Nothing Takes the Place of You

In honor of the late Selena Quintanilla’s birthday, we’re pleased to present a very special Terraform from the award-winning novelist Fernando A. Flores—a surreal and astonishing story that inverts, explores, and ultimately celebrates the iconic singer’s destiny. Enjoy.

While you’re at it, check out the anthology of Terraform stories that this piece will appear in—Watch/Worlds/Burn, coming this August from MCD Books. You can preorder that now. -the Eds.

As Selena Quintanilla awoke from a night of bad dreams she found herself transformed into a posthumous pop cultural icon. She was inside her bed bunk in the back of the tour bus, got out, knocked on the tiny restroom door to make sure it was unoccupied, washed her face. The bus wasn’t moving, and there was no music playing, which was strange for those early hours. Walking the vacant bus aisle, Selena called out to her brother, then looked inside her sister’s bunk, and when she didn’t see her called out, “Suzette.”

The driver was also missing, and Selena thought the obvious: They were playing a joke on her. She opened the bus door using the lever, and saw they were on a lonesome two-lane highway, with only distant mesquites and shrubs off the road. She laughed, knowing they had to be in Houston by evening, and thought this was really some distasteful joke. She walked around the bus calling out for everyone in the family and the band, the driver. It was a chilly morning, and in every direction there was arid land nobody had thought to build homes in, and those barren, crooked mesquites like petrified tentacles of the creature living underground that devours all life on the surface.

Before something like fear enveloped her, Selena walked back on the bus, closed the door, and searched all the crevices inside again. If this was a joke, she’d have to go along with it, so when everyone showed up they’d see she thought it was no big deal. She made herself cereal, had a banana, and put the radio loud on the oldies station. Then, from her bunk, she found that unmarked mix-tape the clerk from Otoño Records had given her of punk from Monterrey, put it on even louder, and opened the windows of the bus to usher the air through. The music was not in her family’s taste—something her father would have ordered her to throw out the window.

If they are trying to frighten me with this game, she thought, I can put a fright in them, too. Selena thrashed around the bus like she’d seen in footage of punk shows, bumping the walls, knocking over empty cups and cassette tapes to the floor. After the first side of the tape ended she laughed, cleaned everything, put the tape away. She decided this hide-and-seek game had gone too far and wasn’t something that felt normal.

Selena imagined several scenarios of what could have happened. Maybe they’d been run off the road while she slept, and everyone had been kidnapped but her; or they’d been pulled over and due to some confusion had arrested everyone; or down this road, where no other vehicle had passed since she’d gotten up, something extraterrestrial had beamed everyone away and spared her, the youngest in the family, in a way she’d have to bear for the rest of her life. This last outcome was the least likely, but Selena had to admit she’d managed to frighten herself—a fear that slowly balled up into a blind rage, and she went down the line and directed this rage at every one her family members, for little things, creative choices, incidents beyond this little prank of theirs.

When the sun went down and nobody showed up, Selena felt bad about her curses and evil thoughts. She decided something extremely out of the ordinary was going on, and, desperate not to be devoured along with the bus by the cold night, she got behind the wheel and turned the ignition. Selena did the things her father instructed her when she made him teach her how to drive it, after they got stuck in the mud that one time in Las Milpas. She hit the headlights, put it in gear, and drove, unsure if they’d already crossed into Texas.

After a few miles and road signs, Selena estimated the closest city was San Antonio. Though the tank was at three-fourths, she stopped at the first lit gas station she came across. The cars lined up to pump gas were vacant, and nobody seemed to be inside the store. Selena got down, left the engine running, and from the loudspeakers of one of the cars her very own song “La Carcacha” was playing. Selena clenched her heart and looked inside the car, but there was nobody there. She walked into the store, grabbed a couple of snacks, and at the counter she called out, “Hello?”

Selena counted her total after estimating, and set the cash on the counter. Outside, her song had stopped playing and no other track followed. She hurried onto the bus and shut the door to the silence, drove away.

Having to increasingly maneuver around vehicles standing completely still on the road, along with her caffeinated soda, helped keep Selena wide awake. She slid the station dial on the radio but couldn’t find any programming, even on the AM stations. She was tired and didn’t want to stop and rest just yet, so she stopped and found that punk mix from Otoño Records, popped on the B-side. The tape turned over three times before she entered the San Antonio city limits.

On that drive Selena reconciled it wasn’t just her family and crew that were gone; everyone else appeared to be missing, too. This calmed her and made the event of her loved ones’ return more probable. Because, what happened? All the people on earth couldn’t have just vanished at the same time. Where would they fit? She wondered if it mattered that she’d driven away from where her family disappeared, but became determined they would find their way to her somehow, like they always did.

Even as she, bleary-eyed, neared San Antonio, Selena could see patches of the city were blacked out, along with most of the light posts and signs she passed. Selena got nervous after she considered that maybe there would come a point where she wouldn’t be able to steer around the vehicles, and as she approached the Pearl Brewery the cars came to a complete gridlock. Luckily, she’d gotten stuck in a section with electricity, and sitting in that grumbling bus she surveyed the Texas plates as far into the night as she could see.

In the morning, though all the windows were tightly shut, she heard birds as she awoke from the couch behind the driver’s seat. On the right side mirror sat a grackle flapping its wings and screeching—not at anything in particular—or maybe at the world in general. Selena could see clearly into the bird’s eyes as others swarmed around it. She got up, knocked on the bathroom door out of habit before entering. When she finished her morning things, Selena breakfasted behind the wheel, trying to admire the day: the sun rising in the heart of San Antonio, trucks and cars and eighteen-wheelers stuck in a still life, the side of the Pearl Brewery glowing like its golden beer.

Selena stepped off the bus and looked around at the landmarks besides the brewery to remember her location. As she wandered down an aisle of jammed automobiles, she glanced inside station wagons, vans, Beetles. The absence of families, truckers, drivers trying to get to work, gave the morning a smogless air to breathe, and the birds must have taken notice.

Walking down the off-ramp, Selena was suspicious of the birds along the railing and noticed a large number of them were squawking and tilting their heads, curious about her in turn. She saw in them the same curious thing she’d seen in the grackle that awakened her: they resembled and behaved more like territorial monkeys than birds. Selena walked under the overpass, toward the tall buildings.

Blocks away, swaying in the wind, she spotted a solitary red balloon. Remembering an old movie, she felt the balloon was a good sign and made her way toward it, always careful to look both ways before crossing, since the streetlights were operating. She passed a city bus, an Oldsmobile, a couple Dodge trucks, and looked carefully inside all of them to find them vacant. Selena imagined a person selling the balloon, or a child with the balloon in one hand, her mother’s hand in the other, or the red balloon tied to the neck of a small, wise hound.

A block away from the balloon, she saw it was simply tied to a food cart, and as she got closer the reality before her was no match for her expectations. It was a hot dog stand. In its stillness, it looked also capable of swaying with the wind like the balloon. She looked inside the hood, and saw the cold weenies bathing in shallow water.

As Selena surveyed the downtown buildings they appeared hollow or two-dimensional, like cheap Hollywood sets of cities with only their faces. Behind her, gradually, she could make out the clop of hooves, and when she turned, coming from Broadway, there was a horse pulling a carriage. The horse looked tired, and stopped in its tracks upon the sight of Selena. She sensed the horse was thirsty or hungry.

Selena walked up to the horse, unharnessed it from the wagon, and it followed her to the hot dog stand, where she opened the hood once again. The horse stuck its mouth in, and, fearing that weenies could be bad for horses, Selena was relieved to see it was only drinking the still water. She quickly brainstormed other things she could do for the horse, when it suddenly galloped back the way it had come, up Broadway.

Inspired by the will of the horse, Selena walked the abandoned streets of downtown San Antonio in search of some answer. She saw hummingbirds and dragonflies buzzing over the placid waters of the Riverwalk. Birds had scavenged the exterior seating of all the restaurants, with sprawled silverware and broken dishes, shattered margarita goblets, server towels on rails, gutted condiment packets, and cocktail napkins floating like lily pads in the Riverwalk water.

Near a restaurant with fake elephant tusks at its entrance, an electric Casio piano was still plugged in and going on a stand, and a microphone hooked up to a tiny speaker. Selena checked out the minimalist setup, played a few keys, saw the speaker had a strap attached and looked light enough to carry.

She walked over small bridges, explored hotel lobbies, and watched birds pick at the bones of all that remained, until she sensed the mass desolation of people was really draining on her. She found some premade food that still looked edible at Nuestra Tradición, along with some beverages, counted off the total, and left the money on the counter.

On her way back to the bus, Selena considered she would run out of cash at some point, and asked herself what she’d do if that were the case. She had dinner behind the wheel of the bus and watched the sun set on I-35. Down on the streets, she saw a pack of wild dogs, or wolves, roaming with their noses to the ground.

The third morning it seemed the birds flying around the expressway and Pearl Brewery had doubled—tripled?—and, watching them from inside the bus, Selena asked herself the inevitable question: What if nobody, not just her family and crew—ever came back? Even if her sister, or brother, returned, who would they play music to?

She walked out of the bus and retraced her steps from the previous day all the way to the Riverwalk, where the Casio synth was set up. She wiped off some of the bird droppings from the speaker and strapped it over her right shoulder, took the microphone from the stand, and wrapped the cable slack over-under. Selena adjusted the knobs on the speaker and pointed it to a flock of green birds on the rails, facing her.

“Hola, bueno,” she said, frightening the birds away, while attracting others.

The speaker had a charged battery and was light—Selena wondered where she’d seen such a charming little speaker before. She looked around, trying to remember where the Riverwalk curved, creating cavernous acoustics. It was possible, as she searched for this spot, to forget about her present plight, and for a few moments she got that rush before playing a show. Selena got to the small stone stage in front of La Mansion Hotel, where she’d seen singers belting it out for passersby in the past. She looked around at the rowdy birds, turned the speaker on, tested the levels without drowning out the echo, and set it on the ground.

Selena took a moment to look deeply into the phantom faces on the lower and street levels of the Riverwalk, then said, “Hola a todos.”

But the steady stream of tourists in downtown San Antonio had been cut off.

Selena warmed up with a song she’d loved since she was a girl, as she’d been doing lately during rehearsals. The screeches of birds echoed along the plaza, the outdoor bars, abandoned tourist boats on sooty waters, and the complete anarchy of nature taking over the heart of Texas. Selena sang a new song of hers she’d been working out, allowed herself to restart the song a couple times to test out lyrics. She sang one in English her father and A.B. hated but which she and Suzette found hysterical, then segued into another one her family disliked, then another.

In the middle of a verse, Selena felt a wave of sound rushing her way. She stopped singing, shut the speaker off, and listened carefully. Above the high-wire screeches was a crowd of boos echoing after her. As she listened closer, she remembered the sight of the pack of dogs she’d seen the evening before, because the sounds weren’t boos, but—clearer and clearer—barking dogs. Selena almost left the speaker and microphone behind, but grabbed them and yet again retraced her steps back to the bus.

For the first time since the beginning of this experience, Selena felt she was being followed. Taking a turn on St. Mary’s, she walked past the Majestic, the Greyhound station, and site of the future public library. She felt safe upon approaching an open area, stood and marveled at the Gothic architecture many downtowns in old Texas towns shared, the skies free of airplanes, telephone cables without a ripple of communication.

Graffitied against the wall of an abandoned warehouse was the image of a deranged man wearing a bomber jacket, his hair buzzed into a Mohawk. Selena imitated his unhinged expression as she turned and faced the dogs she imagined running after her. She turned on the speaker and, as if teasing them, wolf-called into the microphone as loud as she could. From a distance she heard a howl, then another, then barking echoed and ran along her feet as the grackles shrieked on every stretch of power lines the eye could see.

Back in the bus, she sat behind the wheel, waiting anxiously for the sun to set. If overnight was when everyone in Texas vanished, then out of the darkness or her slumber they would return.

The following morning, after breakfast, Selena counted what was left of her money on the little table. It wasn’t much. She decided to leave IOUs with her name signed if she picked anything up anywhere. Selena grabbed a few items she could carry—things she could hold like talismans—thought about her family—the lives they had before they vanished.

Selena said goodbye to the bus, knocked on its walls, the roof, and climbing down its steps she was confident one day she’d tour in that bus again. As she walked along an aisle of the traffic jam on I-35, Selena thought further about the IOUs, asked herself what stealing even was if there was nobody left to steal from.

She was anxious to discover what the road held ahead. She pictured monuments around the world with nobody to admire, the great stages like Carnegie Hall or the Globe Theatre empty of performers and an audience.

At the front of the jam she found no accident, to her surprise. She wondered how the cars had stopped completely after their drivers disappeared—did they come to a rolling stop, or simply halt in place, like marching soldiers?

Her heart was beating rapidly as she eyed a Seville acting like the pacer of traffic, about fifty yards out from the jam. There were no signs of the person who had driven it—who they were, or belongings revealing their interests. She threw in the speaker, microphone, her bag on the passenger seat, and looked around, feeling terrible about taking this vehicle.

Selena hit the ignition, put the Seville in gear, brainstormed something to say in case she got pulled over, and she followed the de-peopled streets hoping for signs of human life, or to at least eventually sing in an empty Carnegie Hall.

This post has been read 22 times!

Like
Like Love Haha Wow Sad Angry