It wasn’t English. Not Spanish either.
Mira traced the faded characters with her little finger, a delicate touch she feared might make the photograph crumble. Yellow stained the edges. Between her fingers it felt like parchment, a scratchy sort of repulsion; she had to fight to keep from tossing the photo. The front was no better. She could barely make out the face in the old black-and-white, which by now was mostly white with age.
Towers stood tall behind the woman in the center of the photo. Even by ancient standards they were archaic. Vines curled up the stone walls, into the frameless windows and doors. Wildflowers sprouted at her feet. Mira wondered what color they were. Orange, she thought. Orange and blue. A strange combination, but she felt it was true with all the conviction in her heart.
Mira shoved the waterlogged box next to the garbage can. Nothing in it was salvageable and she barely knew her birth family anyway. None of them had come looking for her, nor left her estates in her name when a mysterious tragedy left her the last heir. It was something she’d dreamed about a lot, enough that she often forgot her reality. Truth be told, she didn’t care much when she missed out on the real world. There was nothing for her in it.
Her phone buzzed. Again, and again. It was Alejandra, her guiding light, her best friend, the one who made her heart ache for a fantasy that could never be.
“Diga,” she said, answering the phone with her usual amount of glumness.
“Ay, Mira, you sound more doomsday than normal,” Alejandra teased, her voice breathy and bouncy like she was always on the verge of exciting news.
Mira rolled her eyes. “I haven’t even said anything yet. What do you want?”
“Okay, so I finally got an invite to Carnaval. We’re going, I’m picking you up in an hour.” Alejandra made a loud kissing sound and the line went dead.
Carnaval. The most exclusive rave in all of Mexico - or, at least all of Oaxaca - that partied once a month and changed its location every time. Alejandra had spent the last three years dedicated to charming her way into an invite. It was no surprise she finally got one. Mira couldn’t imagine anyone saying no to her.
Still holding tight to the photograph, Mira trudged into her room. Her father always told her she was the prettiest girl in Oaxaca and she’d take the world by storm. Men would fall to her knees at her beauty and grant her any wish she desired. But Mira didn’t want men. And she didn’t want blonde hair.
Braids were the best she could do. Mama always told her braiding was an art and she had a weaver’s fingers. It was true, she supposed. No one had braids like hers. It wasn’t because she liked the art of it, nor the feel of her hair between her fingers, though it was entrancing. Braiding gave her control over something in her life. Something solid, real, consequential. When she braided her hair, it didn’t feel like her life was in total disarray.
A horn honked outside her apartment complex. She tucked the photograph into the pocket of her jacket. It would be a talking piece if nothing else. Maybe she would find someone who knew the language written on the back.
Alejandra stood through the sunroof of her car, one she’d bought a few months ago with her own money. Starlight radiated from her as it always did, a spark of joy and luster in the bleakness of the world. Her dark hair hung loose around her full cheeks, her low-cut dress hiding nothing in the hypnotic rolls and curves of her body. Mira forced herself to take a breath. If she wasn’t careful, she was going to start drooling.
“Mira, my love!” Alejandra leapt out of the car and enveloped her in a tight hug. “It has been too long.”
Mira cracked a smile. “We had dinner together last night.”
“Exactly.” Alejandra tugged her towards the car. “Are you ready?”
No. But the photograph set her at ease. She turned it between her fingers still tucked in her pocket, the motion relaxing. “I guess.”
“That’s my girl.”
Mira flushed and ducked into the front seat. The drive was long, and Alejandra’s chatter filled every moment. Her voice soothed her nerves as she watched the bustle of the city fade into lush pine-oaks as far as the eye could see. Stars twinkled in the cobalt sky; the sun had long since dipped below the horizon. How long had they been driving?
The beat echoed in her bones before the first strums of guitar ever reached her ears. Mira ground her teeth as the base grew, rattling her skull. Music drowned out her thoughts as they rounded a corner and caught a glimpse of the rave. Streaks of bright light cut across the night sky in reds, blues, yellows. It was a wonder Carnaval had yet to be busted.
Alejandra parked the car at the edge of a swarm of cars, all huddled together on a length of grassy field. The sight was so starkly different from the endless swath of trees around them; Mira had to glance over her shoulder just to be sure she hadn’t hallucinated the forest. It remained, dark and quiet. She wasn’t crazy. She felt no better.
Looping her arm through Alejandra’s, they wove through the stream of other newcomers. Heat pressed in on Mira as they edged closer to the crowd, to the swell of music, excitement, sensuality. Sweat prickled on her forehead. Already her shirt was beginning to stick to her skin and she hadn’t even had the chance to drink. She’d be miserable before she attempted to try Alejandra’s sort of fun.
Bodies ground against her as partygoers drunk, or high, or both, danced like the end was nigh. Alejandra shouted something to her, planted a kiss on her cheek, and melted into the crowd. Mira’s breath caught. What had she said? Would she come back? What if she lost her for good? Faces blurred as Mira turned, breathing deeply to slow her heartbeat. It wasn’t working. Her blood was buzzing, but not with the bliss of drugs. Anxiety clawed its way up her throat, stealing her voice, hugging her lungs as if to rob her of her breath under the guise of comfort.
Alejandra’s face reappeared. Beaming, she offered Mira a cup brimming with orange liquid. Hands shaking, she grabbed hold of it, taking her time so as not to spill. Slowly, the world stopped spinning. The noise of the world bled back in.
“We have our juice to start the night!” Alejandra shouted. “You are gonna start dancing with me and then we’ll go see the ruins!”
“Ruins?” Mira inquired.
“Yes, querida! Highlight of the night.” She grabbed Mira's hand and spun her, a move inappropriately matched to the erratic thump of the music. The world melted as Alejandra guided Mira through a flurry of graceful steps and spins. A smile crept up her face. This was the highlight of the night. Perhaps the highlight of her life.
A tap on her shoulder broke the spell. Mira spun to find a young man holding her photo. “You dropped this.”
“Thanks,” she mumbled.
“Weird picture to bring. That's Russian, you know. Means 'tonight.' Something special going on?”
Mira shrugged. She stepped closer to Alejandra. “No. Thanks, though.”
Alejandra tugged her through the crowd. “You okay?”
“Yeah, I just don't like this crowd.”
She frowned. “I’m sorry. Let's go to the ruins. I know you'll love it.”
Mira's shoulders relaxed. If she thought so, it must be true. Alejandra knew her better than anyone. Maybe even herself. And she always was fascinated by the history of architecture. Something exciting might come of this night after all.
Lights were strung up around the ruins, illuminating them with an eerie white glow. Despite the amount of people streaming in through its doors and nooks, the atmosphere was quiet. Mira ran her fingers over the stone walls. They were cool to the touch. Ancient history ran deep through this place, tingled beneath her fingertips. It was as if the history of this place filled the air, was a being of its own lying in wait to finally breathe again.
Mira smiled at Alejandra, who beamed back. Together, they dove into the dark of the ruins, which might have once been a castle or cathedral. Pebbles clattered beneath her feet. Musty air filled her lungs as she took a deep breath. Ease washed over her. Some part of her knew she belonged here.
Drawn by an inexplicable sensation of longing, Mira clambered over a pile of rubble, cursing as a splintered rafter cut her palm. She barely noticed the stinging. Nor the blood rolling in thick beads down her fingers. Mira only stopped to feel when she reached the base of an ivy-covered gray tower. No other structure in the ruins stood as tall, as put-together.
She glanced at the photograph. The structure in the background, it was much more distinct. It was as if her thumb had wiped the age from the photo. Now it was clear as day; the tower in the photograph was the same that stood before her.
Stained glass windows at the top reflected the silver moonlight, outlining a morbid story. It was the same in the picture. She couldn't make out the details but the beauty of the colors coalesced together urged her onwards.
“Mira, wait!” Alejandra called, chasing after her as she darted into the tower.
“Don't you feel that?” Mira exclaimed. “There's something powerful here, something calling me. And it's wonderful!”
“Are you sure it isn't the effects of molly or something?”
“No, it's real,” Mira said, though it was so quiet she couldn't be sure Alejandra heard her.
Two steps at a time, she flew up the spiraling stairs. The rusting railing creaked as she used it to propel herself upwards, faster, faster. It nagged at the back of her mind that she'd seen no one else go in or out of the tower, and perhaps she should take that as a warning.
Mira stopped abruptly at the crest of the stairs. Two oaken doors stared her down, the lightness stark against the encompassing dark surrounding her. A small window was carved into the right side, though inside she couldn’t see much.
Forward. It wasn't a calling so much as a shout.
Alejandra appeared behind her, panting and flushed. Ragged and sweaty, she was still the most beautiful woman Mira had ever seen.
“Whatever's behind this door better be worth making me run like ten flights of stairs,” she huffed.
Entranced, Mira reached her fingers out to the door. A hairsbreadth from touching it, she stopped short. Apprehension gnawed at her chest. What was she doing?
Forward. A command. Sentient cold clamped around her throat.
She opened the door. Dust motes floated in the stale air. A cushioned chaise was tucked in one corner of the room. Blankets and pillows piled at the end, neatly arranged as if they were waiting for her.
Mira kicked aside a few tattered books as she drew towards the stained glass windows. The story painted there was comprehensible now. A tall woman with long blonde hair stood sober and longing at the balcony of the tower they stood in. There was something off about her ethereal beauty, a sort of malice in her stony eyes, a wrongness in the point of her fingernails.
The next panel was the girl, her hair tossed out the window, a figure climbing up it. She didn't seem pained. Eager, rather. Hungry.
Blood stained the last window. It was painted with it, bathing the room in a red glow. The woman was faceless now, her hair short, her fingers dripping with crimson. Mira fell back, toppling a bookcase, her own bloody fingers marring the chestnut wood. This was wrong. A coincidence. It was all a coincidence.
Shaking, she pulled the photograph from her pocket. The woman’s face was evident now.
Behind her, the door slammed shut. Silence choked her. Stumbling, tripping over herself, she ran for it. It would not open. Tears pricked her eyes as her breaths grew haggard.
“Alejandra!” She screamed. But Alejandra was not looking. She was looping her arm through that of a woman wearing Mira’s face.
The woman glanced over her shoulder, meeting Mira’s gaze. Her eyes were a little too cold, and her nails a little too sharp.
Tonight, her voice echoed in Mira’s mind. I am free. Thank you for answering my call.
The woman smiled Mira’s smile. Mira gasped. She pounded on the door until her fists were raw and bruised. But no one could hear her.
Sobbing, Mira threw the picture to the ground. Her face stared back.