Between her obscenely muscular new capoeira teacher, her crush going off with a new girl in their favorite park, and trigonometry homework, Kia figures she has enough going on without some creepy ghost causing car crashes and hit-and-runs in her neighborhood. Carlos Delacruz, the half-dead half-resurrected soulcatcher for the New York Council of the Dead, would love to keep her out of it, but things don’t usually go the way he intends. From the world of Daniel José Older’s immensely popular Bone Street Rumba series.
“What song is that, man?”
I don’t move. The rumble of this ambulance’s diesel engine fills the air again, the smell of night, the park around us. If I hold still, if Victor shuts the fuck up, if nothing happens for another few seconds, maybe I can sink back in, grasp hold of that fragile thread of an echo fading into the darkness.
I rub my eyes and then retrieve the coffee cup from the dashboard. The thread is gone; my past is still a void. “It’s nothing, man. Just some song I heard.” The coffee is lukewarm but strong as hell. Reality settles in fully around me. “Stuck in my head is all. You get a job?”
Victor shakes his head, “Nah, man, go back to sleep.” The ambulance radio crackles to life, a routine announcement that seat belts save lives, and then all we hear is the diesel putt-putt-putt and occasional snores from the passenger compartment where Victor’s partner Del is laid out.
“Look,” I say, “if some shit don’t go down by four, I’m out, man.”
Victor nods. “I’m telling you, it’s been every night, C. Without fail.”
“Maybe accidents do take vacations, after all.”
“Carlos, I’ve been doing this job for twelve years and I ain’t never seen a pattern like this. You know I don’t go in for all that woo-woo shit, either. I don’t get involved in your whatever weirdo life. No offense.”
“And I ain’t never come to you ’bout some shit in all the time I known you.” He retrieves a cigarette and starts smoking it out the window.
Around us, the park glowers with late night shadows and a few scattered lights. The metal bars of a playground swing glint out of the gloom, a silhouetted pyramid against the cloudy sky. Darkened brownstones peer from behind the trees on either side. If I say anything right now, Victor will interpret it as encouragement to speak more, so I light a Malagueña and glower along with the park.
Victor lets out a menthol-laced cloud and shakes his head. “Last night, a hipster on a bike got completely destroyed by a passing garbage truck. I mean, we were picking up pieces of him blocks away. The night before it was a prisoner who broke out of the precinct over there, made it halfway across the street before the desk officer popped him, and then he got sideswiped by a motorcycle. The dude got dragged like four blocks and when we got to him his back was hamburger, Carlos. Hamburger.”
I just grunt.
“Wednesday it was the suicide, that was on the far corner of the park over there. Jumped from the roof of that brownstone and lived, man. We had to decompress him, though, he had full on tension pneumo—tubed that ass and hauled it to Bellevue. Died in surgery.”
“Damn.” I have no idea what Victor’s going on about, but all medical jargon aside, he’s right. And three apparently unrelated gory deaths in a four-block radius is the kinda thing that puts me to work. He rattles off a few more while I smoke and ponder patterns and, inevitably, the past . . .
“You’re humming again.”
“Like, while I’m talking.” Victor narrows his eyes at me as I sit up and rub my face.
“Shit, man. Sorry.”
“It’s cool. I know you’re not used to the night life. Anyway, folks’ve started calling this place Red Square on the strength of all this. And I’m just saying, seems like the kinda thing . . . you might know something about.”
Vic’s never known how to talk about me being half-dead. It’s not his fault—I’ve never come out and said it to him. But gray pallor covers me like a layer of dust and my skin is cold to the touch. My heart rate never surpasses a melancholy stroll. Plus, I deal with ghosts. In fact, I’m employed by them: The New York Council of the Dead, a sprawling, incomprehensible bureaucracy, sends me in to clean up any messy irregularity in the rigid, porous borderlines between life and death. I mean, since I’m a walking messy irregularity of life and death, I guess it makes sense that the Council’d use me as their clean-up man, but the truth is, it gets lonely.
A whiny bachata song explodes out of Victor’s belt. He curses and his belly shoves against the steering wheel as he squirms into what must be some kind of yoga pose to dig out his phone.
“Ay, shut the fuck up with that yadda-yadda horseshit,” Del hollers from the back. Del is like eight feet tall with locks down to his ass. He’s from Grenada but he got hit by a school bus in the nineties and has been speaking with a thick Russian accent ever since. When he gets worked up, his brain clicks fully over into Russian—some shit the neuroscientists of the world are still going nuts trying to figure out.
Mostly people try to be really nice to him.
“Sorry, man!” Victor yells, cradling the flip phone against his face. “Hello? . . . Hang on.” He hands me the phone. “It’s for you, man. Some chick.”
The thought wreaks havoc on my slow-ass heart for a half-second before I clobber it into submission. Of course it’s not Sasha. There are eighty million reasons for it not to be Sasha, least of which being how the fuck would she have Victor’s number and know I was with him? And why would she care? She walked out on me with no forwarding address, and now all I have is a Sasha-shaped hole in my chest.
Anyway, I killed her brother.
I have to stop disappearing from the world like this. I ignore Vic’s raised eyebrow, take the phone, and say hello into it.
“Tell your buddy if he refers to me as ‘some chick’ ever again he’ll be driving his own ass to the ER.”
“Hi, Kia.” Kia is sixteen and will probably rule the world one day. For now though, she runs my friend Baba Eddie’s botánica. Started on the register, selling Amor Sin Fin and Espanta Demonio herbal mixtures, statues of saints, and beaded necklaces. Then she started managing the books, which were a disaster, and—without bothering to ask Baba Eddie—she set up an online store and proceeded to build what appears to be a small spiritual goods empire, one she rules with an iron fist. And all as an after school job.
“Isn’t it a school night? What are you doing up at 4:00 a.m.?”
“Returning your phone call.”
“That was like eight hours ago!”
“Alright, man, I’ll talk to you later, then.”
“Wait—you know anything about the park over on Marcy?”
“Know anything about it? I know a buncha motherfuckas been gettin’ got there recently. Usedta be my stomping grounds for a while, then I moved on. Is that where you are right now, C? You might wanna not be there.”
“I’m alright. Anything else?”
“This girl Karina I know from the rec center babysits a whole boatload of little white kids at that park. You want me to ask her about it?”
“If you don’t mind.”
“Imma see her tomorrow, maybe I’ll swing through with her.”
The radio crackles and Victor picks up the mic. “Five-seven x-ray. . . Send it over.”
“Be careful out there,” Kia says.
Victor put on his seat belt and cranes his head toward the back. “Del, we got a job.”
“Morgaly vikalu, padlo!”
“It’s been like three weeks now,” a little humpty-dumpty-looking middle-aged man in a bathrobe tells us. “I been coughing and hacking but this is different.”
Del towers over the guy, arms crossed over his chest, perpetual frown deeper than usual. “You’ve been coughing for three weeks, yes?” He says it like he’s about to launch into an eighty-thousand-page dissertation about vodka and agriculture reform. “And now you decide for to call 9-1-1, why?”
“Well, tonight I coughed up something different. You want to see?”
“I really do not want to see this thing,” Del says, but little oval-shaped dude is already rummaging through a layer of used tissues and medicine vials on his coffee table.
Victor scribbles the guy’s basic information down at the kitchen table. I’m sitting across from him trying not to gape like an asshole. “Is this normal?” I whisper. “People call you for this shit?”
He peers over his dollar store reading glasses at me for a hard second, then gets back to writing.
“Here it is!” the guy exclaims cheerfully. Then he erupts into a hacking fit. He passes a plastic Tupperware container to Del, who gingerly takes it in a gloved hand and peers in. He scowls and tips it toward us just enough for me to see a tennis-ball sized clump of tangled brown hair.
“The fuck?” I say before I can stop myself.
The patient shrugs. “I know, right?”
Victor shrugs too and then both radios in the room burst into frantic, static-laced growls.
Unit with a message, please repeat your assigned number and location. Unit with a message, please re— Another desperate scramble of static and yelling cuts off the dispatcher. Victor and Del both furrow their brows and turn up their radios at the same time.
I hear the words forthwith and imminent arrest come in, and then more static. The dispatcher releases an angry tone over the airwaves and yells at the units to stop stepping over each other.
I stand up. “What is it?”
Victor shakes his head. “Sounds like they’re calling for help.”
Marcy and Greene! Marcy and Greene! the radio screams. Forthwith! We have an imminent cardiac arrest. I need medics, I need backup, we about to roll.
Victor and I lock eyes. “The park,” I say.
He nods. “Go. We gotta wrap this up.”
At full speed, I move with ease. You don’t realize my left leg drags; this cane compensates just so, the full complex machinery of me lunging forward like a wave. It took practice, believe me. But I’ve had time. It’s been more than four years since I died in some unspeakably violent way at the foot of the ornate archway at Grand Army Plaza and then woke up days later in a phantom safe house on Franklin Ave, body broken and every memory shredded. I find new life in each moment like this: the midnight brownstones breezing past me, the siren song of something foul dragging me forward. This is life, and really, anything is better than the sheer emptiness of so many lost memories.
“The streets is hungry,” a little old lady mutters when I roll up, sweat-soaked and out of breath, at the southwest corner of Von King Park. She has a rusted old cart in front of her and a head scarf tied around her wrinkled brown face. “Streets be feedin’ when they hungry.”
A bloodstain the size of a trench coat shines up from the dark concrete at me. It catches the sickly orange glow of street lamps and pulsing blue emergency lights. They’ve already decorated the spot with police tape. The ambulance must’ve screeched off just before I got there; I hear its wail receding into the night. A few feet away from the bloodstain, a motor scooter lies in heap, like someone just crinkled it up and tossed it there.
The cop nearest to me has icy blue eyes and looks young and entirely unimpressed. I ask him what happened and he just shrugs and looks away. I turn to the old lady, still standing beside me and chewing her mouth up and down like she has the mushiest piece of steak in there she don’t wanna let go of.
“One’a them Chinese delivery boys,” she responds to my unanswered question.
“What hit him?”
She nods up the block some, to where a Daily News truck idles with its hazard lights on. A guy with a baseball cap and goatee stands outside, talking on his cell phone, eyes barely holding back tears. An ugly, human-sized dent marks the side of the truck.
I shake my head. “Damn.”
“Streets is hungry,” the old lady says again.
“You see anything right before? Anything weird?”
She turns her attention from the street; those ancient cataract-fogged eyes squint up at me. “Was just a small one, eh.”
“A small . . . what?”
She flinches, eyes back on the street, far away. “Don’t play stupid now.”
“A small ghost.”
“You see it clear?”
She shakes her head. “Just fleeting, like. Came and went, came and went.” She chuckles softly. “‘He’ll be back though, eh. He’ll be back, yes.”
Karina’s right: the new Capoeira teacher is fine as hell. The dude’s not even my type; I usually go for really overweight, darkskin dudes. He sits on a folding chair facing us in the big meeting room, his muscular arms crossed over his muscular chest. There’s a shiny bruise on his left cheek, but otherwise, his face is maybe perfectly symmetrical. Like, he might be an android, and right now his left eyebrow is raised slightly, making him look just the right combination of arrogant and thoughtful. He’s got big lips and a carefully trimmed goatee. Golden brown shoulders bulge out of that sleeveless shirt in a way that’s almost profane, like, just sitting there. Being all burly and shoulderful in front of a group of teenagers seems somehow inappropriate.
And I’m here for it. We all are.
“Thank you all for coming today, kids!” Sally says. Sally’s the white lady who runs things. She’s barely taller than the new Capoeira teacher and he’s sitting down. She looks like a sack of mediocre potatoes next to his glowing golden perfection. Shit, we all do. “I’m really excited to introduce you to Rigoberto, our new Capoeira instructor.”
“What happened to Gilberto?” Devon asks.
“You scared him off with ya loud-ass farting last week,” Karina tells him.
Devon flips her off. “Shut the fuck up.”
“You guys,” Sally says. “Let’s not do this, okay? Gilberto unfortunately had an altercation in a bar the other night and won’t be able to . . .”
“Somebody faded Gil?” Devon translates helpfully. “Shit.”
Tarik jumps up. “Wait! Gil gets faded at a bar and the new homey got a shiner? Y’all ain’t seeing what I’m seeing?”
A general murmur ensues. Sally looks vexed. “Guys, it’s Rigoberto’s first day here and—”
Mikey B. raises his hand. “Rigoberto a Dominican name right?”
Rigoberto smiles. Teeth: perfect. At least four audible sighs ring out. “Actually, I am from Brazil, like your last teacher.”
“You speak Spanish, man?” someone yells.
“Actually, in Brazil we . . .”
“Dumbass, he speak Brazilian.”
“Y’all so stupid,” Karina says. “He speaks Portuguese; now how ’bout we let the man talk and stop showing off how ignorant y’all are, ’kay?”
Laughter breaks out and then people settle down and look at Rigoberto. Sally smiles a little too broadly. “I’ll just let you talk to the kids now, Rigoberto. Thank you!” She skitters out of the room.
Rigoberto stands up. Dude must be six foot three, at least. He’s perfectly proportioned—each piece fits into the next just right, arms hang just right, his loose white pants fit just right. It’s almost sickening. “Hello, guys and girls,” he says with a doofy wave. “You can call me Rigo.”
“Do we have bulge?” Karina whispers, peering over Devon’s baseball cap.
We do. “We appear to have bulge,” I report.
Karina nods. “Confirmed bulge.”
“Rigo, you married, boo?” Kelly yells out. Everybody groans. I want to punch her in the face.
Rigo chuckles. It sounds a little forced. “Today we’re going to talk about Capoeira, yes? Not Rigo’s personal life.”
“Fat chance,” Karina mutters.
“Let’s begin by seeing what we know so far, okay? Because I don’t know this other teacher, Gilberto, yes? But he may be, how do you say . . . incompetent? Why don’t we have demonstration? Which one of you is Kia?”
My heart lurches into overdrive. I suck at Capoeira. And I hate standing in front of people. And. And. And. People are snickering and turning back to stare at me. Karina shoves my shoulder. Rigo searches our faces ’til his eyes lock with mine. He smiles that eerily perfect smile and says, “Ah, you are Kia? Kia Summers?”
I nod, praying he’ll change his mind, knowing he won’t. Why would he call me by name anyway? What kind of . . .
“Go!” Karina hisses in my ear. The moment has grown long, awkward. I stand, somewhat shakily, and make my way through the group to the front.
Rigo wears altogether too much cologne. It’s something synthetic and overbearing and it makes me dizzy. “You remember how to do a basic ginga?” He asks, smiling down at me.
I shrug. “I mean, kinda.”
“The ginga is the basic step of Capoeira, yes? Everyone has their own ginga. It is as personal as a signature. Just like everyone has their own rhythm.”
“Devon doesn’t!” Karina yells.
“When you understand the ginga, when you find your own . . .”—Rigo swings one leg back and raises his forearm toward me, then switches sides, moving so smooth it’s like he’s gliding a few inches above the wood-paneled floor—“it becomes like just walking down the street! You see? Natural. Come, we do it together.” I try to mimic him, sliding my left leg back and then shifting my weight to the right. I feel like a broken mannequin.
“Clap, kids, yes? For the beat?” He lifts his hands over his head and those thick triceps glare at me. I lose my entire sense of rhythm and have to start over. “Clap, clap!” Rigo yells, breaking into a syncopated beat in time with his hovering step.
The group claps more or less in time and I work my way back into a steady ginga.
“Yes, yes, very good!” Rigo yells over the clapping. “Now what happens when I go with one of these?” He spins; one foot anchors back and the other flies up toward me. I know this part—I’m supposed to dodge-bend backward like in The Matrix and then spin into some impossible acrobatic shit and kick. I arch back and throw myself off balance, hurl sideways and catch Rigo’s sneaker in the face.
Everyone in the room yells, “Oh!” as I stumble backward. I hear Rigo mutter, “porra!” and then feel a whoosh of wind brush past. Arms wrap around me. Thick arms. Rigo somehow evaporated and reappeared behind me. Again, audible swoons erupt, not all of them from the girls.
My hands are over my eye and Rigo’s hands are on my wrists. “Let me see,” he says softly. “Let me see. I’m so sorry, Kia. Let me see what I did.”
I shake my head. I probably look like one of those deep sea monstrosities right now, the hell Imma let Brazilian Ken gape at me.
“We probably need to ice it. Can you see? Kia?”
I relent. The collective gasp is all I need to tell me what an instant freak show I’ve become. Rigo scrunches up his face. “Is not so bad, minha. Let’s get some ice, okay?”
“I’ll take her!” Karina yells.
In the rec center health room, Karina informs me that I have a boyfriend.