Nossa Morte, one of the best online markets for short horror/dark fiction, is no more.
I'm glad "Tesoro's Magic Bullet", which I reprint here, made it's digital pages before the end. The inspiration for my story was a little flash by Kim Church simply titled "Bullet". It originally appeared in Painted Bride Quarterly. You can also find it in Flash Fiction Forward. It's one of those brilliant little things that keeps me coming back over and over again.
RIP, Nossa Morte. You will be missed.
"Tesoro's Magic Bullet"
Tesoro comes home with a bullet on a chain around his neck. Not just any bullet, but the bullet, the one that the doctors pried from his ribcage, the one that should have killed him, only it didn’t. It didn’t even look like a bullet anymore. Now, it is a lump of lead, a misshapen mass of grey metal in a small bag dangling above the Marine Corps tattoo on his chest.
“It’s a magic bullet,” he tells his little brother the first night. As he does, his breath reeks of stale blood like the stains on their father’s work clothes after a shift at the meatpacking plant. Saul turns away.
Despite the smell, the ashen hue in Tesoro’s cheek, they are brothers. Saul basks in Tesoro’s machismo and wants to be a Marine one day.
On the mornings after Tesoro’s late nights, Saul sleeps late and skips school. In Garden City, a place of pork and beef processors surrounded by Kansas plains, no one notices, no one wonders about another Latino kid missing school. The teachers lose count of their shifting student body, and Saul becomes less than a number. He sleeps late those mornings. He sleeps easier because the sun is up, warming his bed through the open window. Bad dreams hide during the daylight, so Saul sleeps a black sleep with no dreams.
It happened like this:
Tesoro was on foot patrol in Baghdad. A car exploded, bright flames pushing the sky. The other marines tensed, took cover. Tesoro didn’t move, watching a woman stream from the flames with a tail of smoke. She screamed louder than the bellow of the burning wreck, and the sound solidified his flesh just long enough. Too long. When the bullet broke through his chest, tearing cloth and skin and bone, his ears lost everything: the screaming woman, his sergeant’s barking voice, the fire, and the crunch of his body on the rocky dust. His ears lost everything except the snap of that bullet, the sound coming after it cut into his body.
A moment later, return fire from the Marines sounded distant, like firecrackers under metal cans. The blue sky lay across his dying eyes like a shroud.
In the evenings, after all but Tesoro dine together at the table, their father listens to an AM radio station that broadcasts the news in Spanish. He sits in his chair, worn and tired; lines like wrinkled leather punctuate his face. His finger taps against his lips as he listens.
The radio announcer reads the police reports, and sometimes the father mutters, “Dios mio.” His head hangs as he listens to the report of another body, a dead Latino teen found in a ditch outside of town. The Spanish station alone reports the missing. The only pattern to the tragedy is that the victims have been the children of undocumented workers—killed by a bullet in their brainpans. But the bodies were mauled after death, mangled and partially eaten. He listens and tries not to think of the layer of dust on Tesoro’s truck. He tries not to think of his son’s late nights. He fights against the horrible visions of those victims—bodies that must share a raw, red color with the beef carcasses hanging in the plant cooler.
In the kitchen, their mother scrubs the sink, pushing hard with the wire brush to blot the sound of the announcer’s voice while Saul sits at the little table and ignores his homework. The kitchen stings of bleach before she is through. Tesoro’s truck rumbles in the yard—the ’62 Ford that he promises to paint one day and their father once joked was dead and resurrected. The joke died when Tesoro came back with the bullet around his neck. The truck still wears patches of rust like bullet wounds.
Saul knows when he hears the truck growl fade. He knows it will be a late night for his brother and an early morning for him. He closes that math book, knowing he will sleep in the morning sunlight and his teachers will overlook his absence. In his mind he counts the bullets in his father’s gun.
When his mother cries, Saul says, “It’s alright Mama. He’s still our Tesoro.”
On some evenings, rare evenings, Tesoro joins the family and tells stories while his father drinks cold cerveza. He tells the story of the old woman in a black berka, the woman whose wrinkled fingers looked like wet tissue paper on a piñata. Unreal fingers. Fake fingers. Tesoro talks about the talisman, the blessed scroll of paper he bought and carried in his shirt pocket, a superstitious custom to bring him home alive.
Old magic, she said in her tongue. Dark magic.
The other marines laughed. Tesoro smiled and laughed, too.
That afternoon, a car exploded in a small, Baghdad market.
That afternoon, Tesoro didn’t die.
Sometimes, in Saul’s nightmares, Tesoro’s eyes shine with a yellowish light, an amber light. He pulls his shirt open, and then pushes fingers into the scar where the bullet broke his skin. His fingers pull back, and the blood pours out like oil, thick and dark. Tesoro smiles, and says, “Magia.”
Sometimes, Saul wakes with a cold sheen of sweat and listens to the songs of frogs and crickets floating on the night air. He waits for the sound of his brother’s truck, but it doesn’t come. He sees the faces of the children from school in ditches outside of town, dead faces with open eyes, staring at him. He knows it is a nightmare when the dead reach out, clutching with gnarled fingers, accusing with their blank stares. His father’s old handgun hides under his pillow, an uncomfortable lump, but Saul keeps it close.
But Tesoro is his brother. The dead are strangers.
A night comes when the rumble of Tesoro’s truck takes away the dream. Saul wakes, creeps down the hallway, and listens at his parents’ door. Nothing. Another sound, a door clicking shut in the unfinished basement. Tesoro’s room is down there. Saul checks the locks on the door and glances out the window. The rusty Ford is in the lawn next to the drive.
His mouth goes dry. Tesoro is his brother. His flesh and blood. When he pulls the gun from under his pillow it is heavy and cold. A shudder crosses his body.
Saul starts on the steps, and a little creaking noise calls out with each. Halfway down, he stops breathing and waits for a moment. A light glows from under Tesoro’s door. Like a moth, Saul is drawn to it, likely to burn up in the flame. His hand rests on the knob, the other clutches the pistol grip. The smell of stale blood is back, worse now. Amplified.
“Saul?” Tesoro asks through the door, his voice cold like a block of granite.
Inside, Saul finds what is left of Tesoro on his bed. His shirt is off, bunched in a pile on the floor. Both hands rest on his knees. When Tesoro looks up, his face is streaked with blood. His teeth are dark and discolored, his mouth blotted. Tesoro’s face wears neither a smile nor frown—a blank expression with black eyes.
“You brought a gun?”
Saul looks at the pistol, his hand shaking. “Papa’s.”
Tesoro’s lips curl slightly at the corners and one hand stretches toward his brother, palm open. “They will come for me, sooner or later. They will need more than guns.” The other hand touches the lump of lead dangling from his neck.
For a moment, neither speaks.
In that moment, Saul understands; in that moment, he kneels to the old magic in his brother’s eyes. What crawls Saul’s spine is damp and black and dead. His eyes close and fingers uncurl. The gun drops into Tesoro’s open hand.
He smiles, showing the full horror of his tainted mouth.
Saul steps forward and touches his brother’s shoulder. The flesh ticks like a horse’s flank chasing a fly. The skin is cold and almost grey. “We can take your truck.”
“Si,” Tesoro replies. “Mi hermano.”
Saul hesitates, breathing through his mouth to avoid the smell. He looks at his fingers, imagines the skin peeling away from scrubbing. Blood makes a stubborn stain. “First the bleach. I will clean your clothes…the truck, and then we go. We can take the gun, too. In case.” He stoops, gathers Tesoro’s shirt, and leaves the room without another glance at his brother.