Soulless

by Eva McCarthy Mínguez

May 15, 2023

I still wasn’t used to the familiarity of seeing squirrels. Where I come from, it’s exciting when you encounter one. I could see two– two! –from where I sat in the car. They were chasing each other. Or perhaps they were fucking. I couldn’t tell.

“Lina,” Brad said from beside me.

“What?”

“The light’s green.”

“Oh.”

I stepped on the gas, forcing my gaze ahead and not back at the patch of grass where the squirrels were fooling around.

“Where’s your head today?”

“What do you mean? Right here.”

“Alright,” he said in disbelief. “You’re ready to meet my folks?”

“Of course I am.”

I hadn’t met someone’s parents since my second year of university. His name was Pablo, and his parents spent the entire night trying to get me out of the cleaning job I had at the local hotel.

“¿Estás con una chacha?” they asked Pablo under their breath. And, for the rest of dinner, I had to pretend like I hadn’t heard them call me the most derogatory form of the word “maid.”

Safe to say that was the end of us. Except for that time after finals. And that other time at the New Year’s Eve party.

I’d been with Brad for four months by the time he suggested we have dinner with his parents. His mom was a chef, his dad was a produce man.

“They’re a match made in heaven,” Brad would always say.

I never knew my dad, and my mom killed herself when I was seventeen.

“I don’t think my brother is coming.”

“Oh, that’s too bad,” I said.

“How is your brother?” I asked him, while driving us further into the desolate town.

I’d only met Brad’s brother once before, but I liked his boyfriend Peter more than I did him.

“Oh, he’s fine. But he and Peter broke up,” Brad said. “Turn right up here.”

“What? I didn’t know that.” I said, putting on my blinker.

“I didn’t tell you?”

“You didn’t.”

“Oh. Well, they did.”

I was always the last person to find things out. When my mother killed herself, I heard a few of the mean girls whisper amongst themselves. Esa es la que su madre se ha suicidado, they said while subtly pointing. I didn’t understand why they were saying that. Why they were saying I was the girl whose mother killed herself. Not until the principal took me aside and sent me home to deal with her funeral.

“Fair warning,” Brad said as we exited the car. “My father will probably ask you a million questions about your hometown.”

I laughed, “That doesn’t sound so bad.”

“Well, it’s mostly because he’s obsessed with the Coulson case,” Brad said as we walked toward the house.

The house was big, although Brad insisted they were a middle-class family; well-off, but not rich. If he saw my apartment back home, I didn’t think his opinion would prevail. To me, that house belonged to a rich family. With a lawn and a pool.

I slept on a sofa bed the first few years of my life.

“Oh? Why the Coulson case?”

“I don’t know. He’s a true crime nut. He was also there when it happened. I think he volunteered to help search for the girl, or whatever.”

“Really? Huh.” I said.

We were on the front porch at that point. I could see shadows behind the glass embedded within the light wood of the door.

“And he thinks I know something about it?”

“No, he just likes talking about it. He probably knows more about your hometown than you do because of the case.”

I laughed uncomfortably. He rang the doorbell.

“Hi, sweetie!” A woman, who I assumed was Brad’s mother, said cheerfully as she opened the door.

She grabbed her son’s face and brought him down to her level for a hug. He responded promptly while I stood awkwardly a step behind them. I felt like I needed to look away, so I did.

“We’re being awfully rude,” the woman said, separating herself from her son.

“Hi, I’m Lina,” I introduced myself, and extended my hand out in front of me.

“I know, silly,” she said. “I’m Susan. Put that away and give me a hug.”

I did and hugged the plump woman. She was soft, shorter than me, and smelled good. For a moment, it felt right to bury my face in her neck and soak in the

motherly scent. But then I snapped out of it and stepped away from her embrace a little too quickly.

If she noticed, she didn’t say.

“Come in, come in!”

I don’t remember what my mom smelled like. If she’d had a signature perfume she’d put on for special occasions. Usually, the smell of detergent would bring back memories of her, to the clothes she’d washed for me. How comforting my uniform would smell when she dressed me in them every morning.

“Lina, this is Brad’s father, Brad Senior.”

“Just Brad will do,” the man said, after he’d hugged his son.

He laughed at his own joke. I followed suit. “You two hungry?”

“Starved,” Brad said.

“We know you’re starved,” Susan said. “I think he was talking to Lina.”

“Oh yeah. I could eat.”

“Well, come on in! Susan prepared some delicious hors d’oeuvres.”

“It smells delicious, Ma.”

“I made all your favorites, so it better!”

I didn’t really have a favorite food. I used to love my mother’s tortilla. A delicious, fat omelet made up of potato, eggs, and onion. Especially because it usually meant leftovers, since she made them way too big for two. She would put a slice between two pieces of bread for me to bring to school the next day.

I grew out of that, though. Especially when she wasn’t around to make it for me anymore. I tried to make it for myself when I was in university, but it didn’t work out. And after what happened my third year, I couldn’t really stomach food like I used to.

“So, Lina,” Brad Sr. began when we all sat down in the living room. The coffee table was invisible under the numerous platters covered in little bites of food. “What can I get you to drink? I have some Riojo.”

Rioja, I corrected in my head. “Sure, that sounds good.”

It never failed. Because I was Spanish, every single American I’d encountered offered me Spanish wine. As if I had to thank them for bringing me the comfort of something from where I came from. I hated Rioja.

“Brad, how’s school?” Susan asked her son.

Brad was in graduate school for business. He called his parents every night and told them about his day. He went in depth about it. So, they knew exactly how school was.

Brad told them again, anyway. I grabbed a pastry and placed it on a napkin on my lap. I hated being told to eat. This would hold them over for a bit, hopefully.

“Do you miss us?” Susan asked him.

“Of course I do, Ma.”

He wasn’t lying. He did miss them, and this house, and the fact that it was so far from the city. Brad said he liked the city, but he didn’t. I could see it in the way his eyes would light up every time I suggested we would go for a hike or stay in at his place instead of going out.

“Do you miss your hometown, Lina?”

Brad made sure to tell his parents not to ask about my family. I heard him whispering it to them on a FaceTime call while I was in the bathroom earlier that morning.

“Sometimes.” I could tell my response wasn’t enough for them. “I mean yeah. Of course. I miss the way of life there. It’s very different.”

“Oh yeah, I remember when I was there. We would have dinner at like ten at night, but I wouldn’t go to bed full! We’d go take a walk, or to a bar. It was amazing,” Brad Sr. laughed.

“Yup, that sounds like us.” I said.

My mom would call me to dinner at eight, which would give me enough time to finish extra homework, and get into bed, rested for the next day of school. After she died, I mostly skipped dinner. Or snacked at around three am, when my stomach was so empty it hurt.

“I assume you’ve heard about the Coulson case, right?”

I felt Brad gently poke his elbow into my ribs.

“Yes,” I said. “It was all over the news for months there.”

“It just so happened that I was visiting when it happened,” Brad Sr. said.

“Is that so?”

“Brad volunteered to look for the little girl, actually,” Susan said about her husband.

“How kind of you,” I said, looking at the older man.

“It mattered that I tried. I had two kids myself, so I could easily put myself in their shoes and feel their pain.”

I nodded.

“Have you spoken to your brother lately?” Susan asked Brad, but I tuned out the answer.

I spent my eighteenth birthday planning my mother’s funeral. It crossed my mind that she’d planned her own death just to hurt me further, but I tried not to dwell on it.

There was no one else but us. No aunts, or uncles. No cousins, or grandmothers to help plan, or to invite. It was just us. Just me.

“You need to decide on a casket for her. We suggest this one. It’s the cheapest. And she’s small enough that she’ll fit.” The man in the suit had said, pointing to a wooden box in a catalogue full of wooden boxes.

“That’s fine.”

“We’ll bury her tomorrow at noon, then.”

It wouldn’t be my birthday, anymore. I’d be eighteen, and motherless.

“I’ll be there.”

“They don’t say anything about her anymore, do they?” Brad Sr. asked me, but I didn’t hear him.

“What?”

Brad Sr. laughed.

“I asked whether they still talk about the Coulsons there,” he said.

“Not really, no.” I said. “I think they made a documentary show about the case, though.” I sipped Brad’s parents’ Rioja, and instantly remembered why I hated it.

I’d had an entire bottle of the red wine while I watched the girl’s family cry for nine episodes.

“Yes, I saw it. I think it was a good way to get the story out, but unfortunately, they don’t really do much to help solve the case.”

“People always bring flowers to the hotel on the day of her disappearance,” I said.

“Yes, we both went the year after they closed the case.” Susan said. “Got to meet her parents and everything.”

I never brought flowers when I visited my mom at the cemetery. She could never decide on a favorite kind.

“Son todas tan bonitas,” she would say when I asked her which ones she liked most.

I would just stand over her grave and stare at her headstone.

CATALINA MARTÍNEZ SERRANO
1965-2012

I’d usually visit the cemetery right before my shift at the hotel. It was on the way from where I lived at the time, so I’d leave the house a little early, see my mother, and clock into work right after that.

“The girl’s family are in the States now, right?” Brad asked his father.

“They are. They remained in Spain for a few years, but it just became too painful after a while.”

The hotel I worked at was never packed. I would see people on their own, probably meeting with other people who were on their own. I would see single parents with their children. Married couples who could not afford expensive honeymoons.

That weekend was the first time I’d seen a family whose only intention was to spend a few days while they explored the town. The Coulson family seemed oblivious to the other patrons around the building. They just had eyes for each other, for the new memories they were creating. The mother sunbathed, and the father read while the two kids splashed each other in the pool.

It wasn’t fair.

“I don’t know how they just continue with their lives,” Susan said. “They’re so strong.”

I was on my night shift when I saw the two kids wandering the hotel’s hallway. They’d so obviously sneaked out of their hotel room that I giggled. The first time I’d laughed in a few years. It just felt like something I would’ve done as a kid, and I liked that I had a good memory of that version of myself.

I spoke enough English by then to approach them.

“Hey, you two.”

They waved shyly.

“Are you supposed to be out here?”

They shook their heads simultaneously.

“Alright. Just stay out of trouble.”

I heard them talking about a slide as I rounded the corner.

“Alright, alright, we can keep talking at dinner, but let’s go to the table. The soup is ready.” Susan said.

At the end of every night shift, it was my responsibility to take out the garbage. I rounded the corner, to get to the garbage chute, and pressed the button to empty it. Just routine.

“You made onion soup?” Brad asked.

Susan nodded.

“Have I told you I love you lately?”

“Not lately,” she said, smiling mischievously.

She was right there. Her small body, purple and dirty, covered in food from the previous night’s dinner. If I ignored the coloring, I could pretend she was asleep. I remembered how her brother was with her and made myself frantically search through the garbage to see if he was there too. He wasn’t.

“This is delicious,” I said as I lightly licked some soup off the spoon.

I’d had two thoughts in that moment. I could call the police, or the night manager, let them know what I’d found. Answer their questions accurately, no harm, no foul to my person. The family would bury their child, grieve, and move on with their lives, eventually.

But it wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair that I had lost my mother without an explanation, and these people had their answers. Their child, playful and innocent, snuck out of her parents’ room, thought the garbage chute was a slide and used it for fun, without knowing the consequences. A mistake.

They should leave this town with unanswered questions. Exactly the way I did. The way I would live the rest of my life.

“I lived in France for a little bit,” Susan said, referring to the onion soup I’d just complimented. “An old chef taught me how to make it.”

I took the limp body in my arms and walked it to my car. The town asleep and empty. I knew where to stash it, where it would be safe. Where I would be safe.

“France has delicious food,” I said.

“You’ve been?” Brad Sr. asked.

“I have, yes. It’s quite close to my hometown.”

The cemetery was in an intimate location, on the outskirts of town surrounded by woods. Familiar only to those who knew where to look.

“Oh, that’s right! We drove to the most southern point of France last time we were there. Remember, honey?” Susan said.

I gave my statement that night. How I saw the two kids in the hallway, and sent them to their parents’ room, not seeing them again for the rest of the night. No one suspected a thing. Of the new contents in my mother’s casket.

“So, who’s ready for the entrée?”

About Eva McCarthy Mínguez

Eva McCarthy Mínguez is a Spanish-American writer living in New York with her grandmother and two cats. She has written for Study Breaks Magazine and teaches Creative Writing at Stony Brook University. This is her first fiction publication.

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