“You must accept this: Alfredo, your dear father, is gone. He’s with God. And kind soul though he was, he left so much trouble for us.” She paused. “Estéban and I have talked. We will be married.”
Valentina did not look over at her tired mother crouched beside her or at the expectant man leaning against the door frame. She bit her lip against the burning tears that she felt. They were so near and so angry, but she would not let them burst free.
Her mother sighed and left.
But there was another way. The strange, thin man had told her. The pale man in the church, smiling his long cold smile beneath the brim of his sombrero.
Valentina pulled free a thick sheet of rough old paper that she’d tucked away in her grammar book. It was scrawled all over with flowing black writing she couldn’t read. But she could still hear the thin man’s dry voice: “Make your name, mi damita, and your poor mother will be with your father again . . . .”
She thought of her papa — his soft smile and kind eyes. His wild stories and his fireside laugh. His calloused hands and wide open arms.
Together. All of them.
The girl furiously scribbled her name in looping letters:
Valentina Regina Reyes Vega
Valentina’s sandaled feet pattered madly as she flew up the dirt track. The faded hem of her dress snapped about her lean brown legs, and her mussed hair was a black pennant. The sun burned orange in the flushed, gentle dusk. She clutched in a tiny hand the thick sheaf of paper. Its edges rustled in the warm breeze.
Valentina knew of the desolate farmhouse but had never come here. Her father had sat her down one night and told her it was a bad place. Very bad.
The peaked roof had sagged in the middle, like a furrowed brow hunched over two windows, empty like the eyes of the abandoned dead. Dust blew fiercely here on the far side of the hill, and not even vultures were on the wing.
The chipped door was closed.
She stood on tip-toes and grasped the tarnished knob, yanking it before fear could choke her breath from her. The door lurched inward and rattled against the slats of the wall — the floor of the single-room building had sunken unevenly.
There was very little inside the dusk-darkened room. Nothing but a simple desk, polished to a mad sheen. Like a fevered man’s sweat-slicked skin. A bookcase leaned against the far wall by the desk, a single worn ledger occupying it. A mantel clock ticked eerily atop the shelf.
“Ah, los tiempos.” That cool, dry voice. “It does not lie, does it? So. Do you have it, mi damita?”
Valentina clutched the paper to her chest as bone-white hands slid across the gleaming desk, emerging from the dusty shadows on the far side of it. The brim of a hat slipped forward next and she saw revealed beneath it that thin leer of a smile carved above a narrow chin.
She thrust the paper forward, like an aegis. It fluttered in the drafty room. She placed it carefully on the table. “I signed. I-We have a deal, señior. Like you said in the ch-hurch. I w-want my papa now. I want everything to be happy again.”
The leer slid and reversed itself. “Ah, but no, mi pequeña damita.” Valentina almost believed the facsimile of sorrow etched so very deeply across the visage of the creature opposite her. “Ah, but it makes me so sad to tell you. La tristeza. But your idea of this” — a skeletal digit pinioned the dry sheaf of paper to the wooden table — “as we say, is void. It says otherwise.”
Valentina trembled. “No! You promised!”
The thing stood slowly, like a rope uncoiling. Shadows began to swallow him. Pale cinders burned in cavernous sockets. “Death makes no promises, dear heart, mi damita. No, not a one.”
She shot forward, reaching wildly. Her tiny hand brushed against the icy, velvet gloom and she recoiled, a sharp sob bursting free.
The sun had set. The wind was rising.
A voice like a whisper in an earthen tomb broke the night’s stillness. “Hug your mother close this night.
“We have a contract, after all.”