Bianca didn’t have time to stuff the hundred-dollar bill into her pocket before Luis came in to check her register. She spun to face him and froze, the money in her fist, apron over her arm, on the far side of the tiny office where Luis did managerial things for Rosa’s Diner. It was a good place to work, besides all the weirdos; it was the town’s busiest restaurant and Bianca’s first real job. Luis had been working the fryers for the morning rush, and Bianca thought she had more time to inspect the dusty boxes in his office.
Luis looked her over, moved his bulk into the room, and shut the door. “Who the hell pays for eggs with a hundred dollars around here?”
Bianca let out a little breath and unlocked her knees. “Yeah, um. The lady in the red blazer gave it to me. A tip.”
Luis sat down heavily and stared her in the face. He didn’t usually do that. “That was nice of her. Was she even your table?”
Bianca didn’t want to lose this job; the lady wasn’t worth it. “Yeah, she wanted to buy some of our mugs, as souvenirs. She said they were retro or something. She showed me a picture and I thought we had some like the one she showed me, so I came back here to check, and if I found any I was going to ask…” She trailed off. That sentence had been swerving gently into a lie.
Luis saw it all. “She offered you a hundred dollars for a mug?”
“No.” Bianca ran her hands through her hair and leaned against the wall with the shift calendar on it. “She said she would pay me a thousand if I could find her six. Sorry. I would have… sorry. But you do have them, right?”
“Yeah. Got them right here.” Luis reached slowly under his desk and brought out a water-stained cardboard box secured with shiny plastic tape. He set it on the desk and Bianca could hear the weight of it—it was clearly full of pottery. Luis pulled a newspaper from his desk and set it on the box. Bianca saw that it was from a town quite a ways away, a town with sharper pictures and better printing on their newspapers, and that the lady in the red blazer was standing on one side of the picture, next to a few flashy looking men and one guy who looked her age and poverty level, who had his hair long and a clear tube going across his face and into his nose.
The lady in the picture was named Ruby Sanclare, and the boy with the oxygen was named Carlos. The owner of the Carlos Clay Crockery Company. Bianca read about the gallery opening, the sold pieces of jewelry and planters, the rumors about unexplained occultish phenomena that befell the owners of the mugs. She also saw the price for the pieces that Carlos produced. Ruby in the blazer had definitely been holding out on Bianca.
She sat down, incredulous. “Luis, why aren’t you selling them? How many do you have? Do you know how much money you could make?”
“They’re not mine. They belong to Carlos. Only nobody’s seen him since he left town three years ago.” Luis crossed himself, Catholic-style. ”I don’t know what he did, if it’s the clay he used or what, but everybody who bought his stuff went crazy or disappeared, including him. Doesn’t seem right, does it?”
Bianca grimaced. “Everybody who gets a chance to leave this place disappears, Luis. It’s not because of mugs, it’s because Los Suelos sucks and there’s nothing here. And why do you care what people do with their lives?”
Luis looked at her with disappointment, so Bianca tried a new tactic. “I’m sure I’m not the only person she gave a hundred bucks to. I’m not the only one who’s seen the mugs here, at some point. And you have… how many? You’re going to get robbed. Over some stupid fake-haunted mugs.”
“Tell you what.” Luis took the newspaper back and folded it carefully. “I’ll give you the mugs if you go talk to that lady and find out where Carlos is.”
Bianca’s stomach flipped. “Seriously?”
Luis set the box back under his desk. “I hate having these damn things here anyway, and I’m tired of the weirdos bothering me about them. Find Carlos, and it can be your problem from now on.”
Bianca chose the backseat, deciding she had definitely not been kidnapped and everything would be fine. Ruby sat in the passenger seat, next to a burly guy in a blue t-shirt with gold skulls on it. The other thug stayed behind at the Tomatotel where Bianca had met Ruby after leaving the diner. Bianca’s heart thudded like she’d drunk too many cups of the wrong coffee on an empty stomach. Adding to her nausea was the swinging of an ugly clay bead at the end of Ruby’s ear. The woman was constantly touching the earring and muttering to herself.
Los Suelos was a faint brown glimmer in the distance on the dusty highway when the car pulled to a stop. Bianca let out a whimper, and Ruby turned back and grinned. “Don’t worry. You are perfectly safe. I needed to make a call, and the cell service is horrible in your town.”
Bianca had a retort but her shaking made it hard to open her mouth. “Could’ve used landline.”
“Yeah, people with no cell service often say silly things like that.” Ruby winked and twirled her earring in her fingers. “Okay. So, you can get me six mugs, and in return you want two grand and proof that Carlos is okay, did I get that right?”
“Yeah.” It was hard to feel confident out in the hills all alone with two people she didn’t know or trust.
“Let’s be reasonable and say six mugs for twelve hundred, and that’s the best you’re going to get. But I’ll get Carlos on the phone right now. Better yet, we’ll video-chat him. Would that be okay?”
Bianca thought about that box of mugs. After she lightened it by six, she’d let Ruby’s money take her to the nearest city and then see what she could really get for them.
“Alright.” Ruby tried dialing a few times, got frustrated, then drove a few more miles out of town. It was over an hour before the phone rang. Ruby handed Bianca a coconut water that Bianca couldn’t even think about drinking. Ruby set the phone in a stand jutting out from the console. A face appeared, looking strained and pale, with little oxygen tubes attached to his nostrils. While he looked older and worse for wear, Bianca recognized Carlos from the photo in the paper.
“How are you doing, hon!” Ruby twirled her earring faster now. “Have you had breakfast yet? You know you can’t take your pills without something in your stomach or you won’t be able to concentrate.”
“What do you want, Ruby?” Carlos’s eyes drifted dully. “Who is she?”
“Oh, this?” Ruby reached back and sharply pulled Bianca forward. “This young lady is from that cute diner you guys have. Turns out they do have the mugs! She’s a big fan of yours, just like I am, just like the rest of the world will be when you finally start making more of the ones we want, instead of those passionless duds you’ve been producing lately. Anyway, she’s going to sell us the mugs we couldn’t find before, and that will keep our project going until you get your mojo back. Gotta pay for those meds, hon!”
“Whoever you are, don’t sell her shit.” Carlos narrowed his eyes.
“Now, Carlos.” Ruby released Bianca’s arm. “This poor young lady wanted to make sure you were okay, I don’t know why she thought something bad had happened to you. Anyway, it was a beast getting cell reception. We had to drive all the way over the hills to get through…”
Carlos now shut his eyes. “Take her home.”
“Just as soon,” Ruby sang, “as you remember how to make more of the original kinds of pieces. You told us the clay we dug up was the right kind. Something is missing, and Bianca here is very much hoping you will tell me what it is, so we can get back to creating those magical pieces you—”
“Does anyone know where you are?” Carlos asked Bianca.
Bianca shook her head.
He sighed. “Pretty stupid. Hopefully someone finds your body. Good luck.”
The phone went dark.
Bianca sat still, watching Ruby breathe and tug on her earring. Georgie was still outside the car, but when Ruby knocked on the inside of the door he got back in, asking, “He cooperating?”
“No. We’re going to have to show him we’re serious.” There wasn’t a trace of the usual merriment in Ruby’s voice.
Bianca felt sick. “I’ll just give you the mugs. I don’t care if they’re cursed. That’s the buyers’ problem, right? Especially if they already know it, going in.”
Ruby turned and smiled faintly at her. “That might be an idea. Another idea would be to bring you to Carlos. He’s been staying with me, working on his craft. Maybe you could convince him better in person.”
“I might forget where the mugs are if you don’t take me home.”
Ruby grinned. “Georgie can remind you.”
“Rubes.” Georgie turned to her. “You’re letting Carlos get under your skin. This girl has the mugs and all she wants is a little money. She can even tell everyone that Carlos is just fine, living up in the city, right? Less messy. And if she can get us the rest of the mugs, that’s only going to happen in Los Suelos, not back home, right?”
“All I want is the money,” Bianca said. “And to go home. That’s it.”
“Okay.” Ruby sighed, tugging at her earring. “Take us back to that dusty-ass hellhole.”
“Thank you,” Bianca said instinctively, like she was some pathetic cow or something.
“God, that boy is so impossible,” Ruby continued. “It’s like he doesn’t think I want what’s best for him! All the money I’ve spent on him, he can at least make some more pieces, right?”
The trip back into town took too long, but Bianca was ready when they hit the first red light. She shot forward and snatched the earring down, tearing Ruby’s ear, and flung it out the passenger-side window. As insane as it sounded in her head, Ruby did exactly what Bianca expected: screamed and kicked her door open, and dove to the ground in the street to find it. Georgie unbuckled and maneuvered his bulk out of the car. Bianca climbed over Ruby to the front seat and kicked her right in the face before sprinting away.
Later, in the back room of the diner, Bianca stomped the mugs into shards inside the cardboard box. Luis watched silently. Maybe she’d escape Los Suelos one day, but with people like Ruby out there, there were clearly worse places in the world.
Featured image by Maria Pogosyan.