Authors: Lynne Ewing
Tags: #Teen & Young Adult, #Literature & Fiction, #Social & Family Issues, #Peer Pressure, #Violence, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Sword & Sorcery
I sat on the edge of the bed. I could feel the warmth and comfort of her body through the blankets. I wanted to crawl in bed with her and cry, but I was too afraid she might push me away.
The puppy was under the covers with her, its head bobbing, lifting the sheet as it shook the pouch I had stolen from the botánica.
“I’m sorry about the check,” she said finally. “Krandel scares me.”
I shrugged. “He scares me, too. He’s a kuntur,” I said.
That made Mom smile. I think kuntur means “bad-assed dude” in Quechua.
“You remember that Christmas you wanted the doll with the clown face and I wouldn’t get it for you because I didn’t like it?” she said.
“I gave you a Barbie,” she said.
“Yeah, I remember.”
“I wish I had bought that clown doll for you,” she said, and looked away.
The puppy shook the pouch and the sweet smell of licorice and thyme filled the air.
“I’m sorry about a lot,” she said.
“Forget it,” I said.
“I thought I heard someone in the house last night.”
“Probably the puppy,” I said. “I brought you some coffee.”
“Coffee?” She sat up in bed and placed the pillows behind her like a child on her birthday, playing princess.
She took the mug in her thin hands and sipped, steam rising to her face and circling around her eyes in a way that reminded me of the morning fog. Her face looked less swollen this morning, but her eyes still had a yellow cast.
“I hoped maybe Pocho had come home,” she said.
“Take your vitamins.” My words came out like jealous boots kicking dry cement. She looked at me curiously.
“Just try to swallow them,” I said, my tone more gentle.
“If you can’t, you can spit them out.”
“In my coffee?”
I gave her the pills. One had stained the palm of my hand red. “If you can’t swallow them, you can spit them back in my hand.”
She put the vitamins in her mouth and swallowed them with the hot coffee, then looked up at me with a big smile. She had a beautiful smile but never seemed to use it, as if she had decided to put it away with the opals and save it for good.
“When you were born,” she started, and looked away. Tears ran silently down her cheeks. When she saw me looking, she said, “My eyes are watering. It must be the hot coffee.” I knew she was only trying to save me the embarrassment of her tears.
“What were you going to say about when I was born?” I asked.
“Nothing. Just a thought. It doesn’t mean anything.”
“I’d like to hear.”
She stared off, and I followed her gaze, hoping to get a glimpse of what she saw the night I was born.
“I had different dreams of what our lives could be, but I lost them in the bottle. Then you came home all covered with blood and it felt like the night you were born. Like you could be reborn, and we could start again. I never meant to hurt you, Kata. Now I’m so weak I can’t do much for you.
When I drink, I don’t feel. Now I feel and I know I’m dying.”
“Maybe the doctors can give you a new liver,” I said.
“I’m no movie star.” She laughed. “Sometimes I get a feeling that Nando’s old Santería gods must have gotten so upset with me that they crossed the ocean from Africa and put a curse on me when I wouldn’t marry him. That’s when things turned from bad to worse, wasn’t it? Sometimes I think I can hear those old gods dancing to the batá drums.”
“Nando said the powers of the orishas can never be used to harm others,” I said.
“I know what he said, but things weren’t this bad then, were they? Even before Nando, it wasn’t this bad.”
“Things are fine,” I lied. “Now that you’ve stopped drinking, you’ll start feeling better.”
She sipped her coffee and spoke into the cup like a child afraid of her mother. “I’m not supposed to have coffee either, am I?”
“I don’t know,” I lied.
She shrugged. “It’ll be better for you when I go,” she said.
“No, it won’t,” I said. “It won’t.”
“I’m going to an AA meeting,” she said. “They got them at the church.”
I had heard her say that before.
“Nando’s taking me,” she said as if that would give her words the force of truth.
“I called him last night.” She set the cup of coffee on the nightstand.
“What about that bruja he lives with?”
“She didn’t answer, so I didn’t hang up.”
“She doesn’t care if Nando sees you?”
“I didn’t ask. He’s going to take me out to County General, too. Let the doctor check my liver again.”
“Good,” I said, but we both knew it was too late even if she did stop drinking now.
She smiled, closed her eyes, and started to fall asleep. I took her hand and held it against my cheek. It felt cold and smelled of rose-scented lotion. I kissed the tip of each finger, then tucked the hand under the covers next to the puppy.
I dressed in jeans, a T-shirt, and a Pendleton and went outside. I knew the guys from last night would still be looking for me. The streets near my home wouldn’t be safe, so I walked over to Kikicho’s house. His house was at the dead end of a street near the graffiti-covered wall surrounding the old cemetery. I stared at the desperate rows of gray and white granite markers. Square gray buildings in the projects on the other side of the cemetery gave the illusion that the cemetery continued forever.
Kikicho was sitting on his porch reading a book. A line of half-empty Coors bottles, drowned cigarette butts in each, caught the morning sun and shot amber lights across
the porch. The smells of onions, jalapeños, tomatoes, and hot oils came from the kitchen.
“I heard what happened,” he said. “Pocho came by. He said those guys in the Monte Carlo have been out scoping the neighborhood, looking for you.”
Kikicho had washed his blue-black hair, and it curled around his ears, still wet, dripping onto his white T-shirt.
I didn’t know until I was sitting next to him staring at the graves that I had decided to let him own me.
“Get me pregnant,” I whispered. “So I can face out and get my welfare.”
He kissed me, then ran the tip of his tongue along my lip, his mouth tasting of toothpaste.
“I can’t,” he said.
“Why not?” I asked, kissing him hard.
He pulled me onto his lap, and his canes clanked to the porch floor with a hollow sound. “Because you always told me that’s what you were running away from,” he said. “That’s the life your mom had, and you wanted something more.”
“I changed my mind,” I said. “I’d be better than her … At least she’s alive …”
He let his hand touch the back of my neck, and then he tugged my hair, wrapping his fingers in it. I didn’t want him to ever stop. He lifted my hair and kissed the side of my neck, then my ear.
He was silent for a long time.
“You got bigger plans than even you can see right now. And someday, no matter how much you love me, you’ll have to leave me here,” he said, his voice as soft and quiet as angel wings. “I used to want to ask you to take me with you, but I know I don’t belong there, wherever it is. I belong here.”
I wondered what he saw in me that made him think I could ever get out of here.
“The place I’m going, you don’t want to go to,” I said. “I wouldn’t be a friend to take you along.”
He looked at me funny. “Where’s that?”
“Wherever God puts his fallen angels,” I said.
“Listen, Kata,” he said. “I’m getting out. They got a special program for people like me. I’m going to be one of those gang-intervention guys. Homies don’t listen to anybody but homies, so maybe they’ll listen to me.”
I nodded, but I felt wounded inside. “You’re going to desert me, too,” I said in a voice so soft I wasn’t sure I had spoken the words aloud.
“Let me do it with you.”
He looked at me, his eyes serious, and I knew he was saying good-bye.
“Maggie is going to do it with me,” he said.
“What? Maggie? You and her?” I said, feeling a new hurt fill the wound in my chest. I got up from his lap and started pacing.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“And I came here like a fool chavala asking you to get me pregnant. How did it happen?” I asked.
“We just started talking after you left me at the field.”
I remembered how badly I had disgraced him by not going back when he called my name.
“Maggie’s good,” I said.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “But you don’t need me. You’re going to do something big with your dancing. That’s your future. You should stop doing it for nothing.”
“No. I can’t dance anymore. I picked some bad music,” I said, remembering what Ana had said.
“Pues, change the music,” he said.
“Too late,” I said.
“Kata, dancing … it does something for you I can never do. I seen you onstage. You go someplace.”
“That was with Ana,” I said.
I left the porch and started walking. At the curb I stopped and turned back.
“Maybe you can tell the kids about Chancey and Dreamer?” I said.
“Yeah, I’ll tell the girls about Outrageous Chaos,” he said. “But I’ll tell them not to be that way. It’s too big a price to pay.”
A garbage truck stopped where I stood. My lungs filled with the sour stench and exhaust. The garbage collector
lifted a can, and I stepped back to avoid being thrown in, too.
I walked down the street, then through the county housing project to the old flood-control channel by the river. Serena was there, standing near a fire, dressed like a hoochie mama in tight shorts and a halter top, swaying to music from a boom box. Her eyes were glassy, reflecting the red flames, and I knew Pocho had stood her up already. She had a large brown bag next to her feet. When she saw me, she lifted a forty from the bag.
“Want one?” she said, her words slurred. She tried to smile, but her lips couldn’t curl over her hurt.
“Thanks,” I said.
She sniffed and threw a piece of wood on the fire. “It’s cold,” she said.
“Maybe you’re coming down with the flu,” I said to give her a reason to leave. I knew she wanted to go so I wouldn’t see her cry.
“Yeah, maybe I better go home,” she said, and handed me the bag of forties.
When she left, I tried to dance to the hard-hitting music coming from the boom box.
It was no use. My legs felt lifeless, and I twisted my ankle.
I sat by the fire getting sloshed on Olde English Malt liquor, waiting for the guys in the Monte Carlo to come find me in the puddles and foul-smelling black mud.
When the sun set, my homies started showing up. I watched them down forties and tequila and drag on passed-around weed, talking and flirting. But when Pocho came and started telling big stories about what we had done the night before, I left and walked home, the sour taste of alcohol on my tongue, my stomach stinging and wanting food.
Nando was sitting on our front porch, waiting for me, a chicken clucking in a wire cage next to him. His long black hair was thinning, and the breeze blew it up and down. His wire-rimmed glasses fell to the end of his fat nose when he stood. He pushed them up with his thumb, then opened his arms to me.
“Come here, mi’ja,” he said in a soft voice that comforted me.
I fell against his thick body, his sweater scratching my cheek. He rocked me back and forth, and the smell of his tobacco and spicy aftershave made me cry.
“I’m sorry, baby,” he said. “I’m sony about Ana.”
“Does Mom know you’re here?” I asked finally.
“I didn’t want to wake her,” he said.
I knew he was afraid he’d find her in the arms of another man.
“She called you?”
“Yeah, to take her to the doctor and the AA, but mostly she was afraid you might do something … foolish,” he said.
“Do what foolish?” I said.
“Nothing you do will bring Ana back. Don’t throw away your life.”
I pulled away from him. “This life?”
“You don’t know what’s coming,” he said. He sat on the porch and patted the cement step for me to join him. “Maybe something good’s coming in your future. Something you can’t see yet because you’re living too close to the earth.”
“I know what’s coming,” I said. “I see it every day.”
“It doesn’t have to be that way.” He raised his head and nodded toward the sky. “Look out there at all those stars hanging in that cold, vast heaven. It makes me feel like I’m standing on the edge of eternity.”
I looked up at the sky and wished I could see what Nando saw. I only saw the red neon sign from the taco stand and pale gray clouds moving across a moonless sky.
“I always feel less burdened after star watching,” he said. “Looking up at the stars gives me some perspective.”
“Your words don’t mean much to me,” I said. “I got to keep my eyes on the street so I don’t get shot.”
He put his large arm around me. “Look up, Kata,” he said. “The heavens give us a measure of what God might be: large enough to hold a billion trillion stars.”
He drew me close to him, trying to guide my vision, until we were cheek to cheek, gazing at the night sky, his glasses pinching my temple.
“Don’t look at the earth for the center of life,” he said. “If you look up at the night and see what’s above you, a lot of the things that bother you here aren’t worth the fuss.”
“Ana was, but killing some vato for killing her, that’s going to ruin your life.”
“That’s not what my heart feels,” I said. “And you always told me to trust my heart.”
His hand reached up as if he were trying to brush the clouds away so I could see better.
“There was a painter once who understood the power of the night sky. Vincent Van Gogh. You heard of him? He wrote to his brother Theo that when he had a need for religion, he’d go out at night and paint the stars.”
I stood suddenly, unable to hold back my anger.
“Smog!” I yelled with a fury I didn’t understand. “We don’t see stars in this neighborhood. There’s nothing in the night sky here but sheriff’s helicopters and pollution.”
I ran into the house, knocking against the chicken’s cage. The chicken clucked and spread its wings. I slammed the door behind me. I could hear the door open and Nando’s easy steps cross the carpet.
“Look around you, Kata. Look harder,” he said with an anger that matched mine. “We’re not here just to eat and sleep and breathe and die.”