2018 - Belinda Alvarez has returned to Texas for the wedding of her best friend Veronica. The farm is the site of the urban legend, La Reina de Las Chicharras - The Queen of The Cicadas.
In 1950s south Texas a farmworke r- Milagros from San Luis Potosi, Mexico, is murdered. Her death is ignored by the town, but not the Aztec goddess of death, Mictecacíhuatl. The goddess hears the dying cries of Milagros and creates a plan for both to be physically reborn by feeding on vengeance and worship.
Belinda and the new owner of the farmhouse - Hector, find themselves immersed in the legend and realize it is part of their fate as well.
FLAME TREE PRESS is the new fiction imprint of Flame Tree Publishing. Launched in 2018 the list brings together brilliant new authors and the more established; the award winners, and exciting, original voices.
Release date: June 22, 2021
Publisher: Flame Tree Press
Print pages: 224
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The Queen of the Cicadas
July 20, 2019
Past the event horizon, tears pool at my feet. They shift to form strings of dark matter that hold me together for some unknown reason. Have you ever been in a place so devoid of light you can no longer see your hands in front of your face? The darkness tricks your mind into thinking you might only be a voice with tiny thoughts like particles trying to escape a black hole. They ricochet frantically, unable to perforate the veil knitted by life events. There are no moths to eat their way through. There is no escape from that voice or thoughts that drag you deeper into a sense of not knowing what is true, or right. If this is all that is left of me, why do I still exist? Maybe I should surrender and allow myself to be sucked into oblivion. Maybe something exists on the other side.
“This is it.”
The Uber driver’s voice startled me from my wine haze and I snapped shut my leather journal embossed with my name on the front. It was a gift from my son for my fortieth birthday, probably chosen by his father. I use it as a place to store all the fragmented words I struggle to string together, as hard as I might try.
The imposing Victorian farmhouse was more beautiful than the photos on the website. It made me smile despite stomach cramps from drinking two mini bottles of cheap white wine on the flight, without so much as a bag of chips to absorb the alcohol. I rushed out of the car with my carry-on, down a flagstone-paved path lined with potted marigolds to the main house, which had been restored to perfection. It reminded me of a dollhouse Veronica once had. We played with blonde, blue-eyed Barbies with thighs that never touched. The dollhouse was the perfect venue for the perfect bride.
There was only enough time to change and slap on a fresh coat of eyeliner and lipstick. The spaghetti-strapped satin bridesmaid’s dress was reminiscent of the nineties when we hung out at Journeys and Delia’s. Veronica and I chose them together, laughing uncontrollably over how old we were and how young the dresses made us feel. Veronica bought one for herself to change into for the reception. We just needed pencil-thin eyebrows that were no longer in fashion and lip liner one shade darker than the lipstick. Real chola-like. Maybe a pair of Nike Cortez or Doc Martens, depending on whether we listened to Nirvana or Selena Quintanilla at a block party. The older folks always cranked up the Tejano for impromptu dancing.
Catering staff dressed in black and white hurried in and out of the house to the barn, where the ceremony and reception would be held. I entered the open door and was greeted immediately by a young woman holding a clipboard next to a side table with a key.
“Belinda Montoya. I’m here for the wedding,” I breathlessly blurted.
She ran her pen the length of the clipboard, searching through names. “Yes, you are the last one to arrive. Your room is on this floor, number six.” She grabbed the keychain with a Virgen de Guadalupe charm sat on the table. “Here is your key. You walk past the kitchen to the large hallway. I believe it is the last room on the right.”
“Thank you.” Fuck. Last one. I walked briskly past a grand staircase in the center of the entryway leading to the second floor. My instinct was to explore; however, I needed to change as quickly as possible. Once inside my room, I undressed, catching myself in the full-length, free-standing mirror. My C-section scar stared back like a malicious smile just above my panty line. The red rings around my nipples resembled bloodshot eyes even a year after my augmentation. What a stupid fairy tale, or more like urban legend, that tells us time heals all wounds. No, it doesn’t. Scars don’t ever really heal. My skin was a mere bag to hold my tears and alcohol. Without Botox, dermal fillers, and other various procedures to halt my slow decay, I was afraid of the fright my reflection would be. I had so many more advantages than my mother and the women before her, but the sadness and longing lingered. We were from different generations of brokenness, not experiencing enough love. When you don’t know what that is, you will look for it everywhere. The more immediate the hit, the better.
There I was, two divorces later, laid off (I didn’t mind that as I was burned out), and a teenage kid who decided to live with his father most of the time. The older Jacob became, the less we had in common. I remember wanting a boy so badly because I feared making the same mistakes that my mother made with me. Self-esteem is a delicate thing I was sure to fuck up. All my life, my sense of self-worth amounted to less than the paper used to print my county hospital birth certificate. The first years with my boy were sweet as we baked together most days and went to the movies every weekend. He wanted me to sit for hours beside him while we put together a new box of Lego; any Lego he wanted I made sure he had. I hated and loved every second of that tedious, back-breaking play. But I was never the best cheerleader at soccer games, never really interested in knowing the rules either. Being there felt like an obligation instead of joy. Temper tantrums left me flustered, wanting to leave him at the first corner and walk away without looking back. Drowning in his shrieks, I wondered if La Llorona cried because she didn’t know how to give love in a meaningful way.
I could only think of awkward things to say about girls and sex. My coordination with a PS4 controller was zero. There was no longer a welcome at the movies except to drop off and pick up, but even that was taken from me as he began taking public transportation with his friends. The first time he told me he hated me, I spat, “You don’t think I sometimes hate being a mother?” I was hurt, frustrated by all the sacrifices I had made over the years for it to be like this. I wanted to be a good mother. I really tried. Nothing would stop me from believing I had failed somehow.
After putting myself together, hiding all the things I hated behind a new Tom Ford lipstick called Rust, it was time to celebrate in my home state of Texas.
I had returned for Veronica’s wedding, which we planned together for months via email. Veronica was the head of the legal department for Dow Chemical. That was where she met Stewart, the nice engineer she was marrying. Unlike myself, she waited to settle down instead of getting swept up in the notion that the love and family tale could pull together all your insides like a handful of fishhooks and wire. In the end it was this very act that ripped sinew from muscle with every decision I made. Something always managed to detach sooner or later. When I was in college, watching her happiness bloom year after year made me want a do- over, or at least a couple years of therapy instead of hopping on any cock that looked like fun with a tab of ecstasy on my tongue, or whatever else was offered to me at fraternity parties. There is wild and then there is out of control. Sometimes I wonder if I was possessed in those days. Those were the days I did everything and anything to get by, to survive, to eat, stay in school, pay my student loans. Anything to claw a way out from the barrio, just like my mother did everything to claw her way out.
The wedding was a beautiful affair in the middle of nowhere with only a few close friends and immediate family. Veronica’s mother, Pamela, sat perched at the front, as stunning as ever, like mestiza royalty. I didn’t mind sitting quietly detached because I had done this twice and knew the drill. I surveyed the crowd, overhearing bits of conversation, realizing all their couple friends were married with children or on their second marriages trying to blend families. I guess I also kept to myself because it seemed like everyone had a plan, had things figured out. I stumbled from one life event to another in the same way I stumbled in and out of beds.
I used to pray relentlessly to God, believing in a Jacob and Isaac moment from the Bible. If I raised the blade high enough, a hand would reach down and guide it, speak to me. I guess that was why I named my son Jacob. Enough happened in my life that I continued to believe, but not enough to keep me faithful. Just like my failed marriages. My brain was stuck in a windowless room without any sense of direction. I had chosen the wrong profession but didn’t know what I wanted to do at eighteen, or now. I became a mother without those things I needed to adequately parent. School didn’t come easy for me at any point in time. It was only by some stroke of luck I was admitted to one college. Imagine my surprise when I received a letter of acceptance to law school. The paper trembled in my hand. I read once, twice to be sure it wasn’t a trick of a desperate mind. I will go to the grave before I tell anyone how many times I took the bar exam. But I was determined to be somebody, anybody except who I was. No one told me nothing can change that. Beneath your skin and bones, something else resides, your true nature. And one thing I learned way too late in life is that just because your degree is printed on white paper, it doesn’t change those preconceived notions about your brown skin.
After the dinner of filet mignon, scalloped potatoes and crisp green vegetables, the staff brought out a tiered white chocolate cake with sugared bluebonnets. Then the tearful speeches, followed by too many drinks to count from the open bar. The reception had become a huge display of everything I tried to achieve and failed to do. I grabbed a bottle of red wine from the bar and left the party in the converted barn to explore the country house where the wedding party was staying. I would crash in my bed made for one. I hated sleeping alone.
You don’t see the stars in the city like you do in the countryside. I stopped midway between the barn, which emitted the joyous sounds of music and laughter, and the house, with an imposing silhouette of a single spire jutting to the sky against the brightness of the moon. Only one light in the front room remained on. In the coolness of the night my skin turned to gooseflesh. As I took a step towards the house, I felt a fluttering next to my face. I swatted the unidentifiable thing, but it refused to leave. The crickets continued to chirp despite my presence. They always stopped when disturbed. In the distance a floating glow caught my eye, a swirl of lights, blinking and congregating. Fireflies. I took a swig from the bottle and continued to walk off-balance with heels in soft grass. My gaze followed the glowing insects. Two brighter objects remained stationary in their midst. My heart quickened; the cloying frosting from the wedding cake separated from the acid in my stomach. I walked faster in my heels, which were sinking into the ground with every step, until I reached the porch.
The house was empty except for the owner, Hector, in the main sitting room. His presence made me forget my tipsy fear and the chill hovering along my spine. Men either made me feel safe or frightened the shit out of me. As hard as I tried, there was no middle ground with the opposite sex.
He sat in a creased leather wingback armchair reading The Shining. I knew I had to approach him. He was very good-looking, with hazel-brown eyes and black hair so thick it waved at the sides. Like I said, some things inside of us never change. My feet hurt from wearing stilettos all night and both heels were caked in dirt. I slipped off my shoes and approached Hector.
“The Shining. Great choice.”
Hector looked up from his book to give me a smile with his full lips. “Hey, I have a thing for haunted places, and people unfortunately. Why aren’t you at the party? Not that I mind the company.”
I wondered if that was code for I was his type. I’m the kind of woman that harbors more ghosts and demons than Halloween, hell, and Dia de Los Muertos combined. “What other haunted places do you like?” I was trying to appear more charming than mean, bitter, floozy, drunk.
He put his book down. “You mean you don’t know the history of this place?”
I took a dainty gulp of wine from the bottle and shook my head. Did I mention I’m a very classy woman with a law degree? Drinking straight from the bottle is always a sign you’ve met a winner. Then again, sex is sex. I think I already mentioned I hate sleeping alone.
“This place has a long history,” he said. “I only know about it because one of my relatives was a farm worker who kept in touch with my grandmother. They left when things got…scary. When I got sick of trading in New York, I came down here, found this place, and decided to bring it back to life. As I researched the area, I found out my grandmother’s stories from the letters she received were not just stories. The events and people were real. Ever heard of La Reina de Las Chicharras? The murdered farm worker, Milagros?”
I’m not sure if it was the wine or the sensation of gravity no longer existing, but I felt sick. Was this the place I’d heard of as an adolescent? Did Veronica know this? We spoke about the location of the wedding extensively because I found it on a wedding location website. I fell in love with the Victorian style that reminded me of something you would find in Europe. It was a two-story, fourteen-room white mansion with an octagonal tower topped with a fairy-tale castle spire on the left corner. The wraparound porch was lined with rocking chairs where I imagined Veronica and I could talk late into the evening. The barn a short walk away had been converted into a hall that could be used for various events. The high ceilings with exposed beams were restored to a beautiful burnt-orange varnish that matched the floors. Veronica wanted understated beauty with an intimate feel. I sent the link to her, but not once did she mention any urban legend tied to this place when she emailed me back to say it was exactly what she imagined. Maybe she forgot the story from so many years ago. I had forgotten it until now. Hector must have been amused by my reaction because he didn’t stop with his story.
“I mean, La Llorona has nothing on her. La Reina has substantiated victims. One of her first is still alive at eighty-six. She can’t move, and she’s in some state hospital or home, but still. Other locals have stayed away because of the story. It’s an urban legend that keeps circulating. The house was a vandalized mess when I made my first visit. It was useless for farming anymore, the land is all but dead, so people were reluctant to buy it. And no one wants to build luxury housing in the middle of rotten land. Lucky for me it’s actually helped business, even if nothing supernatural’s ever happened on the property. We’ve been featured on paranormal TV shows, podcasts. Ghost hunters from around the country have stayed here. When I reached out to the realtor, I’m surprised the bank didn’t just give this place to me, they were so happy to unload it after all these years.”
It didn’t sound as ominous now that I was an adult. “So why did you buy it?”
“I needed a project, something creative that had nothing to do with numbers or stress. I needed to be alone. I liked the idea of a low-key country retreat. Sometimes you just vibe with things. Like I said, it was awful when the realtor drove me to the property, but I felt drawn here with a vision of what it could be.”
I took a deeper drink from the bottle of wine. I wanted to see her. “What do you have to do to get her attention?”
“You look into a mirror, any mirror, and say her name once, La Reina de Las Chicharras, followed by ‘chicharra’ three times. I have no idea what happens next. I don’t have the guts to try it.”
“Let’s find out if this is real.” When nothing interests you anymore, you’re willing to try anything that might induce a sliver of amusement. Anything to feel less numb. Fit and healthy, it would seem I had a lot of time to kill, considering I didn’t have the heart to end my own misery. I took out my compact mirror from my ugly, satin, powder-blue clutch to call something I didn’t think existed but brought a rush to my imagination like the night of the sleepover. It was then we heard a click and the yawning creak of a door. We both stretched our necks towards the second floor.
Hector frowned. “Hello?” He looked back at me. “I thought I was alone in here.”
“What’s up there?”
“More guest rooms. A bathroom I usually keep locked.” We rose from our seats with our eyes on the stairs. Hector tossed his book in his armchair, then took the bottle from my hand. There was something in the way he waited a beat before drinking. He wasn’t telling me something. After a long gulp, he turned to walk up the stairway. I followed him in silence. The stairs released a throaty groan beneath our steps. My hand glided against the cherry wood handrail varnished a deep red. When we reached the top, the bathroom door was open a few inches. I stepped closer to enter. Hector, however, just stood looking into the dark empty space like he’d lost the ability to move.
“What’s wrong? Are you really scared? I thought you said nothing supernatural ever happened here.”
“Nothing has. I swear I locked that door. Maybe one of the staff helping with the wedding unlocked it?” There was genuine concern about this bathroom for a man who claimed there was nothing supernatural about the farm.
“Are you sure you want to do this? This is the bathroom that belonged to the wife of the owner of the farm when it failed. She was so frightened by all the events following the murder she committed suicide inside there.”
“How did she die?”
“She drank insecticide.” His hazel eyes turned a shade darker as they quivered with fear.
I could feel the hair on my entire body rise as he uttered these words, but it was not enough to stop me. I opened the door and flipped on the light switch as we entered. Part of me expected a dingy, claustrophobic room with broken mildewed tiles and a limescale-stained sink, like in the movies. Instead, it was stylishly decorated with black subway tiles covering the walls from bottom to top, a deep brass free-standing claw-foot tub and a large oval illuminated mirror over a free-standing black sink with a fancy waterfall faucet.
I felt disgusted as I looked at my own reflection. Makeup smeared, puffy eyes full of self-imposed grief and loathing. ...
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