Carmen scrubbed the remains of the burnt scrambled eggs from the frying pan while Ana played with her dolls at the kitchen table and picked at a tortilla. “María says that my eyes are very pretty.”
“They are, darling, they are.” Carmen was sick of hearing about María, the new teacher at Ana’s preschool in Santa Fe. The washing machine beeped, demanding her attention.
“María says that white dresses never go out of fashion.”
Carmen nodded absently as she tugged the mountain of damp clothes from the machine, including the white dresses that she’d foolishly agreed to get for Ana in a moment of weakness. María says, indeed. María didn’t have to wash the damn things.
“María says that she’ll take me to see the river.”
“That’s nice, darling, but right now, I need you to finish your breakfast and put your dolls away.”
Ana carefully placed the dolls into a box under the table and then wandered to the hallway and checked her reflection in the mirror. “You look fine,” sighed Carmen. Four going on fourteen.
“María says she wishes she had a pretty girl like me. She only had boys but they are gone now.”
“Enough about María. We’re late.”
Carmen bundled the girl into the backseat and rushed to the preschool. As soon as she unsnapped the car seat, Ana jumped out, calling “Bye, Mama” as she dashed across the pedestrian bridge to the school. Carmen leaned against the car, listening to the shrieks of laughter as her daughter disappeared into the crowd of children. That was the one good thing about María: Ana couldn’t wait to get to the preschool each morning. Carmen climbed in and leaned against the steering wheel, exhausted before her day had properly begun. She wished she could join the children, playing games and singing songs all day long. A car honked loudly behind her and Carmen pulled away from the curb with a sigh.
Carmen arrived half an hour late that evening, filled with guilt that she’d left her daughter waiting. But Ana wasn’t waiting by the bridge where she normally sat, and there was no sign of her inside the small school room. The staff was cleaning up; it took Carmen a moment to get anyone to pay attention to her. They seemed bewildered when she asked where her daughter was, even going so far as to tell her that the child had already been picked up. Someone ran to find Mrs. Martinez, the manager. Carmen struggled to keep her panic under control when it became clear that Mrs. Martinez didn’t know where Ana was either.
Finally, a young teacher who had been clearing up tables overheard the conversation and piped up that she’d seen Ana about ten minutes previously. “She said that she was going to see María.”
“Of course.” Carmen forced a smile to her lips. “She’s quite taken with María. I’m not complaining about that, honestly. And I’m sorry that I’m late.” She rubbed her temples. . “But I really don’t think it’s appropriate for María to wander off with my daughter when you know that I’m on my way.”
Mrs. Martinez grabbed the teacher’s arm.“What exactly did she say, Tanya? Did you see who she was with?”
Tanya shook her head, no. “I didn’t let her leave with a stranger,” she said in a frightened voice. “Ana was alone in the back when I saw her, telling me how happy she was that Maria was there. I didn’t realize!” Tears began to drip down her cheeks.
Carmen resisted the urge to slap the useless young teacher —it wasn’t her child that was missing. “So just find María so that we can go home.” Pale faces stared back at her. “She talks about María every day,” Carmen said in a trembling voice. “Every day, she sees her. She must . . .”
“Ana does talk about María all the time,” agreed Tanya.
The panic forced the words from Carmen’s throat. “She does work here, doesn’t she?”
Mrs. Martinez shook her head.
“I thought María was a friend at home,” Tanya said.
Carmen stared wildly. “She told me . . .” All those evenings of María said, and now Carmen couldn’t remember anything about the woman. “She said she was going to take her to the river.”
“La Llorona,” whispered Tanya. Mrs. Martinez gasped.
“Don’t be silly,” snapped Carmen. La Llorona was a story told by old women: a weeping woman dressed in a white gown with a veil covering the black holes of her eyes. They said the mother had drowned her two young sons and now haunted Santa Fe in penance. They said she searched for boys to throw into the river, chasing after her own. Carmen’s thoughts ground to a halt. Dressed all in white. Snatched young children. Dragged them to the river. Drowned them.
Strong arms caught her as she sank to the ground. “La Llorona,” she whispered.
Just as she thought her chest might burst from panic, she heard a familiar cry of “It’s not fair!” followed by the rush of her daughter into her arms. Carmen knelt on the ground, gripping Ana tight, the tears streaming down her face. “Ana, my darling baby, Ana.”
Ana squirmed out of her grasp, confused by her mother’s tears. “Don’t cry,” she said. “Why are you crying? Are you hurt?”
“You must never, ever leave without me again. Where were you?”
“I was with María,” she said. The other women stepped back a pace, but Carmen’s moment of superstition had passed.
“Can you take me to meet María? She really shouldn’t really be taking you away from the preschool.”
“She left without me.” Ana pushed her bottom lip out. “She’s gone back to the river. She’s trying to find her little boys.”
“And she didn’t take you with her?”
“María said that little girls couldn’t help,” Ana said, aggrieved. “She took Toby instead, even though he didn’t want to!”
“Toby?” A woman in a business suit interrupted as she walked in. “That’s my son. I’m sorry I’m late.” She gave Ana a fond smile. “Are you friends with Toby? Where is he, anyway?”
This story originally appeared in Crimson Fog.