I was about 15 years old when I almost blew my hand off lighting firecrackers on the 4th of July.
I don’t remember what kind they were. I just remember they had red and black stripes and were the type that came tied together. I was supposed to untie them and light them individually. But I lit the entire pack as one, planning to throw them at my cousin as I ran away laughing.
We always spent 4th of July with my aunt who lived in Montana Vista in far east El Paso, close to a street named after a famous race horse. On that property, surrounded by desert, they lived in a trailer home, then a house they slowly built. Montana Vista was the kind of place where one either owns a gun, or a dog so vicious no one can trust them, or both.
My Montana Vista family had a dog—Rambo—who’d sometimes bark uncontrollably at night. I don’t even remember how Rambo became an adopted member of the family. All I know is that no one trusted him. “Es traicionero el wey,” is how my uncle described that treacherous dog tethered to a chain whose other end looped around the tire rim of a broken-down van.
Across the street from my family’s house, on a property with a trailer home that was falling apart, my cousins and uncle said they’d seen the ghost of a monk. El Monje, they called him. Neighbors also said they’d seen something suspicious on that lot.
When a few dogs from the area—those that just roamed the streets, who, presumably, once had owners—were found dead in the middle of unpaved streets, some people said it was El Monje.
I didn’t know whether I believed in those things. But I also knew enough weird, sometimes difficult to explain, things happened that I couldn’t say they didn’t exist either.
I remember lighting the pack of firecrackers and before I could throw them, they began popping in my hand.
It all happened so quickly it took a few seconds to process what happened. To process that, my plan to scare the shit out of my cousin had backfired. To process that, I should look at my right hand and brace myself for what I’d see. To process the feeling of relief when discovering that I still had all my fingers, even if the thumb, index and middle finger looked charred, like the skin of a jalapeño that’d been on the grill for too long. To process that, the constant stinging and throbbing pain of burned skin overwhelmed whatever relief I felt.
I remember my uncle, cousins, and brother all checking to see if I was fine. And I remember them all laughing hysterically as soon as I said yes.
For the rest of the night, my right hand was useless. When I dipped it inside an ice chest full of cold beer and watery ice, instead of finding relief, it stung even worse.
“Te duele?” someone asked me that for the rest of the night.
Whenever the moon replaced the sun, we’d go looking for El Monje. On the 4th of July, when I almost lost my hand, I looked for him, alone.
Outside my aunt’s home, I walked slowly with my hand, half-opened, still hurting.
I’m still not sure if what I wanted more: To see El Monje with my own eyes or to get confirmation that the stories we told ourselves were more that just bullshit used to help us explain the places we lived.
I walked slowly.
Trying to keep quiet even though the wind in that dark desert night carried the sounds of fireworks and music, gunshots and laughter.
I walked slowly.
I wanted to see El Monje, but I never did.
That night, we went home and soon realized we’d locked ourselves out. My father wasn’t there that 4th of July, so I was the one who had to break our house’s back window to get inside.
I punched that window no less than 5 times before it broke. Each time with my hurt hand. Each time, I hurt my hand even more.
Before that summer ended, my dad returned from where he was, and Rambo disappeared.
One morning, he was simply gone, my cousins said. And because life’s unwanted dogs come and go, we hardly looked for him.
One cousin said El Monje must have taken him. Another cousin said a neighbor’s dog had also gone missing.
That neighbor, an old man with deep wrinkles on his face and a raspy voice, said all the dead and missing dogs around Montana Vista meant El Chupacabras was around.