World Without End

In those last days, before the world ended, Lucia Salvador Calderón lived by the lists she made. Her blessings became inventory. She wrote them down to remind herself: she had the banana tree in the backyard; she had the ceramic tiles on the bathroom floor, cool against the soles of her feet; she had the God she prayed to, her sisters, her father; she had the heat rising from the Guadalajaran earth, constant and unrelenting, as if to say, I am here and never leaving

She had her mother, too, though she wouldn’t have her for much longer. Her mother was dying—slowly—of a rare lung disease with no cure. There was no treatment left to rely on. “This might be it,” the doctor had told her father, was what Lucia had overheard as she pressed her ear so deep into the door it left an imprint on her left cheek. When Lucia ran out of blessings to record, she created a new list, of things she still had left to do before the world ended completely. 

  1. Take Mamá to see the ocean. 
  2. Steady her balance at the water’s edge, make sure she dips her toes in. 
  3. Refill the vase beside her bed with fresh flowers. 
  4. Replace the water, too. 
  5. Read a book to Mamá, make sure she doesn’t fall asleep. 
  6. Sing a song together. 
  7. Play dominoes together. 
  8. Eat enfrijoladas together, even when she can no longer cut her own tortillas or chew or swallow.
  9. Cut Mamá’s enfrijoladas into tiny pieces, feed them to her bit by bit.

Lucia’s father developed a ritual of his own. He repeated the same phrases, reassuring his daughters that everything would be okay—their mother would be okay—then reassuring the neighbors; Mrs. Carla from la librería; the ladies on Lucia’s mother’s racquetball team; Mr. Gerardo at El Mercadito; Carlos the mail carrier who had been delivering their family’s mail for over twenty years; and the rest of the town that relied on Lucia’s mother for sage counsel: gift ideas for any occasion or new recipes to try or, even, relationship advice. “We’re praying for a miracle,” Lucia’s father would say to anyone who asked about her mother. It was the same phrase Lucia would later repeat to the neighbors when her father claimed he was seeing Santa Muerte everywhere—warming her hands by the living room hearth, picking roses in the garden, whispering secrets to Lucia, her younger sister Elena, and the oldest, Elvira, in the kitchen before dinner. 

For Lucia’s mother, it was La Rosa that haunted her. When the ghost first materialized, her mother began to forget the things she knew best: her favorite flowers—pink carnations—her daughters’ names—Elvira, Lucia, Elena—the shape of her husband’s face—like a mango grown too large for its tree. La Rosa appeared on Christmas Eve the year Lucia turned twelve and stayed until the end. She was la mujer mas fea de todo el mundo—her mother’s words, not Lucia’s—but also the most beautiful. Lucia’s mother said she knew this contradiction meant La Rosa couldn’t be real. Yet every time her mother looked in the mirror, she could see La Rosa’s face reflected back to her and, carajo, wasn’t it so much easier to believe in things you could see?

On the coldest night in Guadalajara, the year the world ended, Lucia said, “Mami, La Rosa no existe. Soy Lucia Salvador Calderón. Tu hija.” She fed her mother caldo de res, placed a cold rag over her burning forehead, then whispered, “Ya duérmete, madre.” And that she did—slept the longest she’d ever had—and from that sleep, Lucia feared her mother would not wake.

***

It went on this way for a while: Lucia urging her mother to eat more caldo de res, her mother taking a few more sips of broth before giving into sleep, Lucia waiting in the chair beside the bed, balancing a half-empty bowl on her thigh, then lifting her mother’s blanket to check for the rising and falling of her chest. Each time Lucia lifted that blanket, her heart stopped and started again when she saw her mother was still breathing. Lucia wondered when the worrying would end. When she would stop searching for signs of life. 

The difference between life and death had begun to weigh so heavy on Lucia’s mind that soon her father took note. “I’ll take over,” he said one evening, as Lucia stood over a simmering pot of caldo de res. He pulled a tray from a cabinet under the sink, spent several minutes folding a cloth napkin into a swan, then reached for the bowl Lucia had made. “Maybe your sisters have been wanting to have dinner with her, too. Did you think of that?” Lucia knew her sisters were grateful they weren’t the ones feeding their mother in the evenings, watching her fall asleep. They took morning and afternoon shifts when their mother was less feverish and frantic. Lucia was left with the version of her mother that would cry out to the family she had lost years ago in a bloody guerra in Guatemala, her motherland. She was left with the version of her mother that laughed at nothing and stared into the dark corners of her bedroom at a shape that wasn’t there. “But La Rosa’s in there with her,” whispered Lucia, knowing how much the ghostly presence upset her father. “Let me deal with La Rosa,” he said, and carried the tray into the bedroom. 

Lucia spent the first part of the evening pacing, not knowing what else to do with her extra time. She started a book on magicians and talking animals but kept turning the pages and going back to reread the ones that came before. The words were there, but nothing was sticking, so she set the book down after a while. Lucia paced some more. She opened her notebook of lists. She started at the beginning: 

  1. Take Mamá to see the ocean. 

Lucia couldn’t recall the last time her mother would have seen the ocean. In Guatemala, where her mother was born and raised, she could turn any direction and face the sea. From Guadalajara, Mexico, she had to drive three hours to Manzanillo just to put her feet in the sand.

Sometimes Lucia wondered if the land was making her mother sicker, if the ocean would bring back something she had lost, bring her closer to recovery. There had to be a way to get her mother back to the ocean. Lucia just couldn’t think of it then. All she could think of was before and after. How once her mother had danced, had cooked, had walked Lucia and her sisters into town to shop for groceries, and now she could barely get out of bed. 

Before her father had taken over her dinner shift, Lucia had checked in on her mother. “¿Cómo sientes, Mami?” she had asked. 

“Como el cielo se está cayendo.”

“¿Quién eres?” asked Lucia. “¿Mi madre o el fantasma?”

“Tu madre si eso te tranquiliza,” answered the ghost from her mother’s mouth. 

Lately, thinking of her mother as her mother hadn’t helped Lucia sleep at night. Sometimes, instead of sleeping, she would hear echoes of La Rosa’s voice. When she would finally get to sleep, she would dream of her mother. Dream in English. She would hear herself ask, “How do you feel today, Mother?” Her mother’s face would be white as a porcelain doll, the soft material of her jaw cracking at the edges. Dream Lucia would reach out to stroke her mother’s face, but the pressure would create fissures. 

She would repeat: How do you feel today, Mother? 

Like the sky is falling.

How do you feel today, Mother? 

Two horses, one cow.

How do you feel today, Mother? 

Would it help you to think, instead, of the stars? 

How do you feel today, Mother

I do, I do. 

How do you feel today, Mother? 

Would it ease your sleep at night, knowing? 

Lucia looked back at her notebook, trying to shake off memories of her nightmares.

  1. Take Mamá to see the ocean. 

She would try. She would find a way to bring her mother back to sea. 

Lucia closed her notebook and wandered to the kitchen, where her sisters were bickering over something trivial. Who would get the last slice of tres leches? Elvira was older and needed to be kinder to her younger sisters, so the cake should go to Elena—right, Lucia? 

Lucia turned a chair to face the window. She used to do this in the evenings when her mother was not so sick. She would watch her father push her mother in a wheelchair around the gardenia bush. He would push her faster and faster until her hair would come undone from its tight bun. Flowers and leaves and twigs would fall from the sky, get tangled in her hair. Once her mother was back inside, Lucia would remove the nature from her hair and her mother would laugh. It was a sound only replicated in her dreams: soft, bell-like. Since, the laughter had turned shrill. Her mother’s delight had become a phantom.

Lucia tried to imagine her mother as the woman she had been before she became a mother. She pictured a woman leaving her motherland for love. For Mexico, a place without the trees she had grown up climbing. She imagined a woman who had unknowingly escaped a civil war, escaped death, who had suffered all the grief that came after her—her father, her mother, her sister, her uncle… 

This woman that was her mother, how could she be susceptible to anything at all? Lucia asked her sisters the same question. Her oldest sister Elvira hugged her, squeezed her so hard around the shoulders Lucia’s bones ached for hours afterward. “Así lo es, pequeña,” said Elvira. “Some people get sick and die. Other people stick around awhile, see a lot of things that aren’t actually there—like ghosts—then die.” 

The sisters were huddled around the kitchen. Elvira was gazing at her reflection through the window, layering on her lipstick. Elvira had a new boyfriend, which meant she would soon cut her hair, start wearing tighter clothes, and put on more makeup than she ordinarily would. Lucia’s younger sister, Elena, didn’t like the change one bit. “I don’t think that’s how it works,” she said. “Some people live really great lives and die of old age.” 

Elvira rolled her eyes. “Oh, yeah?” she said, smacking her lips together. “Name one interesting person who died of old age.” 

When Elena couldn’t think of one, Lucia said, “Who wants to play dominoes?”

Dominoes was their mother’s favorite game. When their family played together, their mother would no longer see La Rosa, just the tiles with the multi-colored dots on their polished faces. Living with their sick mother was like having a stranger in the room with them at all times. The sisters learned to live with the change, this fantasma that had replaced her. 

“I don’t feel like playing today,” said Elena. “I hate seeing Mamá like she used to be. I’d rather just accept it. She’s not coming back.”

“Well,” said Elvira, “I don’t mind seeing Mamá acting more like herself every once in a while. Otherwise, we’ll watch her spend the rest of her life suffering in that room of hers, of theirs.” She shuddered. 

“Are you afraid?” whispered Elena.

Elvira scoffed and picked at her long red nails. “Of what? Our own mother? Claro que no.” She avoided her sisters’ eyes.

“I heard Abuela Claudia started seeing ghosts before she died,” said Elena. “Just like Mamá…”

“¡Mentirosa!” snapped Elvira. “Who told you that? You never even met Abuela Claudia.”

If there was ever anyone who should be afraid of ghosts, it was certainly Elvira. She was the only one in the family who had ever seen a person die. Their mother had been around the dead many times before, had seen what death can do to a body, but not like Elvira; she had never seen the light go out of someone in an instant. Their mother had felt the way darkness could spread across the body, curse the heart with knowing: they’re gone, they’re gone, they’re gone. 

You wouldn’t tell by looking at Elvira—how poised she seemed—but Lucia knew it must be weighing her down to live with such darkness. Elvira didn’t like talking about what had happened, so Lucia refrained from asking too many questions. She had only asked her sister once: what was it like? Elvira told Lucia to close her eyes and imagine: one moment you’re dancing along to American records at your friend Camilla’s house—laughing, spinning around and around until all the colors of the living room blend into one—and the next you’re kneeling on the kitchen floor, over your friend’s mother’s body, searching for a heartbeat while the record fades to static. 

Elvira studied her reflection in the window one last time, capped her lipstick, and said, “Whatever. I don’t believe in ghosts.” She ruffled her hair a little, then stepped out into the open air. Lucia watched her sister climb into the red convertible that had been rumbling in their driveway, watched her sister put her arms around the neck of a slick-haired Romeo, his tail pipes sputtering smoke as he drove Elvira away from the house and all the sickness it contained.

***

The beginning of the end of the world didn’t feel like the beginning of the end. Instead, it felt like hope. Pretty soon Lucia was spending more quiet evenings with her lists, which meant her father was spending more evenings with her mother. Her father was in higher spirits, not dejected like he used to be in the evenings after witnessing his wife transform into shadow parts, some spirit gone out of her body. In the mornings that followed, Lucia’s mother seemed unrecognizable. Her energy had returned. She would sit up in bed and ask for the newspaper. She would eat bites of egg and tortilla without Lucia reminding her to. She would point to the words printed in black and white. “¿Qué tonterías son estos?” she would ask. And Lucia would say, “Ni tengo idea, Mamá,” because how else could she explain the absurdity that had become the latest headlines?  

It was 1963. Mexico seemed at a standstill. Sure, there were labor strikes. Sure, there were natural disasters. But the paper grew slimmer every week, downplaying any history they were living. Instead, reporters wrote about advances in television, skirting around stories of internal strife and the perpetual imbalance between the rich and the poor. Lucia began to look outward, out of Mexico. She tuned in to American radio stations, catching the hit songs that were sweeping the nation, swinging around to their scratchy, cheerful voices, and mimicking the radio personalities by filling her cheeks with so much air she would nearly turn blue before belting, “AllrightMikethatwasnumbersevenontheAllAmericanSurveygeewizwouldyou
lookatthetime’boutquartertonineandwickitywacktimewegethisshowontheroad.” 

It wasn’t until the morning of November 22nd, when Lucia read the day’s paper before delivering her mother’s breakfast, that she wished the news would forever stay quiet, the stacks of printed pages thin. Lucia read the headline over and over: El 35° Presidente de los Estados Unidos Asesinado. She felt a tremor in her chest, words restrained like a bird caught in her throat. It’s not like a president had never been assassinated in Mexico before, but Lucia looked to the United States as an escape. She remembered all the times she would watch Jackie Kennedy on television, walking beside her husband in an impossibly poised manner, her smile plastered like a permanent scar across her face. She remembered all the hats Jackie would wear, all the pastel colors. Elvira and Elena watched, too. Americans seemed to live in some golden light forever and ever. It was a light Lucia knew she could never possess in Guadalajara, a light she never thought would go out. 

At breakfast, when her mother asked for the morning paper, Lucia said, “Hoy no hay noticias.”

“¿Cómo?” asked her mother. She sat up in bed, and Lucia could see her ribcage through her threadbare blouse. 

“Así lo es. Nothing to report about, I guess.”

Her mother scrunched her brow, grew red in the face. “En esta casa hablamos español, señorita. En la escuela…bueno. Pero en esta casa somos puros mexicanos.”

Lucia and her sisters were accustomed to speaking English in the house from time to time. Whether they liked to pretend they would one day grow up and move out of Mexico, to imagine themselves making it big in California among the movie stars, or whether they were just perfecting the English they had learned in school over the years, there was no way of knowing for sure. Lucia’s father liked when the girls spoke English. He told them it was good to practice, good to realize they lived in a global society. But Lucia’s mother viewed their speaking English as an insult to their history. 

“Nosotros somos mexicanos,” said Lucia, “pero tú eres guatemalteco de pies a cabeza,” which was true. Her mother was Guatemalan from her head to her toes. 

“Si cierto…” Her mother fell back on her pillows. 

Lucia felt awful. By reminding her mother she was Guatemalan, not Mexican really, she was reminding her of her past—the land she had once called home, all the tragedy that had befallen her family, family Lucia had never had the chance to meet. Lucia had been trying to avoid upsetting her mother with the news, but instead she had upset her mother with the reminder of her interconnected past and present. One tragedy led to another, which led to this: her mother confined to a bed.

“Lo siento, Mami.” Lucia reached out to clutch her mother’s hand in hers. It was cold. She kissed her mother’s fingers and rubbed the skin around her veins in circles to bring heat to her bones. 

She pulled out her list.

  1. Refill the vase beside her bed with fresh flowers. 

Lucia’s father usually did this, but lately he had been so preoccupied with work and doctors that he would leave the sunflowers to dull by her mother’s bed. Her father was a bullfighter—a good one, too. When he wasn’t in the ring, his wife seemed sicker and people noticed his absence. When he was, no one went looking for him and his wife seemed better, which, perhaps, made it easier for him to leave during the day and return in the evening to a quieter house, a wife still sick but not too far gone. Not yet. Lucia knew her father meant well. He was cooking for his daughters. He was administering medicine to his wife. He was fighting bulls to keep the family intact. 

Lucia could do the rest.

She pulled the sunflowers from the water and walked them to the garden, where she hid their wilted faces behind the gardenia bush. Maybe one day, she thought, their faces would spill seeds and they would rise once again to face the sun. 

In late November, there weren’t many flowers blooming around their home, let alone much of Mexico. Of course, there were the Cempasúchitl, the vibrant orange flowers that grew ceaselessly in the valleys of central Mexico. Flor de muerto. According to Aztec legend, the flowers were the color of the sun because they represented the same sun that led spirits into the afterlife. But here, in Lucia’s backyard in Guadalajara, there was no such spiritual flower, only the roses that had survived the fall.

With a pair of blunt kitchen scissors, Lucia clipped five roses from a bush—three red, two pink—and carried them indoors to her mother’s bedroom. Just as she was about to arrange them in the vase, she remembered:

  1. Replace the water, too. 

Her mother didn’t seem to notice the new roses beside her. She was still leaned back on her pillows, staring up at the wooden beams that ran across her ceiling in neat, horizontal rows. Lucia pulled a rolled-up newspaper from the back pocket of her corduroys. “Mami,” she said, handing her the paper. “Sí hay noticias.”

Her mother unrolled the newspaper and straightened the edges. “Ay, Lucia.” She laughed, smacking the front page a few times with her weak fist. “¿Pensaste que esto me asustaría? He vivido muchos horrores, niña.”

It was true. Her mother had lived many horrors. What had Lucia been thinking, that hiding the world from her mother would make everything more bearable for her?

Lucia apologized to her mother, said it wasn’t right what she had done. Of course her mother could handle the news. Of course she deserved to know what was going on in the world. Her mother sat up in bed again. She noticed the roses then. She stroked their soft petals. 

Then they talked about it. Not the presidential assassination or anything else going on in the United States or Mexico, but the real it, that thing they had never spoken about before. Lucia’s mother told her there was no use in worrying over it. The sickness that was growing inside her body would continue to grow. It would get better, but mostly it would get worse. She told Lucia to prepare for the unexpected in the same way she rose from bed each morning. Every morning—her mother told her—she would wake up to birds singing and most days, if she was lucky, brilliant rays of sun illuminating her bedroom. She would thank God for a new day, for all the blessings He continued to give.

“¿Qué bendiciones?” asked Lucia, angry that her mother would call all this a blessing.

Lucia’s mother laid back and closed her eyes. She was asleep before long.

***

  1. Read a book to Mamá, make sure she doesn’t fall asleep. 

Lucia started with The Odyssey, thinking her mother would find something inspiring in the epic tale—a king’s ten-year journey home, the endless struggle, the final victory—but her mother wouldn’t make it past two pages before drifting off to sleep. So, she switched to children’s books. 

Sometimes Elena and Elvira would join Lucia in their mother’s bedroom and listen. Elena would lay on the floor with a pillow under her head and gaze up at the ceiling as though she were watching a sky riddled with stars. Elvira would sit cross-legged on the concrete floor, her spine parallel to the wall behind her, her face caked in powder. Lucia wanted to joke: “You look so white, like a ghost. Maybe you’re the one haunting Mamá,” but something in the way Elvira closed her eyes and nodded along as Lucia read made her pause. When Lucia read aloud to the women in her family, she realized what they sometimes needed to hear wasn’t a lesson on adversity, wasn’t a word to encourage them to keep on living, but a story of a spider climbing a tree to build a web. 

***

Three days after the President of the United States was assassinated, La Rosa returned. Lucia knew it wasn’t going to last forever: this clarity her mother had been experiencing. There was nothing Lucia could do to get rid of the ghost that plagued her mother’s psyche. All she could do was focus on her lists, something she could control:

  1. Play dominoes together. 

La Rosa wasn’t so scary when it was just the three of them: Lucia, Mamá, and the ghost. When they played together, Lucia would remind her mother it was her turn to put down a tile, and La Rosa would answer back in her sharp tongue. She would say not to rush her; she was processing her next move. The way La Rosa spoke made Lucia wonder if her next move had to do with dominoes or something else entirely. During a game, Lucia found it easier to block out the ghost’s shrill laughter, her mocking questions—if your father loves you so much, why is he gone for so much of the day? She would remind herself how much her mother loved the game. How her mother would want her to laugh right back in La Rosa’s face, call her malvada, let her know her domino skills were no match for hers.

Sometimes Lucia would get so frustrated with La Rosa’s abuse, she would tell her to shut her devil mouth, then her mother would snap out of her stupor.

“¿Qué horas son?” her mother would ask, searching for a clock that didn’t exist.

Months before, Lucia’s father had asserted: there would be no clocks in his wife’s bedroom. “Los relojes te vuelven loca,” he said. “One moment you’re searching for the time and, pretty soon, you’re looking at that clock for the rest of your life.” 

After telling her mother it was dinner time, Lucia would put the dominoes away, knowing the moment had passed. The playing was over. La Rosa was gone, which meant her mother could finally rest.

It occurred to Lucia then—though, certainly, she had known it all along—La Rosa wasn’t a part of some legend; she only existed in her mother’s mind. 

  “¿Mamá?” asked Lucia one evening, before her father came in with a bowl of caldo de res. “Do you feel her when she’s there? La Rosa?”

Lucia waited for her mother to yell at her for speaking English—en esta casa somos puros mexicanos—but she must have been too tired because she answered in Spanish, as though Lucia’s slip of the tongue hadn’t even happened in the first place.

“A veces,” she said, smoothing the wrinkles in the blanket wrapped around her waist. “Y a veces no. Es como…” She laughed. “…es like being trapped in your own body. You know es there, but nothing you can do about it.”

“Mamá,” said Lucia, “¡me hablaste en ingles!”

Her mother laughed even more, the color rising to her cheeks. “Pues, you and your sisters like it so much! You no listen to me. I try to tell you to be proud of who you are pero…bueno.”

Lucia hadn’t thought of her mother tongue that way before. To think, all this time, her mother had been warning them: stop asking the world to tell you who you are.  

***

In those last days, Elvira called out, “me voy,” to a nearly empty house and left the house she had once called home. Her mother was asleep, body heavy with sickness. Her father was at the market with Elena, buying groceries for the week. Lucia was sitting in an armchair, watching cartoons on television. When Lucia heard Elvira’s second, “me voy,” she stood up and turned off the television. The screen swallowed all the color and left a black hole in its place.

“Elvira,” she called out, “¿dónde estás?”

Lucia followed the echo of her voice into Elvira’s bedroom. The door was open. It was dark. Lucia opened the curtains to let some light in. She couldn’t recall the last time she had seen Elvira’s bedroom. Elvira was always yelling at her sisters to stay out, slamming the door in their faces when they would try to enter anyway. 

The space was more barren than Lucia remembered. Black and white photographs of palm trees no longer hung on the wall above the bed. The mattress was stripped clean of sheets. Lucia searched under the bed for clothes or something that might suggest that Elvira had once lived there—she found nothing but dust. 

She checked the dresser drawers, the closet, the chest by the foot of the bed. No socks, no shoes, no blouses, no underwear. 

Lucia wandered into her mother’s bedroom, her footsteps heavy on the concrete floor. Her mother was propped up with pillows, waiting.

“¿Quién eres?” asked Lucia. “¿Mi madre o el fantasma?” 

Her mother didn’t answer for a while and Lucia knew: she was speaking to the ghost. 

La Rosa asked Lucia why she was standing there with a dull look on her face, asked her how much longer it would take. Lucia asked La Rosa what she meant by it—what would take much longer? And La Rosa gave her mother a sinister smile that seemed so unnatural, Lucia knew the image would resurface in her nightmares later on.  

“¡Ya basta!” Lucia yelled. “Fantasma, dile a mi madre que Elvira se ha ido.”

“¿Se ha ido?” asked the ghost, a twinge of concern coloring her tone. Lucia didn’t know La Rosa had it in her to feel anything. “¿Cómo puede ser?”

Lucia didn’t want to cry in front of La Rosa. She wanted her mother back. Her mother would know what to do, would bring Elvira back from wherever she had disappeared to.

“Cálmate, niña,” said the ghost. “Tu hermana está en el jardín.”

 Lucia was tired of riddles. She wanted to tell the ghost, no, her sister was not in the garden; she was gone. She wanted to tell the ghost that she knew this because Elvira’s room was always messy, but that afternoon it was clean—no pictures on the walls, no clothes in sight. And there was this boy that would pick Elvira up in his red convertible. He looked a little like Bob Dylan but with shorter, greasier hair. Elvira would climb into his car and they would disappear for hours. She wanted to ask the ghost if she ever heard Elvira in the morning hours, tiptoeing through the house while everyone was sound asleep. Did she ever hear his convertible from the bedroom window, the car rumbling erratically in the driveway? And did she remember the way Elvira started changing the first time that car showed up? How she let her hair grow longer, wore brighter shades of lipstick. Then came the perm and the dark eyeliner and the leather shirts. She wanted to ask the ghost if you started changing the moment you turned sixteen—if, soon after, you would forget your sisters, your father, your own sick mother. And if turning sixteen didn’t change you, how about what happened to Elvira’s friend Camilla or, rather, Camilla’s mother? Did she know that Elvira saw it with her own eyes? A person alive one moment and dead the next, as easy as blinking. She wanted to ask the ghost if she knew what that knowing could do to a person. But who was Lucia kidding? She was speaking to a ghost, not her mother.

***

  1. Cut Mamá’s enfrijoladas into tiny pieces, feed them to her bit by bit.

Lucia couldn’t bear the part that came before, so she skipped to the end of the list, which didn’t make much of a difference because she still had to face the reality of her mother’s condition. Yes, her mother could no longer cut her own food. Yes, her mother could no longer chew properly or swallow with enough strength to wash the food down, as Lucia had predicted, but knowing what was to come hadn’t made the arrival any easier. It had only taken a few days, then there was Lucia and her father and Elena cutting up little bits of tortilla, cutting up pieces of carne even smaller until they remembered—Mamá could no longer stomach meat—switching to vegetables instead, cutting the broccoli up so fine the counters and floors were speckled with green beads that, on first glance, appeared like a trail of ants and they would tiptoe over the seed-like tops that had come undone as though they were stepping over broken glass to avoid the wound. But really, it was pointless to do the tiptoeing. The wound had already been inflicted. 

***

The afternoon Elvira packed up her belongings and left Guadalajara, Lucia’s father formed a search party. They started at Camilla’s house and searched from the valley to the river that ran through the outskirts of town. They searched the shops downtown, the open food court in the plaza that Elvira would frequent, Elvira’s boyfriend’s house. His red convertible was sitting in the driveway. The whole family was home. The boyfriend said he hadn’t seen Elvira all day. He stayed home with his family as the search party continued into the night. They put up fliers, knocked on hundreds of doors, shouted, “Elvira, Elvira!” throughout the city. Lucia stayed home, too, but not for the same reason as the boyfriend. She knew if she had gone out searching for her sister, she wouldn’t have been able to bear the grief and disappointment that would come after. From her small bedroom, Lucia could hear the shouts of people across town, the echoes of her sister’s name. 

A week went by and Lucia’s father didn’t give up. Every morning, he woke and scoured the city for Elvira. When the week came to an end and he came back home with nothing but sweat on his brow, he announced he would be spending a few days in Mexico City.

“Yo pienso que allá fue Elvira,” he said. 

Then he asked Lucia to watch over her mother while he was gone, reminding Lucia how often her mother would need to take her medication, how often she would need to eat and drink. He told Lucia she wouldn’t need to worry about cooking—Mrs. Carla would come by every morning to prepare their meals.

“Papá,” whispered Lucia, so Elena wouldn’t overhear, “no puedes dejar a Mamá así.” She was afraid of her father leaving. Her mother was dying. She could sense it: the end of the world.

Her father hung his head low. It occurred to Lucia that he could sense it, too. 

“Elvira—”

Lucia wrapped her arms around her father’s shoulders. They were smaller than she remembered, but strong enough. Lucia was too young to understand that, when it came to your children, sometimes you had to make impossible sacrifices, but she understood what her father was doing was right. 

Her father fought bulls. He would find a way to bring her sister back. Lucia could handle the rest. 

***

After her father left for Mexico City, Lucia opened her notebook of lists and started at the top:

  1. Take Mamá to see the ocean. 

It was the one item on the list Lucia hadn’t been able to fulfill. She closed her notebook and sat in silence for a while. The afternoon spilled light into the living room that was so bright she wondered whether it was the kind that could lead a person into the afterlife. 

Lucia closed her eyes. She thought of the ocean. The salt. The mist. The gritty sand. She took a deep breath, filling her lungs with ocean waves, then tilted her head back to take it all in. And when she did this, she swore the sea was there with her. All she had to do was open her eyes to see it.  

Then she believed: she would bring the ocean to her mother.

***

The day before the world ended, the phone rang, and Lucia answered it. Her father was back from Mexico City by then. He hadn’t shared much about his time in D.F., just that the weather had been good, the birds a little crazy. Following him everywhere. Chirping incessantly. It was impossible to get some peace and quiet with all that noise. Though he knew Elvira was nowhere near Guadalajara, he still looked for her every day. 

“¿Bueno?” said Lucia.

No answer.

“¿Hola?”

Lucia listened for breathing. Her sister had always been a heavy breather. Around the house, she would push air out of her lungs as though oxygen were an accessory to be flaunted. She would huff or sigh or gasp, just to be heard. Lucia called her La Dramatica. For everything, there was breath. 

“¿Elvira?”

Silence.

Elvira.”

There it was: breath. 

“You’re still alive,” whispered Lucia.

The breathing that followed—it was ragged. She imagined Elvira in a stuffy phone booth, fighting to stay quiet, her hands shaking as she held the phone away from her body. Still close enough to hear her sister’s voice. She imagined the ocean roaring behind Elvira. The waves, the seagulls, the echoes of American voices. 

“She’s still alive,” Lucia said before the line disconnected.

***

The day the world ended wasn’t really the end because one morning, amidst the endless sleep that followed and each day drifting into the next, Lucia woke up and saw her future. She watched the sun rise in a new country, that same old sun that led spirits into the afterlife. She saw the shadows of her ancestors hiding behind every living thing. She saw the strangers that would one day become her children. She saw her mother, walking among the living. She heard her whisper, “En esta casa somos puros mexicanos.” She heard her laugh, and it was puro Mamá, no more ghost around her edges. No more sickness. When Lucia woke that morning, she saw that the world hadn’t really ended—not yet—and she wanted to be there for everything.