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GIA AND THE DAY OF THE DEAD
By Kristi Belcamino
San Francisco, California
Women with skull faces and black rose bouquets in their arms brushed against me.
The Grim Reaper was headed my way, his deep-set eyes, poking out of a black hood, bored into me. He walked jerkily forward, his stark white face expressionless, unsmiling, unnerving.
It was like a game of chicken. Except that he was going the wrong way in the procession. The people between us scattered, some scowling or swearing. He outweighed me by 100 pounds and towered over me by at least a foot, but this was one asshole who wasn’t going to intimidate me. I held steady, meeting his eyes without blinking. I lifted my chin in challenge.
The distance closed between us. He never took his eyes off me. As he grew closer, I scanned his hands. They hung by his side. Empty. No gleaming flash of gunmetal or silver.
But as the distance closed between us and he didn’t veer from my direction nor avert his gaze from mine, I reached behind me, back into my waistband.
Without taking my eyes off of his, I swiftly withdrew my dagger and tucked my hand holding the blade into the folds of my long skirt. His eyes flickered and widened. He’d seen.
We were mere feet away. At the last minute, when I could smell the sweat emanating off his body under the thick black robe, he swore and swerved, mumbling something about “crazy motherfucker.”
“You have no idea,” I said over my shoulder.
Relief flooded my body.
I wouldn’t have to fight for my life just yet. Soon, though.
Barely turning my head, I scanned the crowd. Most of the women had face paint and clothing like me, dressed as La Calvera Catrinas—the elegant patron of the Day of the Dead. I wore a deep red satin ballgown that billowed out around me and a black lace shawl. My white-painted face also featured beautiful pink roses trailing across my temple and my black-rimmed eyes were bordered with delicate turquoise and lavender flowers. Many of the men wore silky black tuxedos with red bow ties. But their white faces were more sinister and frightening. No matter how they were dressed, the parade goers shuffled or lurched or limped as we made our way to the Festival of Altars at Garfield Square. After all, we were all supposed to be dead.
The message had said for me to go to the park. I didn’t want to, but I had to. However, I wouldn’t take the obvious route to the meeting point. I would arrive my own way, disguised in my own Dia de los Muertos costume and hopefully blend into the procession, undistinguishable from anyone else.
Did they hope that my murder would be unnoticed because of the crowd?
Because that’s what they had in mind—murder.
They hadn’t fooled me for a second. They wanted to meet me to kill me.
Maybe the Grim Reaper hadn’t tried to kill me just now, but someone else was waiting in the wings to do so. It was just a matter of time. Every face and body marching down Treat Street was suspect.
Suddenly, the park was before us.
It glowed from the street. Thousands of candles filled the park, illuminating colorful altars—ofrendas.
I made my way through the altars, passing a row over from the one I had left for Bobby. Going straight to it would seem too obvious. But my eyes flicked as I passed and my heart clenched.
Bobby, I’m sorry. For everything. I love you.
Saying the words in my head on this night, in this place, caused an unexpected sense of peace and calm to fall over me. I was filled with gratefulness as I walked toward the northern most edge of the park, which was dark and shadowy.
My fist closed tightly around my dagger. The reassuring weight of the gun in my ankle holster and the other blade strapped tightly to my left thigh gave me a false confidence. I was already outnumbered. For a second I questioned my decision to leave Django safe at home. He’d just had surgery and was weaker than usual. I couldn’t risk losing him. I wasn’t sure what awaited me, but I was going to put up a fight and worrying about my dog was a liability.
As soon as I stepped away from the lights of the altars into the far recesses of the park, it seemed as if all sound receded as well. The laughter, prayers and Aztec drumming drowned out by the thudding of my heart in my ears.
I stepped around a tree. I could sense them before I saw them.
They stepped out of the shadows. I squinted in the dark, trying to make out the shapes before me.
“Where is he?” My voice was low but steady.
“You give us what we want first.”
I hesitated. Then, swiveled my head to makes sure nobody was creeping up behind me before I searched the cluster of figures for his familiar form. As my eyes adjusted slightly, I saw two figures holding up a third slumped body.
Relief soared through me. But it wasn’t over yet.
In that split second, they attacked in a blur of arms and legs, fists and kicks and punches.
My fist made contact with a kidney and then my hand bladed and chopped a neck, but still the pummeling continued. A particularly well-aimed blow to my cheek sent me reeling and scrambling to keep my balance as the long folds of the skirt got caught up in my legs. I came back with a wide swinging arc of one leg that succeeded when my boot made contact with a man’s chest. But the damn skirt was a liability. I had known that earlier tonight, but the need for a disguise had won out.
Another blow took me off guard enough for someone to wrap an arm around my neck. I flailed about for my dagger, but it had shot out of my hand earlier. I grew limp and me and my attacker both slumped to the ground where I flipped the voluminous skirt of my dress up and over our heads as I repeatedly slammed the back of my skull into the man’s nose until he finally released me.
I tried to crab walk out of danger but another large figure with a heavy boot came down, nearly missing my gut and stomping on my dress, pinning me to the dirt.
I was losing.
I couldn’t see a way out on my own. I’d taken out one with my dagger. He was leaning against a tree moaning. But that still left two others for me to fight off. Luckily they hadn’t been able to come at me at the same time yet since one of them was holding James.
But then with some luck I was able to land a solid kick between the guy’s eyes and he stumbled backward for a few feet before he collapsed.
That left the guy holding James.
He pushed James back onto the ground and charged. He slammed me into a tree trunk and I gasped feeling excruciating pain in my side. I was certain my ribs were broken and wanted to curl up and die, but there was a heavy boot headed my way. I ducked and the impact of his foot on the tree sent bark scattering.
Across the park, the dia de los muertos festivities continued with MUSIC that drowned out the grunts and muffled exclamations from our melee.
That’s when I noticed James had stood and was coming closer, walking unsteadily. I needed his help. The pain in my side was nearly unbearable. I fell to the ground, knowing I was in a vulnerable position but it was the only way I could reach down to my ankle holster and free my handgun.
“James!” I shouted and tossed the gun. I watched him catch it just as my attacker slammed my head into the tree trunk.
At first I thought I was truly seeing stars from the head blow, but then I realized in my stunned state that it was a flashlight blinding me. Voices broke the silence.
James whirled. The gun in his hand caught the light.
“Police! Drop the gun! Drop the gun! Drop the gun!”
Everything happened at once.
“He’s a cop,” I screamed.
“San Francisco PD,” James shouted.
But our words couldn’t compete with the deafening blast of the gun.
The world went silent. Then returned full force with the echo of my scream ricocheting in my head as I frantically crawled, clawing at the dirt with my fingernails, toward where James lay flat on his back on the ground.
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