Abandoned. That’s the first thing we learned about them; they were abandoned. It’s how we learned what it meant to be abandoned. Surrounded by unpaved desert, belonging to another world, to no world at all. We didn’t know where they came from or for how long they had been here. They called to us. During the day, we walked past them, sometimes turning to stare, hoping to notice them moving, acknowledging us. We ran past them at night, ignoring the creaking and wheezing, imagined or otherwise, emerging from their worn walls or glass-fanged windows.

In the park, older kids said they were haunted. They said they were filled with ghosts and much worse. The people who lived there long ago, they said, had suffered so much in life, they were doomed to carry that suffering with them when they crossed into the next. The worst of all worlds: disappeared but unable to rest. We didn’t know yet what it meant to carry suffering across time and space, to age with it. If we all stopped talking and closed our eyes, we thought we smelled their noxious residue, evidence of their legacy.

In school, teachers told us whatever suffering existed had happened a long time ago. Suffering was history; it had been fixed by the time we were born. Houses, abandoned or inhabited by spirits, remained in defiance. They deserved their own destruction, to be replaced by bigger and better houses. And even if the houses weren’t abandoned—as many of us suspected—whoever occupied them might as well not exist. These were the rules that controlled our lives, things always getting better for everyone who worked hard enough to deserve it. Spirits had no rightful home, as far as our teachers and textbooks were concerned.

Church might have been the place for our curiosity, but on Sundays, pastors and padres assured us spirits did exist, but they did not suffer. God promised all spirits relief, bliss—something none of us should expect while living. To live was to suffer, but that meant crossing into not living was also the end of suffering. When we were ready and worthy of crossing, we would shed suffering like unnecessary skin. No space remained for spirits or suffering that didn’t follow these rules, no matter what we might see. No matter that some of us swore we had seen spirits—skeletal, desiccated, pale—crawling into and out of the abandoned houses at night, trailed by sparks and toxic smoke. We kept all this to ourselves, or else risk upsetting the church.

We made the whole thing into a game. What else do kids do?

To thrill and punish each other, we’d dare someone to walk up to—and touch the side of—one of the houses. If you took the dare, you stepped slowly toward a house, scared to death something would jump out and snatch you, take you away forever. It never mattered whether you made it all the way to the house. What mattered was you spent time torturing yourself—entertaining the rest of us—before running away like something inescapable was chasing close behind. If you didn’t take the dare, you risked the others turning on you, risked losing what little you had.

To our parents, all our games around spirits and abandoned houses were disrespectful. When they weren’t working all day and night, and between phone calls and letters to family back home in México or Mississippi or Gila Bend or Window Rock, they scolded and warned us for what we were doing. If we didn’t mind our own business and leave all that stuff alone, we risked getting into serious, unfixable trouble. There was a look and a tone to this warning we didn’t appreciate until things got real.

What happened depends on who tells the story. For some, the houses had had enough of us, and, one by one, each took a dare too far and crawled into the house through one of its windows and the spirits got them. They were gone. Like rain evaporating into dirt. Others say that none of this happened. They say that we were on the wrong sides of everything—history, the city, life. They tell me spirits aren’t real and abandoned houses and kids are temporary conditions on the city’s path to progress.

But I swear to you, this is how we grew up. It’s how we grow up, still; how we carry and conceal ourselves.

Born and raised in the Washington-Escobedo Neighborhood in Mesa, Arizona, Oscar Mancinas is Rarámuri-Chicanx poet, prose writer, and PhD candidate. His most recent piece of writing, “Leaving Home,” can be found online at Queen Mobs Teahouse. His debut poetry chapbook Jaula is forthcoming from GASHER Journal, and his debut fiction collection is forthcoming from Arte Público Press.