Jack Caseros




Jack Caseros is an Argentine-Canadian writer and environmental scientist based in Regina, Saskatchewan (Canada). He’s recently completed Stanford’s Online Writing Certificate program and is at work on his novel. You can read more from Jack at www.jackcaseros.wordpress.com.

Twitter:  @JackCaseros

I was already awake when the fire alarm clapped into my head. It echoed and twanged and for longer than I should have I stayed under the bedsheets, unable to look away from the clock, its arms raised to the ten and three while the goose in the clock’s face remained frozen before flight, its mouth open half in joy and half in agony.

The alarm was loud, but the pummeling on my door was louder. It was demanding, which meant it was Floyd. He knew my mother, and he knew I was there, alone.

“That alarm is no joke, people,” I could hear him saying, followed by his fists on the next door down.

Floyd had found the place for me. He felt bad for me, I guess. After my mother went missing, there was no way I could afford her rental. Now I had three hundred square feet with all the amenities.

But there was only one way up and one way down, on an iron staircase that wobbled if two people started on opposite ends. Luckily the other tenants and I found ourselves lurching down the stairs in the same direction, hunched in our pajamas and parkas and boots. Seeing everyone together reminded me that my hands were too empty. I turned back against the flow but found Floyd at the top of the stairs.

"Wrong way, kid," he said. The guy couldn’t pronounce my name, so he called me kid, son, dummy. "Fire department's coming."

"Yeah, but I just need—"

"You just need to get out. Don’t make me put on my goddamn fire marshal hat, dummy."

Behind him, a man lunged slowly from his door.

"C'mon, Marta, we don't need that crap," the man said, his neck straining while he tugged at his wife’s elbow. She tumbled out of the doorway, glossy photos spilling from albums that fell out of her arms.

"I told you to digitize these," she said.

"Pathetic," Floyd said, stopping short when he noticed I hadn’t moved from the top of the staircase. He flashed the whites of his eyes and held out his hands. "It might be a false alarm, okay? Besides. It's just stuff," he said.

"It’s just stuff," I parroted. Just stuff. Just stuff. I could mimic the words easier than I could turn my feet around. It's just stuff.

Outside in the parking lot, people huddled together or cuddled themselves. Flames flashed through the first floor windows. Black smoke billowed from an open one, crawling up the brick wall, rising in fists that softened before they twisted above the trees. My only window was hazed with soot.

"Christ, these people…it’s junk, all of it," Floyd said, tugging at his housecoat. "To hell with it."

Floyd said that, but he also marched around to the other side of the building, where his unit was, too see if the flames had spread. He paced back and forth until the firefighters showed up, then watched them put out the flames before he joined in the nervous chatter of his neighbours.

It could have been worse. Only one unit burned. The firefighters were happy. It was a good fire, a fair fight. And they won. Their porcelain teeth seemed to calm people. We would have to be settled by that for now, and not why the fire had started in the first place.




Floyd was happy to be called up to the front doors by the fire captain. He was the building’s superintendent—or Super, as he preferred—which basically meant he collected our cheques and pretended his voicemail was too full to receive complaints about our leaky faucets or buzzing outlets or unseated doors.

“Ignacio McCallion?” Floyd read, before his eyebrows raced after his receding hairline. “Oh, suit three-oh-eight. Come on up, son.”

While I followed Floyd up the stairs, I noticed his pant legs rise with each step. His leg hair was a tangled wilderness pressed flat under black nylons. Nylons, like the pair my mother wore for a week or more before gifting them to guys like Floyd, whenever they paid her a visit at our old place. I was embarrassed when I first found out about their exchange—but then I became old enough to understand why my mother would send me out of the house for entire evenings with enough money for a movie or a meal. By then, I was old enough to understand why my mother was not able to use her architectural degree here, and why that meant she had to shovel snow and guide a vacuum instead of sitting at a desk, fat and warm and saving for retirement. The world was tilted in favour of the pale. She was only leaning into the unfairness in sheer nylon camouflage.

It didn’t seem like that much of a big deal. Peel off a layer, let some loner sniff it silly. Black nylons, blue stockings, tights labelled nude that only ever matched the half-moons of our fingernails. For my mother, it was an exercise in shedding skins and not losing herself. For the men who left her with pantyhose stuffed in their underwear, it was also an attempt at magic, to turn inanimate threads back into the flesh they so desperately craved.

No wonder Floyd had reacted so fast—he had been up and, most likely, not alone. He adjusted his waistband at the open door to my unit and forced a smile to a passing firefighter before I joined him. I anchored one arm on the wall before peering in.

There had been minimal damage to my unit. Nothing burned, Floyd explained, but I still wouldn’t be able to move back in for a week while they replaced drywall and carpet.

“You will have to toss some of your stuff. Smoke damage. Take pictures before you bag anything you’re claiming for insurance. There’s more info in in these forms,” he said.

Floyd held out papers that I ignored. I beelined for my only shelf, beside the window which would have let in the morning light if they were not caked with smoke. The shelf and everything on it was powdered black too. I wasn’t so worried about the couple of old books, or the aloe vera plant, or even the boxes of legal files at the bottom. It was the shelf at chest height which brought tears, clouding the light more than the smoky window.

“Smoke damage,” Floyd repeated, directly behind me. “Probably don’t smell much worse than the sugar refinery.”

Which was mostly true. But I couldn’t appreciate how the fire’s sour smell overpowered the stank of decomposing sugar beets that came in on my jacket every day. I ran a finger over the shelf's centrepiece, a pig's femur. I left a streak in the black soot, the ash piled up in my fingerprints. I felt the fluff of seagull feathers, the loose tobacco, the sage I found growing in an abandoned parking lot. The entire line up, carefully arranged as I had been instructed, was blanketed in soot. Everything was ruined.

There were a pair of wedge sandals I had resting over the bone. They had been shiny, with clear straps and heels not yet clouded from use. Now they were the same monochrome as everything else. I ran a shaky hand through my hair, hoping my curls would hold my hand still. It didn’t work, but I noticed Floyd’s attention had settled on the shoes. Somehow, they were more notable than the large bone.

“Luxury home wear?” Floyd smirked, diverting his eyes as soon as his met mine.

“They are my mother’s,” I said.

“So this is some kind of shrine.”

I shrugged. “I’m trying to help her find her way back.”

Floyd adjusted his pants again and snorted. “She’s not lost, dummy. She’s missing.”

His tone might have prickled me more. But he was right. She was missing. Seventy-eight days as of sunrise that morning. Missing. That was what the police said. What the news never reported. What her own mother could never repeat. She's missing. She's missing. She's missing.

“Look, I’m sorry,” Floyd said, clearing his throat. “I know it’s not easy. But it helps to move on, you know?”

He thumbed the sandals on the shelf.

“You want them?” I asked, my gaze frozen on the femur.

“I mean…I can take them off your hands if—”

I didn’t have to hear the guy’s niceties, or his lies about doing me a favour. I didn’t want this to take long enough for me to regret it.

“You can have them,” I said. “Two fifty. Cash.”




The thing is, I needed the money more than the shoes. I had a box full of my mother’s old shoes. I even had the huaraches she wore when she first came north and didn’t realize how fast and how hard winter would come. Huaraches, which would make my mother frown if she could hear me, because I couldn’t speak her tongue, except to copy those taco commercials with the chihuahua.

Before I left the apartment, I made sure I had a few moments in my unit without Floyd. I pulled out the box of shoes and searched for the pair I needed. My mother’s slippers, the ones from the dollar store. Nothing fancy, but soft, warm, comfortable. The kind of shoes she came back home to put on.

My hiking pack was bursting with clothes, so I returned the pair to the box and stashed it in my utility closet, with the other things that wouldn’t need to be moved with me.

While my unit was restored, I lived out of the hiking pack in a motel. I didn’t let that hold me back. On the first evening I had off after the fire, I pocketed the two hundred and fifty dollars and waited for the bus to go see my newest acquaintance, Samaya. I didn’t care that this visit would eat into the time I had to get groceries or fill my prescription. This was more important. Waiting was part of it.

I was waiting for all kinds of things. I wasn’t feeling much hope that the waiting would end.

No one would definitively tell us what caused the fire. We were supposed to get letters, but they went to Floyd first and never left the black hole of his apartment. I only found out one afternoon when I cornered the guy in the laundry room. He was in his gym shorts, black dress socks taut up to his knee. He told me the fire happened because of an electrical failure.

"What kind of electrical failure?"

"The kind that starts fires, dummy."

We were supposed to accept the logical reason. And that it would not happen again. I heard and I understood but my mind race about why the fire had really started. I had to keep things under control. Keep reality in check. My therapist talked about tapes. Like cassettes. Change the tape, change your world. I had to tell myself over and over, to keep the old tapes from slipping onto the reel. I repeated electrical failure, electrical failure, electrical failure. Still, I couldn't lose the feeling that something had been trying to stop me. Something had come to warn me.

Good thing I was foolish enough to ignore the warning. Electrical failure, electrical failure, electrical fucking failure.

Samaya, the guy I was going to see, spoke about mantras and incantations, not tapes.

“Namaste,” he chanted when he greeted me at the door to his suburban bungalow, shaded by a Siberian elm on the front lawn. “Get your ass in here, you’re letting the chi out.”

This time, I knew what to expect. I removed my shoes and held my breath while Samaya smudged me with a bundle of sage. I didn’t even flinch when he used his thumb to smear a line of turmeric paste onto my forehead, or when he spat vodka mist over my shoulders. He held his hands in prayer position, until he noticed I remained unmoving.

“My tribute,” he said.

That was where the first fifty dollars went. He took the red bill with two hands and bowed to me before folding the cash into his Star Wars pyjama pants.  I followed Samaya to the den, lit by tallow candles and a gaming computer with rainbow LED lights. His golden hair took on the colours and his pale skin soaked up the candlelight. He looked like a surfer, although we were a day's drive from the ocean. An oversized fountain ran in one corner. Hung on the wall beside it, a tiny flat screen television played a hockey game on mute.

"Have you had your spirulina today?" he asked, offering a shot glass from the coffee table. "I feel like you need to nourish your chakras, my man."

I don’t know how my cousin had come to know Samaya. Or whether Samaya's real name was Matthew, or Trevor, or maybe the obvious, Sam. A couple weeks after my mother went missing, my cousin recommended I go see him. Samaya had become known as a santeros, although he had grown up coding and playing Dungeons & Dragons in his parents’ garage. He even had a poster up at the bodega. I had never been Latino enough for my cousin, because of my dad and my last name, but somehow this guy was his hermano, trusted to work the magic of our people's hearts. If he could be a santeros, then I had to have some birth right to that divinity.

And, I guess, even if it couldn't bring back my mother, maybe I could summon a piece of her. The piece of her that came from a different place, all those years ago—an identity that I was and was not all at the same time. It depended on who was looking, and these days, I had been doing some hard looking at myself.

“So…you ran into trouble,” Samaya said.

I explained how my ritual offering was ruined by the fire. Most importantly, the femur— triple-washed in holy water from the Nile and with herbs packed into its marrow—had been Samaya’s concoction, almost guaranteed to bring back my mother if I prayed to it twice a day and kept it alive with the offerings of tobacco and sage and feathers.

“Sometimes, you know..." Samaya said, taking a seat on his couch. "When things return, they don’t have the same form as when they left.”

I appreciated his wisdom, but that was not what I paid for. That was not why I had gone through so much specific trouble, or why I kept all that shit on my shelf for so long. I had prayed more in those two months than I had ever prayed. If I wanted excuses instead of results, I would have gone to church, not to Santería.

"You said you crafted the ritual for a physical return," I said.

"Fire is physical," he said. "Far more powerful than the human form too, isn't it?"

He was getting philosophical so that he wouldn't have to admit his mistake. His magic wouldn't break because he could bend it. I recognized the trick, because my therapist did the same thing.

"Are you saying you can't bring her back?" I asked. I wanted him to feel that if he was going to bend his magic, he had to do it the way I wanted. Or just make the thing work.

"You know I've resolved more missing person cases than the police," he said.

"Alright. Solve another one for me."

"Resolve," he said. "It'll be four hundred for another femur."

"Four? It was two hundred for the last one."

"That pig only had two femurs, dude,” Samaya said, scratching a match to light a half-finished incense stick. "Supply and demand is a cosmic law."

"I only have two hundred," I said.

Samaya brushed his lips across his tented fingers. “For that…I could hook you up with a couple pig feet. I will need two days to—wait, when is the next new moon?”

Samaya was off the couch to find his phone. I pulled out the cash from my pocket and jammed a handful of fingers into my hair. Would pig feet have the same effect? Could I wait until the new moon? This felt like the stupidest thing I could be doing with my money, and also the most important purchase I had ever made. I had to do whatever I could to bring back my mother. Maybe that meant the police would find her remains. Maybe that meant she would call to tell me she left on purpose, to get away from me, forever. Whatever. I just couldn’t go on without some idea. Any path could be a good path, right? From the stack of twenty dollar bills in my hand, the Queen only offered her flat smile over and over again.

Her smile went unchanged as I passed the bills to Samaya. I can only do what I can. I can only do what I can. He told me when I could come back, and made himself an appointment on his phone. I can only do what I can.

“Whoa, whoa, hold on,” Samaya said as I rose for the door. “Your spirulina, man. I can’t let you leave without a shot.”




Three days later, things came together quickly. I had the pig feet to pick up, but on my first break I listened to a voicemail from Floyd telling me the apartment was ready. I had just come off nights, so I didn’t mind that after a full day shift I would have to hustle from one end of the city to the other. I had been forgetting to eat and hadn’t been sleeping well, anyway. If I didn’t have to, I wasn’t wasting another night in that motel room, between two paper thin walls, hearing strangers fighting or fucking or falling asleep with the television at full volume.

First to the motel, where I stuffed my things into my hiking pack, unwashed sugar stank and all. I checked out, then went to the bus stop to wait for the long ride to Samaya’s suburb.

“You know, you need a stable place to put these,” Samaya said when he eyed the massive hiking pack on my back. “They can’t be moving around. Kind of defeats the purpose.”

I knew all that. I didn’t need him to explain the ritual again. I had some leftover loose tobacco, and a freezer bag of feathers from the goose nests we had to destroy at the sugar refinery. I wasn’t sticking around for spirulina this time.

“The Orishas bless you,” Samaya said while I hurried down his driveway to catch the bus to the apartment.

I managed to make it to the apartment without dropping anything. My arms and shoulders shrieked from the weight, but I didn’t stop until I reached my unit. I only needed a gentle knee and the new door swung open, silent and weightless, so unlike the original. I dropped everything except the grocery bag with the pig feet. I rested those on the empty shelf which had been pushed back into place, and then headed to the utility closet for my box of shoes.

Except there was no box. There was my broom, my winter coveralls, the almost empty box of laundry detergent. But no box.

It didn’t take me long to search the rest of my unit. There was not so much as a shoelace. I jumped to a conclusion, and that conclusion sent me down the hall, to Floyd’s corner unit. It’s not just stuff. It’s not just stuff. He still had an old door. I banged until I could hear him on the other side. His footsteps sounded like hooves, clunky but measured. There was a pause.

“Shit,” I heard him say.

His door was also the only one with a chain. Half his face appeared in the door crack. I couldn’t help but notice his one visible leg was in nude nylons. The top of his foot had a thin red strap mark.

“I thought they changed the locks,” Floyd said. “And I told you to come this weekend, kid.”

“Give them back,” I told him.

“Huh? Give what?”

“Open the door,” I said, pushing against the chain. “I know what you did.”

Floyd had no traction in his stockings. I put my entire body weight behind my shoulder-checking. The one eye I could see in the doorway was wide. He was afraid. Good. I wanted him to feel how my mother would have felt in those shoes. I wanted him to feel like he could disappear and no one would ever know where to, or why. I hurled myself against the door and didn’t care that our neighbour Marta was in the hallway too, her phone to her ear. I didn’t care, because when the police showed up to arrest me for disorderly conduct or trespassing or assault, I knew they would be wrong. The same way that they were wrong when they reasoned that my mother had left by choice. That someone offered her the right price and she let everything else go. I had fought so hard to change my mind. I guess I knew it all along. She was taken. She was taken. They took her.    

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