lunes, 26 de marzo de 2018

APOCALIPSIS E MENDOZA

ONE

THE APOCALYPSE BEGAN at Starbucks. Where else did you expect the end of the world to start?
The man standing at the pickup counter lowered his cell phone and glowered at me. “Did you hear me say nonfat?”
I’d heard him say it the first time. And the second, third, and fourth. I pressed the button on the espresso machine and lowered the steam wand into the pitcher of nonfat milk, blasting the surface with bubbles. “Hold up,” I shouted over the hiss. “You wanted nonfat milk?” The name on his cup said “Greg.” He looked like a Greg. Or a serial killer. Maybe both.
“Yes,” said Greg. “It’s the milk with no fat in it.”
“Glad you were here to clear that up for me. Who knows what I might have put in your drink otherwise.”
My shift manager, Kyle, stood at the register and flashed me a quick grin while simultaneously rolling his eyes. I finished the man’s double tall nonfat with whip mocha and passed it across the counter to him. He didn’t need to know I’d slipped him two shots of decaf, but I was sure whoever he was going home to would thank me for it.
Fadil Himsi had been standing unobtrusively on the other side of the counter, waiting for me to finish. “What a dick,” he said when the man was out of earshot. Fadil had thick dark hair, wide eyes accentuated by heavy black-rimmed glasses, and full lips that hid an almost buck-toothed grin. More geek than chic, he had a body built for running rather than fighting, which kind of worked for him. Not that he did much of either, preferring to spend his time playing his trumpet or tinkering with his computer.
“I wish he was the exception.” I washed out my milk pitcher and cleaned the area behind the bar. I was a little overzealous about keeping my station orderly, and it bugged me when I took over from someone who left dirty spoons lying around and dried milk caked on the wands.
“So what’re you doing here?” I asked. “Don’t you have band practice?”
Living in Arcadia, Florida, meant that there was little to do aside from slowly develop skin cancer at the beach, complain about how there was nothing to do in Arcadia, or hang out at the only Starbucks in town and complain about how there was nothing to do in Arcadia. I both loved and hated my job. Loved because it let me help Mama with the bills and got me out of the apartment; hated because half of my classmates eventually showed up there at one point or another, and I wasn’t exactly popular at Arcadia West High.
Fadil shook his head. “Mrs. Naam’s sick. And I was kind of hoping to run into someone here.”
“Is it Gemma Darville? I’ve seen the way she gives you the googly eyes.”
“It’s not Gemma.”
“Then who?”
Fadil didn’t get the chance to answer because a horde of customers, who must have coordinated their entrance to overwhelm us, rushed in all at once and I was distracted by cappuccinos and Frappuccinos and getting yelled at for not steaming the milk to exactly 173 degrees like I’d been ordered to. People take their stupid coffee way too seriously. It goes in the face hole and comes out an entirely different hole, but it probably doesn’t taste much different coming out as going in.
Look, I know Starbucks is like the McDonald’s of coffee stores and that all I was really doing was pressing buttons and steaming milk, but when a rush came in and I was making three and four drinks at a time, I felt like I had eight arms. I lost myself in the rhythm of pulling shots and steaming milk and blending ice. It was, in its own weird way, cathartic. Which is why I didn’t notice Freddie standing at the counter until I set her drink down—a caramel Frappuccino with whipped cream and extra drizzle on top—and called her name.
Winifred Petrine—Freddie to most everyone—wasn’t paying attention and hadn’t heard me. She stood to the side, looking cute in a pink jersey top and jeans that hugged her hips, staring at her phone. Curls of sapphire-blue hair fell over her cheeks, and I couldn’t stop admiring her.
Ugh! Just say hi already and stop mooning at her like an idiot.
“What?” I said.
Freddie looked up. “What?”
“I didn’t say anything.”
“You said ‘what.’ ”
Was I turning red? My cheeks were hot and I’m sure I was blushing like crazy. I pushed Freddie’s drink toward her. “Your caramel Frappuccino with extra drizzle.”
Freddie made this face where her right eyebrow arched up, her left down, and her lips puckered as if she wasn’t sure whether to thank me or check to see if I’d poisoned her drink. “Yeah,” she said. “Thanks.”
I turned and glared at the siren logo grinning at me from the stack of cups to my right. “I don’t need your help.”
She’s only a girl, Elena. And one with horrible taste in frozen drinks. You could do better.
“Shut up,” I mumbled under my breath. I hated the siren logo, and not simply because she offered unsolicited relationship advice. She was creepy, all smiles with her two tails and boobs hanging out.
Fadil cleared his throat; I’d forgotten he was standing there. “Were you whispering to the cups?”
“What were we talking about?” I asked. “That’s right. You were going to spill who you came here hoping to see since you obviously didn’t drop by for my entertaining company.”
Fadil knew more about me than any friend I’d ever had. He knew about my virgin birth, he knew I poured the milk into my bowl before the cereal, he knew I’d had a crush on Freddie since sixth grade, and he knew the fastest way to piss me off was for someone to drag their fork against their teeth while eating. He did not, however, know about the voices I’d heard since I was a young girl. There was only so much honesty a friendship could survive.
“Why didn’t you talk to Freddie? Wasn’t that the perfect opportunity just now?”
I glanced toward the front of the store. Most of the café tables were occupied by Arcadia West students pretending to do homework or by the regulars who came for the free Wi-Fi, so Freddie had taken her drink to the patio, which was mostly empty because it was September in Florida and still ninety degrees. The only other person outside was a boy I’d seen hanging around before but didn’t know.
“I think flirting while on the clock is against company policy.”
“Is that in the official employee handbook?”
“Right under the section about not allowing friends to distract you while you’re working.”
A burst of laughter exploded from one of the tables in the corner where Tori Thrash and her friends were pointing at someone’s drink that had fallen onto the floor and spilled everywhere. Michael caught me looking and called out, “Clean up on aisle five, Mary!” which everyone at their table seemed to think was hilarious.
Maya came back from her break reeking of cigarettes and nudged my shoulder. “Kyle said to take out the trash and then go on your ten.”
“Great,” I said, motioning at the coffee puddle, “then you get to take care of that.”
“Elena!”
“Sorry, I’m on my ten.” I turned to Fadil. “Meet me around back?” He nodded, and I quickly gathered the garbage and carried it into the stockroom. I stripped off my apron, hung it on my locker, and heaved the pile of trash bags out the back door.
Whatever happens next, Elena, don’t be scared.
The siren’s voice blasted me from every box of coffee and sleeve of cups stacked on the wire racks. I even heard her from the cups in the trash. It was the worst surround sound ever.
“It smells terrible, sure,” I said. “But why would I be afraid of the garbage?”
You’ll see.
“Whatever.”
I’d grown accustomed to the presence of the voices. Sometimes they helped me, like when I was six and got lost in the mall and a horse on a broken merry-go-round told me what store to find Mama in. Other times they spoke in cryptic riddles, which I ignored. Either way, the voices were an inconsistent constant in my life. I might go weeks without hearing them, but they never disappeared permanently.
Fadil met me near the Dumpster and helped me toss the trash bags inside.
“What’re you doing Saturday?” I asked. “Want to catch a movie and maybe hit the comic book store?”
Fadil sucked air through his teeth. “Yeah. So I was kind of planning to go to the renaissance festival with some of the marching band crew.”
“Oh.”
“You should come,” he said. “I swear it’s more fun than it sounds. I’ll buy you one of those giant turkey legs you love so much.”
I shook my head. “No, it’s all right.”
Fadil shoved his hands in his pockets and we stood by the Dumpster inhaling the fragrant scent of spoiled milk and old pastries. “You know what? Forget it. I can go with them next weekend. Jack spent weeks working on his corset and gown and is determined to wear it as often as he can, so it’s not like I won’t have plenty of chances to go.”
“Really?” I perked up, a smile lifting my cheeks. “You don’t have to—”
“It’s done,” Fadil said. “Besides, I’ve been dying to see that indie film. The one where everyone gets a letter the day they’re going to die?”
“You’re the best.”
Fadil squared his shoulders and held his head high and proud. “I know.”
“Kind lord, how can I ever repay you?” I said, affecting my worst British accent.
“Well, since you mentioned it,” he said. “I hear you’re in a study group with Naomi Brewer.”
“Come on.” I motioned for Fadil to follow me around the side of the store to the parking lot. My stomach was rumbling and there was a sandwich shop next door. “Trig. As usual, I’ll get stuck doing all the work. Why?”
“I was hoping you could maybe arrange for me to randomly run into you guys while you were studying.”
I fake gagged when I realized what Fadil was asking. “Naomi? Really?”
“She’s cute! And smart and she’s into K-pop and did I mention she’s smart?”
“Twice,” I said. “But didn’t she get caught copying off one of your tests freshman year, causing you both to get a zero?”
“That was Callie Schumer.”
“Whose best friend is Naomi.”
“Was.”
“What?”
“Callie was her best friend,” Fadil said. “They don’t talk anymore.”
“How the hell do you know all of this? Do you have audio-recording devices in the girls’ locker rooms?”
Fadil frowned. “What kind of boy do you think I am? If I were going to bug the locker rooms, I’d obviously prioritize video over audio.”
I laughed in spite of myself.
“Will you do it?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s kind of weird. And it’s Naomi Brewer!”
Fadil’s thick eyebrows dipped to form a V. “Is it that much stranger than your weird thing for Freddie, to whom you’ve barely even spoken?”
“No fair.”
“Totally fair.”
I sighed. “Fine, I’ll think about it.”
We reached the front of the patio, where Fadil grabbed my arm and pulled me to a stop. “Go talk to her.”
“Who?”
He motioned at Freddie with his chin. “She’s sitting alone. You couldn’t ask for a better setup.”
“I smell like trash, my hair is a mess, and what am I supposed to say? ‘Hi, I’m Elena and I’ll be your creepy stalker for the afternoon?’ ”
Fadil tapped his chin dramatically. “Well, the first part works, but I’d leave out the stalker bit.”
“I’m not doing it.”
“What if I go with you?”
“Right,” I said. “Because flirting is so much cooler with your best friend tagging along for emotional support.” I tugged his shirt. “Besides, I’m hungry and I only have ten minutes.”
Fadil gave me a shove and shouted, “Hey, Freddie!” in her direction before scurrying behind a car. Yes, I was going to kill him. Slowly and painfully. But now Freddie was looking at me and I think she was smiling, though she could have been confused, and I had no choice but to approach her and try to make word sounds without accidentally biting off my tongue.
Everyone knows someone they’ve admired from afar but were too intimidated to ever consider actually talking to because their mere presence triggers spontaneous desert mouth or uncontrollable babbling. That person, for me, was Winifred Petrine. She was so out of my league that, while I’d definitely had a crush on her for a long time, I’d never seriously entertained the thought of asking her out, because I preferred the people I hit on to not hit me back.
The walk to Freddie’s table felt endless even though it was only a few feet. My brain created a million scenarios where I introduced myself. In most, I ended up drooling or tripped at the last minute, face-planted on the sidewalk, and broke my nose. None ended with me asking Freddie out and her accepting. I finally reached the table and opened my mouth to speak. I did not drool. I didn’t speak to Freddie either, because someone bumped me from behind.
“Excuse you,” I said, turning around.
The boy who’d run into me stood uncomfortably close. He was the one who’d been sitting at the other table, and he looked like a baby freshman with an undercut and the bangs of his soft blond hair swept back and styled into a pompadour. He wore cargo shorts and a short-sleeve green plaid button-up. He was holding a flat-black gun in a hand that seemed too small and delicate to wield it.
“Elena Mendoza?” the boy asked in a soft voice.
I froze. My brain was screaming I should run or hide or knee the boy in the balls, but I couldn’t decide which to do, so I stood there unable to move at all.
“I . . .”
The boy raised the gun, aimed, and fired. The shot deafened me, and I was certain for a moment that I was dead. That he’d put a bullet in me and I was going to bleed to death in front of Starbucks. But he hadn’t shot me. He’d shot Freddie. He’d shot her and then backed up two steps.
Freddie slid out of her seat, and I fell to my knees beside her, pressing my hands to the wound in her stomach. Blood spread across her blouse and I yelled for help. I heard Fadil calling my name, but his voice was an echo across a vast chasm, too far away.
You’re a story. I’m a story. There are 7.5 billion stories on the planet. Two hundred and fifty new stories begin each minute, and 105 stories end. It’s easy to allow the world to collapse down to our own stories. To see ourselves as the central figure in the only story worth knowing and forget that every person we encounter is living their own, is the center of their own universe. But that’s the nature of the human experience. That’s why the patio felt so small as I ignored Fadil’s shouting and the boy with the gun and focused on the blue-haired girl who was smiling as she died. Her skin was moist and ashen, her eyelids fluttered, but she was smiling at me like I was the only person in the world who mattered.
Time to shine, Elena!
The voice hit me from the siren signs in the window and the one on Freddie’s cup and even from the ones on the wad of napkins stuffed under the table leg to level it.
“What am I supposed to do?” I asked.
Heal her, obviously.
“How the hell am I supposed to do that?”
Do I have to explain everything?
“Yes!”
I kept pressure against the wound in a vain attempt to stop Freddie’s blood from escaping, but every beat of her weakening heart pushed more of it through the gaps between my fingers.
You’re wasting time, Elena. Consider that the volume of a human’s blood makes up approximately 7 percent of their body weight. Winifred Petrine weighs 156 pounds, which means her body should contain four liters of blood. How much of that do you think is puddled on the ground? How much more do you think she can lose and still survive?
“Then tell me what to do,” I begged. “How am I supposed to heal her?”
You just do it. If you don’t, Winifred Petrine will die. Ticktock, Elena.
It was ludicrous. The voice from the sirens expected me to magically heal a gunshot wound? I had no idea where to even begin. But the voice was right. Freddie had lost so much blood. Too much. If I couldn’t stop the bleeding soon, she wouldn’t survive.
A shadow fell over me. Over us. I didn’t need to look up to know who it was.
“Are you going to shoot me?” My voice trembled, but my hands remained steady against the wound in Freddie’s stomach. I looked over my shoulder at the boy. He appeared even younger than I’d first thought. His cheeks were dusted with downy hair, freckles dotted his nose, and he had this dimple in his chin. I’d expected to find nothing in his eyes. A cold, inhuman vacancy. Instead they were red-rimmed and broken. They were hurting. He was hurting.
The boy pointed the gun at me. I’d never seen a real one up close. It resembled the toys my little brother was constantly begging Mama to buy him. “Hi, Elena,” he said.
He knew my name. I tried to recall ever meeting him, but I would have sworn I hadn’t. “I don’t—”
“Was your mom really a virgin when you were born?” The gun twitched.
“Yes,” I whispered.
“Did God make you?” he asked. “Do you think he’d intervene if I shot you?”
“I don’t believe in God.” Kneeling on the patio of a Starbucks while the girl I had a crush on was dying and a strange boy was pointing a gun at me was the wrong place to start a theological debate, but the words had spilled out before I could stop them.
The boy blinked mechanically, like he was a computer processing what I’d said instead of an actual human being. “I don’t think I do either.” He pointed at Freddie with the gun. “She’s bleeding to death.”
“Because you shot her.”
Come on, Elena! Heal her! Heal her now!
I choked off my fear, reaching inside for every ounce of courage I possessed to look the boy in the eye and speak without my voice quivering. “I’m going to try to help her now. If you’re planning on killing me, I’d appreciate it if you’d wait until I finish.”
The boy chuckled. With a gun pointed at me and Freddie dying, he had the nerve to laugh. “My mom would have liked you.”
It was such an unusual thing to say that I nearly faltered. But then Freddie groaned, drawing my attention back to her. If the boy was going to shoot me, I couldn’t stop him, but maybe I had the power to save Freddie.
Since the siren hadn’t told me how I was supposed to heal Freddie, I closed my eyes and hoped for the best.
I felt like I’d been plunged into an isolation tank. No sight or sound or touch or taste or smell. But there was something else. A sense of Freddie where there’d been nothing before. I reached out to her and I wasn’t alone in the dark anymore. She was there with me. Her body was traced in lines of impossible colors of liquid fire. And in her stomach was a gaping hole. A density that was sucking in the outlines of her body, devouring her quickly dimming light. Instinctively, I understood that the black hole was the gunshot wound. All I had to do was reach out and heal it. The darkness in Freddie’s stomach evaporated and the light of her body flared so bright I thought it might blind me.
Freddie gasped. She screamed. I opened my eyes and lifted my blood-covered hands. It was real. I’d done it. I yanked back Freddie’s shirt, which still sported the bullet hole, and found no wound. Nothing but smooth, flawless, blood-covered skin.
“How did you—” the boy began. He never finished. A bright, narrow beam of light streaked from the sky to envelop him. It was molten gold and it reached from the heavens to the ground in a straight line. It was beautiful and awful, and then I blinked and it was gone. I blinked and the boy was gone. The gun fell where he, only a second earlier, had stood, prepared to shoot me.
But Winifred Petrine was alive. She’d seen me and she’d smiled and I’d healed her, and she was going to live.

TWO

MY MOTHER NAMED me Elena after a character in her favorite book; Maria, as a dig at her own mother’s religious beliefs; and Mendoza because, even though my grandmother hadn’t tried to stop him, it had been my grandfather’s decision to kick Mama out of the house when they’d found out she was pregnant, and not keeping his last name was my mother’s way of telling him that he exerted no power over her anymore.
Despite the stories floating around on the Internet, I wasn’t born in a barn or at the beach at sunrise. I wasn’t born in a hospital, either—which is one of the few things the stories usually get right. I actually entered the world bloody and squalling in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven. My mother’s water broke while she was standing in line to purchase a blue raspberry slushie and a pack of Camels. It’s pretty easy to crap on my mother for smoking while she was pregnant, but she was sixteen, homeless, and not exactly known for making awesome life choices. Also, she hadn’t asked the Holy Spirit to knock her up and ruin her life.
The same way I hadn’t asked to be born of a virgin.
So the whole “virgin birth” thing. I get that it’s difficult to accept. No one believed my mother at first either. They called her a liar. Her parents, the paramedics who picked us up from the parking lot of the 7-Eleven, the social workers who occasionally popped by to check on her for the first couple of years of my life. Most thought my mother was too scared to admit who the father was. Some thought she might have even been raped, but my mother continued insisting she was a virgin.
Some mothers in Pakistan give birth in an isolated building called a Bashleni, which men don’t enter for fear of “polluting” themselves, and which only other women who are menstruating enter to assist the mother during birth. And the Wolof people of Mauritania believe that saliva retains the power of words, so when a baby is born, the women spit on its face and the men spit in its ears in order to bless it. No one spit on me, but they may as well have spit on my mother, and it wasn’t to bless her. In the early days of my life, strangers called her a whore, a slut, a liar. Later some of those same idiots would call her holy and sainted, but I never forgot what they’d first named her.
My story, and my mother’s, attracted the attention of Dr. Willard Milner, who eventually proved that I was, in fact, the product of parthenogenesis. It’s a process that occurs in some insects where an offspring is born from an unfertilized egg—though, in humans, the process had never produced a viable child.
Until me.
Parthenogenesis is derived from the Greek words “parthenos,” which means “virgin,” and “genesis,” which means “creation.”
The truth is that parthenogenesis isn’t unheard of in humans, though two rare events are required to occur for it to take place. The first is that an unfertilized egg needs to detect a spike in cellular calcium, which is usually provided by the attacking sperm, in order for it to begin to behave as if it’s been fertilized. Then the process of meiosis, during which the egg loses half of its genetic material, needs to be interrupted.
Both of these things actually occur in the eggs of one out of every couple thousand women. The problem is that without the sperm to provide specific genetic instructions, the parthenogenetic embryo grows tumorlike and quickly dies. For the embryo to develop into a healthy child, a pair of the mother’s genes needs to be eliminated.
It’s theoretically possible but practically improbable. Outside of a lab, anyway.
In 2004, scientists in Japan successfully manipulated a mouse’s genes to cause an unfertilized egg to develop parthenogenetically into a viable and healthy baby mouse, and in 2016, scientists at the University of Bath successfully bred mice using a parthenogenetically created embryo that they later added sperm cells to, proving that it wasn’t necessary to start conception with an egg and sperm.
I, however, was not created in a lab.
Depending on who you ask, I am either a miracle from God or a statistical aberration. According to Dr. Milner, my mother was not the first to claim her child was the product of a virgin birth, but she was the first to have that claim tested, tested again, and verified.
There was initially some outrage from religious groups over the claims that I was the product of a virgin birth, and I was a scientific oddity for a while, but eventually, especially after I didn’t grow horns by my second birthday, I drifted into obscurity. I became a footnote in scientific journals and on rarely visited Wikipedia pages. My mother chose not to hide the nature of my miracle birth from me, but we rarely discussed it. When asked about my father, I usually said he didn’t exist, which was literally the truth, though most assumed I meant he was a deadbeat or in prison. For sixteen years I lived a normal life—I went to school, took care of my little brother and sister, hung out with my best friend, Fadil, and complained about my ex-boyfriend, Javi—but due to the unique circumstances of my birth, I’d spent most of my normal life waiting for the chance to do something extraordinary. And the voices—which I was pretty certain were not a symptom of an undiagnosed mental illness—had only reinforced my belief that I was destined for more, though they hadn’t given me any hints as to what “more” might entail.
The healing and the light from the sky? Yeah. Those were new.

THREE

DEPUTY AKERS STOOD in front of me with her hands on her hips, staring with this bewildered expression, like I’d handed her a Rubik’s Cube with all the stickers peeled off and had ordered her to solve it in ten seconds or less. She was kind of hot for an older woman, though her ponytail was tragic.
“Walk me through it again, if you would, Ms. Mendoza.”
I sat on the curb, as far from the spot where Freddie had been shot as possible, and took a deep breath. Fadil glanced at me from where he was giving a statement to a different police officer. We hadn’t had time before the police and paramedics had arrived to decide whether we were going to tell the truth. Kyle had rushed out from inside, along with twenty kids from my school, to gawk and ask what had happened. I hadn’t had the chance to speak to Freddie, either, because the paramedics who rolled up had taken her immediately to the hospital, even though they couldn’t find an injury. I wondered what she was going to tell the police when they got around to questioning her.
“I was on a ten-minute break. I walked to that table to talk to Freddie—”
Deputy Akers broke in. “That would be Winifred Petrine?”
I nodded. “Some boy I swear I don’t know bumped into me, asked me if I was Elena Mendoza, and then shot Freddie.”
“And your claim is that you healed this gunshot wound?”
“Yes.”
“Have you ever healed anyone before?”
“Not to my knowledge.”
Akers bit her lip in a way that might have been cute if this weren’t the third time I’d gone over my story. “Are you sure that Ms. Petrine was actually shot?”
I held up my hands, still tacky with Freddie’s blood, and pointed toward the quickly drying stain on the cement. The police had cordoned off the area, and Kyle had closed the store. “That’s not menstrual blood on the ground, Deputy.”
“Uh . . .” Akers cleared her throat. “Could the shooter have injured himself? Is that possible?”
This was getting me nowhere. “Right,” I said. “He walked up to us, shot himself, and then vanished in a beam of light.”
“About that,” Deputy Akers said. “Now, you claim that after you healed Ms. Petrine, the shooter disappeared? If your friend was injured, you would have been under a great deal of stress. Is it possible he simply ran away?”
“Sure, whatever. Maybe he ran away after he hurt himself and splattered his blood all over me, Freddie, and the ground.”
“There’s no need to get defensive. I’m simply trying to understand what happened here.” Akers paused. “Can you recall what the shooter looked like? Would you be willing to sit with one of our sketch artists and provide a description of the attacker?”
The boy’s face was burned into my memory. But before I answered, a white van with a picture of a smiling cocker spaniel under the words MOBILE GROOM WAGGIN’ tore into the parking lot and screeched to a halt at the edge of the police line. My mother practically fell out of the driver’s seat and ran toward me, pushing past cops and onlookers and reporters.
“Mija!” She was still wearing her khaki shorts and Groom Waggin’ T-shirt. I stood as she reached me and let her pull me into a hug that threatened to squeeze the breath from me. “Are you hurt? What happened?”
I diplomatically detached myself from my mother. Genetically we were identical, but she had better hair and legs than me and at the moment she reeked of wet dog. “I’m fine,” I said. “I’m not hurt.”
Mama caught sight of Fadil and said, “Is it Fadil? They told me someone was shot, but they wouldn’t tell me who. Where are his parents?”
“Fadil’s fine too. His mom’s in surgery at the outpatient clinic, and they’re still trying to get ahold of his dad.”
Everyone reacts differently to extreme situations. Freddie’s shooting had been my first, and apparently I reacted by turning into a sarcastic robot. I felt flat and emotionless. Like everything had happened to some other version of me and the event was a movie I’d watched, instead of my life. Fadil got angry. I’d had to calm him down when the police had first arrived because he was shouting at one of the officers for not immediately trying to find the boy who’d shot Freddie. My mother, on the other hand, took control. It wouldn’t have mattered who she was speaking to—the police, a doctor, the president of the United States—she would have ordered them around, and the funny thing was that most people did what she said without question.
“Have these children been looked at by the paramedics yet?” Mama asked Deputy Akers like she had finally realized someone else existed other than me and Fadil.
The deputy started to shake her head. “No, but—”
“No more questions,” my mother said. “For either of them.” She turned toward Fadil. “Come here, Fadil.”
“I assume you’re Elena’s mother?” Akers asked.
“Yes, and I’m taking these two to the hospital like you should have done.” My mother’s voice whip-snapped in the air between her and the deputy.
“Well, they’re not hurt, and we still have a few more questions—”
“Call your father, Fadil,” Mama said. “Tell him I’m taking you and Elena to the emergency room to be checked out. He can meet us there.”
“Mrs. Mendoza—”
“Ms.” Mama said. “Do you have their information? Elena, did you give her my phone number?”
“I did, Mama.”
Deputy Akers’s shoulders fell as she nodded. She knew she’d lost. “If I could just—”
“You can just call and arrange to ask your questions after they’ve been examined by a medical professional. And you had best hope neither are hurt or you’ll be hearing from my lawyer.”
It was difficult not to laugh, because there was no way we could afford a lawyer. Hell, an emergency room visit was going to stress Mama out, even with our insurance.
Akers held up her hands and backed away. “You’re free to go.” She caught my eye specifically. “I’ll call you to arrange for that sketch artist, all right? We’ll have a better chance of finding the boy who did this that way.”
“Okay,” I said.
Mama took my hand and Fadil’s and pulled us toward the Groom Waggin’ van. It wasn’t until we were all inside—me and Fadil squeezed together in the front passenger seat—that Mama began to cry.
“I’m fine, Mama. It’s okay. I’m not hurt. Neither of us is hurt.” I kept my hands out of sight to hide the blood.
Fat tears rolled down my mother’s cheeks and snot dripped down her upper lip. “I kept thinking you were dead. The whole drive here I thought you were dead and I didn’t know what I’d do if you’d died.”
“I’m not dead, Mama.”
“Neither am I,” Fadil added, which made Mama laugh.
“I’m glad you’re not hurt either, Fadil.” She wiped her nose with the back of her hand and turned the key in the ignition.
A wild yelp from the back of the van caused me to turn around. A wet, wide-eyed Yorkie stood in the tub, panting so hard I thought it would pass out.
“Mama?” I said. “There’s a dog back there.”
Her eyes flew open. “Lily!” Mama grabbed her phone out of the cup holder and handed it to me. “Gloria’s number is in there. Call her and tell her what happened. We’ll drop Lily off on the way to the hospital.”
“You left in the middle of a grooming without giving the dog back?” Fadil said.

“When it comes to you kids, I’d run through hot broken glass to reach you.” Mama put the van in reverse. “Now climb in back and give Lily a treat to shut her up, and wash the blood off your hands while you’re there.”

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