“Valeria Villanueva,” came the principal’s voice over the loudspeaker.
I smiled slightly, as was expected of me, then began to move out of my place in the line. Standing on the other side of the stage was my principal, Mr. Cosner, and one of my teachers, Mr. Tugwell, holding my high school diploma. So, all in all, I had all of about three steps and twenty feet to make the impression I wanted.
I want these assholes to remember this face when I leave. I want them to have an awkward conversation with their ugly children explaining to them that that weird girl they used to laugh at in high school was Valeria Villanueva. That name is going to echo around their heads in embarrassment and shame.
Luckily for me, unlike most high school outcasts, I happen to be hot as all hell, with a handy little kick from my divine blood kicking in just a few weeks ago. Before, I was stunningly beautiful, noticed even though I’m wearing secondhand jeans, no makeup and a baggy rock n’ roll t-shirt. Now, I’m not just noticed – I’m impossible to ignore. If I wore those slutty clothes that are popular these days, or a cheerleader’s uniform, I’d have any of these idiot boys licking my boots and liking it. But, today is about being remembered, so I’m bringing my A-game. I’m wearing one of Wynis’ old dresses that she lent to me – she’s more mainstream in style, and has enough money to buy some half-decent outfits. It’s black and tight-fitting, and since I’ve got a couple inches on Wynis, just a tad shorter than dresses are supposed to be. Add that to a killer pair of heels – not my divine ones, at least one of my classmates will try and steal those – but a pair of my mom’s that matched well, and a strategically torn graduation gown, so that just enough leg pops out to be enticing. As I ascend the first of three steps to the stage, I turn briefly at the audience to see if it’s working.
Yep, every goddamn eye in this place is on me. I think I see drool in a couple of the boy’s mouths. When I’m halfway across the stage, I’ll wink at one of them – let’s see how wet I can make his pants. Still, my control of the room is complete, at least for the moment, because I can see my mother getting up from her seat excitedly. In approximately a second, she’ll be standing, screaming at the top of her lungs. Wait, is that an airhorn? Two? Oh, mother. My greatest nemesis is my greatest supporter.
Right, time to adjust stratagem, I could pretend to stumble slightly and subtly open the top of my robes, giving the audience a glimpse of my cleavage or I could make a pose like a bubblegum girl, pop one of my calves into the air and give a big smile – that would more than compensate for the tremendous amount of noise and distraction that my mother is about to create. I take another glimpse at my mother – halfway up now, a face contorted into what is about to become some intolerable whooping noise. But, her eyes, bloodshot and tired – she had to work a double shift yesterday to make up for taking today off – are nonetheless full of joy and wet with tears. She never got the joyous graduation I did, I guess. I was already four years old, and, according to her, already demanding Shakespearean literature, so I can’t imagine being the easiest child to deal with. She was an outcast too – the high school freshman with a baby, but with none of my gifts to make it better – and Abuela Maria was a hell of a lot harder on her than she is on me. Plus, of course, being blackmailed into having sex with a giant jackal-headed skeleton at the age of fourteen can’t exactly be a pleasant memory.
Shit. Fine. New plan. I’m not going to these high school idiots ruin my mom’s big day. I’ll adjust my stance slightly to conceal as much of my thigh as possible in this already torn gown, smile widely, and bob my head slightly to appear more excited than I am. Let these people remember my girly girl attitude today, I’m still going to blow them out of the water in a few years anyway. Not what I wanted when I woke up, but dammit, I love you mom.
Right, second step ascended, and mom has finally reached her feet. Gods, this world moves so slowly. I’ll be to able to adjust my stance by the third step, but as always, my arms and legs don’t respond as quickly as I’d like them to. I was going to spend this walk, zoning in on the individuals in the crowd and seeing how much my new look was affecting them, but that was a whole two seconds ago. Now, I need a new train of thought to keep me occupied on what will otherwise be the most boring twenty feet in human history. Mom was telling me about how this ceremony was a momentous moment – how it will redefine me as a person, how it is a time to reflect and look back on my life so far. Fine. OK. Valeria Villanueva’s greatest hits – you’ve got one step and about twenty feet.
Earliest memory then – Abuela Maria’s pancakes, when I was two. She’d cut them into animal shapes and make me do all the noises before I could eat them. My mom would sit at the table with us, doing her homework and she’d smile at me and do the noises with me sometimes. I started waking up early to see how it was made and how she did it all. Then, when I was three, I woke up much earlier and tried to make them myself. My mother and grandmother woke up to find me crying and covered with milk and flour – I hadn’t been strong enough to pick up the gallon of milk and I’d spilled it everywhere, so I could only successfully make five pancakes. They hugged me until we all were all covered in pancake mix and we sat on the milk-soaked floor making animal noises and eating pancake mix off each other until Abuela had to go to work. We never had much, the Villanuevas, but we had each other and sometimes, that was enough.
I smile at the memory as I ascend the third step. My stance has successfully shifted; my mom is screaming so loudly that all of Nile Gulch can hear her. Everyone else is applauding, probably reluctantly, but the wolf whistles from the crowd mean at least a few people are still following my original plan. Not what I’m going for anymore, idiots, keep up. Dyani and Wynis are in the crowd too, on their feet, applauding. Unexpected, but nice.
Next memory then – well, there are lots, from this point on. The day I discovered poetry was a big one – Coleridge, Neruda, Blake, Faulkner and Dickinson were my rock stars. My family never understood my obsession – Abuela was too into her telenovelas, and mom, her reality television, so I walked alone to the library and read there. The old librarian, Miss Diane, was always so nice to me; she always gave me the adult poetry books, and didn’t point me in the direction of the Dora the Explorer section with the other eight year olds. I used to sit with her and, together, we’d analyze the big poems. One day, we were sitting in the library and she was reading from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and I told her that I was my family’s albatross – the freak that hung round their necks bringing them misfortune – and she held me and cried and told me I was the most perfect little girl she had ever met. She died not long later in the Catastrophe. I didn’t find out for weeks. I wrote a poem for her – The Modern Mariner, I called it – my tribute to her and Coleridge over two-and-a-half pages of iambic pentameter. I published it under her name. I hope she liked it, wherever she is.
Gods, the Catastrophe – it changed everything around here. The day when the sun blazed brighter than anyone thought possible and set the sky aflame. Everyone here suffered, and we got it better than most. Most of Europe went underwater – so much for my dreams of visiting the Globe Theater and the great cities of old; and so did California and New York. Here, in tiny Nile Gulch, it hit us hard too. Half of the town burned, most of the school, all of the old factories. Dyani lost her parents and got those horrible burns and I… I think I died. My father – Anubis, god of the dead, though he said that wasn’t true when I called him that – met with me in the underworld and guided me to back to the land of the living. When I came to, I was trapped in that endlessly black body bag for five hours… I screamed until my voice was hoarse and cried until my tears had rubbed my cheeks raw. When they finally found me, I was alive, with a killer set of heels, a severe case of claustrophobia and a million unanswered questions.
But, I was alive and so, so many people weren’t. No, I was more than alive – I was miraculous. I was already clever, but I quickly became brilliant; my body hardened – I remember recovering from the flu in only a few hours; my reflexes spiked. I could feel the warmth of divine ichor surging through me and I loved every moment of it. For the first time in my life, I felt like I wasn’t a cosmic mistake or a misunderstanding. I wasn’t the albatross; I was the Mariner himself, plunging into an ocean of the unknown, ready to face it with all of the gifts that were granted me. And then, less than a year later, my Abuela died on the day after my tenth birthday – an unexpected heart attack. The bargain my mother made on the day of my conception was for ten years of my life – Anubis had given her an extra day as a fatherly gift to me. The truth came crashing down once more – no matter what I could do or what I chose to do, the world would always be immutably cruel.
As I cried myself to sleep for the third night in a row, I begged that it was all a lie. I begged that I was still in that accursed body bag and these were the dying dreams of a little girl who did not yet want to die. As my mother held me, and we rocked together in the dark, our tears merging to become a single flood, I vowed to conquer death itself. A word of warning to the universe and its divine overseers – never put an impossibly smart tweenager through grief. I had the intelligence of a graduate student coupled with the emotional maturity of a ten-year-old who’d just lost someone she loved. Did you think there wouldn’t be consequences?
Eight feet to go. Principal Cosner’s smiling, but he has a look of insistence in his eye. Apparently I’m walking slower than I intended. In my peripheral, I see my mother waving and screaming still. Wynis is still applauding, though Dyani’s lost interest and is now just half-heartedly tapping her hands together. I spot Sass in another part of the audience – her cousin Tobias walked the stage before I did, but she’s clapping enthusiastically while whispering to one of her brothers, who looks like he’d assault her if his attention wasn’t fully captured by my enchanting smile. Nope, gave him too much credit, my mistake. He’s staring at my chest. Typical.
Right, now, where was I? Three days after Abuela’s small and criminally unattended funeral, I had decided to study medicine. It took me two years to gather the materials – the Catastrophe had pretty much wiped out the Internet, so I had to convince doctors at the local hospital to lend me textbooks and teach me the basics. I spent hours at the hospital observing through the windows, then began practicing surgical and injection techniques on my stuffed animals. Meanwhile, in order to help mom, I took on more responsibilities around the house – I cooked all of the meals, did most of the cleaning, while, in my head, I recited the bones, muscles and nerves of the human body and memorized the texts and diagrams of_ Gray’s Anatomy._
On my twelfth Christmas Day, my mother had to work at the grocery store, so I was cuddled up tight on the sofa, eating cookies I made that morning and watching a medical documentary on the television, a bird began tapping with its beak at my window. It was a hummingbird, a tiny little thing, smaller than the palm of my hand. I opened the window… and, to my initial disbelief, thanks to yet another divine trick, I could understand it perfectly. “Come quick,” it squeaked, then darted off into the distance. I threw on my scarf and mittens and followed it through the cold. It led me to a small colony of the little creatures. They’d migrated from the south in light of the Catastrophe, but they’d barely held it together. The last female was gone and the eggs in dire straits as they suffered in the wrong climate. I gathered them up – carefully placing each egg in a separate matchbox, packed with shredded paper, and ran home – followed by eight or so of the adults. I worked and I worked, skipped school for a week straight – so determined I was to prove that I had some power over the tolling bells of the deceased. I lost a few, and wept over them, but nine days later, right around the New Year, the first of the eggs hatched – a girl. I’d done it. I’d saved them. It was the best moment of my life. I’d won.
I was enraptured, captivated, ensnared by my own success. I refined the technique, hatched dozens more, then wrote down my findings in detail. My bedroom window became a garden, bustling with activity, filled with a dozen newly hatched hummingbirds – each named for a character from Blake’s Four Zoas: Thurmos, Ahania, Urthona, Vala, and many more. My mother thought me mad – dancing around, filling my bedroom with birds – but she always knew I was unique and, in her defense, she always encouraged my weirdness, even if she couldn’t possibly deem to understand it. By fourteen, I had switched my focus to veterinary medicine – particularly of the avian variety, and a few weeks before I turned sixteen, I published my first paper was published in as scientific journal – A Comprehensive Understanding of Avian Breeding: New Methods to Encourage Continued Procreation in Bird Species Affected by the Catastrophe. I couldn’t use my real name obviously, no-one would take seriously, so I used the pseudonym John Witsman – the whitest name I could come up with. It also had the added bonus of being partially named after one of my teachers at school – the racist son-of-a-bitch told me I’d amount to nothing, just like my mom… I kept hoping he’d bring up his namesake’s new paper in class and I’d smile inwardly with a silent victory, but of course, he doesn’t read scientific journals.
So, yes, I switched focus – people to animals. But, those birds gave me a sense of accomplishment that I’ve never felt before. They finally made me feel like I had a purpose in the world, that all of the trials and tribulations that I went through meant something. When I turned eighteen, I took all the money I’d managed to save from the odd-jobs I worked around town (oh, Nile Gulch Diner, how I have hated you) and had a little stylized hummingbird tattooed on my wrist – to remember what those birds taught me – that I was here for a reason – that I mattered.
Retrospective over. I’ve finally arrived. My teacher, Mr. Tugwell, is shaking my hand. We got to pick what teacher presented us with our diploma and I chose him. I owe him one, I guess – my mom freaked out on him a couple years ago for some reason; she scratched him pretty bad, but he never pressed charges. Also, he tries not to look down my shirt, which I appreciate – I mean, he still does every now and then, but you can tell he feels bad after he does it, unlike the other teachers. Hell, I had to flat out stop going to gym after the whole Coach Walker fiasco. He smiles at me, quietly says a platitude over the applause, then hands me my diploma. Principal Cosner shakes my hand too, then gestures for me to leave the stage. There’s only one kid after me, James Whitis, but it’s his turn now. I’ve had a thousand thoughts on this stage, and only now, I think that I might have wasted it. This is it. The end of my high school life – the beginning of something new, something different. Enough of the same endless, stinking monotony. Enough of being a prized filly in a town with no horse racing. Time to make what’s left of this blasted world know my gods-damned name… with a side-helping of screw you to anyone stupid enough to get in my way.
And, then, I see it. Him. A solitary canine, sitting in the back of the gymnasium, subtle enough not to be observed by the plebeians around me, but obvious enough that I couldn’t miss him. A jackal… Not native to here, but potentially a thriving migrant. But, it’s the classification that matters, the species Sass and Wynis both used on the day the sun blasted apart. They can’t have seen a jackal head on him. They can’t have. They’re not clever enough now to recognize a species of animal they’ve never seen before based on a disembodied and comically-enlarged example of its skeletal head, and they certainly weren’t then, but they both said it – separately, without influence or coercion. They both said jackal, because somehow, supernaturally, they knew… Just like I did. It was a jackal then, and it’s a jackal now. That thing, this emissary, keeps staring at me… Its gaze unbroken; its attention unwavering. Its fur is of a deep black, like unstoked coal, and its eyes gleam like the burning yellow suns of a distant system. They bore into me. Reminding me.
“You were always here.”
No. I fucking refuse. I refuse to be your instrument of choice with which to strum along to fate’s all-consuming melody. I’ve read the stories – all the stories, even ones that hadn’t been properly translated until I turned my eye on them – and I see the patterns. The ones who come back from the dead are never left in peace – they’re brought back for a reason, for a purpose. I have a dread destiny, of that I’m sure, some role to play in the coming tapestry. The question is what role? Because the divine play with patterns and history will only ever repeat itself. So, what role? With an ass like mine, probably the damsel in distress or the swooning princess or the hero’s prize after his long quest. Or, hells, even worse, maybe I’m the mentor or the crone or the matron… It won’t be the hero. No, women like me are destined to be a meager footnote in someone else’s grand sonata.
“You were always here,” he said. I was – am – always dead, he means. Returned from beyond the grave to scream inside a body bag and limp helplessly along with the shackles of destiny around my neck. I am a specter, a jiangshi, a lemure, a draugr… A revenant. Fuck.
I descend the stairs on the opposite side of the stage from which I started – my elation gone, my retrospective ended. My new beginning unfurls before me – with a jackal-headed skeleton standing at its end, just as he always has. What do I do? Do I reluctantly accept that I am little more than a pretty face with fate’s stamp on it? Or do I fight on, refuse to go quietly, battle ceaselessly and pointlessly against the tyranny of an inevitable future?
The jackal turns to leave. His message is delivered. I stare daggers at his back.
I’ll fight, of course. Fuck destiny. Fuck fate. Fuck all of it. I matter. My choices matter; my suffering, my pain, my trials, my triumphs – they all fucking matter! Even pawns can become queens if they reach the far end of the board, and that’s exactly what I plan on doing.
Your move then, universe. But, I warn you, I’m damn good at chess.