Like Nothing

Robyn Carter

Just do what I say and everything will be alright. When you get upstairs, be careful not to trip over all the shoes on the floor. And don’t make friends with any of the other girls because they are like you, cursed with a white-knuckled beauty that makes them too desperate to trust. Keep your eyes open and your valuables close. Slip them beneath your skin, into your blood, your bones, your heart. If they don’t fit in these places, they’re not valuable here. Now look out the window the man forgot to board up. You may be shocked by his inattention to detail and wonder how he still prospers in this line of work. He doesn’t know about computers or speak much English but the decay on his breath lingers in rooms long after he leaves, assaulting your senses in his absence like henchmen. This sort of skill cannot be taught. The man is a natural. Learn to respect his gift.

See the lace curtains that veil the storefront windows across the street? If you squint at them you will be able to make out moving shapes and flickering shadows. The shapes and shadows are kids watching cartoons in a room draped off for palm readings and spells. If you pay the consejera there five dollars she will tell you a dark-haired woman with a bad aura has been hexing things for you. If you ask her to be more specific she will say, You know what I’m talking about mija, nobody else feel your pain. If you buy a special candle for just two hundred dollars, everything will be ok. All you have to do is light that candle and let it burn until all the wax is gone. The consejera prefers cash, but she will accept those checks you can get when you switch between different phone companies. Just sign your name on the back and write pay to the order of Maria Luz Oscurrado.

The only problem is you don’t have a phone company. You don’t have a phone company because you don’t have a phone, and you don’t have a phone because you don’t have a voice. Remember, you lost it along the way, around the time you lost your passport, so you won’t be able to buy one of these candles. When you remind yourself this would be one of many options you’d have if you ever got two hundred dollars, a tentative finger of tranquility will slip across your ribs, one by one. But then the finger will get nervous and cold, so cold that it snaps.

Listen for the man who forgot to board up the window. When you hear him on the stairs, turn around and stare at the exposed wires and tufts of asbestos insulation that hang from the ceiling like toy clouds. But don’t think of toy clouds, or even real clouds. Think of stars, actually just one star, the gold one from the cover of your passport, the one suspended between two scaly arcs. Dragon tails or maybe wheat, but more myth than sustenance now because that little book is gone. Don’t bother looking for it. It was there when you went through customs, but disappeared sometime after the man hustled you into the van with black paint over the insides of the windows. He took it away after he fed you the Rohypnol-flavored rice, which tastes the same as regular rice, like nothing. Don’t bother wondering how something this bland could be so dangerous because the answer will be obvious when the man announces the rule about shoelaces, which, like rice, are also plain and neutral-colored. You can hang yourself with these, so you and the other girls who live in the attic of Lucky Good Time Spa and Massage are only allowed to have shoes with buckles or Velcro. The man who forgot to board up the window will tell you not to worry about this rule because he thinks your ankles look beautiful wrapped in Velcro straps, especially when you unfasten them because the bristling sound brings out your limber obedience. The Shoelace Rule is a ridiculous and unnecessary precaution because everyone knows girls use pills. Clean and easy, that’s what people say. But tell yourself, No, that’s not why. You’d rather swallow than choke.

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