The bus driver didn’t recognize Carey. Cesár had driven the exchange students from the Mexico City airport to Guanajuato six months ago, and now he commandeered a local tour bus to the Mummy Museum on the city’s northwest corner. To Carey alone he’d given the view of the volcano Ixtaccihuatl, the Sleeping Woman, while the others slept or plugged into Walkmans. Now it was early February, and Carey smiled secretively when he announced their stop outside the museum with “Ho-kay.” Remembering how he’d assured their program director, “Ees OK,” when the broken bus door opened unintentionally, and when he had deliberately driven them in the wrong direction so they could see the volcanoes on that rare, clear day.

    The Mummy Museum stood squat and flat-roofed like a prison. Nearby, children’s voices whooped and a soccer ball bounced on pavement. Mike wore dark sunglasses and a beige fisherman’s hat he had bought in the Mercado Hidalgo. Sick of being blond in such a dark-haired country.

    “La vida,” he sighed. “It is so hard for a gringo.” 

    “Do you know how obvious your disguise is?” asked Ben, Carey’s boyfriend.

    Mike pretended to listen to an imaginary earpiece, like a Secret Service agent or bodyguard. “Shh,” he said, making Carey and Ben laugh. They were always laughing at Mike.

    Ben knocked Mike’s hat off with the flat of his palm, then retrieved it from the parking lot blacktop and stuck it on Carey’s head. Ben had tied a red bandanna around his head, a few curls sticking out from the cotton cloth. But Mike left him alone, offering Ben no retaliation. Instead he grabbed his hat off Carey’s head, accidentally tearing out a couple shoulder-length strands of her brown hair. “Ow!” Her mock-angry voice. Children at play despite technical adulthood. All three stuck in place; an emotional limbo of looking back and ahead. Also known as the present.

    Nearby, a young mother herded three small girls close to her waist. She wore a gray wool poncho over acid-washed jeans, and one child stuck her head under the poncho. The woman could’ve been trying to keep the children out of the Americans’ way. Or keeping them away from the Americans. 

    “That didn’t hurt,” Mike scolded Carey. “More of a ‘Wow’ than an ‘Ow,’ wouldn’t you say?”

    She gave him the finger before remembering the little girls watching. 

    “Children, behave,” Ben said. And they did. 

    Guanajuato’s Museo de las Momias, a collection of preserved corpses in glass display cases, was one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions. This was no archaeological find; these were graves deliberately reopened. The mummies were local bodies, regular people whose families couldn’t pay the cemetery tax a hundred years ago. Unearthed from their alleged final rest to make room for the newly dead. The mummification had to do with the mineral properties of the area’s water. People drank from the Guanajuato water supply for a lifetime, then their dead bodies somehow remained intact underground. No one knew how or why, not for certain.

    For months Carey had wanted to go, but she’d been busy. Weekends spent with Ben and Mike, who’d already seen the mummies. Later, she could not come up with reasons for her compulsion to tour the museum. Maybe because her boyfriend and his best friend expected she wouldn’t like it. When she suggested a visit, they’d told her the attraction was nothing special—a bunch of dirt-brown dead bodies lying behind glass. Some clothed, some not. Ben and Mike already had been, numerous times and without her, because they’d lived in Mexico for other summers.

    She needed to get out of her host family’s house. Tempers had cooled since the fight about her lost necklace, which had been a gift from her host brother Bartolo’s jewelry shop. He hadn’t given Carey the replacement he’d offered, and she couldn’t ask again. With no classes on weekends, she created errands to stay away as much as possible. Sometimes she’d walk the city alone for hours at a time. But she didn’t want to go to the mummy museum, not solo. After they’d finally gone, and months later when Universidad Intercambio shipped her back to Indianapolis after the shooting, it was her least favorite place to remember.

    That day, they paid admission and spun through the metal turnstiles. The dry air stifled their conversation. The museum seemed as cave-like as the rock and gem gallery Carey happened upon a few months back. A smooth stone floor, the low ceiling, dark corridors, and displays under glaring fluorescent lights.

    They’d barely crossed over the threshold before coming upon the first body. Raisin-withered in its glass box, the remains of hair like steel wool perched atop her dark forehead. You could tell it was a she by the pelvis. Butterfly wings pointing at the ceiling. The remains of a tattered manila-covered garment bunched around her neck like a clown collar. The rest of her body was unclothed.

    “Disgusting,” Carey marveled.

    “She reminds me of Rachel,” Mike said, and Ben smirked.

    “Who’s Rachel,” Carey asked with as little curiosity as possible.

    No one spoke. Finally Mike asked Ben, “You haven’t told her about Rachel? Oh.” Mike drifted off, feigning interest in the rows of corpses he’d seen on previous visits.

    Ben scratched at his temple around the bandana. “She’s just someone I used to know,” he said. “Someone I used to date. Mike wasn’t a fan of hers.”    

    Carey was silent. In front of her, a tiny baby mummy lay on its back, its mouth open as if poised for a bottle. It was one of the few that bore a sign, and she translated: “The Smallest Mummy in the World.” A creature both endearing and repugnant. Carey walked along the cases and examined the other bodies. Each of the display coffins touched end-to-end like train cars. Some were stacked on top of each other. The dead in bunk beds, a gruesome sleepover. Nearby, a Mexican family in matching Cancun vacation t-shirts snapped pictures of mummies through the glass.

    Ben touched Carey lightly at the base of her neck. He knew her well enough by now to know she was upset. She rarely showed anger or yelled. She just let pieces of pain well up inside her, forming silences thick and twining as the Indian laurel trunks in the Jardín Union.   

    Ben steered her in the direction Mike had gone and whispered in her ear.

    “You know Mike’s an asshole,” he said. “You know that, right? He says things without thinking first. And he hardly ever knows what he’s talking about.”

    Carey hadn’t been thinking about Mike. She’d been thinking about Rachel, a person she’d never known or heard of. Rachel, a living, breathing woman, laughed about, her looks compared to death. And then she thought how easily Ben would betray his friend: You know Mike’s an asshole.

    But in that betrayal, a gift. Un regalo para ti. An open door he ushered her through. Complicity. Information meant only for her. Carey and Ben versus Mike, or versus everyone else.

    “I’ve noticed that,” Carey finally said. “Must be why you love him so much.”

    The peeping, rolled “r” voices of the tourist children bent around the corner. Ben eyed her, the green of his irises glinting, unsure. Perhaps he’d held just as much potential for hurt. She wanted him to match her vulnerability, for their risks to be equal. What had she felt in that moment? Desire. Pity. Hopelessness. Seven years later she could still feel Ben’s hand at her nape, but she could not recreate the right mix of emotion. Everything tinged by what came after.

    She kissed him there among the corpses, then proceeded down the long hallway of the dead. Ben followed, for once.

    A few yards away, Mike held a camera to his eye, snapping a picture of one of the mummies.

    “Look,” he pointed. “No glare.”

    The glass case bore a small, half-moon-sized hole through which Mike aimed his lens. The body was male, and he wore old fashioned woolen trousers and thick black overshoes. Eye sockets dark and empty.

    “You broke the glass?” Carey asked. “Jesus, Mike.”

    Mike shook his head, his shaggy blond hair falling in his eyes. “Do you see any broken glass?”

    It was true—the display had cracked or been broken, and someone must have cleaned up the pieces.

    Ben whistled, sticking his face up to the hole. “I bet you could touch his leg if you reached,” he said to Mike. A ropy ankle exposed itself between the corpse’s trouser cuff and overshoe. Those legs probably had walked the same cobblestone streets as the three of them, a hundred years earlier.

    Ben and Mike dared one another. Touch the leg, they taunted. It’s just an old man’s old leg. The exchange heightened, and she could see the languid, unhurried enjoyment in both their faces. Mike raised an eyebrow, so Ben raised two. Ben scratched his nose, and Mike automatically repeated the gesture, imitating Ben, but probably wondering if he had something on his face.

    Had they been on the street instead of inside the dark mummy museum, Mike would’ve rapidly checked his reflection in a storefront window. Carey was no different—she always searched for versions of herself in shiny surfaces. Something she hardly ever saw Ben do. Here they were surrounded by glass. Here Carey saw shadowed versions of herself and Ben and Mike reflected in a cracked, windowed coffin.

    “He looks like beef jerky,” Ben said.

    Carey pushed past and stood before the missing piece of glass. “Here,” she said, like clearing her throat. She reached through the jagged hole, careful not to scratch her wrist. Taking over a dare no one offered her.

    “Holy shit,” Mike said.

    Her fingers grazed whatever was left of the man’s tendon and bone. Not rope or beef jerky or even human flesh. It felt like dirt. Like dust. Something that once carried weight but could float away at any minute.

    She pulled her hand back. Ben stared, disbelieving. Mike uttered a string of fucks; she’d impressed him.

    “Who wants to hold my hand?” she asked sweetly.

    They both refused, suddenly squeamish. Insisted she go to the ladies’ room and wash vigorously—Use hot water, they’d teased, trying not to show how serious they were. The bathroom, like many of the public facilities she’d used in Mexico, had no soap, paper towels, or even toilet paper. The water dribbled from the tap, lukewarm. She rinsed her hands and shook them like a wet dog shakes and smiled at herself in the waxy mirror above the sink, practically laughing out loud at what she’d done. At how they reacted.

    They’d all made light of the unnaturally posed corpses, the mummies’ clothes and hair. But only she stepped forward to reach through the hole, a surprise. Brave, bold Ben—that’s how she’d thought of him for months in Mexico, and for years earlier in Indianapolis. But when her hand maneuvered through the broken glass, Ben’s face clouded, unmistakably, with fear. That’s what she would think of later: He was capable of fear. Scared of death. It was the first time he’d showed her. She couldn’t stop seeing. 

They’d blown through the small museum and the tour bus wasn’t due for another half-hour or more. Outside, they sampled tamales from a nearby vendor’s cart. As usual, Carey paid. “Gotta make a pit stop,” Ben said, his Indianapolis vernacular, and he disappeared down a stone staircase. She and Mike sat on the edge of the retaining wall, listening to children playing soccer in the small parking lot below. Lines painted on blacktop, bright-yellow goals without nets, rubble underfoot, power lines crisscrossing overhead. Parents and siblings sat on car bumpers, cheering.

    They ate the tamales in silence until Mike pointed to her corn husk. “You’re not supposed to eat that part,” he said. He was always correcting her.

    “That’s how we do it in Indiana,” she lied.

    “Really?” He was genuinely curious. Mike Gibley, Gibs, believed her. Whatever she wanted to tell him. Something, anything.

    She shook her head and smiled. Softened those brown eyes, a look she’d often given herself in the mirror, as practice. Again she had the sense of watching herself act a role.

    “I was going to say,” he laughed. “Eating that can’t be good for you.”

    Carey wadded up the rest of her tamale and tossed it into an overflowing trash can. Had she been sitting with Ben, she would have asked if he wanted to finish it. Mike watched the arc of the food in the napkin.

    “So you dating anyone these days, Gibsy?” Carey asked casually. She knew he wasn’t. The last time they’d tried to set him up was months ago, when they suggested Jennifer, one of the hundred or so American exchange students in their program. The future network-affiliate news anchor, whose birthday they celebrated at the club Pastel. Jennifer had been Carey’s suggestion, because Jennifer still asked Ben about the UW-Madison campus and the homework on page fifty-two and what was everybody doing, later? Jennifer conjured a boyfriend back home in Illinois, seemingly at whim. For example, when she didn’t want to be set up with Mike.

    Mike had dated no one while they were in Mexico, and Carey wanted to remind him that he was alone. He could needle Carey, and conjure Ben’s former loves like ghosts, and attempt to repossess his best friend from her. But Carey thought Mike would always be worse off than her. After the murder, Ben’s senseless death, she needed this inhospitable comfort, to know she wasn’t that bad, not as bad as Mike.

    Mike stretched his arms overhead. He still wore the fisherman’s hat but had removed the sunglasses. “You’re not trying to set me up again, are you?” he said. “I’m keeping my options open.”

    “My best friend at home says that’s code for ‘No prospects,’” Carey said.

    “I’m liking this friend of yours more and more.” His tone indicated the opposite. He ducked his head, examining his ragged, bitten fingernails. “Sophomore year of college, visiting my mom in Buffalo, she tried to set me up with one of her dental hygienist friends. A double-date with my mom. It was fucked up.”

    Mike saw her face and backtracked. “I didn’t go. My parents got divorced when I was seven, but my dad still would’ve killed me.”

    “Sophomore year? That was two years ago. You haven’t dated anyone since?”

    He glanced at her chin. She wondered if she had food on it. Then he massaged his own jaw with one hand, trying to wipe off the slow grin that developed. “Dating—it sounds so formal,” he said. “I’m fond of the cheaper date. So to speak.”

    “Hooking up in bars.” Carey had participated in her share of collegiate rituals: keg parties in dank basements, sloppy kissing on the sidewalk at 2 a.m. But she’d never gone home with a stranger.

    “And of course there’s the safest sex of all,” he said. “Online.”

    “You actually meet people that way?” In 1996, the Internet seemed new. Was new.

    “Meet up? Again, formalities. I was supposed to once. I didn’t go.”

    “Why not?” She pictured a bespectacled computer girl stood up by Mike Gibley.

    He watched the soccer game below. “Let’s say I was less than forthright about myself. She didn’t need that disappointment.”

    “How pathetic,” she said, though she was impressed. She didn’t know Mike had it in him. Carey waited for another comeback, but none came. Below, the soccer ball thunked off the wall and a girl cried, Give me the ball! Dame la pelota.

    Carey regretted what she’d said. She and Mike competed for Ben’s attention. They bickered. But Mike was a friend. For all his faults, she knew he considered her a friend, too.

    “I’m only asking because I care,” she said, swooping to peer at his face under the hat. His eyes, blank as blue sky. “I need to know who to be jealous of.”

    His mouth turned down slightly, not frowning but slackening. She hadn’t meant for him to take her seriously. She’d merely wanted to be the kind of girl who teases her boyfriend’s buddy. But what were her intentions, considering the small spark she felt hearing about Mike’s sex life? What had she wanted, considering what was about to happen? The day Ben stood her up and she and Mike spent the night together. Maybe she had wanted Mike to name what bounced between them. She began to have a sense of her own power, the high it gave her. She wouldn’t control it. Why should she? Men didn’t.            

    Mike’s already ruddy skin deepened in shade, there on the retaining wall. His cheeks and forehead flushed red as agave seeds, eyes shining with an emotion she ignored in the moment and also ignored later. Hope.

    Ben’s holler came from the parking lot below. A distinctive cry that meant excitement or danger, love or hate. Impossible to tell. Carey and Mike still balanced on the retaining wall and swiveled their heads to see. So used to the whoop that it no longer held meaning. Thank God for Ben, saving them from the silences erupting between them.

    But Ben hadn’t been trying to get their attention. He’d joined the game. He ran the length of the blacktop soccer field, fully involved. This was his battle cry. The Mexican children, boys and girls no older than ten, ducked and wove around the white man who towered above them. Mike told her that Ben had tried out for Wisconsin’s varsity soccer team as a freshman and was cut. Besides, Mike said, the captain already wore Ben’s jersey number, nineteen. (Superstitious Ben kept nineteen dollars American in his thin wallet, the one that would be stolen and discarded, the money missing.) Now Ben played on both teams, or neither, or maybe just for himself. He balanced the black-and-white ball on his foot and considered his options.

    One of the dark-haired girls waved her arms to show she was open. She shrieked, “Cristian Castro! Cristian Castro!” The parent spectators laughed at the impossibility of Cristian Castro descending on their neighborhood soccer park. Ben bore a passing resemblance to the Mexican pop star, but only at a certain angle. Cristian did have light eyes, but was more clean-cut. The red bandanna restraining Ben’s hair made his green eyes stand out more than normal. His face was tanned almost the same color as Cristian’s skin.

    “No-oo-ooo,” Ben teased. “Sabes los Doors? Los Puertos?” Clearly the girl didn’t know The Doors, a band before even Ben’s time, and her patience was waning. She was the only one wearing shin guards and a jersey: red, white and green stripes. The rest of the kids wore street clothes.

    “La pelota!” she hollered. Ben passed her the ball and jogged downfield. Down-parking lot.

    He spun. He alternately bounced the ball off his knee and head. He performed a front flip for a throw-in. His long, muscled calves grew lines with each step, smoothing out while at rest. When he breathed heavily, hands on his hips, the knobby bones of his shoulders danced. He moved as smoothly as a marionette twirling on strings, arms and hands and legs and feet coordinated.  

    Watching him, Carey wished that Ben could see her running, when she felt most like herself and truly lived in her body. When strength radiated from the soles of her feet to her sweaty ponytail. He’d have to see her by accident. She’d never ask anyone to watch her run, though having an audience made her run faster.

     Below, Ben had grabbed the ball with two hands and lifted it above his head. The children jumped in vain to reach the round prize. A boy of about five or six, in jeans and flip flops and a little white t-shirt, clambered up Ben’s body after the ball.

    Ben didn’t give it to the kids, not yet. He kissed the dirty leather like some emotional Maradona, then hurled it to where Carey and Mike sat. Ben had a child grabbing at his arm, and the retaining wall was too high, too far away. The soccer ball hit several feet below Carey and Mike, then dribbled back to the parking lot. Ben shrugged his bony shoulders and grinned anyway.

    One of the fathers stood up, eyeing Ben’s slow extrication from the young swarm. The man remained standing, arms crossed over his buttoned suit vest, and Ben tried to get the game back on track.

    “Whose ball?” Ben asked.

    Carey and Mike kept their eyes forward and watched Ben play. Now he showed the players how to knock in a header. He adjusted the red bandana. Every once in a while, he squinted up at Carey and Mike, who sat silent as mimes.

    Carey sighed. Next to her, Mike shifted position, hanging his legs over the wall for a better view of the game. His calves and thighs were thicker, less exercised than Ben’s. Muscles gone slack, covered in a thin layer of beer fat. When he finally spoke, his voice sounded tinny as an old phonograph recording.

    “I know who to be jealous of,” he said. Quiet as a mutter but loud enough to be heard. Facing away, the silly fisherman’s hat shielding his eyes.

    Carey murmured something, continuing to imagine the way her own legs flexed when she ran. When Mike’s words finally sunk in, too much time had passed for an appropriate response. She told herself he had only offered a compliment, an olive branch. Yet once she’d finally heard him, a smile took her over. She had been unable to look at him then. She didn’t need to; her gaze turned inward, admiring the sway she held.

    Her memory’s tape looped endlessly; time had diluted nothing. Not the withered baby in a glass coffin, its mouth an ‘O’ of surprise, nor the corpse leg she touched, that few seconds’ contact with the inevitable. She rewound and replayed this film, depicting Ben alive among mummies. The ropy clench of his calf muscle as he ran the length of a blacktop soccer game, playing with ten-year-olds who would turn eleven. This one day out of her past foretold her future. She and Mike left behind, alone with the space between them.

Sarah Layden’s fiction appears or is forthcoming in The Evansville Review, Artful Dodge, Vestal Review, Contrary, Diet Soap, Hecale and 42opus. Her most recent nonfiction was published in Opium Magazine, flashquake and Indianapolis Monthly, and her poems can be found in Tipton Poetry Journal and the upcoming anthology Just Like a Girl. She teaches writing at IUPUI and Marian College in Indianapolis. Sleeping Woman is her first novel.

Back to Freight Stories No. 1


Sarah Layden

excerpt from the novel Sleeping Woman