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Cemetery Boys
Author: Aiden Thomas

 ONE

Yadriel wasn’t technically trespassing because he’d lived in the cemetery his whole life. But breaking into the church was definitely crossing the moral-ambiguity line.

Still, if he was going to finally prove he was a brujo, he had to perform the rite in front of Lady Death.

And she was waiting for him inside the church.

The black Hydro Flask full of chicken blood thumped against Yadriel’s hip as he snuck past his family’s small house at the front of the cemetery. The rest of the supplies for the ceremony were tucked away inside his backpack. He and his cousin Maritza ducked under the front windows, careful not to bump their heads on the sills. Silhouettes of the brujx celebrating inside danced across the curtains. Their laughter and the sound of music filtered through the graveyard. Yadriel paused, crouching in the shadows to check the coast was clear before he jumped from the porch and took off. Maritza followed close behind, her footsteps echoing in tandem with Yadriel’s as they ran down stone paths and through puddles.

Yadriel’s heart fluttered in his chest, fingers brushing along the wet brick of a columbaria wall as he watched for any signs of the brujos on graveyard duty tonight. Patrolling the cemetery to make sure none of the spirits of the dead were causing trouble was part of the men’s responsibilities. Spirits turning maligno were few and far between, so the brujos’ rounds mostly consisted of making sure outsiders hadn’t snuck beyond the walls, keeping the graves clear of weeds, and general maintenance.

Hearing a guitar being played up ahead, Yadriel ducked behind a sarcophagus, dragging Maritza down with him. Peeking around the corner, he saw Felipe Mendez lounging against a tombstone, playing his vihuela and singing along. Felipe was a more recent resident of the brujx cemetery. The day of his death, barely over a week ago, was carved into the headstone beside him.

Brujx didn’t need to see a spirit to know one was nearby. The men and women in their community could sense it, like a chill in the air or an itch at the back of their mind. It was one of their inherent powers, given to them by their Lady. The powers of life and death: the ability to sense illness and injury in the living, and to see and communicate with the dead.

Of course, this ability wasn’t very useful in a cemetery full of spirits. Instead of a sudden chill, wandering through the brujx cemetery left a constant icy tickle on Yadriel’s neck.

In the dark, he could barely spot the transparent quality of Felipe’s body. Felipe’s fingers moved in a ghostly blur as they plucked at the strings of his vihuela—it was his tether, the material possession most important to him, that kept him anchored to the land of the living. Felipe wasn’t ready to be released to the afterlife quite yet.

He spent most of his time in the graveyard playing his music and drawing the attention of the brujas, both of the living and the dead variety. His girlfriend, Claribel, always chased them off, and the two spent hours together in the cemetery, as if death had never parted them to begin with.

Yadriel rolled his eyes. It was all very dramatic, if you asked him. It’d be nice if Felipe could pass on already, then Yadriel could get a good night’s rest without being woken up by Felipe and Claribel’s bickering or, worse, his terrible renditions of “Wonderwall.”

But the brujx didn’t like forcing a spirit to cross over. As long as the spirits were peaceful and hadn’t turned maligno, the brujos left them alone. But no spirit could stay forever. Eventually, they would become violent, twisted versions of themselves. Being trapped between the land of the living and the land of the dead wore on a spirit, chipping away at their humanity. The parts that made them human eventually faded away until the brujos had no choice but to sever the connection to their tether and release them to the afterlife.

Yadriel motioned for Maritza to follow him down a side path so Felipe wouldn’t see them. When the coast was clear, he tugged on the sleeve of Maritza’s shirt and gave her a nod. He sprinted forward, weaving between statues of angels and saints, careful to not snag his backpack on their outstretched fingers. There were aboveground sarcophagi and some mausoleums large enough to fit an entire family. He’d walked these paths hundreds of times and could navigate the maze of graves in his sleep.

He had to stop again when they came upon the spirits of two young girls playing tag. They chased each other, dark curls and matching dresses billowing out around them. They giggled madly as they ran straight through the small birdhouse-like tombs that held cremated remains. The tombs were hand-painted in bright colors and stood in crowded rows of golden yellow, sunburst orange, sky blue, and seafoam green. Glass doors revealed clay urns inside.

Yadriel bounced on the balls of his feet as he and Maritza hid. Seeing the spirits of two dead girls running around a cemetery would probably freak most people out, but little Nina and Rosa were nefarious for other reasons. They were both huge tattletales who couldn’t be trusted to not rat him out to his dad. If they got dirt on you, they held it over your head and subjected you to torture the likes of which you’d never seen.

Like hours of playing hide-and-go-seek where they always used their non-corporeal bodies to cheat, or purposely leave you waiting to be found behind the smelly dumpster on a hot LA afternoon. It was definitely not worth being indebted to those two.

When the girls finally ran off, Yadriel wasted no time sprinting to their final destination.

They rounded a corner and came face-to-face with the lich-gate to the church. Yadriel’s head tipped back. Whitewashed bricks were stacked before him, forming an archway. The words “El Jardín Eterno” were hand-scrawled delicately in black paint. The Eternal Garden. The paint was faded, but Yadriel knew his cousin Miguel had already been tasked with giving it a fresh coat before the Día de Muertos festivities began in a few days. A heavy, bolted lock kept out any trespassers.

As leader of the brujx families, Yadriel’s father, Enrique, held the keys and only gave them to the brujos who were on shift to guard the cemetery at night. Yadriel did not have a key, which meant he was only allowed to enter during the day, or for rituals and celebrations.

“¡Vámonos!” Maritza’s harsh whisper and her manicured fingernail jabbing into his side made Yadriel jolt. Her short thick hair was windswept. Pastel-pink and -purple curls framed her heart-shaped face, popping against her deep brown skin. “We need to get inside before we’re spotted by someone!”

Yadriel batted her hand away. “Ssh!” he hissed.

Despite her words of warning, Maritza didn’t seem worried about getting into a heap of trouble. In fact, she looked downright excited. Dark eyes wide, a devilish grin played across her lips that Yadriel knew all too well.

Yadriel crept to the left side of the gate. There was a gap between the last wrought iron bar and the wall, where the bricks slumped. He tossed his backpack over the wall before turning sideways and wiggling his way through. Even through his polyester-and-spandex binder, the bar scraped painfully against his chest. On the other side, he took a moment to adjust the half tank top under his shirt so the clasps didn’t dig into his side. It had taken a while to find one that masculinized his chest without being itchy or chokingly tight.

Slinging his backpack over his shoulder, Yadriel turned to find Maritza having a bit more difficulty. Her back was pressed against the bricks, her legs straddling the bar as she tried to drag herself through. Yadriel stuffed his fist against his mouth, stifling a laugh.

Maritza shot him a glare as she tried to wiggle her butt free. “¡Cállate!” she hissed before finally stumbling through. “We’re gonna need another way to get in here soon.” She wiped at the dirt smeared across her jeans. “We’re getting too big.”

“Your butt’s getting too big,” Yadriel teased. “Maybe you should lay off the pastelitos.” He grinned.

“And lose these curves?” she asked, smoothing her hands down her waist and hips. Maritza gave him a sarcastic smile. “Thanks, but I’d rather die.” She punched his arm before sauntering toward the church.

Yadriel jogged to catch up.

Rows of marigolds—the flores de muerto—lined the stone path. The tall orange and yellow flowers leaned against one another like drunken friends. They had exploded into bloom over the months leading up to Día de Muertos. Fallen petals dusted the ground like confetti.

The church was painted white and had a terra-cotta roof. Starburst windows flanked either side of the large oak doors. Above, a small alcove was set into a semicircular wall, housing another cross. On either side, two cutouts held iron bells.

“Are you ready?” There was no look of trepidation on Maritza’s face as she watched him. She beamed, practically dancing on the tips of her toes.

Yadriel’s heart pulsed in his veins. Nerves roiled in his stomach.

He and Maritza had been sneaking around the cemetery at night since they were kids. The churchyard was a good place to hide and play when they were little. It was close enough to the house to hear Lita when she called them for dinner. But they’d never actually snuck into the church before. If he did this, they’d be breaking about a dozen brujx rules and traditions.

If he did this, there was no turning back.

Yadriel nodded stiffly, his hands clenched into fists at his sides. “Let’s do it.”

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