La Vergüenza




José was a very sane man. He saw little bugs fluttering in the corners of his vision, and he knew they were fake. He saw the sun in the sky above the unnamed desert fade to black, and knew that it was still burning regardless.

José could not remember his last name. He had replaced it one day, a day he also couldn't remember, except that it had been very important. In truth, he knew that a day would come soon where he couldn't even remember the name of his wife. His daughter's had already wandered past the wall of recollection. He shuddered to think that, perhaps she had been a son.

His memory was in a much sorrier state than his sanity, suffice to say. The desert he walked had no name he could speak, and he didn't know how he'd gotten there- only that it was in America, a name he would not forget. A stranger in a known land, cast from his original. A war or something had done it, though that too had entered the forgetful fog with every other memory.

The sun was black, insects nipped at the corners of his vision, and he knew neither were real. What was real were the dull blue clothes on his back- homespun rags, sure, but familiar and trusted ones- and the dried-out sombrero on his head. To shield from the dead sun, of course.

Not much farther now, he could hear himself think, in a mind's voice that sounded eerily different to his own. It was obviously someone else, as the voice clearly knew where José was headed- while he himself did not.

He carried with him a sack, where once had been an entire cart full of knickknacks and inventions with recipes still burning fiery letters in his head. While the Americans had taken his home, or something along those lines, they did not take his cart. He had abandoned it, bringing the true valuables with him on his quest for… Something important, no doubt.

José knew he was a very sane man, even as he ran his fingers along the linen sack's bulbous exterior. Felt the jars and ornaments inside, the cans of special beans no-one but he could stew, trigger mechanisms to guns that would never fire bullets. Junk to everyone else, even his late family- who despite his forgetfulness he still mourned- had started to look with only sadness whenever he'd come downstairs with a new toy.

Of course, most were meant to be toys. He'd always had a knack for that, his nameless father had worked a normal life in the trade. And the kids always seemed happy when he'd show off the particularly explosive or colorful ones, the boys perhaps just glad to have a target for their rocks that wasn't a dog.

Just toys. Innocently made, innocently sold. It wasn't his fault only he could make them, and they had a habit of breaking down after he'd skipped on to the next town over. But maybe they were supposed to do that, what was anyone to say? Maybe part of the fun was a toy that adapted and grew with the child as he played with it. José was sure that had been part of the idea, at some point.

Back when he could remember.

Now all he had was the sack, tied firmly to his belt with the strongest chain he could buy. It looked quite silly, but then so did a bright orange donkey-cart with a Hispanic selling junk.

The sun seemed to be setting now, though it had been just past midday a second ago. He'd walked a fair bit, some faraway mountains now leering at him from a no-doubt more pleasant state. But his business was here, in the desert, with whatever businessman would come.

He knew one would come. José looked at the setting sun, still eclipsed by an illusory moon, and seemed to see the bugs in the corners of his vision flutter towards it. He saw glowing, but somehow faded and dull stars circle around the eclipsed sunset, shining strange auroras in teal and orange. The stars spun in concentric circles, vibrating slightly and shaping more into symbols of stars than true ones. They left cartoonish trails behind them of bright white, so bright that José pulled his hat down over his eyes and started blinking impulsively.

When he lifted the brim of his sombrero, there stood a figure in the sunset. He was mid-stride, as though he'd simply walked out of the eclipsed sun as casually as through a doorway. The stars and colors seemed to follow his wide-hatted head like a halo rather than the sun, and their brightness quickly dimmed to a barely-visible transparent which framed his sombrero.

Once the figure had approached enough to blot out the sunset, José could swear the eclipse had vanished behind him. The alien man was disgustingly gaunt, odd purple clothes nearly falling off his shoulders and hips like there was no muscle between the skin and bone. His face was coated in haggard stubble, his eyes a bright fiery orange like a devil out of a children's story.

When he spoke, he sounded like an American caricature- a stupid man's joking imitation of José's voice.

"You remember how you got here?"

José, for the first time since leaving his cart behind, faltered and stuttered. "I- um-"

The devil clicked his tongue, and pointed at the sack of trinkets. "You must remember, no?"

"What are you? Telling me might, jog my memory." All things considered, he thought he must be quite the speaker to still hold a conversation with this man.

"Oh, pendejo- what did you think? I am you!" He shouted this like a priest, announcing the immensity of Jesus' sacrifice. "I am you and you are me. I am the Señor, you are the incubating egg. The draft stage."

José stood quiet for a while. The desert echoed the silence, as each not-quite-identical man looked at the other. With the sun at his back, the strange man seemed almost half-transparent; his eyes still burned a fiery orange more vivid and bright than the sky behind him. His vest, up close, looked almost like velvet.

The real man was hunched over, his face a tired contrast to the counterpart's wide and livid stare. The insects were back in his vision, jittering and hovering about his twin's form as though he were a corpse. In the deathly silence, they quietly sung perverted operas and outstretched their legs to the ghost like he was their savior.

Finally, exhaustion overtook sanity. "You talk in riddles, like every demon my mama woulda scorned. But I summoned you, didn't I?"

The ghost cocked his head to the left, considering it. "Close."

"I don't care. You are from me- not the other way around, I take it?"

A snap of his fingers rang out across the crags. "No, señor. It's a circle, not a line."

José wouldn't let his sanity go gently. "But you're not real. I can see the sun behind you."

"You're me- of course I'm real. We're real. And we do great things; I remember today."

"If you're me, then I'm insane. Señor," he said, spitting the word like it was tobacco, "you're clearly from another world."

That statement, of all things, seemed to hit a nerve in the spirit. "We- you, should get a move on, huh? No good to be in the desert after dark, even with the goodie-bag."

Cogs in that- now insane, no doubt- genius head were turning. "…I have a fire-starter. You're not the kind of devil that vanishes by light of a campfire, no?"

"Where'll we get the wood, boss?" said the other one in a mocking, quizzical tone. José gathered this was some kind of demented test.

The tired smile of a hermit inventor crept its way onto the man's face, and he reached for his bag. "You have your magic, I have mine."

Fire sprung from nothing, a little tin jar spat it into the air like huge dragon's tongues. They moved not like real fire, but like a stage play's safe paper fires, dancing around in circles and playfully casting false blueish shadows onto the sand. Everything seemed blurry, as though seen through someone else's glasses. José sat on one side of the fire, and the other man sat across from him. The other's face looked almost skeletal, bronze flesh stretched thin over bones carved so sharply one could've mistaken them to be triangular. José could see through the apparition, to the stars behind him which seemed to spiral slowly and effortlessly around the ghost's head- twinkling unnatural shades of orange and cyan.

José was tired, but needed no sleep. He imagined grimly that this was how all the old men of his village past had felt, in the interim while their grandkids ran to buy liquor from three doors down. While they were alone in their slowly-rocking wooden chairs, lit only by sparse candles, waiting for the little one to return with something to make the blurriness go away.

Creak, creeeak. He could hear it, his own old man's withered rocking chair.

"Tell me again," spoke the other, a trickle of bubbling ooze sliding down his chin. It came from a brightly-colored can that he sipped from every now and then, gasping as though it were booze after every sip. On it was an illustration for a fruit, alongside an company insignia that almost seemed to stare at José like a child stares at his mother. "Tell me her name."

José sighed. "Whose?" He asked, though he knew who. He didn't want to admit how bad his memory truly was.

"Hers. It's for your epitaph," said the spirit, without a trace of pity. "I have to write a book, you know."

"A book." José chuckled against his will, then cursed it- the ghostly thing was forcing him to laugh, he knew. "You are killing me, replacing me, and you are writing a book about it?"

The other man wagged his finger, and sipped his can. "You're not being killed, José. That would be suicidal- you create me, after all, do and will and have."

José scoffed at the nonsense of it all. "I make trinkets- stupid things, to sell to white men out without their wives. I would never, never make a-" he laughed again, sourly cursing as he did it. "What you called it."

"A franchise?"

"Yes. Fuck you, yes."

The spirit was as coy as ever. "But you did not always do that, didja dad?" Some strange accent was coming out of its throat now, as alien to him as the drink in its hand. "You hadta have had a side gig, gig-before-gig, yar?"

José spat into the fire, as he was secretly afraid to spit on the ghost. They both laughed, and he hated it.

"I made toys, once. For the kids- they were so sad, during the war. The towns were only women and little, little boys- too young to be the men of the houses."

The other clacked his fingernails against the can he drank, his inhumanly long almost ghoulish fake nails that shone in the firelight. "Not normal toys, though."

"I… Guess not. But they were so sad, so low in the world- it wouldn't hurt them, didn't hurt them."

"But it hurt the white folk, didn't it! Hurt 'em real good, dindtcha dad?"

José stared, long. He could feel his head growing fuzzy, being stuffed with wool. "Why do you talk like that? Like you're being forced to be some… Lie, like there's strings in your throat being pulled by a puppet-master."

A whistle came from that puppet's throat, though his lips stayed open. "Toymaker, wordmaker, huh? You're not the first one to look like the brand, José. Not the last, not the first- the medium. Longest-running, if that brings up your spirits."

It didn't. His question hadn't even been answered- although in a small way, he guessed it had. The thing before him now, it wasn't a ghoul's interpretation of him: it was some devil's interpretation of all the aspiring businessmen who'd come before, and who'd come after. He was either the newest link in the chain, or the chain's creator. Or both, his father had once said never to try and make sense of the devil's language.

In that, for once, he agreed with his father and his ever-weighty scripture book. Both interpretations were grim, to say the least.

"You go around me in talk like a carousel, but my grandpapa'd say the same to me. Suppose you're the same thing, in some sick fashion."

The ghost smirked in a way that made his stomach churn, and nodded.

"You wanted her name? I don't remember it. But you knew that when you asked."

Again, the smirk and the nod. Again, his gut felt like shuffled cards. Everything felt like shuffled cards, really.

José sighed, not in exhaustion now but in foggy remembrance. "Her name was beautiful. It's gone, but she's not- you knew that when you asked, too."

The thing that sat there waved its hand slowly while drinking, urging him to go on.

"I was the

José was the only man left in town, a consequence of his utterly limp left leg. He'd gotten it stuck in a sewing wheel as a child, and his mother- a drunk as he was born, even worse when he was little- just kept spinning. He didn't blame her. José and his father built toys for the children, and this was good. The war was on, with a country that spoke English, and this was not good. Simple terms were the way of his life in those times. The country was English, but not the English. This was also bad, so he was told, because the English-English would've been easier to fight. The Not-English-English were bad. José was a stupid man in his youth, he knew this as well as he knew all other simple things.

A stupid, simple man. There was genius hiding beneath the crust, it was hidden like the gold so cherished in the Northern West, but with nobody trying to pan for it. In the day he worked to build toys with his father, in the nights he stole nasty cheap liquor from a woman named Rosa.

It wasn't illegal stealing, no- but it felt like stealing. She gave them for free because he was a nice and handsome man in his twenties, and this felt wrong to José. Her husband was away in the war, and José had been raised a man of good faith. So he did nothing but grunt and nod, smiling, as she handed him that night's case from the store and asked how he was. He always said he was fine, that business was "underselling but alright", and that his grandfather was getting worse. The liquor was for him, and José's grandfather drank to stay sane.

In the bar one night, a bar whose name would be forgotten by the time he told the story to anyone, José met his wife. Her auburn eyes seemed near without pupils there as she walked in, pupils replaced by reflections of the candles fluttering in the wind of her entrance. José was enthralled, as any man would've been, and in his fumbling asked if she was a witch.

She said that, if she were a witch, she'd have to have been the youngest witch to ever await being burned. They laughed, then grew serious, as Rosa gave them her elderly "how-dare-you-joke-about-the-good-book" stare. After countless minutes of fooling around José said that he himself did a form of magic, though he knew not what book it came from. She'd said she was interested, and José had been too stupid to think that perhaps all she was interested in was the man himself rather than his toys.

It didn't matter, by that point Rosa had ushered them out regardless. Not a drop touched their lips, yet they were drunk off each other's company. She saw the inklings of the future genius within those simpleton's eyes of his, and though he wouldn't know for nearly four more years, that was all that she cared about.

He and his father's toy-store had long been closed. A painted cyan sign hang slightly tilted above the door, with a name that too escaped the older man's mind. The paint had been expensive, but both he and his father had some strange feeling it was important. José's father was a man of God, and would act on "feelings" in a heartbeat if he thought they were from the Father Up In Heaven. José had lit a candle and shown her around, even then noting her feigned interest for the workman's tools.

The real magic was in a small room beneath the stairs which led to the family's apartment. For this was the room José kept the special toys in, the toys which he could barely remember making- the toys that seemed to come alive, to spit fire and paint and to glow in the night. When he opened the door a pair of brooms, one colored bright orange and the other teal, flew past them and began hovering about the workshop.

She had screamed, and José had laughed. He remembered later the way his candle seemed to replace her pupils then as it had in the cantina, as her yell of surprise turned into a laugh. This memory would never leave. José had retrieved a small box of material he didn't even recognize, which he explained had simply appeared on the sawing table one evening. She hadn't believed him, which only made him laugh more.

José told her to step back, which she did without qualms. As he opened it he prayed, to the big God up in Heaven, to the saint-of-saints Mary, and last of all to their son Jesus that what he was doing wasn't heretical and wouldn't incite the righteous ire of his father asleep upstairs.

But then, he thought, would that have stopped him? Only for a moment or two.

The open box- of a thing the future spirit would've called "plastick", though he'd never know that- spewed out tongues of brightly spinning lights from a dimly glowing sphere sat in its velvet center. They rotated with the metal ball, spinning at first slowly then wildly around the room.

José looked to his side and saw the brooms skidding across the floor with a light pshhh as they went, hovering around one another in an inanimate waltz. He set the box down, nearly falling over on his limp leg as he stood back up, and held out a hand to the woman stood wide-eyed in front of him.

When she accepted, she

"She'd said, 'If I'm the witch, you're the God-damned devil, here to beguile me.' With hindsight, she seems pretty right."

"You and her, were very close." Spoke the ghost, in a prim-'n-proper businessman tone.

"Fuck you, you already know. You can feel it in my chest, just as I can and could back then. Your chest, soon enough."

The other man smiled and laughed, José devolving into a coughing fit to force himself not to join.

"Please- don't be angry at me. I feel for you, even if you think I don't. I'm not even an I, but it was my decision to come and sit with you anyways."

José kept sputtering. "How many other men have you sat with, as their bodies were hollowed out for your franchise to come and fill?"

"…Remember how you sat with your grandfather, José?"

The spirit had dodged the question again, but in a way that gave him pause. "Yes."

He could remember that, even though it was one memory he didn't want to have.

"It's like that for me, now. You may not have created the company, but you would have- will have, and didn't, all at the same time. I've had many fathers, many mothers, but you're the one I wanted to sit with the most."

They were just honeyed lies, but even as he knew it he came to accept them. Just as the love of his life had accepted her destiny in that workshop, he'd accepted his fate there in the desert. Weeds rustled in the wind a few feet to his left, and he could swear they sounded like brooms scraping brick.

"You said that to all of them?"

The spirit, to his surprise, nodded.

"But it's my face you take in the years to come, with this company I'll never create," he rambled, thinking aloud. "A company with- let me guess- orange and blue as its colors?"

Another nod, another stomach churn.

"So that's why those were the colors of our toy-store," he spat, then stared longingly into the dimming campfire. "It was you, all along, in my head?"

The other man set down his can, letting it pour ooze into the sand. "Not me, José. Those colors are you- like how staring at the sun leaves dark spots on your eyes. As if one were sinking into the sand, but the quicksand wasn't deep enough to swallow them whole- so their hand gets left aboveground after they've suffocated."

Both laughed, and José hated himself for not stopping it. "So that's my obituary? A face you're made to steal, and some colors on a banner in the far future?"

The other's hat leaned down over his face, casting a shadow deeper even than the night sky. With this realization came the grim conclusion the time was drawing near, nearer every minute, and this was all foreplay for what would be an instant and suffocating descent.

"Will my daughter… Son…" He took a long inhale, staring at his future self across the firelight. "Will my kid know? Will my wife, know?" José was using all of his will not to stammer.

"No. I promise, I won't go where they could see me."

"But you will go places? Why? What on Earth could something like you need on… Earth?"

The spirit straightened his hat, looking into the campfire. "Every company needs a figurehead, José. Every brand needs its mascot, every cart of oddities needs someone to sell them."

José gripped his bag of trinkets tightly, as though not willing to let them go. "You don't want this any more than I do! I can see it on your- in my face! You're a damned spirit, why can't you stop it?"

"I'm not real, José." As he said it both knew it was true, and the moon in the sky was rapidly pacing towards midnight. As it did he saw that horrible eclipse from yesterday sat in place in perfect perpendicularity to the Earth, waiting to swallow the moon whole. He knew, just as the spirit knew his thoughts, that when the moon was empty he wouldn't be able to know anything. That when the clock struck midnight, as though in some grim fairytale, he and the spirit would overlap.

"And you will be, when you're me?"

"Yes. It's as simple as that, unfortunately."

José gripped his bag tighter. "I want to see her, not you. You know what I want, so just show it to me."

The other's mouth flattened into a line with melancholy acknowledgement, and spun its sombrero around. Just as quickly as it'd came it was gone, leaving José alone by his fire- his fire which swirled and danced in tongues like the strange lights of that box which illuminated his workshop so long ago. So, so long ago now. There, as he'd seen light reflected in her dark eyes those summers ago, he saw her face reflected in the light.

A sole and final charity, from the company that owned him. He saw in the fire her face, growing progressively larger, as embers and twists of flame circled it in oval-shaped orbits. As it grew his mind shrunk, and José couldn't help but let tears streak down his face.

In her fiery reflected face he saw dark blue eyes, and in those eyes he saw shining back: the moon being eclipsed by a black star in the night sky.

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