by Jaryd Porter

Honorable Mention, 2023 Fiction Collections

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The air smelled of dead skin and phlegm. The snow parted for a pair of beaten-up Converse. Santo didn’t bother to lift his feet, anymore. It was a waste of energy. He believed that this was a form of karmic punishment for everything he’d stolen, but Santo couldn’t bring himself to believe that anyone deserved such misfortune. He peeled back broken, bloody lips to exhale a cloud of hot breath ahead of him. The wind whipped that warm cloud around his face and dragged it off into the distance. His feet began to drag through the snow, packing it between his laces and under the tongue of his shoes. He gasped, shivering and pulling in the stale breath which was being pulled away from him bit by bit.

“I…could…kill…for…a…coffee,” he whispered, needing to hear his own voice. He only heard it in his right ear. His mouth tasted like blood. Iron, rust, pennies…Santo’s lips dripped, deeply red.

“I…could…kill…for…a…hot…coffee,” Santo said.

His lips cut themselves with the bladed, serrated dead skin as he trembled and mashed them together. Part of it had to be conscious, because Santo was relieved that he responded to himself. His throat built up the reply like an upheaval of soil or a grave being exhumed. “You…couldn’t…kill…if…you…tried.”

The snow was compacted against his ankles. If he had taken flight, his ankles may have shattered like icicles on first impact. He was tired, but he heard this voice. It came from all around him. His bloody upper lip lifted and revealed shiny, white teeth: glossy, tinted, tainted. The drippings from his nose were frozen streams, dammed the moment they met his thin mustache, for they lacked the fortitude to survive this inane obstacle. Damned the moment he hit that invisible patch of ice on the road and his car spun into the snow drift, drifting off of the road and into the pale mound, which could not recall the last instance in which it had the power to give life, rather than take it. Santo was damned from the start.

Santo reasoned that he was talking into the wind and it made a reply. He reached into his pocket and pulled an American Spirit from his ratty jeans, sheering wind cutting through the metastasized patchwork on his knees. He held the bent cigarette in a closed fist. It had snagged a small carpet of pocket lint. Santo’s fingers were too cold and uncoordinated to dislocate the acquired lint or to seize the rogue cigarette with efficacy. He winced against the cutting nature of the wind. He had made himself an adversary to it when he exited his vehicle and went wandering through the blizzard.

He braced his arms tight around his torso. His skeleton shrank and tightened, skin turning to fire. Frostbite had a burn like nothing Santo ever felt before. His legs would hardly bend to let him pick up his feet. He got the feeling that it might be easier to list to the left, then to the right, and let gravity pull him into the trench along the highway. For the Laws of Physics to let him slip through its fingers and sink into the whiteout seemed like a mercy.

In his mind, he heard the ticking of the metronome. The burning at his fingertips was the sting of blisters forming as his older brother chewed on a toothpick and watched Santo slap the bass guitar for hours and hours. Juan tapped his foot in accordance with the tick and tock, while César bobbed his head. César who was the studious little brother. His body had been stunted and become so frail. Brittle bones meant expensive hospital bills. Scholarships or a full ride would still mean a family in debt and the kid was too smart not to notice how his parents and brothers scraped and scrounged for every bit of cheddar. It was all for César, because without the extra crash, even with scholarships or a full ride, every broken bone, bruise, and fracture put the family in financial peril.

Santo opened his eyes. The frost from his tears almost welded them shut. The car would likely be found and, if abandoned, it would be searched. Santo couldn’t risk his car being searched and impounded. He was thinking of the risks, now. At this point, he was willing to resign himself to the good will of the elements, but he could see César sitting in his motorized wheelchair, waiting for his older brother to come home. If Santo died in the cold, Juan would go through his personal possessions and find a few packs of American Spirits buried underneath a dozen pairs of folded boxers. Santo feared that he would be caught with cigarettes more than Juan digging underneath the folded pairs of socks and finding lifted jewelry and wallets. Hot property to be fenced off. Santo was afraid that Juan would find these things and start to see Santo instead of innocent Martín. César would find out that his brother was a myth.

It was a difficult reality to accept that he wouldn’t make it. Not in this blizzard. He couldn’t see more than five feet ahead of himself. Every inch behind the wall of frozen white yielded a deep, unending black. Vanta black could disappear into a void like that, rendered finite and further devoid. Santo glared at his obstacle, starting to recognize its infinity. If he walked on, he would be lost to this starved expanse as it devoured all of Santo and all of Martín, like they were one man. As much as Santo wanted Martín to be a bass player with a flashy sports car and as much as Martín wanted Santo to bring home money to provide for the family, they were both being subjected to the same torment and the same tear. Santo shuffled, turning his back to the wind and pulling a KC Chiefs lighter from his jean pocket. Red with the white arrowhead, but most of the fine detail had been scratched away. Santo had lifted this lighter and kept it. No one was looking for their Chiefs Bic lighter.

“Okay…okay…we’re okay, Martín,” Santo said, placing the cigarette between his lips. He tasted the blood, then the paper, finally the stale tobacco. Santo bit down on it as his lips were unreliable in this persisting sub-zero climate. The last bank that Santo drove by had read “-15 C.” Santo was unsure of how many degrees Fahrenheit that would translate to, but the saw teeth of the passing wind informed him that it was likely sub-zero in Fahrenheit, as well. Santo felt a pained, tingling smile emerge. César could’ve translated Celsius to Fahrenheit in a second.

“We’re not okay. You should’ve killed that guy. He took your gun from you and he saw your face. You should’ve killed him,” he said to himself.

Santo produced a small flame with a careful flick of the BIC. The flame was brief. The flame lasted less than a second. Twenty-two years for a flame. The fire was old enough to support his family and grow and work for stingy white men who called him “hambre” like it was his name. Pronounced “Hombre.” Santo gave life to sparks, considered creating a new flame. This one appeared more brief than the first. A way of deflecting the blame for the brevity of the first flame.

“Why didn’t you kill him?” Martín asked.

“You didn’t see him the way I saw him,” Santo replied.

“You shouldn’t be seeing him at all. He saw your face. It’s not about what you wanna do, Santo. It’s about what you gotta do. This is about our family. Juan, César, Mom, and Dad are gonna have a dead kid to bury, you idiot,” Martín hissed, talking with his teeth, blending together “d”s and “t”s and “p”s and “b”s. Most of the vowels survived the numbness of his lips, though “a” and “e” sounds were hardly recognizable. Santo had his head shaved. There was nothing to grab if he got in a fight. It had already come in handy once.

“I’d rather be dead…than be a murderer,” Santo said.

“That…!” Martín tried to snap his frozen fingers, but the dry skin created a chilled, glossy friction between these anonymous digits. “That makes one of us…guey.”

Santo recognized that the lighter didn’t stand a chance against the wind. It never had a real opportunity to thrive and grow. There was a possibility that there wasn’t enough fluid to even produce a sustainable flame.

He slowly sheathed the lighter in his pocket before burying his hands in his jacket pockets. He started to walk, carrying himself back toward the car. The car was a shelter from the wind and that was his only chance. It wouldn’t start, but it was an interior and offered opportunity.

“He even saw you leave,” Martín said.

“I hit him square in the nose, Martín. I could’a killed him, man.”

“You. Should. Have. Killed. Him.”

Santo glared at the Mustang buried in the snow. He sighed, stepping down into the ditch and digging with his bare hands, shoveling piles of snow aside. If he couldn’t get inside, he was done for. He shoveled and dug, ignoring any resulting agony, ignoring his breaking and bleeding fingernails, his burning palms, his ripping cuticles, and his lips moved. Possessed.

Santo watched his hands bleed into the snow. The snow was light enough on top, but it had already begun to compact around the wheels of the car. If the Mustang hadn’t been totaled when it spun out, drifting into the ditch was the nail in the coffin. Thinking of coffins, Santo almost wanted to pray for safety, but he didn’t want to be found frozen in his car with his hands clasped in prayer–transformed from flesh and blood to a monument. Santo prayed to his lighter, instead. He thought of that arrowhead:

“We won the Superbowl last year…I know you guys are capable of miracles. Gimme one. Just one. I only need one.”

“Who are you talking to?” Martín snickered, stricken with disbelief.

“Look who’s talking?” Santo replied, fumbling his keys in his hands. His fingers were turning blue and purple and going black at the fingertips. The skin was splitting and bleeding, now. The doors clicked and unlocked. Santo climbed inside the coffin, slamming the door shut as he landed in his leather driver’s seat behind his steering wheel.

“Who’s talking, Santo? A thug I invented so we can provide for our family so I wouldn’t feel like a criminal?”

Santo tumbled the cigarette between his teeth and presented the KC lighter, flicking it twice as his thumbnail oozed and bent back like it was ready to fall off. A small, stable flame was produced. Santo watched it dance gently, flashing warmly in different directions like a puppy ready for adoption. Looking for love. A pair of headlights shone through the driver side window, a pickup truck parking on the opposite side of the highway. Someone was present.

“Maybe…I wanna be part of that family, too. I want to meet my mom and dad. I want to play bass with my brothers. I just wanna be real, Martín. Together, I think we can be that. If we wanna be real. If we wanna live.”

end of story

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