My wife was a liar.
Then again, I was a liar too. Perhaps the greatest liar of them all.
And because of this, I can’t blame her for anything that happened. I lied and pretended everything was normal, that there wasn’t a problem. Our lives ebbed and flowed in this state of organized chaos, but within that chaos, under the guise of mundane brutality and usual depravity, something was wrong. Yes, the violence kept my teeth sharp and my mind sharper. The two of us sat on our thrones, king and queen, with the kind of ease you’d find from an old married couple on a broken down porch, mosquitos buzzing hungrily at their ears.
But the mosquitos drew more blood each time. One drop here, one suck there. Eventually you’d be hollowed out. It didn’t matter how content you were, how little they took. Bloodsuckers never rest until they’re full.
I made two mistakes. I pretended everything was fine, that I, Javier Bernal, was fine.
I also let the mosquitos get too close.
I let them rob me of everything that mattered most. Two mistakes cost me all that I’d worked for, all that I’d ever loved.
But I was not done yet. There was enough blood in me to keep me alive. And that blood boiled hot, red, rank with revenge.
It fueled me.
It whipped me.
It begged me.
I would not stop until everything was mine again.
Until the heads rolled on the dusty floor.
The heat made the blood smell worse, like you could sense it thickening in the air. It brought out the sharp tang of copper, mixed with heavy dust.
Blood these days reminded me of my mother. Not that she wasn’t alive and relatively well, living with my father in an assisted living center in the quiet suburbs of San Diego. She was fine. She was safe. But I guess it made me aware of how disappointed she would be in me. In the person I had become. The smell of blood did nothing to me anymore. It didn’t make me sick. It didn’t make me feel anything. I was used to something I never thought I’d get used to.
And more than that, sometimes I liked the smell. Sometimes it meant an enemy was finished and we had lived to survive another day at the top. It was this constant climb and a never-ending struggle to keep our footing, and blood, blood meant victory. Security.
But I never wanted her to see me now, like this.
The wife of a drug king. The queen of corruption.
She knew all of this, of course. Knew what I did to survive and provide a good life for her, my father, myself. She knew that I fell in love.
But I’m not sure if she knows that I am falling out of love. That I didn’t realize the cost of trying to keep it. She didn’t know that I had become a monster, that the ways of this life — my new life — were slowly sinking into my soul and turning it putrid and black.
Everything costs something now. In the past, when I was just a lowly waitress in Cabo San Lucas, working for a slimeball boss, I had to pay for the right to make money by putting up with his advances. When I married Salvador Reyes, the most powerful madman in the country, I paid for that choice with my virginity, my dignity, and nearly my life. Now, in order to sit on the throne of the country, on top of money and drugs and guns and blood that paved my way, the cost was my soul.
Sometimes I thought it was the only thing I had left.
The screams in the distance died off. Funny, I actually hadn’t noticed them until they stopped. The smell of blood still hung in the air, like invisible smoke that would eventually seep its way into your skin.
I grasped my bottle of wine tightly, as if it were filled with precious gems, and got off the bench at the koi pond. This used to be where Javier and I would sometimes talk, when he was feeling particularly romantic or even philosophical. He hadn’t been in any of those moods lately. It was like I barely existed.
Well, there were some things. But I didn’t want to think about those, even though I knew where he was going after the torture was over and the last drop of blood was spilled.
I carefully made my way past the lotuses, pausing to admire the elegance they granted such a brutal place, and headed toward the back of the pond where the reeds and palms grew thick. Behind them I was pretty much unnoticeable to the entire compound, a place that was nothing short of a palace, a place that had become my home for the last year and a half. But sometimes I still thought of it as less than a castle and more like a prison. After all, I was brought here as a captive and some memories were hard to forget, no matter how badly I tried to find my footing and rise above it.
A few weeks ago I took a bucket from the gardener’s shed and brought it over, flipping it upside down to make a seat. I knew it was silly — I could have had custom made chairs or an outdoor sofa if I wanted. I could have had anything. But I wanted something that was mine and mine alone. A secret. I liked sitting here in the evenings, feeling totally protected from the watchful eyes of my husband, of his right-hand man Esteban, of the lackey Juanito, of anyone who worked for our cartel. By the time I finished a bottle of California pinot noir, I felt like another person in another land. These were the little things in my life that I clung to now.
I sat down on the bucket and took a long swig of wine. Javier got cases of it imported just for me, after I once remarked that I liked it. That was a few months ago, before his sister died and everything changed. Back then, I was Javier’s queen. Now I didn’t even know who I was. But I knew I didn’t like her.
I was scared of myself.
I stayed hidden in my spot until the wine was almost gone and the sun was sinking below the hills to the west. The air was still hot, muggy, like breathing in through a wet cloth. Though I’d gotten used to the smell of blood, I hadn’t gotten used to the humidity around Sinaloa. Especially where our compound was, nestled deep in a valley along the Devil’s Backbone. Javier liked the cover our location provided – the landscaping blended the house seamlessly into the jungle, but it also trapped the heat and added to the feeling of being closed in. Sometimes I woke up thinking I couldn’t breathe, nightmares of suffocation bleeding into reality.