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Phantom Trails

When Tía Amelia died, we ordered KFC.

“Kentucky Fried Cruelty,” she used to call it, before biting into the flesh of a drumstick, brown breadcrumbs on her white teeth, fingertips slick. Red ink bleeding on paper bags scattered before us now outside her empty bedroom, cardboard buckets gray with grease; we trained our teenage grief on this coffee table altar in her dark living room. Unable to eat like the rest of my cousins, I picked at the embroidered veins of the couch, the same couch where Amelia’s husband Gustavo once tried to explain to me how big his dick was. How familiar, the ever-present task of choosing which feelings to play, to keep inside, a 5-CD changer of inappropriate emotions, eject, eject, eject.

Amelia was my aunt, but only fourteen years older—a whole teen mom apart, we joked—and I spent most of my time after school in the rent-controlled railroad apartment she shared with Gustavo in Greenpoint. He welcomed relative after relative at the front door now, another buzz, another knock, another pastelón. A laugh track roared from a UPN rerun on the television, but none of the cousins paid attention to anything but the bones, the screen throwing blue and white shadows across the oak-paneled walls while adults and Gustavo made arrangements around us.

Amelia died no more than fifteen feet over from where we sat, in the bedroom behind us, alone in the dark. “Blood just up and quit traveling to her brain while she slept,” my mother said. A stroke at 31, que pena, un freak accident while Gustavo was away on business. Nobody in the family knew exactly what he did; something with computers and the internet, but it was for Jet Blue, and they sure understood comp flights to San Juan and Orlando. Amelia died in the next room over from us, the room where Gustavo unzipped my pants while she enjoyed Even More Space on her way to visit our abuelo in Caguas.

Is she a ghost now, or am I? Are ghosts just carbon copies of our energy, existing alongside us, repeating our pain over and over again out of the corners of our eyes? Were our ghosts there beside her as she took her last breath, Gustavo’s hand snaking around the curved shell of my back while I slept? Will Amelia haunt me as the blue-lipped corpse, empty and still, or the incredulous wife, laughing as she slammed her door in my face?

After the funeral at St Michael’s, we ate asado in the back room of an Argentinian restaurant where Amelia first took me when she learned I’d never eaten ribs before. “Here,” she’d secured a bib around my neck. “You’re still my own baby muñequita.”

Gustavo led the family in prayer, his voice wavering each time he said her name, and then explained which parts of the cow the chafing dishes along the wall contained. Costillas, yes, but also chorizo, entraña, vacío. “We Argentinians know our meat,” Gustavo said before sitting down at his seat across from me. “You’re gonna love it.”

I frowned, dipping a piece of saltless bread into olive oil, wondering when exactly it is that a body becomes meat. When exactly Amelia will become a meal for the earth.

Lost in that thought, I reached for my water glass the same time Gustavo did, his fingers resting briefly atop my knuckles.

“Whoops,” he winked, performing embarrassment. “I’m like a kid.” He squeezed my wrist. “You’d think I’d know by now what’s mine and what’s not.”

The room offered light laughter in response, a kindness: the cousins whose noses were usually in their phones, the long-jowled uncles whose giant ears housed wiry tufts of hair, the aunts whose ages you could tell by the depth of the crease in their cleavage, they all laughed, including my parents. I cleared my throat, synapses tripping over the joke as I registered Gustavo’s smiling teeth inside his mouth, instead of against my ear, biting and licking the soft cartilage after challenging me to down a 12-pack with him in that apartment he shared with Amelia, who was now a ghost, or meat, depending on what you were hungry for. My finger pads tight against the sweating glass left a topographical map behind that no one else could follow except maybe her, now, finally. Phantom trails, like his wink, not visible to others.

I blinked away the pain of Amelia’s happy face printed on the back of the prayer card in my pocket, the laminated corner digging into the top of my thigh, and understood that the only path forward for me was to part my lips and ride the swell of laughter from the bitterness at the back of my tongue, and sink my teeth into the ribs before me, its meat glossy and red against my open mouth.

Born and raised in New York City, Christine Kandic Torres is a writer with Puerto Rican and Croatian roots. Her Pushcart Prize-nominated fiction has appeared in Kweli, Catapult, and Lunch Ticket, amongst others, and her debut novel, THE GIRLS IN QUEENS, will be published by HarperVia in summer 2022.

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