Shifting Borders, by Jessie Kwak

 

Patricia Ramos-Waites picked her way through the brackish puddles that passed for a sidewalk in this part of town. Reflected streetlight traced oily slicks in the pitted gravel, and a faint mist gathered on her cheeks and fogged her glasses. The neon sign announcing Oh Pho cast an orange hue in the premature evening gloom, but through the windows—papered with peeling, handwritten specials—the restaurant looked empty.

No, not empty. Her sister sat at a table near the door, shredding the label of her Tsingtao. Patricia waved, and Valeria scowled. Fantastic.

“Two small number sixes,” Valeria said to the waitress before rising to kiss Patricia. They were alone in the restaurant, no surprise for a Monday night. Oh Pho’s regular clientele of commercial truck drivers and warehouse workers had gone home for the evening, and it was too far from the artists’ lofts and shops in Georgetown’s main strip to attract the few people who actually lived down here.

“I saw two of your buses go by already,” said Valeria. “You said you’d be here by five thirty.”

Patricia wedged her stuffed backpack into the plastic booth opposite her sister, then slid in beside it. “Work was fine today, thanks for asking,” she said. “We’ve been short-staffed this week, so things are extra busy. How are you doing, Val?” She searched her sister’s face for cracks there—it had only been two weeks since the funeral, and though Patricia had called daily, Valeria had been putting her off.

She’d be putting her off today, as well. “Jesus, Pati,” Valeria sighed. “Don’t be a bitch. You’re just never late.”

“I can’t make the buses run on time.”

“But you can call.”

So this was how it was going to go. “It’s five forty-five, Val.”

“Yeah. And I’ve got places to be.”

“Then don’t let me keep you waiting,” Patricia snapped—and instantly regretted it, but didn’t apologize. Just another snipe-fest between sisters, she thought.

The waitress returned before any more friendly fire could be loosed, two massive bowls of soup balanced on her tray. Valeria set to plucking out her slices of beef while they were still pink, draping them over the side of her bowl. Patricia used her chopsticks to plunge her beef deeper into the boiling broth.

“I need a favor from you tonight, Pati,” Valeria said, shredding basil leaves into her soup without making eye contact. Patricia watched her with a sinking feeling, taking in her sister’s black clothes, the black gloves lying on the table, the faint scent of pungent herbs rising above the anise aroma of the pho.

Nighttime favors were bad news.

“I have to help Ava with her science project,” Patricia said automatically. She reached for the Sriracha, but hesitated when she saw the nozzle’s tip: crusted over and black. Jalape?os would be— Patricia sighed. Would have been fine. Valeria had dumped them all into her bowl and was busy doctoring her soup into a nuclear accident of gloppy brown plum sauce and safety-orange Sriracha. Chile oil formed a greasy slick across the top.

“It’s important.” Valeria finally looked up. “It’s Marco.”

Patricia’s heart broke for her sister. “Oh, Val.” She reached across the table, took Valeria’s cold hand in hers. The nails were ragged, chewed to the nub, like when they were girls. They were painted a café con leche color which nearly matched her own skin. A subdued tone. Everything about Valeria had been more subdued since Marco’s accident.

And then the hand was gone. Valeria went back to her soup, not meeting Patricia’s gaze.

“What is it?” Patricia asked, suspicious.

“I need to see him again.”

“Val, you can’t.”

“Please, Pati.”

“Do you have a permit? A court order? Because how will I explain to my kids that their tía has to go to jail over an illegal resurrection?” Patricia took a deep breath. “Val, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry he’s gone.”

“Wouldn’t you have brought Joe back if you could have?”

That stab, unfair and unexpected, sliced neatly through six years of emotional scar tissue. “Joe is in heaven,” Patricia said quietly. “Why would I bring him back from that?”

“What if you knew he wanted to come?”

“You can’t speak to the dead in their graves.”

“You can if they want to be spoken to.” Valeria met Patricia’s gaze, eyes fierce and tear-bright, smoky eye makeup smudged around the lids. The restaurant’s neon sign called out the reddish tones in her dark hair, but her curls hung limp, and her lips were chapped under the silver gloss she wore. “When I go out to his grave, I can sense him, just a little bit. He’s waiting there. He wants me.”

Sign up for our newsletter! We promise not to spam you. Mostly we just let you know when a new book is in the works or if we’re going to be at a con.