the brass shell casing pinging as it bounced off the empty highway and rolled in small circle. He was far enough away he couldn't even tell if he had hit the car.
He had stolen this gun specifically for killing Marco and Antonia, and he could feel its purpose talking to him in the night, like the wailing coyote in the distance. "We'll get there soon, amigote," he told it quietly and resumed walking. He massaged the barrel with his fingers and reveled in the slight warmth of a recently fired weapon. The smell of spent gunpowder tickled his nose. Off in the distance, he heard the thunder again. Heat lighting, he figured, and kept walking.
How would he kill her? Marco, he knew. He would just put a bullet through his greasy face, but Antonia... He wanted to hurt her like she had hurt him. All those years of carefully hiding the money he had stolen were wasted. All of the risks he had taken stealing it and not letting the other members of his gang know were for nothing. All of his plans to get out of this god-forsaken hellhole were in vain. And it was all her fucking fault!
He spun around in anger and wanted to shoot the gun again, but restrained himself.
What if they heard the shots and suspected he was coming? That would not be good. He kissed the gun, sniffed gingerly at the end of the barrel for another smell of the burned powder, and mentally chided it to be patient. He would get there soon enough. And she would be there.
She had pretended to love him. She had pretended to make love to him. She had cried false tears about how Marco beat her and tortured her, about how he had made her sleep with his drug contacts to keep them happy, she had cried and lied. Lied and cried. His fist clinched tight around the diamond-textured grips of the gun's handle until it dug into his palm. He wasn't sure how he would kill her. Maybe he would tie Marco up and make him watch. Maybe he would rape her first. Maybe he would ask Marco why he hadn't been a good enough client to get a little too, huh?
Maybe they had planned the whole thing all along. Maybe Marco had been 'conveniently' away so she could 'get to know him better' and find out if he had anything worth trying to get.
Maybe he would make them beg for their lives. Maybe they still had some of his money and would try to trade it for their lives. He sniffed at the thought. Their lives were not worth the twenty-six thousand dollars they had stolen from him. Or rather, maybe they would have been, if they hadn't stolen his life along with those twenty-six thousand dollars.
His life... and his heart –that was what hurt the most. Bernardo would never admit it, not even to himself, but that was what hurt the most.
He truly loved Antonia, and she had been lying to him all along. She was supposed to have met him with the money, and they were supposed to have lived happily ever after in L.A. Instead, she had taken it right on back to Marco, who had promptly informed the rest of the Los Sanchos gang Bernardo had been holding out on them these last eight years. They weren't going to be very forgiving about that. In fact, he fully expected they would beat him to death. But first he would have his revenge on Antonia. He would...he would...
He huffed in frustration. He was so angry and pumped up from the cocaine and bourbon he couldn't think straight, couldn't even decide what he wanted to do to her.
Relax, he told himself. Gotta be under control to do this right. He patted at his shirt pocket and was glad to feel the shape of a joint at the bottom. Holding the gun in his right hand, he awkwardly dug the handmade cigarette out with the thumb and forefinger of his left hand. He put it up to his nose and sniffed deeply, a smile played across his lips. It smelled faintly of formaldehyde. Perfect, he thought, a primo.
He stopped and lit the small joint, savoring the thought of the forthcoming feeling relaxation. He was particularly happy it was a primo, he hadn't realized he had any more of those. He licked the formaldehyde taste off his lips, and thought that it wasn't so bad. He had started smoking these without any idea what they were, but by the time he found out, he didn't care anymore. He took a deep breath and held it, wondering who would have thought of trying to dissolve heroin in formaldehyde to hide it from the cops anyway, let alone soaking their joints in it. Oh well, he thought as he slowly let the smoke curl up from his mouth into his nostrils, there's no accounting for what some people do.
It was probably some idiot like Marco, he decided. Then he realized he would have to press Marco for his drug stash before he killed him. Might as well try to get something worthwhile from that piece of...
He turned and looked around again. The thunder rolling through the darkness caught his attention again and this time it was lasting much longer. Longer than thunder should...
At first he couldn't tell where the sound was coming from. Then it seemed to come from the direction of the mountains so distant in the west he wouldn't have been able to see them in daylight except on the clearest of days. Bernardo flicked the last tiny bit of his joint into the dark and decided it must be some kind of airplane.
He shrugged at the night and continued walking. He wasn't far from his destination now. He could see the lights ahead and off to the side of the road where Marco and Antonia's house was. He would be there in another fifteen minutes.
His stomach cramped viciously and he fell forward onto his knees holding his gut. A wave of pain shivered through him then relented. The sweat on his forehead was cold, the kind that only happens with serious illness. Another spasm rolled across his abdomen, and as he wrenched over in pain, he realized he had been lucky not to shoot himself. He dropped the gun even as he gripped himself tighter. He vomited violently, barely getting his hands up in time to prevent himself from hitting his forehead on the pavement. Pressure pounded in his ears and he vomited again. His sinuses burned from the liquor and cocaine and his head spun nauseatingly. His stomach continued to violently twist itself and he was in too much pain to wonder at the amount of fluid he expelled. Finally, his stomach muscles still quivering, the spasms relented and he fell onto his side gasping for breath as the pain subsided.
The pounding in his ears, however, continued to grow.
He rocked himself to the rhythm of the pounding in his head, willing it to leave. He stopped moving and held his breath, trying to control the nausea. Realizing the pounding noise was coming from all around him, not just inside of his head, he opened his eyes and peered into the night around him. He could feel the vibrations in the earth now, and he spun wildly, sure he was about to be hit by a semi-truck. His body refused to obey him and he fell, twisting, onto his back. The thunder continued to approach and he turned his head against the pavement to look behind him, gravel digging into his scalp and cheek.
It was the sound he had heard coming from the mountains, but it was much closer now. So loud he couldn't hear anything else, and the rhythm had become distinct, like the hoof beats of hundreds of horses. The sky in the direction of the sound was unnaturally black and full of storm clouds where earlier there had been none. He could make out a red glow in the clouds, like a reflection of flames. His breath was tearing at his throat like saw teeth. The night became unbearably hot and he clawed at his shirt collar, fighting for better air. Unnaturally cold sweat trickled down his chest but it brought no relief. He felt like he was going to die.
That's it, he thought, I took too much coke, too much booze, too much everything. He knew it could happen; he just didn't ever expect it would happen to him, especially not tonight. His heart pounded in his chest and he was afraid he was having a heart attack.
Now he would never have justice for what they had done to him! He would never feel Antonia's throat crushing under his fingers! He tried to scream at the night in anger and frustration but only got out a choked gurgle that started a coughing fit.
He twisted in new pain, dragging his face across the small rocks on the asphalt, gasping for air between body-wracking coughs. When it subsided, he was flat on his stomach with tears streaming down his face. He lie quietly for a long time before he realized the thundering had stopped. His head throbbed, but the earth was still.
He could see the blue reflection of the metal gun barrel where it lie just out of reach. If he could scoop it up and kill Marco and Antonia before he died...
He tried to rise and found he could no longer move his legs. An incredible weight on his lower back held him down. He twisted to look over his shoulder and found himself staring into the bloody red eyes of Satan himself as He dug His cloven hooves deeper into Bernardo's back. His pointed tail flicked wildly behind His thick goat-like legs and He grinned a wide fanged sneer at Bernardo.
Bernardo screamed in pain the hooves dug in, and he watched with terror as acrid smoke rose out of his own flesh where they touched. He squirmed and tried to move, but the burning, searing pain held his lower body completely immobile as Satan stomped wildly and with wicked satisfaction across his back. Bernardo screamed for an eternity as the pain renewed itself with each stomp.
Through the pain, the only other thing that existed was Satan's hideously pungent voice as it rasped with a horribly new and different kind of pain. The voice seared terrible burns across Bernardo's soul as Satan welcomed him to a special place for those who waste their last breath on an evil intention. Bernardo screamed anew as a steaming hoof burned itself into the back of his right hand, obscuring the Sancho tattoo in a small cloud of greasy smoke. The voice burned a matching hoof print into Bernardo's soul and declared the only mark Bernardo would ever wear would be Satan's.
As Satan's voice scorched thanks across Bernardo's soul for this early opportunity to dance upon his grave, His hooves began working their way up into Bernardo's ribs, breaking them as Bernardo's screaming faded to whimpering gasps, lost in the bellows of Satan's cacophonous laughter.
By the time the stomping hooves reached Bernardo's head, he couldn't even whimper.
Bernardo finished his story with a quivering voice and the hand holding the white candle was shaking. Jack noticed the hand had a large partial U-shaped scarred area on the back of it. He felt the hair on the back of his neck rise and he quickly looked up at Bernardo face.
"You don't believe me!" Bernardo's lip curled in accusation and the focus came back to his eyes.
Jack took a step back. "Hey, man. I didn't say that."
Bernardo stepped forward, finger aimed at Jack's chest. "You didn't have to! You stupid pendejos think you know everything, you think..."
"Bernardo! I told you, I am teaching him!" Fidelina's voice echoed in the ensuing silence.
Bernardo glowered then looked down and away. "I am sorry, Doña Lena." He took a deep breath and looked up at Jack. "It is a very... painful subject for me, and I do not enjoy being taken lightly."
Jack cleared his throat. "I'm sorry if I made you think that I didn't believe you. I didn't mean to. I, uh, have had some recent experiences myself and I am more inclined to believe you than you might guess."
Bernardo pursed his lips and nodded in an accepting dismissal, then turned away.
"Thank you, Bernardo. Don't forget your prayers." Fidelina caught Jack by the arm and turned him towards the door. "Come on, Jack."
"Wait." Bernardo's voice made them stop and look back. "I am doing this for Doña Lena, so don't think it means anything to you," he said looking Jack in the eye. "Here is your proof that I have danced with the devil."
Bernardo pulled his shirt off over his head and stood facing them. Dark brown U-shaped marks covered his chest and arms. He raised his arms and turned a slow circle and Jack was horrified to see Bernardo was covered in them. Some were distinct, others faded or overlapping, but two in the center lower back were angry red, as if they had been branded onto his skin only yesterday, as if blood would start welling out of them at any second. When Bernardo faced forward again his hard eyes met Jack's again.
"They don't bleed much anymore, unless I really think about doing something I shouldn't. The ones on my face disappeared after Doña Lena began helping me. The bald patches on my head are almost gone now. It has been five years, three months, and two days since I woke up in a hospital bed- still screaming.
"The doctors said the scars and broken bones were from the rocks I was thrown across when the car ejected me. The police said I was so high on drugs I walked five miles in spite of my injuries.
"Marco and Antonia called the police to report they had heard someone screaming. The police report doesn't say that they thought that they heard someone else laughing and a herd of horses run by...because the cops thought that they were high, too."