Soul Theft by Christine Arroyo

 “Hola,” Melinda greeted the bus driver and placed a coin into the payment slot. The bus continued on the roughly paved roads as Melinda struggled to keep her balance. There wasn’t a seat so she remained standing at the front of the bus. She started handing out fliers advertising the medical clinic she was here to run. The flyers warned of the recent danger of mosquitos and malaria, which used to be a rarity in the high altitudes of the towns around Cusco, Peru. Climate change was shifting all of that and now even this region was susceptible.

Melinda’s shoulders sank as the passengers refused the fliers. To these observing eyes she was sure she looked like any other privileged white woman, though if someone had accused her of being privileged, she would have emphatically disagreed. She was a doctor who roughed it for the betterment of local communities, who rode on local buses, cramped in the back of tuk tuks with live chickens and bags of rice on her lap. She slept in hostels and hiked the plains of the Serengeti with malaria medication in her pocket, ready to hand it out for anyone in need. She thought about all this with proud satisfaction as she clung to the handles hanging from the bus ceiling as the bus twisted and lurched over the mountains on the way to Urcos, Peru.

Melinda put the rejected fliers back in her bag, reminding herself that sometimes it was okay to just be a tourist. She pulled out her camera – a Canon EOS C300 Mark III – valued at nearly 11,000 US dollars. Melinda was sure no one here on the bus had any idea of the camera’s value. The people in the seats were mostly farmers with bags of grain and dried corn husks balanced on their laps, their faces worn into weathered grooves. She figured most of them had probably never even seen a camera. She snapped a couple photos of the outside scenery, the incredible mountain range stretching off to her right, and then she turned the lens toward an older woman wearing a montera, a wide brimmed hat shaped like a fruit bowl, decorated in colorful pom poms and reflective beads. The woman was standing right across the aisle from Melinda. Her dark hair was braided down her back. As the bus jostled and turned, her skirt swirled and spun like a blossoming flower, revealing shifting gradations of red and pink colors. It reminded Melinda of her mother’s garden, her mother who she hadn’t seen in two years. It seemed the world was constantly struggling with some endemic disease and Melinda was always one of the first on the front lines. Snap. The camera click was loud. The woman turned toward Melinda and in a flash of movement she reached across the aisle and grabbed the camera out of Melinda’s hand.

“Devuélveme mi cámara.” Melinda felt flustered, overwhelmed, suddenly tired, pushing her hands toward the camera even as the woman slipped it into the folds of the many bags gathered around her feet. The woman then screamed in a somersaulting jumble of words – Quechua, which Melinda didn’t speak.

“Ayudame!” Melinda looked pleadingly at the other people on the bus. “Por favor. Regresar la cámara. Por favor.” Melinda’s fluent Spanish suddenly sounded gringo-esque, poorly accented, blandly flavored, like the white skin that had always disappeared her Mexican heritage. She gestured toward the woman and back toward the other people on the bus, as though pleading her case to a stone-faced jury. The woman was defiant. Gesturing. She was confident the people of the bus were on her side.

“You took her soul, su alma,” The man spoke in broken English, directing the words toward the other passengers. The other passengers nodded in agreement about the soul theft. A chicken in the back of the bus squawked.

“No, I didn’t!” Melinda reached her hands back out toward the woman even as the woman slapped them away. The woman shouted something toward the crowd and some people shouted back. And then the woman held out her hand palm up. The verdict was in, Melinda had to pay.

Melinda fumbled in her backpack for a handful of coins and paper bills. 10 soles or two dollars and fifty cents was all she had. The woman took the money, looked at it, and then extended her palm back out. “I don’t have any more. No tengo dinero.” Melinda opened up her empty wallet, showing it the woman and then the crowd. The woman’s expression turned sour but then she reluctantly handed the camera back.

“She says to delete the photo,” The man who had become the unofficial translator of the conflict spoke up from the now silent crowd.

Melinda pressed a button and held up the phone screen to show the black void.

The woman sat back against the plastic bus seat with satisfaction. Melinda stared out the opposite window, feeling hot tears on her cheeks. She’d always been the good girl, the perfect student, the responsible daughter. Only once had she taken a pack of gum near the grocery store cash register. Her mother had joined alongside the clerk in berating her. The memory floated near the surface of Melinda’s mind and her cheeks flushed red.

Only once she was off the bus did Melinda press the button on her camera revealing the picture of the woman. She had only pretended to delete it and as she walked toward the medical clinic she thought how amazing this photo was going to look once she had it framed and hanging above her fireplace.

Christine Arroyo‘s work has been published in X-R-A-Y Magazine, Flash Fiction Magazine, Dark Recesses Press, Beyond Words, and Variety Pack, to name a few. Her work has been nominated for “Best of the Net” and is forthcoming in the  2023 Best Microfiction Anthology. She has just completed her first novel about siblings navigating an increasingly warming world.