We are proud to publish this excerpt from Return to Arroyo Grande, the new novel by Jesús Salvador Treviño.
It started out as a pretty normal night. I had signed into the station and, after some small talk with Andy Armenta coming off the day shift, I grabbed my thermos of java and headed out the door. The routine was simple enough. Just cruise the town once, come back to the station, watch television until midnight, cruise the town again, return to the station and, on most nights, take a nap till six o’clock for the third and final patrol of the town and get back to the station by seven for the shift change.
On this night I pulled out of the station at Calle Uno and Sycamore and started out on my usual loop, which took me east to the Interstate 10, making sure there were no stranded motorists, then getting back onto surface streets, heading down Pershing Street to Calle Diez. Then I’d swing around by the cemetery on the south side of town. Eventually, I’d find myself back at Calle Mercado. After years of patrolling Arroyo Grande, I had gotten used to checking out certain familiar places, places I had long ago determined would be logical places for some someone to engage in mischief.
I was never disappointed. The back of the high school stadium was one of these sites, where once or twice a month I’d cough up teenagers sipping beer or smoking pot. The wide plaza in front of the Barron and Rebber skyscraper was another, with its hidden nooks and crannies ideal for drug deals. And of course, the grassy rise by the gates to the Arroyo Grande cemetery, a great place for some patron of the Copa de Oro to sleep off a borrachera.
Most of the time, the majority of the many, many nights I patrolled Arroyo Grande, nothing, absolutely nothing, happened. The gentle people of Arroyo Grande slept their peaceful sleep and gathered their strength for the many chores ahead of them the next day. This night was such a night, or so I thought. The first patrol was uneventful. I returned to the station and caught the evening news and The Tonight Show, then, at midnight, I set out on the second patrol of the night. And that’s when it all changed. I had just passed the cemetery and pulled onto Calle Mercado, when I saw the young boy.
Ordinarily, seeing a three-year-old riding his tricycle along the bumpy sidewalk of Mercado Street, negotiating the rise and fall of concrete where the roots of large oaks had undermined the sidewalk, would not draw my attention. But this time it did. At one o’clock in the morning, you can bet it did!
I slowed down the cruiser and pulled alongside the boy. Then I noticed who it was–Jimmy Ramírez, the youngest of Alfonso Ramírez’s kids. The Ramírezes had moved into town a year ago and had rented the old Tanguma house when the octogenarian had passed on.
“Hey, Jimmy,” I called out. But the young boy was lost in his own world, his tiny legs churning the wheels of the tricycle like miniature pistons as he made those motor sounds that young children make when they’re alone with their intense and private fantasies. Jimmy reached the corner of Calle Mercado and turned down Calle Cuatro.
I knew the Ramírez family lived just three doors down, so I pulled my cruiser over and parked. As I got out of the patrol car I could see Jimmy riding his tricycle up the sidewalk to the the front door of his home, one of the old craftsmen two-story wood-frame houses that had been built on Calle Cuatro in the thirties. Out of habit, I slid my baton into my belt harness, patted my gun and made my way to the house. The street was quiet, empty. The new mercury street lamps that mayor Cervantes had pushed through the city council cast an eerie purple aura over the entire block.
When I got to the house, I noticed that all the lights in the house were off. I noticed that many of the other houses on the block kept a front porch light on as a safety measure–but there was no porch light on here. And it was quiet, unusually quiet. Why was that? Suddenly it hit me, the constant chirp chirp of the cicadas that marked summers in Arroyo Grande had stopped. If there is one thing Arroyo Grande is famous for, it is oversized, rampantly in your face, cicadas, insects with no “off” button. Now, they were inexplicably silent.
Jimmy had disappeared through the front door, which remained ajar. I walked up to the porch and approached the door. It was too dark to see anything inside. I reached for my flashlight and turned it on, enveloping the front door in a pool of magna intense light. I peered inside but could see no one. Probably asleep upstairs, I thought.
I entered the house. In front of me were the worn wooden stairs that led to the bedrooms. To the right was an arched entrance leading to a modest dining room, and beyond that another door leading to the kitchen. To my left, another arched doorway leading to the living room, strewn with kids’ toys, wrappers and empty pizza boxes, indicating a night of watching TV. Of course! Tonight had been the annual match-up between the Texas A & M and UT Austin– a rivalry few people in Arroyo Grande missed.
“Hello,” I said loudly. No answer.
Again, I called out. “Hello? Señor Ramírez? Anybody home?”
Then I heard it. The make-believe engine sound I had heard Jimmy making on his tricycle, somewhere off in another room. I followed the sound. And then suddenly stopped. My foot had hit something. I shined the light down at my feet. It was Jimmy’s tricycle. I thought I heard the noise coming again, seeming to come from behind the stairwell. I walked along the narrow corridor adjacent to the stairs that led to a back room. Then I saw it. There was a soft glow of light coming from a door underneath the stairs. I opened the door wider and peered in. I was looking down a long flight of stairs leading to a basement. At the bottom I could see that the light source was brighter. Something eerie about that light, not incandescent, not a light bulb, but not florescent either. Brighter but softer, a strange orange color. I was about to call out again, but that’s when my cop instinct kicked in. There was something wrong here.
Why would little Jimmy be riding his tricycle along Calle Mercado at one o’clock in the morning? Why were all the lights out? Why was there no response. I knew that there were four children in the Ramírez household, in addition to Alfonso and his wife, Betty. Where was everybody?
Instinctively, I undid the hood on my revolver holster and started down the stairs. Suddenly it was very important for me to be quiet. I measured each step on the stairs carefully, allowing my weight to settle gradually on the wooden steps, spreading out my weight and muffling the creak on the old wooden planks. I descend slowly, carefully, keeping the light from my flashlight at my feet for obstacles but away from the bottom of the steps where it might give away my approach.
Half-way down the stairs, I began to hear it. A low, resonant moan, but a moan that seemed to come from more than one voice, as if two or three people were moaning together, in harmony. It was not a happy noise. It was rather a moan of pain, a moan of sorrow, of discord. Gradually, I got closer and closer to the bottom of the stairs. I turned off my flashlight and put it back on my belt–there was now more than enough light for me to see where I was stepping. The basement light was not only brighter but I could see that, indeed, it was a light unlike any I had ever seen before. The color of it, the orange and reddish hue, the magenta tinge. How it flickered and danced. Was it filters? Neon? I was dying to peek around the corner and see its source.
Finally, I was down at the last step. All I could see into the basement was the blank wall facing the stairs. To my right, the basement opened up into a large room, but I couldn’t see what was in it. The moaning was much louder now, and, yes, it did seem to come from several voices. That’s when I noticed two things, that my right hand was hurting from holding the gun so tightly (when I had pulled out my pistol?) and that I was drenched in sweat, the moisture descending from my checks and down to my neck and down my back. I stepped down from the last step and inched my head closer to the edge of the stairwell that hid the basement from view. The mystery of the room was just inches away from me. I prepared to peek around the corner. I held my breath and looked inside. What I saw made my skin crawl.
There were six of them. Alfonso Ramírez, his wife Betty and the four children, ranging in age from young Jimmy to six-year-old María, seven-year-old Stevie and nine-year-old Alfonso Jr. They were all suspended about four feet off the ground–they were floating! Their arms were out-stretched, extended, with their fingers pointing out. They’re mouths were wide open–that’s where the moaning was coming from. A harmonic synthesis of six voices merging into one deep, uninterrupted moan. But what made my blood run cold was their eyes. They were wide open, but only the whites of their eyes were visible. Their eyeballs seemed to have disappeared inside their skulls.
Floating in the air with them were streams of blood and mucous, originating from their mouths, their eyes, their noses, their ears. The blood and bodily fluids floated and drifted, suspended in space, defying the laws of gravity. It reminded me of footage I had seen of liquids that astronauts had spilled while being weightless in space. The shimmering, iridescent light totally enveloped the six of them. It seemed to irradiate from them, fluctuating rhythmically with the breathing of the six members of the Ramírez family. I stared at this sight for what seemed an eternity.
Suddenly, Jimmy’s eyes descended from within his skull and he was staring directly at me. Suddenly, they had all regained their eyesight and were staring at me. Intensely, angrily, menacingly. I could feel their glare focused an inch behind my eyeballs. I was terrified.
Then young Jimmy floated in the air toward me. As he came closer and closer I instinctively too a step back. Then I noticed the hatred in his eyes, the stark, intense, angry hatred. How can a three-year-old hate so much? He came to rest directly in front of me, his face nose to nose with mine. He opened his mouth to speak, but instead of the trilling motor I had heard earlier, it was a man’s voice–deep, raspy, and angry. “Don’t!” he said emphatically. He dragged out the final syllable of the word into a hundred nuances of warning, threat and intimidation. “Doooooon’t tell anyone!”
Jimmy settled to the ground, took my hand and led me up the stairs. He walked me to my patrol car, like an adult might lead a small child. Except, here I was the small child. Within minutes I was sitting in the driver’s seat of my cruiser. Jimmy was on the sidewalk. He waved at me wordlessly, turned and started back into the house. I started up the cruiser and resumed my night of patrolling the streets of Arroyo Grande. I went through my routine as if nothing had happened. They call it “shock.”
When I returned to the station, I went into the bathroom and washed off the sweat that had covered my face. Then I threw up, violently. When I was done, I went to one of the holding cells we keep for weekend drunks. I sat down in the empty cell, held my head in my hands. I was shaking all over, more frightened than I had ever been in my entire life.
A week later the Ramírez family moved out of town. I later asked Johnnie Mendoza of Arroyo Real Estate where they had gone. He didn’t know. “Damnest thing,” he said to me, “Ramírez shows up one day with an envelope full of cash. They had taken out a three-year lease on the old house. They’d only lived there a little over a year. So here he is giving me the balance of the lease money, in cash! Said he had been promoted and was being relocated to another city. Last I saw of him!”
That was three years ago, and for all these years I’ve held it inside, but I haven’t forgotten that night. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t relive the sight of the Ramírez family floating in the air, the mucous and the blood, the vacant stares, the moaning. And above all, the intense hatred in their eyes. A hatred directed at me but clearly originating from some terrible event that had shaped them or perhaps even had transformed them into that special, terrible thing that they were. Maybe they were that way before. I don’t know. Perhaps they had always been like that. And who–what–were they, anyway? How could they have such abilities? To levitate their bodies? To make fluids float in the air? And the meaning of that horrible, visceral moaning? What was the meaning of that night and of what I had witnessed?