Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

Las Cenizas

BY LATESHA HARRIS

They find the body when the snow melts. Washed up on the ravine bank, sniffed out by the dogs. The ground has barely started to thaw when Marcel tells me to go to my father’s office. He gestures for me to sit down―a wave of the hand that reads as more politician than parent―before inquiring whether I still dabble in hard drugs.

“No.”

Technically true.

“This isn’t about the campaign.”

“Yes.”

“They’ve located the missing Northview student.” My stomach turns, but I force myself to smile. I can’t hold it for long. My eyes fall back to the floor. “She overdosed.” My palms are clammy. He’s quiet. I scratch the skin behind my ear until liquid trickles, burning hot copper, down my fingers. “Stick with pot.”

I nod. I don’t know if he’s worried about me or the campaign.

“Stewart,” he says, and we make eye contact for the first time in months, “this is the important one. You need to stay in line.”

My heart’s beating so loud that I have to pop an oxy and crawl under my bed. After that’s done―it might be an hour or a day when I come out and wipe the dried snot from my face―I sit down to write the letter.

 

*

The missing person’s report wasn’t filed until February twenty-seventh, but her parents arrived at the police department on the twenty-sixth. She missed her Sunday call home. They must’ve taken the first flight out because Argentina is ten hours away from our town―a small, insignificant speck nestled between the mountains of North Carolina.

Mr. and Mrs. Delgado. Papá y Ma. Exactly how I imagined them: unable to speak without tortured requests for God’s mercy. Everytime someone spotted the Delgados in town, their hands were tightly intertwined as if fearful that the other would float away. Ignoring Commissioner Miller’s advice, they gave their press conference statement in Spanish, then English. They said she was the perfect daughter, a devout Catholic, the ideal student, and she always called home after mass.

I had to stand on the same stage as them. Between my mother and father; beside Northview’s president; behind Mr. and Mrs. Delgado.

I flinched whenever the cameras flashed. My father dug his nails into my shoulder and created small indentations―purple half circles that would scar later on. I was flying high but still had to step off the stage when Mrs. Delgado asked if the kidnapper wouldn’t mind bringing her daughter home. Behind a curtain, I emptied the contents of my stomach in a trash can. Marcel handed me a handkerchief. The reporters started to ask questions.

 

*

The letter’s pathetic, so I hide it in my weed tin at the back of my closet.

I stop sleeping in Horton. I must be too high to ride my bicycle because Marcel insists on driving me out of the cul-de-sac, through town square where everyone waves and I have to wave back, over the bridge, and onto campus for my classes.

“Good luck on the midterm,” he says as he pulls up in front of West Hall. “Your father wants you to stay in your dorm tonight; he’s having the mayor for dinner. We can pull an all-nighter at the gardens if you want.”

I mutter an agreement as Marcel slides me a cocktail of uppers. I take them without asking what they are.

The Delgados stop by to tell my father they’re taking her body home and thank him for his dedication to her case. They’re not holding hands.

 

*

Her name was Celeste.

It’s still the most beautiful name I’ve ever heard. Celeste Evangeline Delgado. It’s one thing to be well-known, and it’s another thing to be well-liked. Celeste was both.

She was the president of Lambda Theta Alpha, secretary of Northview International Student Association, and went to every volleyball game without fail. She was going to take an entry-level position at a law firm in Chicago after her graduation, only months away.

Everyone worshipped Celeste. She deserved it, but people loved the image she curated of herself. I was the only person who knew her.

 

*

The Delgados leave for Salta the next day. They’re going to spread her ashes.

Badges come to the house again. They ask to speak to Stewart. It’s not Rodriguez or Johnson. Not even Miller. These detectives must be from out of town.

My father, myself, and my mother sit on the loveseat. We all trade pleasantries. In the hallway, shadows flicker across Marcel’s angular face; I feel cold. After my father encourages the detectives to vote Barton for Governor, they start in on me.

“You told local authorities that you had never met Celeste Delgado.” The blonde says this. Detective Foreman. Stray rays of sun drift in from the window and turn Foreman’s irises into emeralds. I have to look away.

“We were in one course together my junior year.”

Technically true. I didn’t start planning my schedule around Celeste’s until recently. The full truth was that I had five classes with her in four years. Foreman could check the records, but I could easily claim that I didn’t know we were in the same class. We never sat together.

“Why did you lie to the officers before?”

Detective Zheng wastes no time. Even though she’s accusing me of obstruction of justice, she feels matronly. Her eyes are warm brown, and the laugh lines around her mouth are deep.

“I didn’t think sitting in a three-hundred person lecture meant that I knew her.”

“Based on the notes we received from the local police department, you’re one of the few students who claims to not know her. Some of the townsfolk even had nice things to say.”

That’s because she volunteered at Northview elementary on Thursday mornings. Every parent in town loved her. My neck flushes―a deep red that starts behind my ears.

“My son’s a bit of a loner,” my mother says, “not too many people know him on campus.” She’s got on her campaign-winning smile―bright red lips spread from ear to ear. I wish I trusted her.

“You seem to be quite the celebrity in town.” This is Foreman again, unbothered.

I scratch my head and feel flakes of dandruff floating onto my shoulder. I laugh, dry and quiet. I want to tell them that tomorrow is the one year anniversary of my baptism. Celeste christened me Stewie el globo de nieve Barton.

“This is our home,” my father says. He sounds sincere. “It takes a village to raise a child. Stewart is the town’s child. Just like me.”

I’m grateful my parents speak for me. The uppers wear off, and I need to cry.

 

*

Celeste studied in my room.

She rented a tiny studio at Mr. Morano’s to save money, but she was too busy to live there. She claimed that studying on campus was impossible because people kept interrupting to say hello. I always wondered what it must’ve felt like to speak to her in public.

I left an exam one day and found her in my chair, legs perched on top of my desk, reading Ernesto Sabato.

“Hi globo,” Celeste said before cackling in that obnoxious way. “How was the exam?”

I couldn’t focus on it. I thought about my father and his campaign and how mad he would be if he had to postpone my graduation again. I answered one question.

The thought of disappointing Celeste upset my stomach. I just wanted to smoke a bowl and sleep. Still, I undressed and crawled underneath my covers before muttering, “Fine.”

Before I could ask if she minded leaving me alone for the day, she climbed into bed. A whole foot shorter than me, she wrapped her arms around my chest with ease.

I started crying. I was so transparent to her. It should’ve made me uncomfortable. I grabbed her hand.

“It’s alright, cariño,” she said, “just breathe.”

 

*

My mother can’t look at me when the detectives leave. Marcel slides an upper into my hand. My father announces that he’s going to make sure the detectives get to their hotel just fine. I don’t know if he’s worried about me or the campaign.

I take an oxy and crawl under my bed.

I wish I had something of hers.

 

*

We weren’t fond of each other at first. I should be honest―I hated her. At most, she was indifferent towards me, which probably made me hate her more.

The first semester of my sophomore year, her freshman, she came to People Watcher’s club. In terms of registration and campus funding, it was technically an official club, but I spent the time getting stoned in the Quad and writing bad poetry. No one ever came. I was irritated when she interrupted.

“Is this the People Watcher’s club?”

“Yes?”

You’re Stewart Barton, right?”

“Yes.”

I hated that she knew my name. My eyes fell on the gold cross resting at the bottom of her throat, and I tried to restrain a frown.

“I thought more people would be here.” The wind blew. She hugged herself. Several charms hung off a gold bracelet around her wrist―when they clanged against each other, the air filled with the sound of small bells. “This is a weird time to have a club meeting.”

“I think you can see people better at night.”

She frowned and sniffed the air.

“Are you smoking marijuana?”

Anger churned my stomach. “No.”

“I won’t tell anyone,” she said quietly before sitting down beside me. She smoothed her skirt even though there was nothing wrong with it. “You should reconsider. Marijuana kills your brain cells.”

I was too high to remember if I scowled at her.

 

*

Even though I repeatedly told her that I would never incorporate any of her marketing and leadership ideas, Celeste kept coming to People Watcher’s club. Marcel reminded me to be hospitable, so I brought her appetizers every week. I said they were from Costco when I usually spent hours on new recipes I wanted to try. It wasn’t until the end of the semester that I noticed she was nice to be around.

It was the first time she laughed.

Celeste had only smiled and politely chuckled until that moment, so I jumped when she started howling. She gripped my knee with surprising strength. Her head fell against our tree.

“Stewart,” she gasped, “you’re really funny.”

A guy in a suit had ran past us. I made a dumb joke about Goldman Sachs. My face burned as I thanked her. The smell of jasmine drifted in the air when she leaned into me.

“Do you mind if I ask you something?” I nodded. Our faces had never been so close. I noticed the small mole underneath her left eye for the first time. “Why don’t people like you?”

“The chef in Horton likes me,” I said, dumbfounded. Celeste lacked the art of being subtle, but I think I liked that.

The corner of her lip twitched. “I like being here, but I’ve heard a lot of bad things.”

“I don’t talk to people. That might make them uncomfortable?”

“My friend told me you’re a drug dealer,” she blurted. Her mouth twisted to its side, and the words came out distorted. “Hard things, like cocaine and meth.”

I blinked. I was offended, but not enough to defend myself. Technically, I did have enough weed on me to be charged with intent to sell at any given time, but Rodriguez and Johnson would never think of it. “I take those, sometimes, but I don’t sell them.”

Celeste’s face fell. She became very formal and withdrew her hand from my knee. In equal parts, relief and disappointment flooded my system.

“I have to go,” she said.

“I would never do heroin,” I said lamely. She was already gone.

 

*

I stayed by the tree for an hour, fiddling with blades of glass after Celeste left, trying to ignore the growing pit in my stomach.

I called Marcel and he arrived in five minutes.

He drove me out of town for ingredients and we arrived to an empty house. I took a tab of acid before putting on my apron. Marcel took a seat at the island. Bored, he went over everything my father needed from me that week.

The sun started rising when I finished. I laid a blanket over Marcel, asleep on the loveseat, before leaving. My backpack was heavy with tupperware, but I still managed to bike over to Lewis, Celeste’s old residence hall, before the first bird chirped.

I waited in the lobby for two hours. Finally, she walked in the main door with her friend Jackie. Drenched in sweat, Celeste’s cheeks burned pink; they had just returned from a run. I cleared my throat, more to give myself confidence than anything, before standing. Celeste’s eyes widened when she noticed me. She avoided looking at me―Jackie glared―as they walked past.

I let it happen. She was almost at the side door when I called after her. It was quiet enough for her to pretend that she didn’t hear, so she didn’t turn around. I followed them. I called her name again, louder this time.

“Hello!” Her voice was a shriek as she turned around. “Can I help you?”

My heart fell into my stomach; her smile stretched from ear to ear but didn’t quite reach her eyes.

“I brought you something,” I muttered to the floor.

“You know Stewart Barton?” Jackie asked.

“I don’t,” Celeste said. She laughed, nervous, before amending, “I mean, we’re in Patel’s race and law together. We had to partner up.”

“Yeah,” I said, regretting everything. “I have your notes.”

“I actually wanted to talk to you about the project anyways.” She grabbed my arm and began to retreat. “See you later, Jack!”

Celeste led me down the stairs and into the basement. “What are you doing here?”

I handed her my backpack. Asado con chimichurri, mollejas, pastel con dulce de leche, and empanadas. “You said you missed food from home the other day,” I answered before staring at my shoes. There was a hole in the left one.

Silent, she stared at the various containers. My neck burned. Her voice wavered when she finally said, “These aren’t from Costco.”

“I guess not.”

Her eyes were glistening. “Thank you.”

“I hope the flavors are fine.”

She spoke as I turned to leave. “My parents sacrificed a lot for me to come to the United States. Nothing can go wrong. I don’t want to get in trouble.”

I nodded. I understood reputation. I told her she didn’t have to explain and wished her well with the summer internship in Texas. She kissed my cheek. I was surprised then, but not as much as I was when she showed up to People Watcher’s club in the fall.

 

*

“You understand that this is serious, right?” Detective Zheng asks. She’s cornered me outside of Horton. My father’s made it clear that I won’t be speaking to anyone without a lawyer present, but also refuses to hire one because he has nothing to hide. I think that makes me look guilty, so I offer Zheng a cigarette and play my role. “She was an international student; domestic authorities aren’t in charge anymore.”

“I’m not sure how I can help.”

Zheng wraps her lips around the cigarette. Her eyes are on fire, two embers burning in her skull. I blink the image away; the cocktail of uppers Marcel gave me earlier might’ve been too strong. She blows the smoke from the side of her mouth.

“We got a call from a Jacqueline Muñoz the other day. A member of her sorority, she graduated last year?” It’s not a question, so I nod blankly. Zheng’s annoyed with me. “Any reason she would tell us to look into you?”

“Your guess is as good as mine. I don’t know a Jacqueline.”

“Do you know anyone on this campus?”

I smile. “I’m good friends with the head chef in my building.”

Zheng tells me she’ll see me around before getting into her car and driving off. An urge overcomes me. I put the cigarette out on my wrist. It starts to burn as Marcel pulls up.

I get into the front seat while aimlessly rubbing the burn. Marcel’s silent, but his knuckles are white from gripping the steering wheel. When we pass by Mr. Morano, watering the petunias on his complex’s lawn, Marcel asks, “What did the detective say?”

“She got a call from Jackie.”

“That doesn’t sound good.”

It’s not.

 

*

On one of my birthdays, Celeste told me I was selfish. She wasn’t good with holidays or dates and I forgot to remind her, so I don’t think she knew.

I was researching carrot cake recipes when Celeste’s key turned in the lock. In one hand she held a bag of Chinese takeout, and in the other she held her phone to her ear.

“Ya lo hice,” Celeste said. Annoyance laced her voice. “Mami, okay. Okay. Okay.”

Celeste put the food on my lap without ceremony. She sat in my beanbag chair; the sight should’ve been funny―it swallowed her petite frame―but I’d never seen her so distressed. The panic in Celeste’s voice, steadily rising, was terrifying. It eventually plateaued and she returned to monosyllabic words that I could understand.

Later, I would realize that it wasn’t a Sunday. It must’ve been serious for her parents to call because they had to pay by the minute.

There were tears in Celeste’s eyes after she hung up. She wasn’t big on crying. I put down my lo mein and reached for her hand. “What’s wrong?”

“I think I’m mad at you,” Celeste said, pulling her hand away to wipe her eyes.

I blinked. “Could you elaborate?”

She removed her jacket. “I met your dad at the elementary school today.” My stomach turned. “He thought I was a janitor.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, at a loss for words. I never tried to sugar-coat my father for her.

Celeste sighed. She moved to the edge of my bed. A curl escaped her bun and cascaded down her shoulder. Through the window, the sun started to set and cast her in golden light.

“My dad lost his job last week, and my parents have been hiding it for me, but they did the math and I might have to leave school.”

“I’m sorry. Do you want money?”

Celeste grimaced. “I don’t need your money”

“You just said―”

“I’m not a charity case.”

“I know, I just―”

“It’s the principle, Stewart.” Celeste was on the verge of tears. “You have so much money. Your father has so much money. You can do anything and be anything you want to be and you’re a drug addict. It’s fucking selfish.”

“That’s … ” I didn’t know what to say―not fair? uncalled for? Really not how I want you to see me?

“I would kill to have your life.”

“I’d give it to you if I could.”

Celeste sighed again before reaching for her takeout. Silent, she chewed pieces of orange chicken. Eventually, she apologized: “I like your chicken better.”

 

*

She avoided me for a week after that. For the first few days, I thought it was permanent until I found piles of watermelon jolly ranchers scattered around my room. Small offerings.

One day, I left a psych lecture and found Celeste sitting on my bed, eating the cashew curry I left for her. She asked me who I knew in the financial aid office. They sent her a letter.

“I’m apparently a recipient of the M. R. Cel scholarship. I’ve never heard of that and I definitely didn’t apply.” Her features were hard, but there was a trace of tenderness in her voice.

I hummed absently before brushing a curl of her hair away from her face. “I’ve never heard of it either. Congratulations, though.”

Celeste inspected me. I held my breath. She raised her eyebrows. “I guess I should write a thank you letter.”

 

*

In a rare ten minutes of sobriety, I put the letter in a large manila envelope addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Delgado. I return to my dorm.

The police are at my door in the morning.

 

*

We spent the entire day together. I’d been sober for three months and hadn’t had any withdrawal symptoms in a week. She wanted to celebrate, so I drove her to the shore.

The longer we huddled inside of our sandcastle, the more I started to miss the moment. Celeste was going to graduate soon, and we had carefully avoided what that meant for us for months. I never said it aloud, but my stomach turned whenever I imagined the possibility of never seeing her again.

Celeste downed the rest of her Corona before asking, “You’re sure it’s fine that I still drink in front of you?”

Her curls, dark from the water, were slick against her face. “Of course,” I said. Celeste refused to ever go out, but she loved giggling and being tipsy. I was the only person she drank in front of, and I never wanted to give that up.

“I’m really proud of you,” Celeste said. Her thumb caressed my jaw.

“I’m really proud of you,” I said back. She grinned, revealing two deep dimples and a crooked canine tooth.

Celeste clamored onto her knees and started rifling in the sand. Eventually, she brought a handful to her nose and pretended to breathe deeply. My heart swelled.

“The wine in my home country has a much better flavor. Deeper, more rich.”

“Everything in Argentina tastes better than sand.”

Celeste pouted. “I’m a proud Sicilian, like Sophia!” Celeste learned English by watching reruns of the Golden Girls. Embarrassed, she avoided me for three days after telling me.

“Is that supposed to be an Italian accent?” I snorted.

She persisted. “Picture it: Sicily, 1922! Why are you laughing?”

“That’s terrible!”

Celeste threw her glass of sand in my face. My eyes were already closed in anticipation. I doubled over from laughter. My body shook so hard that tears spilled down my cheeks and onto my chest. The moment ended with me crying in Celeste’s arms.

After my tears slowed to a stop, Celeste dug around in her purse and pulled out my phone. I stared at her bracelet; I hadn’t noticed the new charm yet. Nestled between the moon and the peach was a small snow globe.

I took my phone from Celeste, and her lips brushed against my ear with a whisper of luck. I left our sandcastle and called my father. He sent me to voicemail three times before Marcel called. The sound of rambunctious chatter drifted across the phone, and I remembered the campaign fundraiser I was supposed to be at.

“What do you need, kid?”

“Can you put my father on the phone?”

“He’s busy. Do you need me to get you?”

“No. I really need to speak to him.”

Marcel sighed. A sound of rustling. A click―the phone disconnected. I went farther away from Celeste and our castle. The sound of waves lapping the sand became ominous. My phone started ringing.

My father spoke first. He sounded tired. “What?”

My words caught in my throat. I paused. In the distance, Celeste was standing on her toes, trying to line the top of the sandcastle with seashells. “I’m leaving Northview.”

“To do what?”

I wish I would’ve told him I had a plan. “I don’t know.”

On the other end of the line, my father remained quiet. Celeste lost her balance and fell into the sandcastle. A desire for drugs started in my bones and overwhelmed me. When my father spoke again, his voice was low and harsh.

“You continue to find ways to disappoint me. You have had the perfect life handed to you, but you’d rather fuck it up. If you leave Northview, you’re on your own. Don’t call me.”

 

*

Celeste eventually found me lying in the backseat of the car. She offered to drive us home. For four hours, the only sound was the soft rumble of the engine. When we arrived at Horton, I told her I needed to be alone. She said she understood, and she left.

It should’ve ended there.

I checked all over to find something to take. There were two oxys in a shoebox in the back of my closet. I debated about whether I should take both of them for a few minutes. Her key clicked in the lock as I was raising the pills to my mouth. She stepped inside.

Celeste’s voice was fragile. “What did he say?”

“Nothing important. Can you please leave?”

“You should talk to me.”

“I really need you to leave, Cel.”

Her eyes watered. “You don’t have to take those.”

Something tore. “What does it matter to you? You still won’t be seen with me in public. You both think I’m pathetic.”

“I don’t,” she said quietly.

“Get out.”

I had never yelled at her like that, and I know it must’ve scared her more than the idea of my relapse. Still, she stepped closer and wrapped her hands around mine. “We can go back to the clinic. I’ll drive.”

“I don’t need the clinic.” My resolve was weakening, and I resented that Celeste could do that to me.

“Whatever you do, I do, remember? If you take this pill, I have to take it too.”

It was the same test as always. The idea of everyone pulling on my strings overwhelmed me. I failed it.

Time slowed to a stop. I placed a pill on my tongue. Celeste’s eyes widened. I dropped the other pill in her hand and turned to crawl into bed.

She eventually settled in behind me. Celeste ran her fingers through my hair and didn’t make fun of my dandruff, another first for us. I started slipping, the distance between her and I growing farther and farther, as she explained that she mapped out her entire life path when she was ten. It didn’t involve a white drug addict.

I’ll always wonder if she said more than that.

I don’t blame her if she didn’t.

 

*

I woke up and Celeste wasn’t breathing. My hair was wet. A putrid stench erupted throughout the room. I’d forgotten that she drank five Coronas, but I never thought she’d actually take the oxy. She started throwing up, and I wasn’t there to make sure she stayed on her side.

She rolled onto her back, choked, and her tongue, dripping with brown vomit, lolled out of her mouth. She died with her eyes open.

I scrambled for my phone. I wanted to call an ambulance, but Marcel was on the other end of the line. He arrived in five minutes. I followed his instructions as we wiped down my dorm and erased all evidence of her existence in my life. Everything was fine until he said we had to burn the body.

“What?” I turned to him, in the woods, under the cover of night. He repeated himself. “We’re not doing that.” Marcel grabbed me by the shoulders. Tears were freely streaming down my face. “Please don’t burn her body.” Hysteria was creeping in.

“You have done a lot of fucked up things and I have always covered for you. This is too far. We need to get rid of her.”

“I didn’t do it.”

“It doesn’t matter what you did, it matters what it looks like.”

“You’re not burning her.”

I pushed past him to run to the car. Marcel tried to pull me back. We traded off throwing each other against his trunk where my best friend was dead, wrapped in dorm sheets. He broke my nose. I threw up and started sobbing at his feet.

We threw the body in the ravine. It started to snow and didn’t stop for two weeks.

I don’t know if I was worried about myself or my father’s campaign.

 

*

I start out calm. I respond to their questions with short, monotonous phrases. My campaign voice. An overdose isn’t a homicide. I’ve never spoken to her. They request an alibi for the nights of the twenty-fourth and the twenty-fifth. I was at home. Not my dorm, but my parent’s house. I stutter. They slap handcuffs on me and try to guide me out of the room. They’re saying they found DNA under her fingernails. I start yelling. Get your hands off me. Do you know who the fuck I am? They slam my head against the doorframe. I start crying. It was an accident. I didn’t know she took it. I loved her, I loved her. They walk me out of the dorm, down the stairs, through the lobby, out of the building, past my father and his constituents.

 
 


LaTesha Harris (BSJ20/MSJ20) is a writer and current student at Northwestern University. Harris’s work reflects the terror in the mundane―her literary prose interrogates personal truths behind our most disturbing headlines. Harris has studied under prize-winning authors such as Shauna Seliy, recipient of the Mary Roberts Rinehart National Award for emerging writers, and Sheila Donahue, Randall Jarrell Fellow and recipient of the Academy of American Poets prize. In her free time, Harris can be found analyzing Alfonso Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También (2001) from a Queer-Marxist lens. Follow her on Twitter here.

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