In my time doing what we do, I have been in some godforsaken places in the middle of nowhere, including places where it’s not safe to be a woman, places where it’s not safe to be brown, and places where it’s especially not safe to be a brown woman. But I have never been so sure that everyone in the damn room was some kind of serial killer as I was when I got to this place in Florida that Natalia said to meet her at. Seriously, rural locals with three teeth in their mouths and taxidermied animal heads all over the walls. And not, like, well-taxidermied, either. Some of them had crossed eyes, or their jaws were crooked, or they had so much dirt on them that I’m pretty sure that abuelito was the last one that dusted them off. It was creepy as fuck and did not make me feel good about the case we were about to take on.
Considering my usual driving speed, I was the first one to show up, but Wayne wasn’t far behind. I was very surprised when Shandi showed up next: I hadn’t seen her since last year, when I met Domino, before we found out about their little…issue. Now I felt terribly sorry for her; she’d gotten free of that mess, but Domino was gone and she had no one left in the world to support her through it. I swore to do my best to be a friend. I was also pretty sure that the guy with the shiny shoes and the haircut that screamed “military” was one of ours, though I’d never met him. He eventually introduced himself when Nat and Mathias showed up, calling himself Marshall and giving the rest of us a bit of the stinkeye.
Nat was just about to brief us when the Statie cruiser pulled up out front, and you know Mathias and I were about to drop under the table, just in case. We breathed a sigh of relief, though, when the passenger side door opened up and Taz tumbled out, waved to the driver, and wandered in to join us. As soon as she did, Nat gave us all of the information she had on Camp Northstar, the girl that was currently missing, and some other kids that had previously disappeared on their way to this camp. Some of us did did some preliminary investigation and found out that the camp was located in a swamp area that was pretty well known as the place to go if you want to off yourself, and that the area was also historically known for the presence of one particular conquistador fighting against the local indios.
So, after all this, we changed into our camp uniforms, which, ay yi yi, were the most disgusting flammable polyester synthetic garbage I have ever put on my body in my life. The things I do for my friends, I tell you. We headed to the supply shop next door to pick up a few last minute things and…you know how in the horror movies that happen out in the woods, there’s always that last gas station, with the guy in the overalls who looks about a hundred years old and only has one crooked yellow tooth sticking out of his mouth? Yeah, we met that guy. He tried to warn us off going to the camp, said that nothing good ever comes out of the swamp and that most things don’t come out at all. He said he’d lost his son out there, and that most of the locals know better than to even set foot in the area.
Actually driving into Camp Northstar was sort of like driving into one of those gated neighborhoods where all the rich white people live. It’s all swamp and half-dead trees, and then all of a sudden there’s flat lawn, with beautiful green grass and impeccable landscaping and an open gate with a path leading to the parking lot. Camp Director Chris Scott was there to meet us, plus obnoxiously happy “Cyndi-with-an-i” and a couple of other staff members, including the camp nurse. We got a quick tour and then Cyndi showed us to our cabins. Taz and I were assigned to Capricorn cabin with some girls who have done a little time, and who Cyndi dismissively called “the juvies”. Okay, bitch. Take your privileged white ass somewhere else then, yeah?
They gave us a little time to settle in and look around, and then it was time to meet up with the kids and get camp started. They were mostly the money-looking type, especially the “special” van full of douchey little dudebros. But Taz’s and my chicas looked like a decent group, and I think maybe they appreciated not getting stuck with plastic Barbies for counselors, because they seemed to like us from the beginning. We got them back to the cabin, and I think we probably won some cred with them when one of the first questions we asked was what they had been in juvie for. What? You never know what kind of skill set is going to come in handy! We ended up with arson, assault, larceny, and possession with intent to distribute, most of which can be useful in our line of work.
We spent some more time getting to know our girls and then headed down to dinner. Just as we were re-spraying the bug spray and grabbing flashlights and jackets before heading down for the night’s campfire, I got a text from Nat asking me to come and take her girls down to the firepit. When I got there, Shandi was freaking out about something and Nat was trying to calm her down, so I herded her girls together and took them down to the fire as well. As I was arriving, I noticed that Marshall was upset about something as well, and Wayne seemed to be trying to get him to talk about it. The campers settled in for the campfire, and as I surveyed the crowd, my phone buzzed with another text, this time from Mathias: Shandi thought that she had seen the vampire that had held her and Domino in thrall, staring at her from the woods even though she was supposed to be dead. Like Dead dead. Mierda, just what we needed. A quick word to Taz, and her impromptu whittling lesson turns into a “tent-stake” carving lesson, with the product quietly being passed around to those who knew what to do with it.
Nat, Aaron, and Shandi finally arrived, and as Taz and I wandered over to talk to them, Wayne joined us with an…interesting piece of information: apparently Marshall had also seen something that scared the shit out of him and, while he wouldn’t say exactly what it was, it definitely wasn’t a vampire. So now we’re left to wondering: are these things really here? Or is something making people see the things that scare them most? We need more information, but then the dudebros show up, all wearing red friendship bracelets from the Arts and Crafts building. This is odd, because Nat is supposed to be in charge of Arts and Crafts, and she hasn’t been in there at all since we got here. Huh.
Once the campfire was done, a couple of people resolved to get their kids back to their cabins and then try to sneak into the Arts and Crafts building and see if they could figure out if there was something weird going on in there or not. The rest of us were going to settle in and see if they brought back any information. Taz put Tiera, our girl with the arson rap, to work whittling more stakes and making torches with the sleeves that Wayne had cut off his uniform shirts. As far as I know, Mathias and Shandi set out to go case the place just like they planned, and not long after, there was a bit of yelling. Taz ran out to see if she could help, and I stayed with our girls because I sure as hell was not about to leave them alone if there was something haunting this swamp tonight. Seguidito, there was a lot of screaming, and Dios mio, I wanted to go out there and do something, but I wasn’t leaving my girls. I knew, given the reaction Cyndi-with-an-i had had to them, that no one else would lift a finger to help them if I didn’t.
I looked out the window to see if I could figure out what was going on and…my blood ran cold. It couldn’t be. There’s no way. She was dead. She’d been dead since I was nine. We buried her at St. Thomas’s. But I swear, by everything holy that my mother is standing right outside that window, staring at me, looking just like she did the week before she died: painfully gaunt, immobile, eyes begging for release. She’s standing right there, Jesus, I can’t do that again, no puedo, por favor, no puedo, no puedo…and then she’s gone and I’m choking on a breath that’s stuck in my throat, standing, frozen, by the window. Just as I’m about to come back to myself, my pocket buzzes. I pull out my phone and read the text:
We need to reevaluate things when we’re done. -Dr. Cunningham
My vision goes white and I think I hear my phone hit the floor. My mind is somewhere else; somewhere where thinking is not a thing I need to worry about, maybe not ever again.
When my brain turns back on, I can only think, “Jesus, Mal, what the fuck? I love you so goddamned much. What happened? What did I do? Why are you doing…”
“Miss Eva? Miss Eva, I don’t know what you got goin’ on right now, but there’s a lot of people screamin’ out there, and I think somethin’s on fire.” That’s Maria, my girl with the larceny rap. Lourdes, possession with intent, is pushing into my hand a bottle of something that she managed to smuggle into camp. I take a long drink of what is either paint thinner or incredibly cheap tequila, just as someone urgently knocks on the door. I focus a little more, then nod to Maria to open the door. It’s Mathias, looking wrecked, with Chris Scott standing a short distance behind him.
“Eva, are you okay? You…don’t look okay. Look, they’re sending everyone down to the fire pit. Why don’t you send your girls down there and sit with me for a sec.” I nod, and give the girls the okay to head out, then step out of the cabin and sit on the top step of the stoop.
“What’s going on?” he asks quietly, trying to keep the conversation as private as possible.
At some point, one of the girls must have put my phone back in my pocket, because it’s there when I reach for it, showing him the text as my tears begin to flow. My voice quavers, “Jesus, Aaron, I think she left me.”
“Are you sure this is her? There’s no way this could be someone else trying to screw with you?”
“Something has to be going on. I don’t believe she would just drop it on you like this. We’ll figure out what the deal is. But Eva, there’s some top of the line bad shit going on here. Are you good?” I wiped my eyes and nose with the hem of my shirt, took a deep breath, and nodded. We headed to the fire pit, joining up with Nat along the way. She sensed that I wasn’t right and, realizing that we didn’t have time to talk about it now, convinced me to meet her and Mathias for drinks once this damn case was over.
It wasn’t until we got to the firepit that I found out that the thing that had been on fire had been a spectral conquistador. And Taz. And Shandi. Taz survived. Shandi didn’t. I felt sick. Jesucristo, perdóname, I should have been there. Instead of losing my mind over stupid emotional shit I should have been trying to save the person I promised to be a friend to. What the fuck is wrong with me? Since when is my emotional shit more important than keeping my people safe? When did I decide that? I thought I gave that up when mamá died. Now a camper is dead, Shandi is dead, and we’re no closer to figuring out what the hell is going on.
Nat, Taz, and Mathias pooled their knowledge and hit on the idea that maybe those red friendship bracelets were protecting the staff and the dudebros from the conquistador, so Marshall, Nat, and I took the kids and headed for the Arts and Crafts building to start making enough for everyone. Wayne, Taz, and Mathias headed out to try to shake down some of the staffers for information. As we got large enough groups of kids equipped with bracelets, we took them out a group at a time to arm themselves with riflery, archery, and sports equipment, just in case. By the time everyone was armed, we had a little bit of intel from the camp nurse: part of the gimmick of the camp is for Chris to pretend to be a slasher to get the kids to work together. It just happens that there’s also a real slasher.
Armed with new information, we brought the whole armed mass of campers down to Chris’s office to get the real info. And, claro que si, it turns out that Jackson Fucking Carver has been using the real slasher, the spectral conquistador, to harvest the fear of the campers it kills, sparing the rich kids by giving them the friendship bracelets and essentially making them complicit by giving them favors in exchange for silence. Meanwhile, the scholarship kids and the juvie kids, well, they’re expendable, of course.
At first, Chris seemed to think that Carver was going to fly in and save his lily-white ass from us. It did not take long to convince him otherwise, nor did it take long to convince him to tell us where the conquistador’s power center is: a cave deep in the swamp. We were leaving no one behind, just in case. Not even Chris. So we tied up his hands pretty well, made sure he knew not to try anything stupid, and put Shaniqua-of-the-assault-rap in charge of keeping him moving. Not to damage him, of course, but to encourage him not to lag behind.
I was still pretty blank while we were slogging through the swamp, and I think Marshall was trying to make me feel better when he started telling me all about all the horrible things that he’d been through? Maybe? But it was only making it worse. Wasn’t there a movie like that, when I was a kid? With like, a horse or something, that drowned because it got really depressed? It was kind of like that. But with a white guy with a military haircut. Anyway, I honestly don’t remember that much of the walk. Really, I don’t remember much of anything until we got to the cave.
The despair was palpable there, as if nothing positive could ever survive. It just wanted to drag you down, down, down into the mud and keep you there. The conquistador stood guard, watching but not seeing, even with as many of us as there were. Taz tried talking to it, but it paid her no attention. No, I thought, he’s a Spaniard, probably I should try talking to him. And I asked him in the name of the Lord to tell us his name. It didn’t answer, but it knelt, and didn’t try to stop us as we entered the cave it had been guarding.
Inside the cave there was a disgusting, moldy old Bible, surely belonging to the conquistador himself. We all knew ASI wanted the damn thing, and we burned it anyway. No one should have control of the kind of despair that thing puts off, and as it (and the conquistador) went up in flames, I couldn’t help but feel satisfied that it would never fall into Sharpe’s hands. No matter what came next, no matter how dark things got, it would be one less thing for anyone to be controlled with. The flames lit the walls of the cave, and the drawings there: the star and the key.
The remaining campers had since been removed to safety, and I’m now pulling into the lot of the bar that I agreed to meet Aaron and Nat at to talk about my little psychotic break, and to figure out how best to honor Shandi. I’m not sure I have the emotional capacity to have any opinions right now. Suddenly, my pocket vibrates yet again. I reach for my phone almost mechanically. A text:
Mal wasn’t in her right mind when she sent that text. She was possessed by a mind parasite. Please let her explain herself. -Alex
Perfecto. Shit is rolling downhill faster than ever, fucking Carver is harvesting kids, my dead mother came to visit, my girlfriend dumped me by text, I lost my shit and I think someone died because of it. And now…mind parasites. Fantastic. The shadows are getting longer. Gotta get my shit back together while the sun’s still up.
I think on the only part of the conquistador’s bible that had been legible: Psalm 88:8 – You have taken from me friend and neighbor—darkness is my closest friend.
I feel you there, brother.