I'd just given the rolling paper a twist when I thought I heard a knock at the door. My eyes shot to the window. Sure enough.
He looked confused when I pulled the door open, as if he'd expected someone else. His lips moved. I held up a finger, telling him to wait while I went to lower my music.
"You sure like it loud," he remarked upon my return.
"Drowns shit out," I said. "Lookin' for my mom?"
His lips moved again with no sound coming out. And then he said, "Yeah. And you, too."
I felt my forehead wrinkle, my upper lip coming up as my eyes examined him. Short gray hair that matched the patchy stubble on his chin and cheeks. Heavy lines beneath his eyes. Skin that had yet to see the summer's sun, though it was already late July. Beneath those new and unfamiliar traits stood a man I hadn't seen in twelve long years. The scar on his left nostril gave him away.
"Uncle Louie!" I didn't mean to screech, but my voice has a way of doing that. Like a grasshopper, I leaped at him, wrapping him in a hug that pinned his arms to his sides. I was thrilled to see him, the man who wasn't just my uncle but the closest thing to a father and a brother I'd ever had. At least he had been until distance, I guess, got in the way. But before that, he'd always brought me gifts and given me advice-even when I didn't want it-and he'd practically raised me until the age of five.
"Come in! Oh my god, come in." I yanked him into the trailer he'd once called home. He took two big steps away from me, looking at the TV on the wall, the painted paneling, the leather sofa, the glass end table, the laminate flooring, everything but my eyes.
"You didn't recognize me at first, did you?" I said, immediately wishing I hadn't.
He scratched beneath his collar. "You're not a kid anymore. You must be for-"
"It's been more than a decade." I cut him off because I knew what he'd been about to say, and I didn't want him to think of me that way-forty.
I pocketed the joint from the coffee table just as his eyes passed over it. There was nothing I could do about the bong other than hope he took it for a vase.
"Putting the per capita payments to good use," he said with just enough sarcasm to make me think it was a joke.
Feeling heat in my cheeks because he'd just discovered one of my vices, and because he didn't know yet how badly I'd fucked up with my share of the casino money, I dropped onto the couch, only to bounce right back up. We were both nervous, no question about that.
"Did my mom know you were coming?"
He shook his head, and I supposed he hadn't told anyone on the reservation he was coming home.
"Wasn't sure I'd go through with it until the tires left the runway," he admitted. "She here?"
I cocked my head toward the bathroom door. He nodded as if he should have known. With a snap of my fingers and a smile-suddenly remembering-I exclaimed, "The pow wow starts tomorrow!" figuring that must explain why he'd chosen now to reappear. He used to visit every summer, proud of the fact that he'd attended every pow wow since the year he was born. That streak, however, ended in 2011, the last time he came home.
"Yeah." He nodded again, in a way that seemed to reassure him more than me this time. "Looking forward to it."
"Still teaching?" I snapped a few more times. "What is it?"
"Folklore and mythology. Yeah, I'm still teaching. And you? What fills your days these . . . days?" An awkward grin blossomed on his face as I felt my own mouth betray me, the corners of my lips sinking toward my chin. Hoping he wouldn't see, I swung my head to the right, making my waist-length hair wrap around my body as my eyes sought comfort in the delicate magnolia on my exposed shoulder, the pink feather on my forearm, the vibrant butterfly on my wrist. "Just living the dream," I muttered.
The bathroom door opened just then, and I'm sure we were both glad it did. From within, black leather boots, skinny jeans, a black tank top with a rainbow heart bedazzled across the chest, shiny lips, and puffed-up hair emerged. Mom.
Her eyes widened. Fear momentarily cracked her made-up face, and a scream of terror in response to the strange man standing in our living room almost rang out, transforming instead into a cry of joy at the last second, right when she recognized him. "Louie!" She did a little hop, her boots thumping against the laminate floor. "Don't do that to me!" A second later, she was in her brother's arms.
"Lula," he cried.
We'd gone years without phone calls, video chats, and greeting cards. Sometimes we'd exchange texts on birthdays and holidays, filled with statements like Hope you're well, rather than questions that might encourage conversation.
Mom looked up at him, taking his face in her hands. "You cut off your hair. It's gray." Even though she was three years older than him, Mom's hair has been chocolate cherry my entire life. "Let me turn back time for you." She laughed. "My god, what are you doing here?"
"Pow wow," he said.
"I wish you'd have told me. Everyone's going to be so surprised to see you. But this is perfect!" She clapped her hands. "We're meeting friends at the Blue Gator tonight. You can meet Noemi's boyfriend. My new guy's gonna come by too."
"No he won't," I interjected from the couch. Mom threw a dismissive wave in my direction.
"Say you'll come," Mom said.
"Sure. Yeah." He seemed to reassure himself again. "I'll meet you there after I check in at the hotel."
"Why not stay here? I know it's a little small for-" Mom paused, finally looking past her brother. "Where's Holly? Jill?"
"Can we-?" he started, but was cut off by a trio of stern knocks against the door.
It wasn't Holly or Jill.
"Chief Fisher," Mom and Uncle Louie said in unison the instant I opened the door. Luke Fisher wasn't chief of the tribal police anymore, but he had been for so long that most of us still called him that. Most days, he still acted like he was on the job.
"Noemi." His hands reached for mine as his eyes gave Mom an acknowledging glance. They lingered a little longer on Louie, but whatever he'd come to say took precedence over the friendly reunion that might have otherwise occurred.
"What is it?" I said. Luke wasn't the type to just drop in for visits. He wasn't the type to just stroke the back of your hand either.
"Let's sit," he said.
I didn't want to.
"It's Roddy," he uttered. "I know how close the two of you are, so I thought I should tell you before-"
"Tell me what?"
His old hands, veins stretching the thin skin, squeezed mine. "He was hit by a car."
"What?" I shrieked. Mom did too.
Luke glanced at the sofa, but I hadn't changed my mind about sitting. "I'm really sorry."
Sorry. I'd never known how much weight a word could hold until Luke uttered it.
"No!" Tears appeared as if a magician had waved a wand in front of my eyes.
"Tribal PD will figure out what happened."
"You're saying . . . ?" Though I heard what he was saying, I couldn't grasp it. Didn't want to.
"I'm sorry," he said again.
"He was out on Grand Nacre Drive. The driver said he came out of nowhere."
That didn't make sense. I'd texted Roddy a couple hours earlier, confirming our plans for the night. He was going to pick me up at eight. I told Luke as much. "He didn't say anything about driving anywhere else."
"He wasn't driving. He was on foot."
That made even less sense. "It's the height of summer. Roddy hates walking in the heat." There were only two reasons to be along Grand Nacre Drive: to get to the casino or to leave it. "Was he at the casino?" I asked, knowing he had no reason to go there.
Luke's shoulders hitched. "There's a lot to figure out."
I pulled my hands away from his and braced myself against the wall. Reality wasn't yet registering, but I knew what I'd lose if I lost Roddy. Hopes, dreams, second chances. Without him, all I'd have were memories, regret, and forty years in the rearview mirror. Mom told me the years would go fast, back in my twenties when $130k-the amount of my trust fund, thanks to years of per capita payments I couldn't touch until I turned twenty-one-seemed like a million bucks. And Mom was right, the years came and went like sparks. And, like the money, I'd wasted them all.
"When?" I asked Luke.
"About an hour ago."
I looked out the window. The sun was below the horizon. All that remained of its light was a fiery orange band like the ring around a lit cigarette. "It must have been light when the accident happened." Anger rose within me. "Was the driver drunk?"
"Noemi . . ." Luke threw his head back and cupped his brow. I'd never seen him so unsettled. "It might not have been the driver's fault."
"He's blaming Roddy?"
"She's saying . . ." Eyes clenched tight, he slowly exhaled and then, finally looking like the authority he'd always been, as his arms fell to his sides and he gave it to me straight. "The driver said Roddy lunged in front of her vehicle. You've already said yourself that Roddy didn't like to walk and that he hadn't mentioned going anywhere today. There's concern"-his voice softened-"that this could have been suicide."
"What?!" I shrieked again. "No fucking way. He wouldn't. He wouldn't. We had plans. We were gonna get out of here. We were gonna get tattoos!"
"There's a lot to figure out," he repeated.
"What exactly did the driver say about Roddy?" Uncle Louie asked, stepping closer to Luke.
"According to her, he jumped in front of-"
"He wouldn't!" I insisted.
"With the way word travels around here, I might as well tell you everything." Luke exhaled another deep breath. "The driver ran for help. When she returned to Roddy, she saw a coyote standing over his body . . . with blood around its mouth."
My stomach churned. I finally sat. Mom plopped beside me, wrapping me in her arms, while Uncle Louie, paler than before, inexplicably locked the door.
I'd shoved Horace Saucier down deep with dead pets, lost loves, and regrets-things too upsetting to think about for more than a few seconds at a time. The words Luke Fisher spoke in the living room of my old home, though, brought Horace back to the surface. The Takoda Vampire too. And everything that happened in the summer of 1986.
Horace had been dead ten years by then. I was six when the vampire got him. He was nineteen, a man to me. He'd lived down the road from my trailer on our tribe's reservation in nowhere Louisiana. I saw him once by the river, alone with rocks in his hands. I didn't speak to him, and he didn't speak to me. We'd barely known each other, but that didn't stop me from thinking about him a decade after his death as I walked to the wake of Aubrey Forstall, another boy I barely knew.
Few on the rez truly believed that a vampire killed Horace, but no one knew who, or what, had ended his life. One of us kids must have given the killer its moniker, because of what it'd done. It was we who gave the Takoda Vampire's legend legs-and teeth, so many teeth. Growing up, the Takoda Vampire was what my buddies and I talked about during the day, bravely swinging from branches that hung over the river. The vampire was what we whispered about as the sun singed the horizon upon evening's approach. It was what we refused to openly acknowledge once blackness washed over the sky, and it's what kept us tied to our porches at night.
I didn't go to Horace's funeral, and I might not have gone to Aubrey's wake if it hadn't been for the fact that Jeannie Forstall, his sister, had always been cool to me. She was friends with Lula, who had a job and a toddler at the time. Since Lula couldn't pay her respects, I figured I'd do it for her.
I wore the only collared shirt I had, the one I wore for pictures at school. Baggy and white aside from the yellow stains under the arms, I thought it'd be transparent with sweat by the time I arrived at the Forstalls' front door. I gave thought to unbuttoning it, but only for a second because another Horace-inspired memory bombarded my brain.
I saw him come back from the dead, Lula said, when she was eleven and I was eight. He looked the way he'd looked before the vampire got him.
Nuh-uh. I shook my head so fast that Lula looked blurry to me.
Saw him standing by the shed.
I knew exactly which shed she meant. The one rusting and listing to the left.
He was looking right at me. If Lula had been joking, her jest escaped me. Horace was no joke. Neither was the vampire. He wanted me to go into the shed. He wanted me to go with him.
He talked to you?
I saw it in his eyes, Louie. They're black and bloody and he never blinks. If he wants you, you'll know.
How'd you get away?
I almost didn't. He tried to hit me with one of his bloody rocks when I ran.
Lula's claims made our trailer cold that day, so I bolted out beneath the scorching sun, sure that it'd prevent anything from sneaking up on me unseen. It was only after the sun set that I'd find myself squinting over my shoulder, wondering what might be behind me and what it would do if it got me in its grip.
Thinking about Horace made me feel sorrier for Aubrey than I had before. Most of us on the rez had felt sorry for Aubrey all his life. Though he was twenty-two when he died, he'd operated on a lower level. Intellectually disabled-what we called "retarded" back then-he'd never lived on his own. He'd barely been mobile, and he'd only mastered a handful of words. An eternal child, I couldn't think about him without thinking about Noemi.
Copyright © 2024 by Nick Medina. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.