« Sutherland Douglass | Contents | Francisco Q Delgado »

Samantha Mabry

Bad Spirits


          Little Abby Carter was sitting at the kitchen table watching her grandma wash twenty-dollar bills in the sink. After a night of collecting, Abby’s grandma always washed her money, but tonight she had first made Abby a few flour tortillas to eat with margarine. In the other room Abby’s grandpa was watching a movie on TV. She could tell that it was a Western by the sounds of pistols firing and horses galloping across the hard ground.

         “Grandma, what are you doing?”

         “I’m washing my money, mi’ja.”


         “I’m cleaning off the bad spirits. I don’t know where all this money has been or who has touched it before me. Did you finish your tortillas?”

         “Yes, I’m done.”

         “Are you getting tired?”


         “Then go get ready to go to sleep.”


         Abby’s grandma’s eyes had started to get bad, especially at night, so now Abby’s grandpa would drive her around in his pickup to go collecting. On the nights that she spent with her grandparents, Abby would have to go along too. She hated doing this. Sometimes Abby would wait outside in the truck for what seemed like hours with her quiet grandpa and stare at the big scar on his arm from an accident he had while he was making cars at work.

         Other times she went with her grandma into people’s apartments. She always thought that there were too many people in these small rooms and that it was too late at night for them to be watching TV so loud or to just now be eating dinner. The little girls that were around Abby’s age always wanted her to play with them, but her grandma held her close while they sat together on a tattered couch that was usually covered by a faded, floral-patterned bedsheet. When the little boys would come and ask Abby if she wanted to see their skateboards, she would pull the neck of her sweatshirt up to cover her mouth and nose and shake her head “no.”

         Abby’s grandma kept a bundle of cash held together by a rubber band in her large grey purse. Most of the time Abby’s grandma went to her customer’s apartments to collect her money, but sometimes they would come to her house unannounced, night or day. Other times they would call the house, and when Abby answered the phone they would start speaking to her in the language her grandma sometimes used. Abby couldn’t understand what they were saying because her mother had never taught her that language. She would have to wait until she heard “Señora Cortez.” Then she would put the phone down and go get her grandma.

         Abby’s grandma said that she sold vitamins, but Abby didn’t understand why she couldn’t sell vitamins to people during the day. She also could never believe that her grandma could get so much money from those brown, bitter pills that she hated so much to take. She did know that her grandma’s customers thought a lot of her grandma by the way they spoke to her. Even though Abby couldn’t understand the words they used, she knew that the customers were always nice to her grandma and always offered her and Abby something to eat when they walked through the door.


         Abby wiped the margarine off her mouth with a paper towel and then went to the back room to go to bed. Even though a cross hung on the wall over the headboard and Abby had been told that it would make her safe, she still didn’t like sleeping in this room. It was colder than the other rooms, and Abby thought it may be haunted. She slept with the blankets pulled tight and tucked behind her head, so that the ghosts wouldn’t come and try to play with her hair while she slept. It didn’t matter that being covered in blankets prevented her from breathing very well. It was Abby’s way of protecting herself from the bad spirits.

         Even though Abby was safe underneath the covers, she wasn’t able to fall asleep. She had kept the door to her room slightly open so that she could hear her grandma making something to eat for herself and for grandpa. Abby thought it was too late to be eating.

         Eventually, she heard her grandma shuffle across the living room and pull the grate off the fireplace to blow out the row of big candles with the pictures of saints on them that had been burning since morning. Abby was never allowed to touch those candles. Then her grandma walked down the hall and into her own room. Her grandpa soon followed, flicking off the lights behind him one at a time. 

         Abby still couldn’t fall asleep, and after a while the doorbell rang. Scared of who would be coming over to visit so late, she wished that there was a way that she could burrow into the mattress beneath her and hide. She heard the sound of her grandma’s feet moving unevenly across the carpet and down the hall. The front door opened, and Abby’s grandma started speaking quietly to a man in words that Abby couldn’t understand.

         The door slammed shut, but the voices continued and got louder. The man was inside the house now, and Abby could tell that he and her grandma were arguing about something. She tucked the covers tighter around her head, and felt her hot breath bouncing off the sheets and back at her face. Over the voices, Abby could hear her grandma turning lights on, running the water in the kitchen, opening and closing closet doors, and lifting her heavy key ring off the counter to throw in her big grey purse. Abby knew what those sounds meant. Her grandma was getting ready to leave. Abby wondered if she’d make her get up, get dressed, and leave too.  Eventually, when Abby’s grandpa’s heavy footsteps passed her bedroom door and faded away into the living room, Abby slammed her eyes closed and wished more than anything that her mom would come back to take her home, away from this house and these people.

         Abby heard her grandpa say something she couldn’t understand, followed by her name: “Abigail.”

         Then Abby heard the urgent shuffling of her grandma’s feet coming back down the hall and into the cold room. The door creaked as her grandma opened it, and the mattress creaked as her grandma sat down on it. Abby slowed her breathing and pretended to be asleep. Abby’s grandma leaned over, pulled back the sheet, and then ran a rough, cold hand over Abby’s forehead.

         “Linda,” her grandma eventually whispered. Then she stood up slowly and let out a small groan of pain. Abby knew that her grandma’s knees were bad and that she always talked about needing surgery. Abby’s grandma then left the room, pulling the door closed behind her.

         “Let her sleep,” Abby’s grandma said to someone in the hall.

         Abby waited until she heard the key turn in the front door and the cars drive away before she threw off the covers and padded out into the dark living room. She looked at the clock. It was late. She walked to the kitchen for a glass of water and saw that all the money her grandma had washed earlier was still laid out neatly on a towel next to the sink. She reached out and touched the crinkled paper. Then Abby crossed the living room and sat down in front of the fireplace to look at the row of candles. Through the darkness she could just make out the faces of the saints. She’d always liked the woman in blue the best. She was pretty, with dark hair and eyes like her mother’s.

         “Linda,” Abby said out loud to the picture of the woman. She knew that word. Her grandma said it a lot when she looked at her. It meant “pretty.”

         Abby leaned over and peered into the candles. In each, there was a small pool of dark wax around a short black wick. Even though she knew she wasn’t supposed to, she pulled out a long match from the box nearby, and, like she’d seen her grandma do many times, struck the head of the match against the bricks of the fireplace. She blinked as the flame exploded from the tip and then immediately got smaller. Abby carefully lowered the flame into the candle with the lady in blue painted on it. After blowing out the match, Abby rested her face against the bricks and watched for a long time as the lady’s body glowed.

         She hadn’t meant to, but Abby fell asleep there. She woke only briefly when she felt the strong arms of her grandpa scoop her up and carry her back to the bed in the cold room. Before she could remember to tuck the covers behind her head, Abby fell asleep again and dreamt of standing in the middle of a field with horses racing all around her, their hooves beating at the ground. When she’d reach her arm out, she’d feel the hair of their manes and their tails whip around her fingers.

« Sutherland Douglass | Contents | Francisco Q Delgado »