I used to stare at this girl Carmen in Sunday school. The teacher would say words like sin and Jesus and grace, and I just couldn’t stop looking at Carmen, at the white tip of cleavage thrusting out of her dress. I think maybe I loved her. She didn’t love me back. I know this because in seven years of Bible classes she spoke fewer words to me than I’ve written in this sentence. I failed at love. When I saw her sometimes, from far away, I felt like there was no use in wanting anything. At these times I’d look to the clouds and ask God why, after all my prayers, why?And then, around the time I turned sixteen, I abruptly stopped failing. I remember the day it happened. The moment. Me and my friend for life Daryl were eating together at a long table in our church’s fellowship hall. It was Sunday, and the preacher had finished his sermon, and the whole congregation had packed into the hall for a potluck dinner. The room was crowded and smelled of fried chicken. Daryl held up a spoon and made airplane noises. He was, objectively, too old to play airplane with his utensils, but for as long as I’d known him he’d dreamed of one day becoming a fighter pilot, and he took the dream quite seriously. To be Daryl’s friend—his true friend, as I was—one had to make certain allowances.
Daryl was making machine gun noises and strafing a pile of mashed potatoes when Carmen sat down in the chair beside me. Carmen of black hair and pale skin. Carmen of my private dreams. She asked for a book of matches. And she’d come to the right guy: I was an acolyte, meaning I lit the altar candles before Sunday services. From a young age I’d been tasked with carrying light into the sanctuary.
Carmen told me to meet her outside with the matches. She used her thumb to clear a lock of hair away from her face, then stood up and left. I looked to Daryl. He lowered his spoon to the table. He looked at his plate of food thoughtfully for a moment.
“You’d better do what she wants,” he said. “If you don’t, she’ll probably murder you.”
“I might like it if she murdered me.”
“Not for long you wouldn’t,” he said.
“I mean if she just murdered me a little.”
The next thing I did was snatch a book of matches from the shelf in the narthex where I stored my robe and candle lighter. Then I caught up with Carmen on the stone steps outside the church.
“Thanks, dork,” she said, rolling her eyes as I sat beside her. She held a cigarette casually between two fingers. “Hand them over.”
But I had something better in mind. Something cinematic. I opened the book and tore out a cardboard match. In the instant it took to scrape the match head against the striker, I prayed silently to God for it to light on my first try. The miniature torch sizzled and burned, and I held it out to Carmen, who slid the tip of her cigarette into the fire. I shook out the match and tossed it down the steps, and for a moment we watched the blackened and twisted thing smolder.
I struggled to think of something interesting to say.
I expected her to tell me to buzz off. It’s the kind of thing eighteen-year-old women sometimes said to boys like me. Instead she showed me her tattoo. She stretched out her left leg and pulled up her skirt, lifted it past her calf, her knee, her thigh. A skeleton in black robes brandished a scythe just below her hip.
“Santa Muerte,” Carmen said. “The death saint. In Mexico there’s a cult. It’s huge. People pray to her.”
“What people?” I said, mesmerized both by the death saint and Carmen’s exposed leg.
“Criminals. Cartel assassins. They pray for Santa Muerte to bless them before they kill.”
That’s when I touched her. Without thinking I reached out, traced along the outline of the tattoo with my middle finger. Carmen’s leg felt smoother than anything else in my life.
“Do you believe in her?” I said. “Do you think she’s real?”
My finger traveled to the apex of the scythe blade. The back of my hand brushed against the bunched fabric of her skirt. Carmen took a long time to answer.
That’s how Carmen became my first girlfriend.
In the beginning, our relationship revolved around her acknowledging my existence at school. Because of our age difference we shared only one class. It was taught by a football coach, and for that reason it wasn’t very rigorous. It left plenty of time for Carmen to tell me about the death cult.
“The highway from Tehuacan to Mexico City is littered with shrines to Santa Muerte,” she said. “Before killing, an assassin must light a black candle. If the assassin fails to do this, if the ritual is not complete, then the assassin is nothing more than a murderer.”
“This is all very crazy,” I said.
“Do you want to know a secret?” she said. Before I could answer she leaned forward to whisper.
“I’m going to join the death cult. After graduation I’ll catch a bus to El Paso, cross over into Juarez. I’ll hook up with the cartel there. They’ll take me to the mountains and train me to kill.”
“Why would you want that?”
“Because everything sucks.” She rolled her eyes like she’d made the most obvious point in the world. “What? Should I take some crappy job as a waitress? Waste four years in college, spend the rest of my life in a cubicle? Maybe I should shit out some babies. Would you like that? Would you be more attracted to me if I was one of those cows shopping at Walmart?”
I sat silently while trying to conjure an adequate reply.
“Fuck,” she said, shrugging. “All I want is to kill people and get paid.”
After school that day I hung out at Daryl’s house. Almost every day I’d either go to his place or he’d come to mine, but I preferred his house because it had better video games and junk food. His parents bought name brands. The real Ho Hos. Authentic Twinkies. Not the generic-value-choice knockoff shit like at my house.
Daryl sat at the desk in his bedroom and assembled a model aircraft. An Apache gunship—and a nice one, too, with a full suite of Hellfire missiles. I flipped through one of his Soldier of Fortune magazines and sat with my feet propped on the desk. The whole room smelled sweet like model glue. Really what I wanted was for Daryl to hurry up and turn on the Xbox so I could play Call of Duty, but I didn’t like to be rude.
“Carmen will probably fuck you this weekend,” Daryl said.
“You don’t know everything,” I said.
“Dude, Carmen fucks everybody,” he said. “And it’s not even fair. I should be the first to have sex. I’m the cool one.”
I flipped through some more pages in his Soldier of Fortune magazine. I looked at photos of people shooting AK-47s.
“If you want to impress Carmen, you’ll have to be really good at sex,” Daryl said. “Because she’s had a lot of it. Seriously. A lot lot. You’ll have to give it to her real hard and talk dirty. I hope you’re ready. I bet she likes the weird stuff.”
“Can we just play Call of Duty on the Xbox?”
“No, damn it,” Daryl said, and he threw down his tube of model glue, and some liquid splooged out of the nozzle and pooled on the desk. “I’ve got a big box of condoms under my bed, and you are going to take about a dozen of them, or else when Carmen seduces you she’ll give you human papillomavirus.”
“Carmen is my girlfriend,” I said. “Don’t accuse my girlfriend of diseases.”
“One in four people carry human papillomavirus,” Daryl said, “and Carmen’s fucked all four of them—and their cousins. So take a condom, because I don’t want you coming here next week spreading human papillomavirus all over my bedroom—or whatever other disease she has, probably herpes.”
Eventually I accepted a condom, and Daryl fired up the Xbox to play Call of Duty. Almost every day we played it for a few hours, so we had become quite good at it. Me and Daryl made a solid team. He looked out for me, and I did the same for him. So that afternoon we had everybody on the run and racked up a bunch of headshots and melee kills, as usual, but at one point we became separated, and some douchebag pinned me down with rocket propelled grenades, and I thought I was toast until Daryl called in an airstrike.
“Boom,” Daryl said, raising his hands like he’d scored a goal at the World Cup. “Airstrike, motherfucker!”
Partially he did it to save me, but partially he did it because Daryl just loved to call in those airstrikes.
At the end of our first week as boyfriend and girlfriend, I took Carmen to the movies in my father’s Chevrolet. I’d tested for my license only a month earlier, and every time I drove into town I came close to ending up dead on the side of the road. On our date I clenched the steering wheel, stared straight ahead and, in general, pretended to know what I was doing. Carmen played it cool. Whenever I blew past a stop sign or drove the wrong way down a one-way street, Carmen just laughed and called me a madman.
At the theater we watched a Sam Raimi movie about demons and hell. During the opening credits I worked up the nerve to hold Carmen’s hand. She smiled at me the way a girl might at a cute puppy or kid brother. Then she put her tongue in my mouth.
After the show I asked if she wanted to get something to eat. She told me she had something like that in mind. We got back into the Chevrolet, and she started barking out me directions.
“Turn here,” she’d say abruptly, “take this road.”
Her instructions took us farther and farther toward the outskirts of town, where nothing lived but trees and cows. Carmen ordered me to drive down a sketchy-looking chert road bordered by steep gullies. I drove slowly, rattled by potholes and fist-sized rocks. The woods closed in around us, and after the movie it was easy to imagine them crawling with murderers. And I mean the really bad murderers—chainsaw-wielding lunatics with mutilated faces or hooks for hands. Eventually the trees opened into a field. Carmen told me to pull in. My headlights illuminated bushy crowns of waist-high grass as the car rolled to a stop.
“I love this place,” she said.
All was quiet as we stared through the windshield. Points of light speckled the night sky.
“What do you want to do with your life?” she said. “I mean when you grow up.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe I’ll be a doctor or something. Maybe a scientist. I’m not actually sure what scientists do. But whatever it is, it’s probably something I’d be good at.”
“Jesus,” she said. ‘You’ll be in college forever.”
“I guess. I don’t know. I just want to do something good.”
Carmen looked out the window for a long time before speaking again.
“I don’t think being alive is as great as people say it is,” she said. “I mean, life is shit, right? Life is crazy. It’s all mixed up. Just look around you. Life should be more than this. Or less. Life should be simple.”
As usual I didn’t know what to say, but it didn’t matter because just then Carmen put her tongue in my mouth. We made out more fiercely than before, grasping and groping. She didn’t pull away until my taste buds ached.
“Technically,” she said, reaching under my seat to pull a lever that sent me rolling backward, “what I’m about to do is illegal.” She unbuttoned my jeans, eased down the zipper and fished around inside for my cock, which she then held firmly and pleasantly in the moonlight.
Now let me be clear. I wanted Carmen. I’d always wanted her. I’d fantasized about her for years, jacked off to the idea of Carmen about a million times. But there in the car, face to face with the reality of Carmen—I don’t know. I guess I freaked out or something. I wasn’t sure what I wanted anymore. I was afraid she’d figure out I didn’t know what I was doing, afraid of laughter or pity, afraid I’d ruin everything and she’d go back to treating my like just another stupid kid. Anyway I sat still and let her do whatever she wanted.
“Technically you’re jailbait,” she said, stroking slowly up and down. A tiny bead of the early stuff seeped out, shining on the head of my penis like the ghost-white face of the death saint. Carmen leaned down to worship with her mouth.
The next Monday at school my friends pumped me for details. I kept cool, didn’t reveal too much. I knew if I told them the whole story with all the sexy details I’d lose all my power over their imaginations. Daryl instigated. He was the first to come right out and ask if I’d fucked Carmen.
“We fooled around,” I said, yawning theatrically.
“Sure,” he said, “but did you fuck her?”
I smiled as if in on a secret joke.
“We fooled around.”
It went on like that all day. I was the only guy among my friends making any sort of time with a girl—and a senior, no less. The situation was unprecedented. Miraculous. A gift of divine intervention.
“You’re a braver man than I,” Daryl said at the end of the day as we shouldered our backpacks and set off down the hallway.
“And better looking,” I said.
“Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure she’s worth it.”
“What are you even talking about?”
“You know. Her ex-boyfriends. All those guys who graduated like three years ago. Back when everybody called her ‘jailbait.’ Remember that guy, what’s his name, Rat? And the dude whose face peeled off when he crashed his bike. And the twitchy one who punched Mrs. Grabowski because she kept bugging him for homework. Shit. Carmen’s fucked a lot of guys. Bunch of violent assholes, really.”
Blood drained from my face.
“She’s experienced,” I said, pretending to be the kind of guy who doesn’t give a damn. “That’s how I like them.”
“Whatever,” he said. “Just watch your back.”
After school I rode with Carmen to her house for the first time. She told me her mom worked late, so we’d have a few hours to do whatever we wanted. I guess I expected her to live either in a trailer park or a Gothic cathedral, but her house turned out to be pretty normal. It was like my parents’ place only a little bigger and in a swankier neighborhood.
“Get ready for heaven,” she said on our way in.
I assumed she was talking about sex. She wasn’t. She meant her mother’s collection of ceramic angels, a host of which had conquered every available flat surface in the living room as completely as any born-again sinner’s heart. Her mother had painted the walls blue and added sloppy-looking white clouds. Carmen told me her mom used to be pretty decent. But after Carmen’s dad left, her mom started spending all her time at church and buying figurines.
“Vomit,” she said.
Carmen’s bedroom was what you might expect—punk rock posters, skateboarding stickers stuck to a computer desk, framed photos of suspicious-looking young men. Above her bed hung a black-light poster of the grim reaper, the same poster you could buy at any music store. But Carmen didn’t call it the reaper. She called it the death saint.
She knelt down at the foot of the bed, felt around underneath with her hands and pulled out a shoebox. Then we climbed onto the bed and sat Indian-style while she opened the box. Beneath the lid was a square of black felt. Underneath lurked two handguns. Carmen held them gingerly while showing them off, as if cradling a puppy or child. Nickel plating gleamed in the dim light of her room, shining brightest on the iconographic filigree along the barrels. An engraved likeness of Santa Muerte looked out at us from the ivory handgrips.
“The guns of an assassin,” Carmen said. “A real one. A member of the La Familia cartel. A man who lived to kill.”
“Mexican special forces caught up with him outside Veracruz. They’d tracked him for months. In the end, he killed five of them before they brought him down.”
“How do you know?”
“It’s what I heard,” she said, shrugging. “I don’t care if it’s true.”
She dared me to touch the weapons. I ran a finger along a cold barrel. It was impossibly smooth, and the oil from my skin left a sheen.
“Where did you get them?”
Carmen blushed—something I’d never seen before.
“From this guy I used to date. He traded a pound of weed to a Mexican he worked with building houses last summer. Rat could be an OK guy. He was a dick, don’t get me wrong. But sometimes he was a nice dick.”
She smiled softly as if remembering something pleasant from long ago.
“Well Jesus,” I said too loudly. “Rat sure sounds like a fantastic guy. Why aren’t you two still together?”
Carmen rolled her eyes.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said.
“Sure it does,” I said.
“Nothing matters,” she said. “Nothing ever means anything. Grow up and accept it. Or don’t. Remain a child forever. I don’t care. Because nothing matters.”
That’s when Carmen told me she wanted to fuck. She placed the guns beside us on the bed, slithered atop me, pressed her mouth against mine, inserted her tongue. I tried to relax and get in the mood, but every time I closed my eyes I imagined Rat fingering a switchblade and laughing. And when I opened them I saw the guns.
I let Carmen grind on me until she realized something was missing. She asked me, “What the fuck is your fucking problem?” She accused me of not being attracted to her. I tried to explain but failed. Badly. She called me a pussy and a fag, in that order. I told her she wasn’t worth the aggravation. She told me to get the fuck out. So I did. And gladly.
That’s how I lost my first girlfriend.
Weeks passed. I tried to forget about Carmen and failed at that, too. The school year ended. All the seniors graduated. I considered attending the ceremony and clapping for Carmen, but in the end I stayed home. Daryl did go, and he told me how Carmen lifted her robe and flashed everybody. I tried not to care. I mean it: I really tried.
One warm night I’d just finished jacking off to her memory when I heard a tap on my window. It was Carmen. It could have been no one else. She stood in the moonlight holding two silvery pistols. She asked me to come outside, to take a drive with her. Told me it was important.
Carmen took us back to where we’d spent the best moments of our brief relationship, to the clearing in the woods. On the way she explained her plan. She would leave home that night, place a note on her pillow for her mom to find in the morning. Carmen told me she was tired of all the bullshit. The pressure. Her mom constantly on her case about applying to college or finding a job or joining the goddamned Army. Carmen couldn’t breathe anymore, not with all the moralizing, the snippy comments, arguments between them that ran on for days. She told me she’d bought a bus ticket to Mexico. She would give up the only life she’d ever known to be reborn as a death-cult assassin.
When we arrived at the clearing she turned off the motor. Headlights lit up a tree on the edge of the field.
“That’s the one we’ll shoot,” she said. “Once you get used to it, it’s easier than breathing. Once you get used to it.”
I planted my feet in the wet grass. Carmen put a gun in my unsteady hand. She stood behind me as I took aim at the tree. She steadied my arm, whispered advice. Then she stepped back.
I pulled the trigger. A flash. One loud pop. The handgun jerked and hummed like a living thing. My bullet raced off somewhere into the thick of the woods. I dropped the gun, stepped away from it like I would have from a snake.
“Let me show you how it’s done,” Carmen said, scooping it from the ground and wiping away the dew with the bottom of her tank top.
She took a wide stance while holding a gun in either hand, raised both arms to shoulder height. She took two shots at once, scoring direct hits, the slugs burying themselves into the trunk with twin puffs of sawdust. She stepped back with one foot, pivoting her body and positioning her left hand so a pistol was a few inches south of her chin. Two shots. Two more hits. She spun forward, ducking low and catching herself in a partial crouch, one knee straight ahead of her, the other pressed into the damp earth. Two final shots. Two more explosions of trunk and bark.
“I’m a killer,” Carmen said, the smoke from the barrels rising in a demonic halo. “I was born for it.”
For now, and I expect forever, when I think back on Carmen I see her skin, pale white from twin muzzle flashes, and I remember the touch of her hands—cold and hard as the weapons she loved, icy mitts not unlike the skeletal talons of a goddess of eternal night.
I expected her to ask me to come to Mexico. I’d have done it. I’d have left everything, followed her anywhere. To Laredo. Oaxaca. Even to hell. All she needed was to ask. Instead she wished me luck on becoming a scientist someday. She told me I’d make a good one because I was smart. Then she drove me home.
I read newspapers religiously for months after Carmen left, scoured the nation and world pages for any mention of the drug war. Though the body count rose daily, I found no evidence of her handiwork.
Time passed. I moved on with my life. I thought about Carmen a lot at first but later only occasionally. Eventually I dated other girls, compared them to her unfavorably. My remaining years of high school seemed the longest of my life. Then they ended, as all things do. As graduation neared I remembered Carmen again with fierce intensity. I made preparations for college and thought about the places life had taken us. It was an exciting time and a scary one. I found great solace in the knowledge that, somewhere in the humid Latin jungle, Carmen was slipping into a doomed man’s villa through an unlocked balcony door, her heart racing but her hands calm, reassured by the comforting weight of her guns.
I graduated from high school with honors. I barely remember the ceremony. The valedictorian gave some bullshit speech. Caps were thrown. Everybody stood up and hugged everybody else. Me and Daryl stood in our crimson robes in the center of the gymnasium amid all of this hugging and weeping. I told him how I’d applied to the big university down the road in Murfreesboro. He told me he’d been accepted to the United State’s Air Force Academy. We promised to stay in tough no matter what. We shook hands and felt very adult about it. I told him he’d make a great pilot.
“Someday there will be a war, and I’ll be in it,” he said. “Someday I’ll kill a dictator by firing a single Hellfire missile. Boom. Easy as that. That’s how simple life is. You can free a whole country with one Hellfire missile. Politicians and generals want you to believe it’s more complicated than that. They muck everything up. But life, really, is very simple. You can save the goddamned world with one Hellfire missile.”
All summer I looked forward to college. I told myself it would be easy, just another pit stop on the road to bigger and better things. In the fall I moved into a dormitory and started taking classes. College felt like high school and summer camp all rolled into one. It was new and weird, but it was no big deal. So naturally I was surprised when I returned home for Christmas and discovered I was not the person I used to be. Already I felt my old life slipping away.
Not much important happened over the next four years. Nothing worth talking about. At first college was fun, and then things got complicated, but even when things were complicated, I guess I still had a lot of fun. Then one morning, it must have been junior year, I woke up in my dorm when the phone rang. I remember how the room looked very dark but the light outside the window was blinding. The call was from Daryl’s younger brother. The brother had been just a kid the last time I saw him. At first I didn’t recognize his voice.
Daryl had died. He’d shot himself in the chest, and it was no accident. The brother told me the funeral would be held over the weekend. He remembered how close I used to be Daryl. He thought I’d want to know.
I put everything on hold to make it to the service, which took place in Hohenwald, about fifty miles from the town where we grew up. At the burial I recognized no one but Daryl’s parents and brother, and even then only barely. I hadn’t even talked to Daryl since the summer after high school. I didn’t know him anymore. I felt out of place. More than that, actually. I felt like a voyeur. A liar.
A preacher said some words. Workers lowered a casket. People stood around for a while, then they left. Daryl’s mother approached me, thanked me for coming. She looked lost, like she’d been kidnapped and dumped in a desert, like she’d wandered for days, her mind addled from heat and thirst. She told me it wasn’t fair that Daryl had died, it didn’t make sense. He’d had a future.
“My son worked so hard, and now he’s gone,” she said, reaching for me, straightening my tie. “Tell me about Daryl. Tell me about my son.”
I could have told her any number of stories about Daryl. I could have told her about the time in fourth grade when I brought my GI Joes to school, and Roger Buchanan laughed at me and called me a pussy for playing with dolls, so Daryl told him to shut up and hit him in the face with a rock. Or I could have told her about all the times me and Daryl would sneak into the fields behind his house to play Marines, and how we’d annihilate entire enemy armies, just the two of us, and when some imaginary militant tossed an imaginary grenade, Daryl was always the first jump on it, to give his life for me. But I didn’t tell his mom any of those things. I tried. I didn’t know how to say them. When I opened my mouth, nothing came out but dry air.
Daryl’s mom asked me to come to her home and meet the out-of-state relatives. I made some excuse, apologized and left. My plan was to travel as far and fast as I could from that sad little town, but as soon as I turned onto the main road I felt too weak to drive. I pulled into the first restaurant I came across, not because I was hungry but because I needed somewhere to sit and think. It was a shit-hole restaurant, and none of the pictures on the menu looked appetizing, all gray and greasy.
Anyway I didn’t give a damn about food. All I could think about was Daryl, who would never be a pilot because we’d buried him underground. And how his mother wanted me to say something nice about her son, but I’d failed. I felt like my whole life had been that way. I’d wanted so much, but my wanting didn’t make it real.
At this point in time, it had only been a few years since I’d stopped believing in God. I could still remember how comforting it felt to trust that everything happened according to his will, to believe that even if I couldn’t make sense of his complex logic, all things—somehow—worked out for the best. And maybe, despite all appearances, there is a god. Maybe there are two: the god of life and the muddy hole where we buried my friend. Everybody spends so much time dreaming, but the only sure thing is there’s a hole waiting for us, someday, sooner than we know.
Light from the windows pushed impotently against the shadows of the diner. I made up my mind to order. I snapped the menu closed and looked around for a waitress.
There she stood, studying me from the doorway to the kitchen. Unmistakably Carmen—holding a pot of coffee like a sidearm. Unmistakably older—a thin streak of gray winding through her deep-black hair. Unmistakably pregnant—her dirty apron unable to hide the bulge beneath.
Our eyes locked. It was as if an invisible cord connected us. It had always existed, only it had grown long and loose from our years apart. Now its elasticity returned, dragging us together, drawn tight by the weight of Daryl’s corpse.
I saw her.
She saw me.
And I knew, and she knew.