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Authors: Gary Soto

The Afterlife

BOOK: The Afterlife
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The Afterlife
Gary Soto

HARCOURT, INC.
Orlando Austin New York San Diego Toronto London

Copyright © 2003 by Gary Soto

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or
transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical,
including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval
system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be
mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc.,
6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

www.HarcourtBooks.com

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Soto, Gary.
The afterlife / Gary Soto,
p. cm.
Summary: A senior at East Fresno High School lives on as a ghost after
his brutal murder in the restroom of a club where he has gone to dance.
1. Mexican Americans—-Juvenile fiction. [1. Mexican Americans—Fiction.
2. Ghosts—Fiction. 3. Murder—Fiction. 4. California—Fiction.] I. Title.
PZ7.S7242Af 2003
[Fic]—dc21 2003044995
ISBN 0-15-204774-3

Text set in Dante
Designed by Linda Lockowitz

H G F E

Printed in the United States of America

This a work of fiction. All the names, characters, and events portrayed in this book
are the product of the author's imagination. Any resemblance to any event or actual
person, living or dead, is unintended.

For Chanah Cossman and Mark Lasher,
Health Providers of West Fresno

Chapter One

W
HEN YOU'RE
an ordinary-looking guy, even
feo,
you got to suck it up and do your best. You got to shower, smell clean, and brush your teeth until the gums hurt. You got to dress nice and be Señor GQ. You got to have a little something in your wallet. You got to think,
I'll wow the
chicas
with talk so funny that they'll remember me.
This was my lover-boy strategy as I stood in the restroom of Club Estrella combing my hair in the mirror over the sink. I was going to meet Rachel at the dance—Rachel, the girl in the back row in English, the one whose gum-snapping chatter made Mrs. Mitchell's brow furrow. I shook water from my comb and plucked the teeth like a harp. I brought the comb back into my hair again. I had to get it right.

It was from happiness, I guess, that I turned to the guy next to me. I said I liked his shoes. They were yellow and really strange to a dude like me who clopped about in imitation Nikes but on that night was wearing a pair of black shoes from Payless. I looked back at the mirror and noticed a telephone number carved with a key in the corner—265-3519. I let my mind play: I could call that number. I could say, "Your numbers on the mirror, girlie." I pictured someone like Rachel answering and roaring a frosty, "So!" Then she would be cool, come on strong, and ask, "What's your name, tiger? What's your school? What kind of ride you got?"

Ride? I had a bicycle with a bent rim and a skateboard from junior high somewhere in the garage. But a ride? It was Payless shoes made of plastic. Shoes I was going to toss in the closet once the night was over.

But the private world inside my head disappeared quickly. The guy next to me, the one with the yellow shoes, worked an arm around my throat, snakelike, and with his free hand plunged a knife into my chest. He stuck me just left of my heart, right where I kept an unopened pack of Juicy Fruit gum—I had intended to sweeten my breath later when I got Rachel alone. I groaned, "No way," and touched that package of gum as I turned and staggered. He lunged and stuck me a second time, just above my belly button—blood the color of pomegranate juice spread across my shirt. I thought,
This is not me,
and leaned against a sink, grimacing because that one hurt. My legs buckled as I turned and straightened when he stuck me in my lower back. I cried, "How come?" I saw myself in the mirror, my breath on the glass, a vapor that would disappear. I breathed on the surface and saw, in the reflection, the guy stepping away and looking at the ground as if he had dropped a quarter. Then, chin out, he stepped toward me, pulled out the shirttail from the back of my pants, and wiped his blade.

"What did you say to me,
cabrón?
he breathed in my ear. He smelled of a hamburger layered with onions.

My answer was on the glass. It was a blot of my breath, a blot of nothing. I couldn't form a word because of how much I hurt.

The guy in yellow shoes pushed me away. He put his penknife into his shirt pocket like it was a pen or pencil. He pulled a paper towel from the dispenser, and wiped his face as if his meanness could be stripped away. He coughed once. I could have used some of that air he was exhaling—I was starting to pant, worried because my lungs couldn't fill.

He inspected his hands and discovered freckles of blood on his knuckles. His thumb erased some of the freckles. He washed his hands in the basin and left the water running.

"You hurt me," I groaned, then collapsed to the floor, where I lay curled up, blood pouring evenly from three holes. When I swallowed, I tasted blood. Blood rolled over the lenses of my eyes. My body began to shudder, and I wanted to stop it, but how?

"So?" he hissed, and flicked the wadded-up paper towel at me. He pulled open the door, and the last I saw of him were his yellow shoes. I pillowed my head on my arm, moaned. The floor was cold and dirty, with tracks of shoe prints. It was the territory of mice and cockroaches, but I was neither. I closed my eyes. When I opened them a minute later, I was dead.

MY NAME
is Jesús, named after my father, whose own father was Maria Jesús, born in the 1940s in Jalisco, Mexico. But I was known as Chuy at East Fresno High. There was nothing really special about me—I ran cross-country, ate my lunch with friends, and with those same friends, all average looking like me, crowded around the fountain eyeing girls. It had been a good life until now.

As I rose out of my body, I realized that the pain was gone. But so was my last year in high school. So was the fall dance, my time with Rachel, who was not yet
mi novia
—my girl—but might have been if I could have brought her into my arms and convinced her that I was one marvelous thing. That evening I would have had every chance. After all, I had borrowed my uncle Richard's Honda, which was tricked-out and lowered like a cat, with ten-inch speakers in the panels and clear lights that cut a path on dark streets. My uncle, only seven years older than me, was a true guy—he had filled up the gas tank for me, vacuumed the floor mats, and run a rag over the dash. He had even replaced the air freshener, a tiny cardboard tree that swayed under the dash when later I took a sharp corner, tires chirping. The wind of those turns helped scent the air with pine.

When my friend Angel and I came to pick up his car, Uncle Richard tossed the keys at me and then put me in a headlock. "You dent my ride, and I'll kill you!" he threatened with a mean smile, and maybe meant it. But someone else had killed me first, the guy in yellow shoes, and I hadn't even driven more than ten miles in Uncle Richard's ride—the gas tank was still full.

This was a Friday night on what had been an ordinary October, and the first pumpkins were being set out on porches. Families, I suspected, were already buying five-pound bags of candies for the troops that would show up in a week. Leaves were falling, and the lawns were growing more damp every night. The chilly mornings put people in sweaters and coats.

But I was not going to be around for Halloween, the last year, I had vowed, that I would go trick-or-treating. Me and some friends had intended to put on masks and go door-to-door, croaking in our teenage voices, "Trick or treat." If the homeowners had ripped off our masks, they would have discovered boys that were really men. My good friend Jason, in fact, already had a beard.

But I wasn't going to be around. On that Friday night, I rose from my body and wavered like smoke and stared at
myself
crumpled on the floor. My wounds were gashes that resembled the gills of fish searching for air. They were still pulsating as blood seeped and flowed to the right corner of the rest-room. The floor was red, sticky. I remembered a time I spilled strawberry Kool-Aid when I was little, maybe six, and trying to show
mi papi
that I was a big man—big enough to carry the pitcher to the kitchen table. But I spilled the Kool-Aid, and he spanked me because I did bad.

But what bad had I done now? I rose like a ghost. I gazed at my body, the pile that was my young skin and hard bones. My eyes were open, but they couldn't see me, for the light behind them was gone. My fingers were curled, as if I was ready for a fight. But there was no fight in me. I felt shame because I noticed the crotch of my pants was wet. Did that happen during the stabbing, or in death? It must have been after I died that my bladder released its water. I prayed that was how the body worked when you're brought down with a blade. I hated the thought that my father would pull back the sheet and look at me, his son with legs splayed and presenting a wet crotch for all to see. The shame of dying during one last piss.

A ghost with the weight of a zero, I rose still higher. My body was lean because I was seventeen, a long-distance runner for the school, and a Saturday weight lifter in my garage. I was also an occasional brick hauler for my dad, a mason for the city who sometimes got jobs on the side. I worked side by side with my dad, his only child, shouldering bags of cement from the pickup truck to backyards.

The ghost that was me hovered over my body and watched a guy come into the restroom rapping words to a song about a street killer. I'm sure he thought he was sweet, all
suave,
as he spun his own made-up rap song about death and drive-bys. But his off-key singing stopped. His mouth became an open sack when he saw me—my body, I mean—and saw that he had accidentally stepped in a puddle of my blood. He made a face at his shoes, black ones just like mine, and scraped them against the floor to rid them of bloody tracks that would follow him out of the restroom, tracks that would quickly grow faint with each step. He left the restroom in a hurry. He called the name Julio three times, each time a little louder, with greater urgency, as if he were the one stuck, not me. Who was Julio but a friend, a
carnal,
who tagged along with him that evening. Dudes, like
chicas,
never show up at dances alone; they go in pairs and return home in pairs unless one of them gets lucky. Like Angel and me. Angel was my friend on the dance floor, circling like a shark and resembling a shark—he had pointed teeth and hair that stood up like a fin. But he was a good dude, really, though more desperate than me to swing into the arms of a girl. And he was uglier than me, plus a little bit chubby around the middle.

I was waiting for Julio and the guy with my blood on the soles of his shoes to return.
They'll come in,
I thought,
and help me to my feet,
even if it meant getting blood on their shirts and ruining the evening for them. They'll call an ambulance—one of them had to have a cell phone. But before people rushed in to see about the noise, I saw my body quiver one more time.
Dang,
I thought.
I'm going. I'm growing cold.
I imagined the cold traveling up my throat to my face and pressing against my eyes. They would close, and I would really be dead.

Suddenly my ghost settled back in my body, and for a moment I felt myself breathe—my legs shuddered, then stilled, and I let out a hiss like the sound of a tire going flat. I had returned to life, and then died a second time.

I felt myself—the ghost, I mean—again slip from my bones and drift toward the ceiling. I thought:
What's happening?
I wanted to hang on to the sink or grip something to keep me at ground level. I wanted to remain next to my body, but I was light now that I had no body for an anchor. I floated toward the rack of fluorescent lights. I drifted through the ceiling, the pink of insulation, and the tarred shingles. I found myself on the roof, the air-conditioning unit of the nightclub roaring. I rose higher, and thought I was going to pee again when I drifted off the roof and hung in the air. I looked down and spied two dudes sparking up in the parking lot. They were leaning on Uncle Richard's Honda. I wanted to holler, "Get your dirty
nalgas
off the car!"

But I whispered to myself, "Man, I'm flying." I felt any second that I was going to drop like a sack of cement and burst open. But I flew and fought my instinct to flap my ghostly arms; after all, isn't that how birds stay in the air? I floated between the nightclub and a boarded-up insurance company, floated above the parked cars, and the dudes and
chicas
at the entrance, all of them trying to get in through double doors smeared with the fingerprints of hair-spray, cologne, and adolescent sweat. I recognized my
primo
Eddie, a year older than me at eighteen, a high school dropout studying air-conditioning at City College. "
Primo,
" I called, but he couldn't hear me. I looked up at the sky. The moon was nearly full and dented as a hubcap.

In the distance, the sirens of an ambulance and fire truck were wailing for me. Or, at least, for that body on the bloody floor of a dirty restroom.

THE GRAVITY OF
my new status as a ghost began to sink in as I hovered above the roof. I was amazed by this transformation, and by how in my heart I didn't harbor hate for the dude who stuck me. It was weird. He had just taken my life, but I wasn't angry with him. In real life, people would just look at me and I would get mad. But where was my anger now? Maybe in death all that goes. And fear, too. I wasn't scared at all.

I watched the sky until the dark paled and the sun rose pink as a scar. By then the night wind that flaps laundry and trees had vanished.
La chota
—the police—had come and gone, along with the ambulance that carried my body to wherever the dead are bathed and tidied up before they are lowered into the ground. My uncle came and picked up his Honda, and I saw him hammer the steering wheel with his palm. He buried his face into the steering wheel, sobbing. He drove away, scattering the leaves that had gathered around his tires.

BOOK: The Afterlife
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