As I Descended
Maria kissed Brandon on the cheek, the way she did when she wanted to make him laugh. It didn’t work this time.
He shrugged. “We can talk about this later, I guess.”
Maria nodded and promised to meet him during dinner tomorrow at the corner table by the salad bar, where they could talk without being overheard.
She’d have to figure out some way out of it between now and then. There was no way she could tell Brandon the truth.
Maria wished she’d never told him about any of it. The mirror on her grandmother’s porch—or the strange things that had happened when she was younger.
It was just that before Lily came along, Maria had never had anyone to talk to. Not anyone who actually understood her. Brandon was so good at listening.
It had been that way ever since he’d first come to Acheron. They’d put him at the bio table next to Maria’s, and when he’d been too squeamish to slice open his fetal pig, Maria had snuck over and done all his incisions at lightning speed. Maria, it turned out, was something of a fetal-pig-dissection prodigy.
They sat together at lunch after that. Brandon gave Maria his yogurt as a thank-you present. He told her she had the prettiest eyes he’d seen since Enrique Iglesias’s. Maria asked who Enrique Iglesias was. They’d been best friends ever since.
That was before she got to know Lily. Before she understood what it meant to really care about someone. To feel like you’d disappear into the air if that person wasn’t always right beside you.
But it took years for Maria to understand that. In the meantime, she told Brandon about all of it. The voices that whispered outside her room at night when she was little, low enough that she couldn’t make out the words. The time in kindergarten when she woke up in the middle of the night to see her Raggedy Ann doll laughing at her from the shelf over her bed.
About how sometimes, even in the middle of August, she’d walk past a certain spot in a room and feel an icy chill, the room growing so cold she could see her breath. She’d know someone was watching her, but when she turned, she saw only her own shadow.
She’d told Brandon about the worst time, too. She’d been eight years old then. She was fast asleep when she felt a weight settling onto the edge of her bed. She opened her eyes, expecting to see her mother, but the room was empty, save for that icy chill. And the faint outline of a little boy with black eyes sitting on the foot of her bed.
The boy whispered her name.
Maria had screamed, and Altagracia had come running. Maria told her about the boy, and Altagracia searched her room from floor to ceiling. She didn’t find anything, but Maria knew what she’d seen. What she’d felt.
That was when Altagracia first told her about La Llorona. She was a guardian angel, Altagracia said. She watched out for girls like Maria and protected them fiercely. She’d watched out for Altagracia, too, when she was a girl. As long as La Llorona was with her, and Maria hid her fear, she’d be safe from the dark spirits that walked the earth.
Maria had forgotten all about La Llorona, and Altagracia too. She’d thought about her old nanny only a handful of times since she’d come to Acheron.
Today, though, Maria hadn’t been able to stop thinking about either of them. Ever since she’d listened to the audio from their Ouija session.
Most of the recording was Brandon giggling and shuffling papers around, but the knocking was there, too. It sounded ten times louder on the playback than it had last night.
As soon as the knocking ended, the humming began.
On the recording, Maria recognized the tune the voice had been humming in her ear. Something about it was a little off, but it sounded like “Estoy Contigo.” The song Altagracia used to whistle under her breath as she baked.
“Estoy Contigo.” In English, it meant “I Am with You.”
Maria couldn’t quite make sense of it all. There had to be an explanation. Some key answer that connected all the pieces.
Altagracia had died the summer before Maria’s first year at Acheron. She could’ve become a spirit, Maria supposed, and followed Maria away to school. To protect her from the dark spirits, like La Llorona.
That all felt so far away now, sitting on the floor of her dorm room, surrounded by the people who made up Maria’s new world. The Truth or Dare game had gotten off track. Caitlin and Ryan were kissing on Maria’s bed. Austin and Mateo were telling dumb jokes. Delilah was wearing that idiotic look she always got when she was high and playing with her stupid plastic lip gloss tube.
Maria peered down at her notepad. She should really double-check the math, but she was sure she’d gotten it right.
That afternoon she’d gotten back her French extra-credit paper, an essay on the paradox of free will in L’Étranger. That paper counted as an extra test grade, and she’d gotten an A-plus. When she factored that in to her overall grade, it canceled out the quiz from the week she’d had bronchitis and brought her semester average up to a solid A.
That made Maria’s GPA exactly the same as Delilah’s. As of today, they were tied for first in their class. If graduation were held right now, they’d be co-valedictorians.
“Lo que es segundo sera primero,” the Ouija board had said.
That which is second shall be first. Maria had only been behind Delilah in the class rankings by a tiny fraction of a point. Numbers three and four in their class, Lily and Mateo, were far behind them, out of the running.
The spirit in the board had been right.
Valedictorian. Maria could feel it. Standing up on that stage, clutching the podium with her fists, every set of eyes in the room on her. They’d all know she’d earned it. If she could talk her history teacher into letting her do one more extra-credit project, she could surge ahead in the class rankings when Delilah wasn’t even looking.
But it was only November. Between now and graduation there would be more papers. More tests. More chances for Delilah to cheat and screw her way back into first place.
And even if things stayed the way they were, being tied for first in the class wasn’t enough to push her over the edge for the Kingsley Prize.
Being valedictorian wouldn’t make her soccer captain. Or class president. Or even homecoming queen. Not as long as Delilah Dufrey still reigned.
“It’s all such bullshit,” Maria muttered.
“Sorry, what?” Mateo turned back to her, raising his eyebrows.
She leaned back against the bed. It was a fight just to keep her eyes open. Until she spotted Lily smiling their private half smile at her.
Lily was the only person here who actually mattered. The one Maria could honestly say was her equal. No, not her equal; Lily was better than Maria in every way that mattered.
Lily drew her eyes away from Maria after a long minute. She was in the same spot on the edge of her bed where she’d been since the party began, talking to Tamika about how hot their French teacher, Monsieur Seyton, was supposed to be. Tamika was shooting angry looks at Caitlin and Ryan at the same time.
“Hey, I have a story,” Maria said suddenly.
Everyone turned to look at her. “What, another ghost story?” Mateo said.
“Yeah.” Maria wasn’t sure what had made her want to talk about this. Now that she’d started, though, she couldn’t stop. “There was a huge fire here back in the sixteen hundreds. Everyone on the whole plantation died. The family that lived here, their slaves, even their animals. First, though, they all had to go into this dark tunnel underground. Everyone was packed so tight they couldn’t move. That’s where they died. It was pitch-black, and the smoke was so thick no one could see anything except the fire. All you could hear was screaming. Thousands and thousands of screams.”
The room was silent for a long moment. On Lily’s side of the room, the candle flames danced in the darkness.
“Did you make that up?” Caitlin finally said.
Maria shook her head, though she couldn’t remember where she’d heard that story. She hadn’t realized she’d known it until just now.
Huh. Something didn’t feel right.
She took another long drink. Half a can, gone. Still, her alcohol haze was fading as quickly as it had come on.
Lily looked at her pointedly. Telling her to act normal. She was right. Maria blinked fast, trying to shake off this feeling.
“This is dumb,” Austin said. “Enough stupid stories. I dare two girls to make out with each other.”