“I don’t get it, what’s it spell?” I asked, as the recent teenagers around me laughed.
“It doesn’t spell anything, Demi.” Said my teacher before carrying on the lesson.
“Don’t worry, Demi,” Said Alek, the student behind me who often defended me against the other students, “I’ll teach it to you later.” But I knew he was just being nice, and even throughout high school the concept proved elusive to me, along with other simple tasks. Spatial directions proved to be a lost art as well, something so foreign that it often took me weeks to learn simple routes consisting of only a few miles.
When I graduated high school, more by sympathy than skill, I knew no worthwhile college would accept me. I started working at a restaurant, barely keeping my position as a waitress due to an inability to hold my temper with some of the more inane customers, until I forgot my no-slip shoes one bustling Friday evening and slipped on the ever present grease film that layered the tiled floor. I remember the sound of my skull cracking against the tile, my long brunette hair providing little protection against the blow. I felt fine after a moment’s recovery,but after my manager ordered me to go to the hospital to be checked out.
“Demi,” Said the doctor, looking up from his yellow notepad at the hospital, “The good news is that you do not have a concussion. But there is something else. In the results of your scan, we discovered that you have a very rare condition.”
“What is it, Doctor?”
I listened as he explained the meaning of my condition, a disability where half of my brain had become dysfunctional before childbirth. He showed me the case of another woman who had a similar condition, explaining that I had developed significantly better than what should be expected, and that my case was not quite as traumatic. Back then I couldn't quite grasp the concept, couldn't quite understand what it fully implied. I guess half of my brain was just dead.
It explained so much about me and my tendencies. About my insufficiencies in school and rudimentary skills in math. About how my temper flared to irrational heights in matters that should have been laughed away. About how I had trouble writing a paragraph, and could never have written what you are reading right now.
Well, at least back then I couldn't have.
But I did know one thing. It was suffering from a disability. Finally, after years of struggle, I was catching a break. I could get a job that did not mean waiting on tables. And none of it, none of my incompetencies, had ever been of my own fault.
Two weeks after my diagnosis I found an office job about forty miles out of my parent’s home in Saint Augustine, and the company offered a relocation bonus that would more than pay for the property they suggested I should rent.
A few days before starting work I pulled into the front office of the realty building to pick up my key.
“Hello?” I said, knocking at the door. I had arrived late due to getting lost along the way and the brick office looked closed. There was another car in the lot though, an old Cadillac Eldorado, and after a moment a light switched on in the back, and the door opened.
The man that met me was of average height, with a thick mustache and tanned skin, and an age that could have been anywhere between his upper twenties and lower fifties.
“How can I help you?” He said, his accent thick.
“I’m Demi, I came here to-”
“Ah, yes. The new tenant. The home was cleaned this morning, you should find everything in good order.” He handed me the key, an old metallic one that shined golden in the setting sun, “You’ll want to talk to Marco, he’s the owner and will stop by tomorrow.”
“Thank you, Mr.-” I stopped, squinting to read his name tag.
“Fuente. It’s Spanish.” He said, “I hope you find your home quite comfortable, we hope you stay a while. It’s a mile that way, then a left on Deleon road. Hard to miss it, it backs up to the cemetery behind.”
“Got it, thanks.” I said, and did my best to memorize the directions. From the passenger seat my black cat meowed, it’s tail swishing across the window wipers as it waited with impatience for my return.
The house was easy enough to find, settled in a collection of two bedroom homes gathered in a loop. Though I did not get lost on the way, I had to swerve to avoid an all white cat licking its paw in the middle of the street, its fur turning to grey in its old age. I found my address the side of a wood paneled house, pre-furnished, and moved my few belongings inside as Ponce, my cat, watched from the grass. He pawed at the ground a few times, his nose wrinkled in distaste as his paws collected dirt.
There was a roach on the inside of my door, and I killed it with a quick tap of my foot. Death was another concept that I had never really understood. I got that things died, but it was thewhen and the how that always held me confused.
For instance, when had the roach actually died? Was it when I stepped on it and determined it’s fate? In that case, I was already dead, as the foot of old age would one day step on me. Or was it when its leg stopped twitching? When half of its cells died? Or when all of them died? Doctors always seemed to make such a big fuss about the distinction between life and death, at least according to the shows I had watched. Only certain people were allowed to declare others dead, and even then, did they really know? Some people had been resuscitated from beyond death, but in that case, had they really died?
I pushed the thoughts from my head as I pushed the roach from my house, sweeping it off the carpet and out into the grass.
On my next trip to my car, I brought my small potted lemon tree up onto the porch. I’d had to remove a good bit of dirt from the tree in order to transport it, and I replaced it with some loose soil I found in the backyard until the plastic pot was filled. The previous tenant had left some sort of plant behind, withered and brown in a clay pot, and I made a mental note to remove it the next day.
My backyard stretched about thirty feet before the cemetery began. It was modest, like any other cemetery I had passed on the way, except for a few details. The flowers were bright here, fresh as if they had been placed on the graves yesterday, and most likely plastic because most of the inhabitants in the town looked a little too poor to be replacing the flowers on a regular basis.
In the center of the graveyard there was a massive fountain, dwarfing the humble graves so that they looked like pebbles. Despite its sheer size, only a trickle of water washed down its base, and there was no mechanism to catch the water. Instead, it flowed back down into the ground, leaving no trail or puddle, but becoming absorbed as quick as the trickle was produced and spreading into the surrounding dirt. I started to walk closer, intrigued, but my cat nipped at my ankles and scratched at my calved.
“Stop it, will you?” I said, and he only meowed in response, closing one eye as he looked up at me.
From my bedroom window, I could see the fountain, and my cat hissed that night until I drew the curtain. Without much trouble I fell asleep that night, but awoke halfway through on my feet. My hand was on my back door knob, and my eyes looked out the window to where the fountain would be in the dark. But Ponce had tripped me up before I could open the door, and I frowned. To my knowledge, I had never walked in my sleep before, but maybe I had just never noticed.
Halfway through unpacking the next day, I remembered the withered plant outside, and decided to switch its pot with my lemon tree’s, as its was much nicer.
But when I stepped on the porch, there was something strange.
At first glance, it appeared that I had already switched pots and had forgotten about it. There, in the clay pot where the dead plant had been, there was a tree with fresh lemons. And in the plastic pot, there was a dead tree, with curled leaves strewn about the patio that had fallen from its branches.
Crouching to look closer, I noticed something else strange. The leaves on my tree were different. Though lemons were on its branches, they were less ripe than I thought. The leaves were serrated, and quite unlike the smooth ones I remembered that more closely resembled the dead leaves on the ground. Even the branches looked different, sticking out at different angles, and I frowned, puzzled by the situation.
Behind me my cat purred, twisting itself between my legs, and calling my attention away from the trees. I petted him, my mind slowly letting go of the oddity in the pots, and he meowed, closing one eye as he did in a fashion unique to his own character traits.
I watched him strut away across the lawn, stalking along the grass until he found a ray of bright sunlight illuminating a patch of dirt. He closed one eye and meowed again, settling into the spot now claimed as his by cat law, and stretched out for an afternoon nap.
Jealous of his spot, I resumed chores, and around four in the afternoon a Jeep Cherokee pulled up my driveway.
A heavily tanned man stepped out, leaning heavily on a cane carved from oak, and looked over me as I walked over.
“You must be Marco,” I said, extending a hand and a smile.
“Indeed,” He said, nodding. His accent was thick too, matching Mr. Fuente’s, “And you are Demi?”
“That’s me.” I said, studying him.
“I take it you like the place, yes? Are the stairs too much for you? I can hardly climb them, my right knee is no longer as strong as it once was. Can your knees handle the stairs?”
“They handle it fine,” I said, watching as he rubbed his kneecap while leaning on his cane.
“And you could find the grocery store ok, yes? If you drink, you’ll have to head to the county over, it’s dry here. I can’t hardly drink anymore, my liver’s gone bad.”
“No problem, I don’t drink really. I don’t think I’ll have to worry about that.”
“Splendid!” He said, cracking a smile, “I think you’ll do fine here. You’ll be fine on your own, yes?”
“I’ll be fine,” I said. I didn’t like the way he was looking at me, the way his eyes traveled up and down the outline of my body, in a way that was almost sexual but felt distinctly different. With a good bye he drove back down the driveway and I walked back inside, peering over my shoulder as I closed the door. His eyes met mine from the mailbox, and I shivered.
I started walking towards my room but frowned as I saw another roach in the hallway in the same spot as before. I tried to kill it with a quick tap of my foot but the roach seemed to know it was coming, and skittered under the fridge. I would have to call Mr. Fuente for an exterminator, but until then I had a cat.
“Ponce?” I yelled, searching for my cat before I remembered he was outside. As I opened the door, I saw he was no longer in the dirt spot where I had left him.
I grew worried as the sun began to set, but Ponce had been known to leave for hours before. He was an explorer by nature, and the property was a new world before him.
Even as dark came, my cat failed to return, and my nerves sharped. I shut off the house lights except for the porch, leaving a can of tuna on the steps, and was just pulling up the covers when I heard a meow at the door.
“Ponce!” I said, throwing off the covers and running to the door, “You had me so worried, Ponce. I’m glad you’re- wait, you’re not Ponce.”
A kitten looked up at me from my doorstep, licking tuna from it’s paw. It was spotted, black and white fur claiming territory along its back, and it did not shy away as I came close but rather ran between my legs into the house.
“Ponce will be jealous,” I said, letting the cat in, “But tonight’s going to be cold, and I won’t leave you out there alone.”
I fell asleep with unease, tossing beneath the covers with the kitten beside me.
It was difficult to wake up from that sleep. I could hear a noise calling out to me, a yowling, and felt a scratching at my face. But my eyelids refused to lift, and I felt myself sinking into a terrible cold.
Then there was another yowl, and I remembered Ponce. My eyelids snapped open, but it was only the kitten, its paws scratching the bridge of my nose.
“Stop it,” I said, but then felt what was beneath me. Dirt.
I sat up, dazed, the graves looming around me. At my feet the fountain trickled, chilled water splashing over my toes, but it almost felt as if water flowed away from me rather than towards me. My muscles ached and I could almost hear them creak as I moved, and as I stood I could feel the earth pulling me back down, as if it did not want to let me go.
I turned back towards my house, my eyes wide and arms shaking with the cold, and my voice caught in my throat.
There, at the cemetery’s gate, stood Marco, a pistol in his left hand and aimed at me.
He should never have missed the shot. He was too close, and I was too stunned. But as Marco stepped forward, his cain nowhere to be seen, I saw his right leg buckle beneath him as fire sprouted from the barrel of his gun.
He fell towards me, gun outstretched in his hand, and on impact with the ground it flew from his fingers to rest at his feet. I think instinct acted then. Or maybe it was self defense.
But I didn't hesitate. I fired.
Marco died, his blood seeping into the earth in pace with the fountain. And nothing would ever be the same.
I was questioned by the police afterward, who deduced that Marco must have been suffering from a form of dementia. My parents sent me to therapy after I had trouble sleeping at night when I moved back home, and the doctors told me what I was experiencing was perfectly normal. They couldn’t explain the recent pigmentation change of my skin though, changing my light skin to tan.
They said that false memories could be an aftereffect of the shock I had. But I never told them the full extent of what was happening.
That my thoughts now contained as much Spanish as they did English. That I had memories, foreign in my mind, that came to me in fitful dreams whenever I could sleep. Memories of being Marco, and stretching back far longer than he should have lived. Memories that fought with my own mind for my identity, and nearly won. That I knew the names on the gravestones, people Marco had known throughout his life and had died by accident, and had requested to be buried at the foot of the fountain in case death's hold on them ever loosened.
I tried to hide that my lack of directional skills had dissipated, and that math was no longer a cryptic language. I felt different, more whole, more complete- as if a missing piece of me had reconnected.
I knew what it was. I never went back in for another brain scan, but I knew what they would find. The piece of me that had come back to life, just as Marco had wanted to bring back his knee.
It took me months to piece together what had happened to me, but the memories in dreams came slowly. I remembered the faces of those who had died before me, who had not been so lucky as to escape.
There was Angelina, who had a form of memory loss. Brent, who suffered from multiple personality disorder. And there were others, all with mental problems, problems that rendered their minds weaker than the average human, and promised some job or benefit in the new town.
I understood why we all had disorders. Two minds were never meant to inhabit one body. Having less than a whole brain would result in less burden. It would make them an ultimate target until they were subdued by the host. I knew, because I had fought for control of myself, and the remains of Marco’s thoughts had lost.
I’ve never told anyone else about all of this. Half of me thinks I’m mad- well, the half of me I control anyway. That type of trauma would do that to a person.
My new kitten is the only one who knows my secret. When I took him from the graveyard that night and brought him home, he closed one eye, and meowed.