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Previously Published


tragedy of the sugarcane ghost

By Desiree Winns | | Desiree Winns
Edited by Aleksandra Hill || Narrated by Torian Brackett || Produced by Lian Xia Rose
5100 words

the old man doesn’t recognize me because i am wearing his son’s face. it is a mask that looks just like his, but without the wrinkles and yellow teeth. the old man had wanted me to fade into oblivion, for alma to lose me forever. my grave had become a parking lot. but i slipped into his son and woke the body, and at that moment, my long-awaited plan took its first breath. the skin of the son stretches over my empty cheeks, the hot heart and blood pumping through me like the overwhelming roar of a new machine.  

why are you up so early, the old man frowns as he makes cereal in the kitchen. he thinks he is speaking to his son. i can hardly hear him over the loud rush inside me.  


your mother came to me last night. she told me to say she loves you, he says. my heart leaps, but then i remember that alma had not meant me. i cannot blame her. she did not know. she left our native jamaica for new york, with the now-withered killer before me. but she will be returning with me shortly. she’ll leave her body to be with me, and the old man will be forced to face the truth: she was always mine.

where is she? i say.  

the old man’s eyebrow quirks.  

are you on something? is that why you’re up so early?  

where is she? i ask again.  

stop that. you know she’s gone. the old man rolls his eyes like i am doing this on purpose.  

my heart skips. gone? this old man ripped me away from alma twenty-seven years ago, stole her to this city, and let her die believing a sick lie. 

this cannot all be for nothing. 

you excited about something? got somewhere to go? he grins the spacey grin of all old men remembering when they were young. i have only ever been young, but i had not enjoyed it.  

no, i tell him. i have nowhere to be but here.  

when i tell him who i am, his eyes grow large. his spoon clatters onto the countertop. his lips flap open and shut like a carp slapped onto the shore. he shakes his head, over and over, even as i repeat it.  

you know me, i tell him. you slit my throat, you buried me in the sugarcane fields. they are a parking lot now. you know my name. you—  

no, no, no! he covers his ears, his elbow knocking the innocent bowl onto the floor, the bran flakes and white milk spilling across the tile. he tells the son that this is not a funny joke. he says that i should stop right now, or else i’ll be sorry. as if he has the strength to beat me like his child or kill me like a thief all over again. 

now i can feel the son waking up behind my sternum. confusion flutters beneath my collarbone. then the son cries from the top of my chest, the soul inside the ghost inside the skin. let me out, he cries, clawing at my throat. pulling on my gullet. scraping at my teeth. desperate for a look. i keep my lips shut. let me out, let me out, let me out.  

be still, i coo to him. this is not about you.  

he thinks it is personal. he weeps and the tears plop onto my new stomach, salty and plump. i wonder if it is too warm for him in there, all these layers that he did not want to wear. but this is not about him. i tell his frightened father, 

you owe some things to me.  

the old man passes out in protest. i don’t move. it’s been twenty-seven years and i am still willing to wait.   

• • •

i walked through the ocean to get here. i floated across the eastern seaboard, over clusters of drive-through churches, fast-food places with potbellied mascots, dry brown plains that went on for miles, neighborhoods ending in streets shaped like thermometer bulbs, brown and black people with crisp american accents, white people who blushed lobster red on the beach, department stores for fireworks hugging the shoulders of endless roads, the gleaming, honking beasts of the glass-skinned cities that swallowed up people from other places. this is how i got here. the trip took me a year and i watched the land change all the way. i watched the brown and black people bleed into the white areas and the buildings grow like excited sugarcane, and the plains become popular with churches and schools and gas stations and restaurants with the same promises of being the “last stop to salvation” from hunger or stupidity or sin. i took several bodies to make the journey faster. i possessed a chinese woman who was thinking about dinner and tasting pork broth on the back of her tongue. i bought a bus ticket with her confused soul knocking about inside me and rode as far as i could get. once i left her at the station i slipped into another: a small jewish man who worried about some asteroid aiming for his temple. his voice became a buzzing gnat, assuming i was some other superstition come true. the last one was a drunk student singing on the guardrails of a subway station in the rain. i learned about the new flat phones, the buds that sing songs right into your ears, the anxiety of deadlines and failure, from her wailing thoughts and her deep pockets. i took her body the rest of the way to new york. very often, i thought about giving up. i thought about letting alma go. but it’s just as soon as i see her again in my mind that i realize how badly needed this justice is, the cruelty of the crime that left me in the sugarcane stalks for twenty-six years until they paved it over. this is what kept me going. i got to new york just last week. a taxi drove through me, and i locked into the body of the driver for a split second—a sweaty, italian rush of fury raced through me—fucking traffic hour, never fucking stops, i knew i should’ve taken the—and then he was gone. but he had somewhere to be, and so did i. so i was here, and still a little bitter. i wondered if the italian driver had made it, too. didn’t it only matter that we had arrived?  

when he wakes, i tell the old man this is why i don’t mind the twenty-seven years because i am finally here. i laugh, and maybe i look a little mad, because the old man says nothing. he has milk and a bit of cereal stuck in his hair. after a long moment, he finally speaks. 

why my son? his voice trembles. this has nothing to do with him.  

i know, i say, and smile. it is his own smile, the same one he wore when he killed me.  

he offers me an apology. he will do anything, even offer his own body, if only i will leave his son’s and be gone. i shake my head, and this is when he calls me a demon. what a funny onion we would be, a soul inside of a ghost inside of a demon inside of a skin.  

i’m no demon, i tell him.  

what do you want?  

i want you to suffer, i say.  

for how long? 

until it’s enough.

the old man digests this. then will you leave my son alone?  

yes, i lie.  

• • •

i spend the next few days dancing. i pay for ice cream with the coins that the old man passes me with downcast eyes and lick the dripping stickiness off my wrist. i have a new american accent when i speak from the boy’s tongue. i wear clothes that hug my strong, firm chest, shielding an unbroken heart. i have a phone that rings with messages from people who miss me. 

still coming tonight? a capital T questions, no face in the small circle above the message. i ignore it.  

free coupons for pizza, a strange number reminds me, and i try to remember it for later.  

where are you? someone named lily asks. her face is a smiling young woman with brown skin and deep dimples. she looks like she could be from the same place as alma and me.  

right here, i text back, and she tells me to come over. i ask for her address, and she gives it to me with an eye-rolling yellow face and the words, boy you so stupid.  

i go to her place, and it looks like a jungle, with potted plants and ropes linking the rafters together. the steam of incense and marijuana fills the room. lily herself, a blooming flower in the center of the foliage, smiles at me as i make myself comfortable.  

you seem different, she says.  

i feel different, i tell her. she rubs her hand on my thigh.  

i missed you yesterday. i thought about you all night. that thing you like… and she whispers in my ear, the hot breath curdling sweet in the shell of it.  

i want to get drunk, i interrupt her.  

so we drink. we laugh at stupid things. we smoke the weed she has hidden in an empty bible, and the blasphemy of it amuses me. we puff like dragons and pretend that we are such magnificent creatures, who burn sugarcane until the air is sickly sweet, and the sky is spicy with ash. by three in the morning, she is lying on my chest, the soft heat of her bosom over my fresh new heart.  

you sound different, she says, moving her ear over it, listening like a shell from the ocean.  

what’s different?  

so fast. like you’re scared of something. and she looks at me like she might see it in my red eyes. little does she know nothing scares me anymore. i have already faced death and refused it. now, there is only this stolen youth, and the thought of alma. now, i can do anything.  

• • •

the son is sobbing at the bottom of my throat. 

please, please, who are you? let me out! i’ll do anything! who are you?  

i close my eyes and swallow. the rum drowns him. bubbles boil to the surface.  

who are you? who are you?  

i take another gulp, burning him away.  

• • •

i stay at lily’s house for a few days. i push her hands away when they flutter to me and turn my face when her lips seek mine. at first she laughs. then, she only stares at me oddly, as i marry myself to everything she has that is brown and bitter. On the third day, she asks me, 

is this about moving in together?

no, i say. do you want me to move in? 

yes, she admits. you still want to move in, right? 

i shrug. she asks, are you upset with me? 


now she’s lost. what’s wrong with you, then? 

it is a loaded question, one that i have been asking myself for twenty-seven years already. i still do not have an answer. i laugh at my own delay, and she scoffs and rolls her eyes. 

when i leave her home, she does not say goodbye. instead she busies herself with a book that she is not really reading. when i come back to the old man’s place, my clothes stinking with lily’s herbs and oils, the old man has two faces. one is relieved to see the body has returned. the other is enraged that i am still in it. he wants to ask me where i was and demand that i never return all at the same time.  

he has a crucifix. his arms shake, giving christ the appearance of being frightened by an earthquake on the cross. my god, my god, what is happening? i imagine the wailing wooden messiah to say.  

you leave my son, now. the old man demands. you leave him now, in the name of god! you get out of here, you demon!  

i’m not a demon, i remind him. you killed me. remember? i was engaged to alma, and you killed me.  

you’re a demon! the old man insists, pointing his knobby finger in my face.  

i’m no murderer, i hiss. 

i am still a little drunk. i push his hands off me as i go to the son’s room and close the door.  

the son has an unmade bed, untouched from the morning i slipped into the apartment and became him. he has dirty sneakers on a rack, and crumpled clothes on the floor. it is funny because alma was always clean.  

this is not about you, i remind the soul again. if things were right, you would be my son.  

he doesn’t answer.  

i stumble to a mirror and look at my face. my hair is uneven. my skin is sweaty. i look like my killer. my eyes are wide and light brown. like alma’s. i lean into my reflection, the one that isn’t really mine. i have alma’s eyes! my fingers pull at the skin beneath them, as if i can truly see her in their glossy curves. i stand back, uncertain. alma looks back at me, afraid.   

• • •

the priest comes the next day. the old man points him to my room.  

i sit on the edge of my neat bed innocently.  

the priest has yellow hair and a smile that splits his face like a crescent moon. the old man stands behind the priest like he’ll protect him. i smile back.  

good morning, son. your father tells me you’ve been having some trouble with a spirit?  

he’s possessed! the old man reminds the priest, and the priest nods like this is a common complaint.  

how do you feel, son? he turns to me, the bored concern in his eyes telling me that these house calls are nothing new. i wonder how many other angry ghosts just want to live again.  

i feel fine. just a little different.  

how so?  

help me! the son cries.  

like i don’t exactly know what to do with my life. i answer honestly, biting back the screams.  

ah, the priest nods, the question as eternal and timeless as the face of god himself. well, that is not possession. that’s an existential crisis.  

do you have a solution?  

i would suggest prayer, he offers the humble prescription, and maybe a little more honest conversation with your elders. he eyes the old man, blubbering behind him. the priest leans in and whispers, i’ll tell you the truth, son. nobody knows what they’re doing. you’ll be alright.  

and then he’s gone, giving uncaring apologies to the old man, who keeps insisting that his son is trapped inside of me.  

• • •

i drink more over the next few days. then, i decide i want to drive a car. i ask the old man for his keys. he refuses.  

if you want your son back, i threaten, you’ll take me.  

we’re soon in his brown, busted jalopy. it rumbles to life with a hiss and a squeak, and soon we’re gliding down the road. our oblivious neighbors wave to us as the old man yells at me to ease on the brakes and set the turn signal. i wave back.  

watch out, the old man mumbles as a kid races across the street, but i have already stopped the car.  

watch out! he cries again as another car pulls out before us.  

is this how you taught your boy to drive? yelling in his ear every two seconds? i tease.  

i sent him to driving school, he mutters.  

was he a good driver?  

yes, he is. the old man corrects me. i am going to give him this car when he goes to university.  

i never got to go to university. my fingers tighten over the wheel. where is he going?  

the old man shifts his jaw, as if he might give me too many secrets.  

i shrug. that’s alright. i already know. he has already told me.  

the old man’s eyes snap to me. what do you mean?  

the boy speaks, and often. i can’t get him to shut up.  

i enjoy the horror in the old man’s face. he is stuck, i say smoothly, he wants to be free. i know how he feels. he begs me a lot.  

i do not tell him that i drink to quiet his son.  

the old man’s hand shakes, but i know he won’t raise it against me. a part of me, perhaps the son, is begging me to stop.  

how would you feel if i buried him here, in his own body? if nobody ever knew what happened to him. if he died, scared and alone?  

i’ll kill you again, the old man promises. i swear, i’ll kill you again and i’ll make sure you’re gone for good. you leave my boy alone!  

i laugh at the frightened rage in his voice. it’s so different than the taunting one he used when he stood over me with his knife that night. i laugh like it’s the funniest joke i’ve ever heard.  

i laugh so hard i don’t notice that i’ve slid through the red light. i don’t see the truck barreling in from the left. i only see the old man’s mouth, stretched in the shape of a goose egg, and hands that reach out to protect me instinctually.  

• • •

i wake up in the white tomb of a hospital. the voices of the dead and the doomed mix with the sheltered tones of the scattered living and the robotic beeps of everything keeping me alive. my new body feels broken in on the left side.  

the old man is right beside me. a bandage on his head gives the appearance of the japanese flag. he grips my hand tightly, and looks deep into my eyes, searching for something.  

austin? he asks, soft as a prayer.  

i blink. then my lips tremble into a wide grin, and the old man knows. i am still here.  

at the foot of my bed, a cheerful doctor consults her clipboard.  

you’re very lucky, sir. she smiles. another few inches, and your son would have been a goner.  

she is optimistic about my recovery. the old man weeps, his face in his hands.  

• • •

i am stuck in bed for a week. the old man feeds me with mixed passions. i am everything that he hates and everything that he loves in one shattered body. i begin to call him “dad” just because it irritates him. i expect him to spit in my soup, to spill it scalding hot onto my groin, to put glass in my water and watch me choke. but he serves me the best of his pantry, and cooks meals fit for a king. he only grits his teeth and continues to feed me.  

it hurts it hurts, i love you, it hurts, i’m sorry dad, please help me, the boy blubbers.  

thanks, dad. i grin as i finish the last of his curry. it tastes like alma’s.  

the old man says nothing as he takes the empty bowl back to the kitchen.  

i sleep even better than when i was alive in my own body. the old man sits beside me as i rest, worried that i’ll die in my sleep and take his son with him. when he thinks i am slumbering, he whispers in my ear,  

come back to me, son. fight him. i love you.  

i’m trying, the son insists. 

i turn on my side and snore.  

• • •

it is a few weeks before i can walk again. i teeter on crutches like a foal. the old man helps me around the house and mumbles all the way.  

i message lily and ask her to come over. she is silent for a day, then responds with her condolences. she has a job that stretches her thin over the weekdays. she does not come on the weekends. 

i decide i do not need lily. 

i have a new throne on the couch, where the old man hesitantly serves me. from here, i have a full view of the living room wall. there is a picture of alma, the old man, and the young son at a zoo. another of them in front of the brooklyn bridge. one where the boy wears a graduation cap. a last one where alma smiles alone for the camera. she has dimples like god scooped spoonfuls of her sweetness for himself. she grows older in every picture. i wish all those years had been mine.  

did alma ever ask about me? the question erupts.  

the old man stiffens. i sit up.  

did she ever want to know what happened to me?  

i don’t expect him to tell the truth. i remember watching her look for me, when i was stuck in the sugarcane. i remember watching him console her, as if my blood wasn’t under his fingernails. i remember them packing up and sailing away, speaking of new york.  

she missed you. the old man admits. she loved you. 

a smile teases my face.  

now his eyes are shining. is that what you want? for me to say that she was never happy with me?  

that is what i want, i think. i want him to say that i was better than him in every way, and that is why he had to kill me. but instead he laughs.  

she loved me, too, you know. and she was always happy.  

she was happiest with me until you took me from her, i bark.  

i thought you came for her. 

i did. but you killed me, i stutter. that’s what matters now. 

you must not love her anymore.  

of course i do! 

the old man’s eyes glint like treasure coins. then why are you still here?  

i curse the old man. i tell him he is afraid because his guilt has returned in the flesh to haunt him. the tears stream down his face silently, but his smile persists. it scares me.  

my friend, he chuckles, i am not sorry for the life and son i shared with alma. i am not even sorry that i had to kill you to get them. if all that truly matters is that you might see alma again, then you will go to see her now. 

he waits, as if i might have some glowing epiphany and ooze out of his son. i stare at him, wishing for my eyes to burn him alive and leave him as ashes on his stupid clean floor. 

you’re still here, the old man blinks, and his last tear falls, plopping onto the tile.  

yes, i drone. i’m still here.  

• • •

alma visits me that night. she takes the appearance of her younger self that i fell in love with in jamaica. her thick dreadlocks curling around her bare shoulders. her caramel eyes flashing with the brilliance of inside jokes and god-given grace. the sweet lips bringing dreams to life, offering me the words i’ve wanted to hear for twenty-seven years.  

i missed you, she smiles.  

i missed you, too.  

she bends down, placing her hand in mine, her eyes full of sorrow. you’ve been suffering for so long. i know what happened to you now. i know you didn’t leave me.  

i swallow, too stunned to speak.  

she squeezes my hand. come with me, and we’ll go home. we can start over. it will just be you and me, forever and ever.  

i feel her gently begin to pull my ghost away. that’s when i see her eyes flicker down to my chest, to the heavy place where the boy lives. that’s when i know this isn’t about me.  

you’re here for the boy, i mumble.  

alma’s smile stiffens like it always did when i’d catch her in a lie.  

i thought you loved me, i say.  

i did—  

prove it, i dare her. wake up the old man. tell him that he stole everything from us. tell him you hate him as much as i do. tell him how you really feel! 

alma is still for a moment, then floats to the old man’s bedroom. i pitch myself upwards into my crutches, and follow her.  

i stand at the door as she drifts inside and wakes the old man from his slumber. when he opens his eyes, and sees her in all her glory, he smiles. she tells him that she knows what he did to me. he frowns, and she tells him that he is a murderer. i am smiling so widely that i fear this mask might split in two. i wait for her to say she would have killed the old man and taken the first boat back to jamaica. i want her to say she would have dug me up, buried me with honors, put flowers on my grave every day, counted the days until she’d see me again.  

but she doesn’t. she whispers, i will never forgive you for this.  

then, she looks to me for my approval. she holds out her hand to me, and her fingers are shaking. 

let’s go home, she says.

it is then that i know alma does not love me anymore.  

i sink back into the boy’s body, his living corpse heavy as a stone. alma pleads with me to join her, but i know that eternity with her will just be an insurance policy. i ignore her cries, even as the tears spill down her beautiful cheeks and match the solemn ones on mine. i go back to the couch. alma weeps until the sunrise comes to take her away.  

• • •

i am gone before the old man is up. i find his debit card and take a taxi to the airport. i grab the first flight that goes straight to jamaica. i toss the card into the trash before i board. the son screams the whole way.  

i get home again for the first time in twenty-seven years. i imagine the look on the old man’s face, the prize of my final triumph. i am young in jamaica again.  

i have so much to do. i party on the shore with sunburnt tourists. i sing drunkenly with old men playing dominos in the evening. i even have sex on the beach, sand digging deep into all the raw, hidden places of a man who has no shame. i am free and inspired as the day i was born, so much so that i want to scream every time i wake up on a new friend’s couch or floor. i feel so alive. after a while, the scared soul inside stops talking altogether.  

i catch myself in the mirror again. the son’s hair is shaved on the sides, lightning patterns slicing over the ears. his amber eyes are bright and wild, excited, strange. his skin is healthy and taut, his smile clear as the new days that embrace him so eagerly.  

i imagine his father is dying of heartache. this encourages me more than anything. the longer i live in this body, the longer the man who murdered me suffers. and the longer he suffers, the more those twenty-seven years are worth it. this becomes my new ritual.  

i tell myself this every morning, when i wake up and find the vomit has eroded the backs of my teeth.  

i tell myself this every time i miss alma, or consider maybe leaving this body behind to see her and apologize.  

i tell myself this every time i think about the boy and his empty spot in university, the car that he will never inherit, the bed that will never be made again. the father waiting for his son to come home.  

it’s not about him, i remind myself. if it weren’t for his father, leaving me here…  

• • •

on the twenty-eighth anniversary of my murder, i drink. 

i drink in the morning as i sit on the beach. alma kissed me goodbye before i went to work in the fields.  

i drink in the afternoon. alma brought me lunch. fried fish and cabbage. i find some fish for lunch, but it doesn’t taste like hers.  

i drink in the evening. the sky is purple and still, just like it was then. the old man, wearing a face that looks very much like mine, asked me to come into the fields for a moment. when we were deep in the stalks, he brought out his knife.  

i stumble to the parking lot where that field used to be. there’s a little red car parked right over where my old body is. the anger refuses to fire up in me. the man under the asphalt is long gone. i don’t even think i remember his name. all i know is that there is a body here, or that there might be, like an urban legend with a bad ending. tears sting my eyes as my chest burns for the poor man. nobody knows where he is. nobody worries about what’s happened to him. nobody cares that he’s now lost and alone, so drunk that the world is spinning.  

what can i do? i think. 

the son speaks. i haven’t heard his voice in months.  

let me go, he whispers. let me go.  

what can i do? i collapse beside the car, leaning my forehead against the cool metal. the son continues his weakened chant, let me go, let me go. as if the answer is that easy.  

what the hell are you doing? a shrill voice barks. i look up to see an angry man standing with his car keys in hand. get away from my car! 

do you know there’s a body under here? under your car, under the parking lot? i mumble drunkenly. the angry man blinks. i stand up, groggy.  

he was buried here twenty-eight years ago, i say. and he doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life.  

let me go, let me go— 

shut up, i groan.  

what the hell is wrong with you? why are you by my car?  

this isn’t about you, i snap. i drink the rest of the bottle in my hand. the liquor drowns the boy’s strained whispers.  

i stumble away, the moonlight on my stolen shoulders, the driver bewildered behind me.  

Desiree Winns is a graduate student of international affairs at the George Washington University. A former film student, Desiree has interned at NASA, the U.S. Helsinki Commission, the Aspen Institute, and the Carter Center. Her work has been published on Medium and by khoreo magazine, as well as midnight & indigo. She plans to pursue a PhD in Political Science and become a published author of fiction and nonfiction books. She especially loves reading and writing about post-communist politics and history, black women in love, humanity’s relationship with God, and diverse characters having existential crises. In her free time she enjoys cooking, overanalyzing everything, exploring DC with her friends, and playing chess. She currently works as Coordinator at Hostage US, a non-profit that supports American hostages and their families.
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