Lucia, freaked out by Rosa’s kidnapping, had returned to using smack, and, when Carmen got home from school later in the day, Lucia was lying languidly on the living room couch in nothing but her bra and panties. “Home so soon?” she asked Carmen, staring at the ceiling, as if it depicted some awe-inspiring images. McDonald’s and KFC take-out bags and boxes were on the floor beside her.
“I always get home at this time.”
“I wasn’t feeling well today, chica.”
“You called in sick again?”
Lucia had a joint in her hand and took a drag. “You know, I was thinking . . . Your mother wasn’t always such a do-gooder.” Lucia slowly sat up straight. “When we were kids, she wanted to be a fashion model.”
“She was the pretty one.”
Carmen smirked. “I didn’t know that.”
“Don’t be a wise ass,” Lucia said, looking like she was considering putting the joint out on Carmen’s forehead. “Then when she was about your age, being so freaking smart, she went on that government-sponsored exchange program.”
“Lived with that rich American family in some affluent suburb, built with oil money, where everyone had everything and wanted for nothing. She came back wondering why this place couldn’t be more like that.”
There was silence, and Carmen said, “No word on her yet, huh?”
“Nothing, and I still can’t believe she thought so little of us that she would put us in this kind of jeopardy.”
“Did Marco make contact?”
“He did, yes.”
“Silence.” Lucia took a drag of the joint. “The cartel’s coming for us, chica. I’m telling you.”
“You don’t know that.”
“They can be so spiteful, and, oh, how they love to make examples of people.”
“You’re scaring me.” Carmen crouched and picked up Lucia’s fast-food wrappings. She brought them into the kitchen, where Lucia had left a dirty syringe in the sink. She then went inside her bedroom. Aureo was there, standing on the bed, surrounded by Carmen’s stuffed animals. A squirrel was tightrope-walking a tree branch outside the window, and Aureo was growling at it. Carmen cupped Aureo’s teapot-sized head between her hands and kissed him on the snout.
“Walk your dog!” Lucia yelled from down the hallway. “He’s been driving me crazy! Barking about nothing all day!”
Carmen changed out of her school clothes and into her purple sweats, her eyes on her stuffed animals. She had a real animal now. She no longer needed toys.
She found an empty box in the garage and began packing up the stuffed animals so that she could give them away to a little girl who lived around the block. She picked up her bear. When she was about seven years old, she’d named it Henry, and it made her think of Mr. Ernesto’s lecture on natural selection and she imagined Henry’s synthetic brown fur turning white.
Carmen was awakened by the sound of a bell ringing. She was about to climb out of bed and get the door, when she heard Lucia plowing down the hallway. Carmen checked her watch. It was 6:10 a.m. Who could be at the door at this hour?
She was glad to be awake though. She’d been having a horrible dream: some gold-toothed cartel members had broken into the house and were tearing off Lucia’s clothes. Carmen had run to her parents’ closet and opened the Nike shoebox but her father’s Beretta was missing.
She got out of bed and petted Aureo who was whining. He probably wanted to go outside and chase the neighbors’ cats, she thought. His favorite pastime. Then she heard Lucia crying. What was going on? She hurried down the hallway. Marco was in the living room, his arm around Lucia’s shoulder.
“They found your mother’s body,” Lucia said through tears.
Carmen had been bracing herself for this moment. She looked up at Marco.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“Where?” she asked.
“There are no details yet.”
Lucia broke away from Marco. “Shows you not to believe rumors,” she said testily.
“Not for one second did I believe that rumor,” Marco said.
“My sister wasn’t like you people. Why she decided to get involved with your party, I’ll never know. What about us now?” Lucia said, pointing to Carmen who, stunned and heartbroken, had dropped herself onto the couch and was imagining herself strangling Marco.
“I still haven’t heard,” he said.
“Oh, but you will, won’t you? Why were you pressuring my sister so hard to resign?”
“What are you implying?”
“Don’t play innocent!”
“I was only looking out for her welfare.”
“Are you sure there weren’t other considerations?”
“I did a lot for her!” he shouted. “And don’t forget! I have three children of my own that I need to be concerned about! When she lost her husband, I went out of my way to get her a better-paying job at the clinic. But even that wasn’t enough for her; she wanted to run for mayor. Did I laugh in her face?”
Rosa’s murder dominated the headlines: “Mexican Mayor’s Bludgeoned and Burned Body Found on Roadside.” Almost everyone from the town came to the funeral. Marco delivered the eulogy: “Four years ago, when Rosa Hierra first came to me, expressing an interest in running for public office, I knew that I was in the presence of someone very special. She worked tirelessly for the improvement of our town. I had a wish to see her in higher office. We would often talk about a seat in the Chamber of Deputies. Tragically, that vision will not be realized.”
After the funeral, Lucia went on one of her epic binges, and Carmen wondered how it was possible that Lucia, of all people—the woman everyone thought would not live to see the age of forty—was now 45 and had outlived both Felipe and Rosa.
Carmen would lie awake at night, restless—Aureo by her side—wondering about her own future. She’d imagine herself grown up and working as a prostitute in one of the town’s ladies bars or with Lucia in a drug den shooting up smack or married to a loudmouthed narcotrafficker.
She began considering suicide. Better to end her life on her own terms than the cartel’s. Her father’s Beretta was still tucked away in the Nike shoebox. Or perhaps she could just take all of Lucia’s Valium and land softly onto death’s crowded runway.
One evening, when she was outside sweeping the patio, trying to decide whether to kill herself, Lucia strode up the gravel driveway. “I spoke with Marco,” she said. She was holding a bottle of Negro Modelo and took a long swig. “We have nothing to worry about. I guess the cartel thinks we’ve suffered enough.” She laughed. “What a joke!”
“How can you be so sure?”
Lucia stumbled onto the patio. “Durante, our illustrious new mayor, is working with them. They’ll get control of the riverfront development.” Lucia took another swig. “And I’m sure there’s something in it for Marco.” Her breath stunk of alcohol. “Here.” She offered the bottle to Carmen. “Why so glum? Did you hear what I said? We’re not going to die.”
Carmen took the bottle.
“Go ahead,” Lucia said. “Have a taste. You’re sweet sixteen.”
“Drink!” Lucia yelled.
Carmen put the bottle to her lips and took a sip.
Carmen’s classmates, sympathizing with her over her mother’s murder, were now acting much nicer towards her. They’d include her in more conversations, make a point of sitting next to her at the lunch table, and sometimes even invite her to hang out with them after school in the park, where they’d drink beer and smoke pot. Even though she didn’t view their change of attitude as genuine—in fact, she saw it as largely false and it made her resent them even more—she nevertheless played along. Her social life soon began expanding, and it left little time for homework. Her grades started suffering. “I know you are going through a very difficult time,” Mr. Ernesto told her privately one day after class, “but you cannot give up on your studies. You have to stay strong.”
Her mother had always made her dress conservatively, which had frustrated her to no end, so one day, using her mother’s MasterCard, she went on a shopping spree. She bought skirts—short and flirty—blouses with plunging necklines, heels so high that she had to practice walking in them. Fishnet stockings, heavy perfumes, purple lipstick, pushup bras. She stopped tying her hair back in a ponytail and most days let it hang down her back.
One night, she sashayed out of her bedroom dressed in some of her new clothes. Lucia, who was on the couch, channel surfing, whistled like a construction worker. “If your mother were around . . .” Lucia shook her head, disapprovingly. “She’d blame me.”
“You don’t like?” Carmen asked, shifting her hips.
“No, it’s hot, girl. I’m telling you.”
Carmen smiled. “Thank you. I feel beautiful.”
Carmen came home from school a little drunk one afternoon and went straight into her parents’ bedroom and pulled out her father’s Beretta from the Nike shoebox. Lucia was right. Her mother should have carried it for protection, but, even if she had, with four gunmen, what difference would it have made?
The Beretta’s magazines were not in the shoebox. She looked around the room for them. Finally, she found them in one of her father’s dresser drawers. Going online, she figured out how to use the gun.
Even though Lucia had told her that they now had no reason to fear the cartel, Carmen didn’t want to take any chances. She started carrying the gun with her, putting it in her knapsack, or tucking it in her sock underneath her pant leg, or, if she were wearing a jacket, in her waistband underneath her shirt. She kept extra magazines in her handbag—just in case. She’d get in a little target practice before school, firing the gun across the lake, Aureo barking as if he were egging her on.
An invitation to a classmate’s birthday party came in the mail one morning. “Can I go?” she asked Lucia, holding up the invite. “Mom would want me to be enjoying myself, right?”
They were out on the patio. Lucia was slouched in the beach chair, nursing a hangover. She looked as if she wanted to be left alone. “Of course, she would, but probably not in the way you’ve been doing.”
Was Lucia insulting her? “What do you mean?”
“You’re behaving a bit too much like me lately.”
Carmen laughed and flung the invitation into Lucia’s lap. “I’ve a long way to go before you can accuse me of that.”
“I’ve been thinking, chica.” Lucia picked up the invitation and handed it back to her. “I’ve decided to check into a treatment center.”
Carmen bit down on her lower lip.
“What? You don’t believe me?” Lucia asked.
“No. I do.”
“I need to do it. For both of us.”
Carmen stared at the invitation’s pretty calligraphy. “Tell me something, Lucia, do you think the cartel killed my father?”
Lucia groaned. “Now why are you bringing that up?”
“Because. I want to know.”
Lucia paused. “Supposedly, he angered the wrong people at work. But your mother . . . she refused to even consider it. She was content to just accept what the police had told her.”
“He didn’t seem depressed then. He didn’t leave a suicide note.”
“If your mother had allowed herself to believe the cartel had killed him, then perhaps she wouldn’t have had the courage to run for office.”
“Just my theory. What do I know? But your father knew he was in danger. That’s why he bought the Beretta.”
Hugo was at the birthday party, bragging to a bunch of admiring girls about a new Lexus his father had bought him. Something about Carmen, however, caught his eye—her short skirt? Her long stockinged legs? He left the girls and made his way over to her. “Again, I’m so sorry about your mother,” he said in a somber tone.
She knew he didn’t really give a shit but she thanked him anyway. She couldn’t help but notice though that he looked quite handsome in a Yankee cap, silk shirt, and designer jeans, and he started talking to her about the upcoming Copa America. He was a big football fan, and his knowledge of the Mexican players’ stats impressed her. When her beer was empty, he went into the kitchen and returned with another. He poured it carefully into a plastic cup for her. “Why don’t we get out of here?” he asked.
His proposition surprised her. “No, everyone will start talking. Not a good idea.”
“How about I meet you later then. By the lake.” He looked at his diamond watch. “Let’s say, one o’clock. By then, this lame party will be over.”
Get lost, she wanted to tell him, but instead she found herself saying, “I’m going to have to think about it.”
“Fair enough.” He stepped away confidently. “I’ll see you later.”
What to do? She knew what he wanted, but she was still a virgin and, at least for the time being, planned on staying that way.
She could see Hugo’s silhouette by the shore. He was throwing rocks at the bullfrogs that were swimming on the lake’s surface. Was she alone with him? She did a complete three sixty. It appeared so, except, of course, for the croaking bullfrogs, who were desperately dodging his rocks. She started towards him. On her way, she accidently kicked an empty Gatorade bottle. He turned around. For a moment, he just stared in her direction. She was covered in darkness. “Carmen?” he asked.
“Yes, it’s me.”
He dropped the rocks that were in his hand and started toward her. “I knew you’d come,” he said, and, as they neared one another, the moonlight took a swipe at his face. Teeth like sugar cubes.
On the way to the lake, she’d tucked the gun in her waistband beneath her jacket, and, as they got closer to one another, she pulled it out. When he saw it, he stopped as if he’d bumped into a glass wall. But she kept walking and raised it.
“What the fuck?” he cried.
She aimed the barrel at his teeth and fired. He fell back like he’d been punched.
She heard rustling in the bushes behind her. She spun around, the gun pointed in front of her. Two boys stepped meekly out of the woods. Their hands were up. In the hand of one boy was a serrated knife. She didn’t recognize them. Two of Hugo’s goons, no doubt.
“Don’t shoot. Please,” one said.
Had she been called here so that they could rape and kill her? Probably. She fired at one boy—the fat one—and then the other. They both went down.
She stood still for a moment. The chorus of bullfrogs seemed to croak louder—almost in thanks. Or was their frenetic rasping a kind of creepy funeral song?
Hugo moaned. She walked over to him. He was still breathing. She put another bullet in his face. Not so handsome anymore.
She wandered over to the other two. They were as dead as her parents.
She kicked the fat one’s leg and walked off. Lucia might ask her why she’d gotten home so late. But the next morning when the bodies were discovered, no one, not even Lucia, would suspect her of the killings. And the bullets and shells? Well, she remembered her father once telling her mother that the magazines were untraceable.
She started running. New textbooks, classrooms . . . they really were important, and now Carmen could add to these accomplishments the killing of three narcoboys.