City of Angels, Book 1
E. M. Nally
The day Miguel became a monster I tried to convince him to go to college. I didn’t understand, and wouldn’t for a long time, that people like Miguel and I were not meant for college, for the lives the rest of the city had. We’d always been monsters. All they did was let the beasts out.
“This is bullshit, Sia.” Miguel pushed away the papers I’d given him. He leaned forward, resting his heavy chest on the edge of the table, bowing his head. I could see his brown scalp through the bristle of his buzz cut.
“Please, Miguel. Just look. These are perfect for you.” I pressed the papers against his arm. “Stop listening to the shit you hear and listen to me. You already did the hard part.” Miguel was nineteen, only a year younger than me, but he was working with a landscaping crew as part of a pre-college program while I was already a sophomore at USC. As orphans we’d both been long term residents in a foster care system designed for short-term stays. Without help he’d slide into a gang or the gutter and no one would care. Except me. I’d care.
A well-meaning, old, probably white, lady with money had created a full-ride college scholarship for a local minority student—meaning black or Hispanic in this part of L.A. Two years ago I’d gotten the money, and moved from a group home to the college dorms. The scholarship gave me tuition, housing and a computer. My DCFS—Department of Child and Family Services—worker got to use me as an example of how well the system worked. In exchange for my scholarship I had to be a college prep mentor. When they told me that, I knew who I wanted to mentor, wanted to spend time with: Miguel. We were both smart enough to escape the minimum wage to crime and welfare cycle that most DCFS kids rattled through. I was going to be someone exceptional, and I wanted Miguel to be too, but he was being stupid. Miguel’s program gave him a place to live and allowed him to take pre-college classes in exchange for time working with a city maintenance crew. It was a bridge between his old life and the new one he’d start in the fall when he entered college, but he wasn’t taking the classes seriously.
The door to the library study room opened and three black girls stepped in, backpacks dangling from the shoulders of their ghetto-trendy overstuffed jackets. One carried a folder with the logo of the local charter school—the same one I’d attended. Her thin legs were sticks in tight pants, heavy gold hoops bouncing against her neck.
Hair in a loose tail at my nape, no jewelry and minimal make-up, I was like an under-dressed, unloved doll compared to these girls.
Chairs bumped over the linoleum as they sat in sun-faded upholstery at a table on the other side of the small room. They took heavy books and spiral journals tagged with gang-gothic lettering from their bags, moving with the quiet deliberation reserved for libraries.
Miguel watched them.
He leaned away from the table, back straight and shoulders stiff. “I know her brother.” He jerked his chin towards the closest girl, the movement small, tight and frightening. He was tall and wide, and had played football until the program was shut down due to gang violence among the fans. He’d learned to hold himself still, to move slowly. It was how he kept the anger in.
The loose fit of the ironed button-down shirt he wore open over the white t-shirt camouflaged his size and strength. His shoes were scrubbed clean, his socks startlingly white against his thick brown calves, sticking out of his low-riding shorts. If you looked closely at him, looked into his eyes, you could see the molten-hot core of him, the rage that burned inside him, contained, but only barely controlled.
“Leave it.” My voice shook a little, and I licked my lips. I’d seen him let that anger out, and it was something I’d never forget. I held the papers up, blocking his view. “You can’t start stuff, can’t get involved if you want out.”
“Maybe I don’t want out.” He didn’t look at me, and I was glad, because the words hurt.
He didn’t have to tell me that the girl’s brother, whoever he was, had insulted him. He didn’t have to tell me that he’d considered joining the Children’s Army or La Eme—barrio names for 18th Street and Mexican Mafia gangs—for protection.
The girls chattered in low voices about a project, dividing up duties and making a timeline. They sounded like good students. For one bitter moment I wished Miguel was like them—they seemed simple, eager to please. He didn’t understand that I needed him to succeed as much for me as for himself.
“Please Miguel,” I whispered.
He examined my face, then reached across the table to take my hand. For a minute the mask he wore slipped and I could see the real Miguel—a man who was smarter than he let anyone know, older than he seemed, and kind in a way that didn’t fit his tough exterior.
“It’s okay, Sia baby. I know what to do.”
“I want to help.”
Miguel tipped his head to the side, looking at me. With each heartbeat his regard made me more self-conscious. I was eleven months older than him, and almost three years ahead of him as far as school went, but when he looked at me like that I felt unsure of myself and embarrassed. I didn’t feel older, or smarter. I felt like the scared girl I’d been growing up in the system. The girl Miguel had protected, giving me a chance to focus and get out. I inhaled through my nose and raised my chin.
“I know that face.” His lips twitched.
“I’m not making a face.”
“Yeah, you are.”
“If I am it’s your fault.”
“A lot of shit is my fault, but not that face. That’s all you. You’re trying to save the world.”
“Not the whole world,” I countered.
He’d made the choices the children of the poor or lost often make—to fight meaningless battles, to run away from something he knew was bad only to find there was nothing better. He’d lost years. And bits of his soul. But now he was on the brink of something amazing, of turning his life around. That’s what they said when they talked about him—social workers and school counselors.
He knew all about me, but had told me only pieces of his own past—he kept his own counsel behind disquieting, steady eyes and hunched shoulders that could mean anything from disinterest to rage—but I was not without shields of my own.
The moment passed, the tension between us fading away.
“Read it,” I urged, one arm stretched along the table, poised to grab, but at what I couldn’t say. If Miguel’s past was marred by graffiti and litter, mine was a foggy, blood-speckled landscape that grew cleaner and sunnier with each step I took away from it. Today, I stood in the sunny, sanitized land of supposed promise—a citizen, getting a private college education with a full scholarship.
I had no family and no past.
His gaze moved over my face once more before he dipped his chin and focused on the papers. He didn’t touch them until it was time to turn the page, quickly tucking his hand back under the table. When he was done reading he looked up.
My fingers curled into a fist in frustration. I released it, took a breath, then another.
“You don’t see how this is applicable to you?”
“Applicable?” He huffed out a laugh and shifted in his chair. “You even talk like them. Unless Congress writes some bill that says ‘pay for Miguel Ramirez to go to college’ I’m not going.”
“You got into USC and UCLA. People kill to get into those schools. You can’t turn it down. We’ll find a way to pay for it.”
Miguel’s grades and test scores were off the charts for someone from our neighborhood, the way mine had been. His caseworker had helped him pay the application fees, but Miguel didn’t want to take out loans and so far hadn’t gotten any scholarships.
“They’re increasing funding for Hispanic students, especially in math and science. Those are your best subjects.” I took back the pages, a printout of a new study detailing recent bills Congress had passed allocating educational funding.
“Who would hire a ghetto Mexican to be a scientist?” He leaned away, legs sprawled beneath the table, his big body completing the triangle between the edge of the seat and the back.
“Anyone would. Once you’re good at science or math it doesn’t matter who you are, all that matters is what you can do.” I couldn’t stop the little smile from curling my mouth as I said it. I was a biophysics major, with plans for a Ph.D. in medical or applied physics. Sometimes I’d lie awake at night and imagine the day I’d stand in front of a packed auditorium talking about my latest experiment or discovery that would save millions. The most important thing about me wouldn’t be my dead parents or my life in foster care—I’d be a scientist, a label trumping the ones I now wore.
“Doesn’t mean anything. They’ll see my record.”
“That was when you were a minor. Nobody can see it.”
He looked at me knowingly. “I’m not going to leave you, even if I don’t go to some college.”
He rubbed my palm with his thumb. I pulled away, barely hiding my frustration.
“You know the difference between us?”
“I don’t dress like a bitch-ass university student and I can cuss?” He tipped his head to the side, eyes lit up with a devilish smile though his lips barely moved. My stomach trembled.
“First of all—” I tucked the pages away in my bag, knowing I’d pushed the scholarship issue enough for one day. “—I am a university student. Second, I can cuss, asshole.”
“That’s hueva, lazy, English cussing. Say hijo de puta.”
The three girls whipped around, Miguel’s words just loud enough to travel. Black or brown, there were few things kids liked as much as words they shouldn’t know, whatever the language.
“We’re sorry about that,” I said with a smile. I kept right on smiling until all three had gone back to their books. Miguel was watching them too, the tendons near his temple flexing as he clenched his jaw.
“What are you working on today?” I asked, desperate to change the subject. I relaxed when Miguel sat up, turning his attention back to me. I was supposed to tutor him, but really he was smart enough that he didn’t need me.
“Geometry 240.” He dismissed that with a head jerk. “You gonna say it? Common Sia, just say it.” He smiled wide enough to show his crooked teeth. Miguel had the kind of smile that made you want to smile back. It was full of pleasure, without malice. As delightful as his smile was, as much as it lit up his face, made him handsomer and more approachable, it was rare that he smiled like this.
I couldn’t resist that smile. I leaned forward and Miguel cupped my cheek. I closed my eyes, savoring the contact. In that moment the world stood still. Laughter from the girls at the other table brought me back to the moment. I jerked away.
“I’m not cussing. We’re in a library; that’s inappropriate.” I pronounced each syllable of the word to make sure I said it right. “Why don’t you do your homework?”
His smile faded, the teasing moment gone easily as smoke, leaving a trailing scent of regret. I shouldn’t have let Miguel touch me. Our relationship was complicated, but we weren’t dating, weren’t fucking—I loved him, but I’d never say that. I wouldn’t risk losing him just to scratch an itch.
Miguel pulled out his book. He was intelligent enough to excel in college if I could convince him it was worth the risk. I pulled out my chemistry homework, glancing at Miguel occasionally. After twenty minutes he looked up.
“I’m…having trouble with this one.” He tapped his pencil on the table, drawing my attention. He said the words as if they tasted bad. I knew he hated asking for help, hated admitting he couldn’t do something. He wouldn’t have asked for help from anyone but me.
I angled the book, with its tattered paper bag cover and defaced pages, towards me. We scooted together. He smelled like clean laundry and sweat.
“This one?” I said, using the tip of my pencil to indicate a problem. I took a moment to study it. “I think it’s a trick. It’s actually a dilation problem, not just a congruence one.”
He stared at the word problem for a minute. “Esta jodido,” Miguel cursed and glowered at the page. “Why do they try and trick us?”
“They want you to think critically, not make assumptions.”
“That’s bullshit,” he repeated. “They want to make sure that only the ones who know English can pass the tests.”
“You know English.”
“Not like this.” He stabbed his finger at the page and the carefully crafted word problem that had misled him.
His gaze met mine, our faces less than two feet apart. The air around us tightened as he looked at me with liquid dark eyes that seemed too bright and too old for his face. He cupped my cheek, and this time I let my head rest in his hand. It felt good to have him touching me.
“Just do the math part.” I moved my chair back and focused on my own reading. My heart was pounding.
Twenty minutes later Miguel and I exchanged homework. I looked over his calculations, our arms touching. He grabbed my OChem book, flipping through the pages to reference something as he checked my lab write up. After a few corrections we swapped back and went over what we’d found. It was a familiar routine, one we’d been performing for years. With a grunt of satisfaction Miguel stuffed his book into his backpack. I too put away my book, but pulled out the next text.
“Want help with the rest of your homework?” He jerked his chin at my reader, grinned. It was meant as a joke, but I knew he would do it, he would teach himself the subject if that’s what I needed.
“It’d be too easy for you.” I returned the smile.
Miguel left the study room to get something to read. We’d stay in the library, which was less than a mile from both Miguel’s group home in one direction and my university in the other, me to study, Miguel to put off returning to his crowded foster home. I stroked the glossy page of my textbook. I’d doodled my name in the margin, next to a paragraph on the functions of the frontal lobe of the brain. Sancia was scrolled in graphite, the S swooping and swirling, the lines strong and sure. I erased it, scribbled Sia in simple, forgettable letters, then erased that too.
Miguel returned bearing the latest editions of several comic book series and a magazine on astronomy and plopped down in a chair. Tossing his backpack on the table he propped his chin on it, his arms stretched out, holding the comic book open. Miguel had told me that comic books got him reading. The complicated plots, action, and half-naked women had drawn him in. The graphic novels, as he called them, took him from a limited vocabulary and guessing at words to knowing the meaning of “vigilante” and defining fatalism. He still spoke like he was poor and uneducated, and needed to stop, or learn to turn it on and off, like I did.
Miguel and I couldn’t do anything about the color of our skin, but if we were smart, and made people acknowledge that by speaking intelligently, ethnicity could be an advantage. I’d taken advantage of it with my scholarship, and hopefully Miguel could do the same. Someday I’d be so smart I wouldn’t need to trade on my background and race anymore, but until then I’d use whatever advantages I had.
I picked up the papers that had fluttered out of the open zipper of his backpack and stuffed them under his elbow. The top piece, a flyer on neon paper, caught my eye.
We want YOUR opinion!
Do you believe in the supernatural? Magic? Are you a fan of monster movies, comic books and zombie video games?
We’re looking for young adults who believe there is more to the world than meets the eye. Earn money just for giving your opinion.
“You know this is a scam, right?” I tapped the flyer.
He looked over. “It’s legit. I get twenty for telling them why I like my graphic novels.”
“Cash?” I asked in surprise.
He snorted, attention moving back to his comic book. “I don’t take checks. Going back tomorrow at five, another twenty in my pocket.”
“Really? That’s interesting.” I picked up the flyer and read over it again. “Can I have this?”
“You need money? I thought you had a full ride. I can get you money.” He stopped reading for a moment, gaze flicking to me. There was concern there. He knew what it was like to live with a hunger that wasn’t just for food, but for the things you couldn’t have. In the past he’d helped me get money, but it had cost him. I wouldn’t ask that of him again.
“I’m okay.” And I was. Some extra money would be nice, but my work-study job paid enough for food. Even if I had needed the money I wouldn’t ask Miguel for help. It was my turn to help him.
His eyes went back to the darkly illustrated images, thumbs turning the pages encased in thick protective plastic. “You wouldn’t want to go. It’s for high schoolers, middle schoolers. I told them I was seventeen.” His eyes sparkled. “They might not want you.”
“They’d want me.” I touched the glossy page of my textbook again, thinking of the coming semester, when I’d have to buy books again.
“Everyone wants you.” The words were so quiet I almost didn’t hear them.
I focused on my book, the letters dancing. “No, just you.”
There was a pause before he replied. “College boys must be stupid.”
I looked away. I didn’t want to talk to Miguel about who I was dating, didn’t want to hear if he was hanging out with another girl. He wasn’t my boyfriend. I wasn’t his girlfriend. We were just friends. Friends who took care of each other, who were there for each other the way family was.
Plus I didn’t want to admit that I was embarrassed to try and date any of the rich boys at the university. If I told Miguel that he’d get angry, blame the boys for being snobs. It was hard for him to admit that since I’d started college he hadn’t been able to protect me, not the way he had when we were growing up.
I put Miguel’s flyer on my bag, went back to my reading for another hour. The sun vanished from the window before I was done, the room now lit by humming fluorescents.
“Are you planning to stay?” I asked Miguel as I packed my bag. He was still hunched over his comic book, eyes flicking and fingers twitching as he tumbled through the story.
“No. I’ll walk you home.”
Together we made our way out of the library.
“You still going camping for Christmas?” Miguel examined the sky as we walked.
My roommates had decided to stay in L.A. for winter break and invited me on a trip to Big Bear. Last year I’d been alone for break, the only one left in the freshman residence halls. I’d seen Miguel on Christmas day. We’d snuck into a movie and then had dinner at his foster home.
This year I’d be skiing and drinking while Miguel went to Catalina Island to staff the marine conservation center with some other people from his college-prep program.
“Not camping. We’re renting a cabin.”
“Be careful,” he warned.
He regarded me solemnly. “Bears.”
I broke into a smile. “I’m not going to get attacked by a bear.”
“You think so. Maybe they like brown meat better than white. Watch out.”
“You still going to Catalina?”
“They need someone to watch the place while the people with real families go celebrate.”
“Don’t get eaten by a shark.”
“They found an eighteen-foot oarfish not long ago.”
“What’s an oarfish, and does it eat people?”
“I don’t know, but if I don’t come back you’ll know what happened.”
“If you don’t come back I’ll go fishing. I’ll find it and kill it.”
“And I’ll be ready to hunt bears.”
I laughed, bumping his shoulder with mine as we walked.
My winter break plans had been in the works for months, thought they weren’t really my plans. I was just tagging along. At first my roommates had stopped each time they added to the itinerary, looking at me anxiously and asking if I could afford it, offering to pay my share. Finally, I’d lied and told them my work-study job supervisor gave me a holiday bonus.
If I got a ski pass for only two of the five days I could just barely afford to go. I didn’t know how to ski anyway, so it wouldn’t be that bad if I stayed in the cabin by myself. If I asked they’d cover me, but I didn’t want that. I could afford this if I was careful, and I knew how to be careful. An extra twenty dollars from Miguel’s market research place would really help, but I didn’t have time to go. I wouldn’t tell Miguel I needed some extra money, because I didn’t want him to do something stupid trying to help me.
Miguel walked me to the corner of campus. After hours you had to sign in with security to enter campus and Miguel didn’t like to do that.
I wasn’t sure why, but I asked, “Do you want to come up, meet my roommates?” It wasn’t the first time I’d asked him that.
“No.” It was the same response he always gave. I hadn’t asked why he didn’t want to meet them, and never pressed the issue. I waved, ready to go.
“Sia, come here.”
I turned back.
He held out one arm. I slid into the embrace, accepting his hug. He smelled clean and his shoulder was hard and thick with muscle under my cheek. I felt small and safe in that moment.
I pulled back, smoothing my hand over my hair to make sure it was in place.
“Good night,” I said again, not looking at Miguel.
“Full moon.” He pointed at the sky.
“Full moon,” I repeated. “Beware of…what?”
He looked at me with quiet, hard eyes. “Everything.”
I touched his arm in goodbye. My fingers were cold and he radiated heat. I felt him watching me as I slipped through the gate onto campus.
I checked my reflection in the glass on the first floor of the chemistry building. I pulled the tie from my hair, redoing the ponytail. I twisted my head from side to side, examining my face. Nosy people, usually old Mexican women, would stop me on the street, or touch my arm while we sat on the bus and ask me about my ancestry. “Mija, where are you from? You look like my brother’s wife’s cousin, from Guatemala.” I’d heard it all: Was I South American, Spanish, quarter black, native? I didn’t know.
I’d always found it odd that the collection of bones, sinew and flesh in the reflection was me, when I sometimes felt so disconnected from the assortment of features. My heavy cheekbones, almond shaped eyes and thick lips didn’t really match Mexican features common among Hispanics in Los Angeles. Wearing jeans and a USC sweatshirt—the unofficial uniform of college—I now had more in common with the privileged university students than with Miguel, or so I liked to tell myself.
My college friends thought I was exotic looking. One drunken night my roommates told other friends of my mystery heritage and “guess Sia’s ancestry” became a party game. I’d been too scared to stop it despite my embarrassment and anger. I sat there with my fists hidden under my thighs and let them pick me apart feature by feature.
“It’s her eyes. That’s where your hypothesis falls apart. Yes, clearly she’s Hispanic, but look at her eyes. They’re very distinctive,” one girl had said, pointing at my face with her red plastic cup. “They’re almost Asian, except quite open.”
“Don’t knock Asian eyes, eyelids are overrated anyway,” my Chinese-American roommate Lily had commented from her position on the floor. She said it offhandedly and with the easy self-deprecating humor of someone who was confident, beautiful and knew it.
It was at that moment that I realized my friends would never understand the restless, weightless feeling that came with a lack of family and past. They knew how and when their families came to the U.S. and could state their ethnicity with confidence—neither of which I could do. Plus, their families had lots of money, though they insisted they were no more than middle class, despite the fact that Lily’s dad was a CEO of some company.
They couldn’t know what it was like to worry that if you didn’t weave a rope to tie yourself to a boat, whether that boat was college, as I was doing, or a gang, as Miguel would if I didn’t stop him, you’d simply drift away one day. Sink and no one would look for you.
Miguel disappeared that night. The manager of his group home called me and asked if I’d seen him. According to her I was the last person to do so. He’d only been missing a few hours and he was nineteen. The police wouldn’t do anything until the next morning, and even then he was technically an adult so they wouldn’t really start looking until 48 hours had passed.
I didn’t sleep that night. I waited for a call from Miguel. If something had happened, if something had gone wrong, he’d call me. Unless he was trying to protect me from whatever he’d gotten involved in.
He was officially declared missing at noon on Wednesday, twenty hours after I’d left him in the library—a concession due to the fact that he was in a state-run program. An LAPD detective called. I answered her questions, stressing that it was not like him to disappear, that he was more than the six-year-old petty theft and assault charges she saw in his juvie file.
“I think I know where he’s going to be this afternoon.” As I spoke I upended my bag on my bed. I had a simple navy-blue bedspread, purchased in a bagged set out of a cheap catalogue I got in the mail the summer before college started. It was thin and scratchy and hadn’t washed well. Across the shared bedroom Sarah had a pale green and pink patterned silk duvet cover—something I’d never even heard of—encasing a thin summer-weight down duvet.
“Has he contacted you?” The detective’s voice was sharp.
“No, but he had a flyer from a place that pays kids for their opinions. He’d gone once and told me he was going to be there again this afternoon—at five o’clock.”
“What makes you sure that he’ll be there?” she asked, interest waning.
“If he’s run away he’d need the money.” I kept my voice calm, though I wanted to yell at her for sounding so disinterested.
“Here’s the address.” I read it off to her, glad I’d taken the flyer.
“Uh huh, thank you. Please contact me if he calls you.”
“Are you going to go to this place?” I demanded, my voice rising. The least she could do was drive over there at five and check on him.
“We’re doing all we can to locate him, but he’s an adult.”
“What you need to do is go to this place. He’s going to be there.” I was squeezing my phone so tight my fingers hurt.
“Thank you for your input, but the investigation is proceeding as needed.”
“You don’t understand. He works, he’s a good student, he’s going to go to college—”
The detective hung up, her snide tone ringing in my ears. I set down my phone and closed my eyes.
They’d given up on him. Miguel had been gone just under twenty-four hours and I could hear it in the voices of the detective and his caseworker. They’d given up. There was a hidden relief to it—one less person to try to save. Now he’d sink, disappear under the water.
And I’d be all alone.
If you wanted to be saved you had to make it easy. You had to talk right, look right and play nice. Miguel could have gotten out, like I had. But he’d made it hard, made himself one of the bad ones—the forgettable ones.
I warred between fear and anger. Fear that Miguel was dead and anger that he’d been stupid and gotten mixed up in something that would mess up his future.
Angry was easier than scared, so I focused on that. I folded the flyer in half, and then folded it again and placed it in the trashcan. I wiped away tears. It was finals week, I had tons of work to do. I’d go to the library tomorrow for our meeting. If he showed up that was fine. If he didn’t show up there was nothing I could do.
I turned to my computer and opened my study guide for international relations. It was the class I had the hardest time with and the final was at two o’clock. I preferred my science classes, where there was always a correct answer, and usually a logical way to find that answer, over the social sciences.
After five minutes of staring at the screen and clutching my pen so hard it creaked I grabbed the flyer from the trashcan. If there hadn’t been money involved I wouldn’t have bothered, but if something had gone wrong in Miguel’s life and he’d run he’d want that twenty dollars. I couldn’t just pretend that his disappearance hadn’t tipped my world upside down. I mapped out a bus route that would take me to the address on the flyer. It was in the Fashion District, northeast of campus, an area primarily devoted to wholesale stores, but with some cheap office space.
Someone should go to the market research place since he said he’d be there. If he hadn’t called me it meant he didn’t want to involve me in whatever was going on, but he was my friend. I was going to help him. It was clear the detective wouldn’t. I shouldn’t be the one to go, but if no one else would do it I would. Miguel took care of me. I took care of him. That was how we survived. It didn’t matter how angry I was at him for doing whatever stupid thing had kept him from making it home for curfew. He was mine, and I was his.
I caught a four o’clock bus after my IR final. I could have caught an earlier bus had I rushed through the exam, but I took my time, answering each question thoroughly as I nervously jiggled my left leg. Once done, I ran across campus, my backpack strapped tight to my body as I wove between the hubcap-sized designer purses and brand name messenger bags.
Despite knowing the address it took me fifteen minutes to find the place. It was on the second story of a three-story building of rounded corners and stucco, out of place with the boxy concrete around it. The first floor of the building was a mix of wholesale shops and less-than-a-dollar stores. I had to scoot behind a bungee-corded stack of Betty Boop luggage, avoiding the sales person who jabbered at me in Spanish, to find the stairs that led to the second floor.
There were four doors off the balcony walkway. The second door bore a copy of the flyer. It was unlocked.
Inside was a small waiting room, gray and nondescript, with chairs lining the walls. An unmanned check-in counter allowed noise from the back to flood in—the looping wail of a video-game soundtrack, punctuated by gunfire. In the lulls between shots I heard voices rise and fall in exclamations of delight and frustration. There was a girl’s laughter, out of synch with the sounds of the video game.
No one came to the window, and I wasn’t going to wait. I went through the unlocked door beside the check-in desk. The back room looked like the game room in a rapper’s house crossed with a community center. I counted five kids—three black, two Hispanic, all middle or high school aged—lounging on the massive U-shaped leather couch playing a video game on the nearly-wall-size plasma TV. A pool table, the felt unmarred, was racked and waiting. Against the back wall a row of computers, with bookshelves full of comic books and paperbacks mounted above, completed the picture of a teenage haven.
“This is private property.” A gray-haired man rose from his crouch beside a girl watching a Japanese style cartoon on one of the computers. With a twitch of his fingers he adjusted the cuffs of his black dress shirt, paying more attention to them than to me as he approached. He had an oddly smooth face, as if he hadn’t lived in his skin long, or he’d had plastic surgery.
I knew him. Not this guy in particular, but his type. He had the calm face and stern voice of a man who was reveling in his own superiority by helping the underprivileged. He was the lawyer who’d set up a mentorship program for “at risk youth,” but discontinued it when we balked at eating the catered sushi. He was the volunteer doctor at the clinic, looking down his nose at my foster sister’s bruised face, dismissing her as a hopeless victim because she won’t confide in him after a thirty second conversation.
“I’m looking for a friend,” I told the gray-haired man.
“I’m afraid my research center is by invitation only. It’s not a hang-out.” He was handsome, in a generic, even-featured way I associated with white men who held open doors, but when his gaze met mine I was struck by how blue his eyes were.
I huffed out a sigh, letting my shoulders dip. “This friend, see um, he’s a boy and sort of invited me. We like the same stuff and he knew I needed some money.” I watched him through my lashes, hoping something I’d said would stick.
“And what do you need money for, young lady?” he asked, eyes seeming bluer by the moment.
“I’m going to Big Bear and I need snow clothes,” I said truthfully. I looked up, focusing on his forehead so I wouldn’t meet his gaze.
“Where did you say you saw the flier?”
“This boy I, um, well. He had it. We read the same,” I almost said comic book and caught myself, stuttering out, “graphic novel.”
“What graphic novel do you read??”
“Limited Night.” I had a vague understanding of the set-up and some of the story, as Miguel had occasionally given me recaps, but I wouldn’t know enough to fool a fan.
“Then you must mean Miguel.”
“You know him?” My heart jumped, and I lowered my gaze to hide my reaction.
“I know all my…friends. You look a bit old to be interested in Miguel.”
I jerked one shoulder and cocked my head. “Me and Miguel are in the same grade. They held me back a few times. Not my fault, I got bounced around so much I never learned anything.” I repeated words I’d heard before, my tone both defiant and ashamed—the words and voices of countless kids I’d met in the system.
“What’s your name?”
“Marisol.” Marisol-the-biter was one of my foster sisters in junior high. They thought the biting was ADD. She bit me, kids at school, herself, and even our foster mother’s dog. Once, in the middle of gnawing on the wood post of our bunk bed, she fell to the ground and started shaking. Her biting wasn’t ADD. Her real parents had knocked her around—that’s how she ended up in foster care—but they’d hurt her worse than anyone knew, because it turned out she had big scars on her skull, from having her head bashed in. She’d healed, but the bone grew funny and chunks were pressing against her brain, making her a biter. She didn’t survive the corrective surgery.
“So,” I continued, “can I play?” I gestured to the TV, computers and games that filled the room.
The gray-haired man held out his hand. “My name is Mr. Jones. It’s nice to meet you, Marcela.”
I lifted my head, met his gaze. “Marisol. My name is Marisol.”
Mr. Jones pointed towards a hallway near the door I’d come in and I headed that way with him at my back.
“First you’ll answer some verbal questions, then complete a written questionnaire. It’s almost like discussing a book or movie in school. You see, what we’re trying to do here is to understand why you like things like Limited Night. Do you like that it’s scary or that it’s gory? I also want to know what else you might buy that’s like Limited Night, whether that’s books, games or movies.”
He must work with some special interest group that represented entertainment products. I’d taken an ethnic studies class last year and the professor talked about the power of minority spending and how businesses were increasingly trying to target minority kids.
When I started middle school I’d been desperate to learn Spanish. I’d been no better than the special needs kids as far as the Latinos in school were concerned, as if having a name like Sia Marquez and not knowing Spanish was a crime. I’d sneak down and watch Telemundo in the middle of the night in an attempt to learn. One of the telenovelas had an old witch woman, and I’d been drawn to her cackling laugh and sparkling shawls.
We went into a little office, Mr. Jones holding the door for me. There were two comfortable chairs and a long, thin table. The table was lined with colored clipboards. He handed me a blue clipboard and a pen as we sat. I imagined Miguel sitting where I was, lying to Mr. Jones to get some cash.
Thinking about him made my stomach clench. The thing that scared me was that I’d never see him again, never know what happened to him. The worst-case scenario was that he’d said or done something he shouldn’t have and was floating face down in the L.A. River. In my mind’s eye I saw him—bloated and rubbery, skin chalky from chemicals that slithered through the water.
“Do you need help filling that out?” Mr. Jones asked quietly, and I realized I’d been sitting there without doing anything for over a minute.
“No, no. I’ve got it. I’m just…a slow reader.” I started filling out the form, answering the questions with falsified information.
“Will you excuse me a moment?” Standing he let himself out of the office, and I saw him pull a phone from his pocket as the door closed.
I shivered when the latch clicked into place. I pressed my hand over my stomach to ease the ache. It was probably just worry for Miguel making me uneasy and nervous.
I got through the general information—name, age, address—then stopped.
I read through the remaining questions a second time.
Were you ever physically or emotionally abused?
Were you ever molested?
Are you sexually active?
What is the most violent thing you’ve ever done?
Have you suffered head or brain trauma?
I unclipped the page and flipped it over. The back was blank. There were no questions about books or video games, movies or TV.
I slid the paper under the clip and smoothed it into place. These questions were out of line for market research. The anxiety I’d felt since Mr. Jones shook my hand flared to full alarm.
What kind of people would ask these questions?
Social workers, but Mr. Jones wasn’t one. Therapists, and maybe Mr. Jones was one of those, but his eyes were wrong. The therapists who worked with kids like me and Miguel had tired, weary eyes, even the young ones.
“Done?” Mr. Jones asked, sliding back into the room and resuming his seat.
I handed him the clipboard, and the half blank form, without looking up. This wasn’t right. I thought of the kids out there answering these too-personal questions, showing their half-healed scars, without knowing what they were doing. It pissed me off that this man would take advantage of them. I bit down on my anger and pressed my shaking hands against my thighs.
“When do I get my money?” I asked, wanting something to say.
Mr. Jones looked up from my paper when I spoke. Rather than frowning at the half-filled-out form he was smiling slightly.
“You haven’t done anything yet, Marisol.” He removed my questionnaire from the clipboard, folded it.
“I won’t get paid?” I asked, sensing my out. I needed to get out of that office before I said something about how disturbing and cruel it was to ask kids these kinds of things unless you were a counselor or social worker and planned to help them. That wasn’t something a comic book-reading high schooler would say.
“Not this time, though I would like to invite you to come back later.”
“I need money now.”
“Come back tomorrow.”
I scrubbed my palms on my jeans and stood. He did the same. “I’m not staying if I can’t get paid…unless Miguel is here.”
“I didn’t see your friend when I was out there. We can look again, but it seems he isn’t coming today.”
I grabbed the door handle.
Mr. Jones put his palm on the door, holding it closed with his bodyweight.
“I’d like you to stay.” He leaned in so his words puffed against my hair. My scalp prickled.
I looked up.
He was smiling, a real smile of enjoyment that made his blue eyes sparkle. For the first time there were lines on his face, a few at the corners of his eyes and around his mouth. The calm rich man’s mask was gone. This version of Mr. Jones was more handsome, and more terrifying.
“I bet you have some pretty little monsters locked away in here. I’d like to meet them.” He touched his finger to the center of my forehead.
I jerked my head away and hip-checked him. He stumbled back and I opened the door. “I have stuff tomorrow—can’t come.” I spoke casually. I didn’t want to let him know I was rattled and a little scared. I started walking.
I heard him exit the office, felt him behind me, and picked up my pace.
There were sharp beads of sweat under my arms and at the small of my back as I headed down the hall. I wanted to bolt for the door, but slowed as I looked over the main room. There were more people here now, most of them kids and none of them Miguel.
A slender Hispanic girl only a few years younger than me, her hair covering one eye in thick bangs, came up to Mr. Jones.
“Hola, Mr. Jones.”
“Good afternoon, Maria. How was school?” He adjusted his cuff, then gave her a one-armed hug, cupping the back of her neck in his hand, stroking her with his thumb.
My stomach rolled as Maria simpered and giggled, leaning into him, bangs brushing his wrist.
“Maria is a pretty girl.” He tipped her chin up with a thumb under her jaw bone, then twisted her head side to side so her hair slid away, revealing her face. She let him do it, her hands hanging at her sides as he manipulated her head. The girl was old enough to drive, certainly old enough to have sex, yet she let him handle her like a toy. “Don’t you think, Marisol?” He looked at me, then pointedly at my hands, which were clenched into fists at my side.
I took a step forward, wanting to snatch the girl away from him and claw the smile from his face. I wanted to slap her and tell her she needed to be smarter than this.
I looked at the boys on the couch that probably cost as much as cars in the neighborhoods I’d grown up in. Here they could be the kids who had things, whose only worry was what game to play next instead of how their parents would pay the bills. Mr. Jones gave them things and in exchange they gave him access to the darkest parts of themselves.
I didn’t understand what Mr. Jones was getting out of it.
“Maria,” Mr. Jones said, “Are you ready to talk to me?”
“Yes, Mr. Jones.”
“Take off your jacket.”
He watched me watch Maria strip off her jacket without question. Her smooth brown shoulders were bare except for the pink straps of a bra she probably didn’t need. Her stretchy jean and plaid tube-top showed the top of the bra cups. He stroked her bare shoulder.
“Go sit on the floor in my office and wait for me.” He released her shoulder.
She obeyed without hesitation.
I turned away. I hated myself for doing it, for leaving them there with him, but there was nothing I could do. I slammed out of the building, my palms hurting from where I’d hit the door.
I sprinted down the steps, onto the street. The sun was nearing the horizon, but it was already dusk on the street where the buildings cast long shadows. Mr. Jones was standing in the doorway watching me.
* * * *
“Mark from the third floor got us supplies.” Sarah said, bouncing into the living room with handles of vodka and gin.
“Nice,” Lily replied, looking up from her packing, which was spread across the living room floor.
I forced a smile. I was curled up at one end of the couch, notebook open on my lap. My last final was tomorrow. My roommates were already mentally checked out, more interested in the coming trip than finals, though Lily and Avery both had exams left to take.
“You okay?” Sarah asked me, setting the bottles down and swooping her hair behind her ear.
“Oh yeah, I’m fine,” I lied. “I’m just worried about my test.”
“I’m sure you’re going to ace it.” Lily turned to look over her shoulder, smiling brightly. “You study all the time, plus, aren’t you one of the best students in the class?”
Dipping my head I toyed with the cap to my highlighter. When confronted by the facts of my life—minority, orphan, foster kid, and yet a full-ride academic scholarship—people like my roommates immediately felt guilty for all the advantages they had. I was underprivileged, so I had to be a good student. They were upper middle class and had the option of mediocrity.
“She is.” Sarah was frowning at the calorie information on the bottle label. “That’s why she’s a lab assistant, and gets to do cool, if gross, things like decapitate mice.” She shivered in exaggerated disgust.
“It’s not that gross,” I mumbled.
They were all liberal arts majors, so they didn’t understand that I found it fascinating to dissect and examine the cognitive-test lab mice at my work-study job in one of the bio labs.
“Sia, will you braid my hair when we get there? You’re the only person who can ever get it to stay.” Lily was brushing a long strand of hair a few shades darker than mine out of her face.
“Want me to do it now?” I asked, glad for a distraction from my thoughts.
“Will you? It’ll probably come out.”
“I’ll do it again if it does.”
I put my book to the side and Lily settled on the floor in front of me.
“How did you get so good at that?” Sarah asked as she brought me hairspray and a tie from the bathroom. I combed my fingers through Lily’s seemingly always tangle free hair and started sectioning the top.
I hesitated before saying, “The houses I grew up in always had lots of kids, lots of other girls. The black girls liked to practice braiding, for when they were older and could put in braids. We’d practice on each other at night.” I twirled each lock of hair to keep them separate, cupping the sections I was using in my pinkies. I started the braid, twisting the sections against each other rather than just layering them. “That’s how I learned.”
Once Lily’s hair was organized in a perfect reverse French braid and Sarah and Avery were engrossed in list making, I closed my notebook and stood. Carefully maneuvering around Lily’s piles of clothes I went into the bedroom I shared with Sarah, leaving them discussing what mixers we’d need.
A closed door muffled their voices, but it wasn’t them I was trying to shut out. I dropped into my desk chair and rested my head in my hands. I couldn’t get what I’d seen this afternoon out of my mind. I’d tried contacting the authorities, hoping they’d deal with Mr. Jones, but they hadn’t taken it seriously. I didn’t push the issues. I didn’t trust them, and if Miguel was doing something illegal I didn’t want them looking too hard.
I wondered if Mr. Jones mentally manipulated Miguel the way he had that girl Maria. I couldn’t imagine it. Miguel was too strong, too smart. But I also couldn’t believe that he would take money from someone like Mr. Jones, who was so clearly up to something fucked up.
Maybe Miguel’s disappearance had nothing to do with Mr. Jones and his market research center. I tried to believe that, but couldn’t. If Miguel had seen Mr. Jones touching one of the little kids he may have tried to step in and do something. Maybe Mr. Jones paid him off, or lied and said Miguel stole something so he’d get arrested.
I wasn’t going to get any more studying done tonight; I’d have to cram in the morning.
I picked up my duffle bag and put it on the bed.
Two pairs of jeans, borrowed ski pants, three long sleeve shirts, two t-shirts, underwear, a bra, and a pair of sweatpants were stuffed inside. My borrowed jacket was in the closet by the front door. All I had were canvas sneakers, but Sarah said she had some extra super-thick socks for me.
In twenty-four hours I’d see snow for the first time. I’d be sitting in a cabin with a glass of vodka and whatever mixer they picked, laughing and getting drunk. In the morning I’d pull on the snow clothes, layer on socks, and play in the snow with my friends, like some winter commercial for being American. The thought of the trip, which I’d been looking forward to, was now making me sick.
I shoved my duffle bag off the bed. I toed off my shoes and climbed under the covers, still in my clothes. Buried in my pillowcase was my rosary.
I pulled it out and began to pray, my lips moving, some words escaping as little puffs of air. The rosary was cheap plastic, the gilt on Jesus’ body long worn off.
Start with the cross. Benediction.
En el nombre del Padre, y del Hijo, y del Espíritu Santo.
The rosary and how to pray it were my only inheritance from my parents, the only Spanish I knew.
Creo en Dios, Padre todopoderoso, Creador del cielo y de la tierra. Creo en Jesucristo, Su único Hijo, nuestro Nuestro Señor, que fue concebido por obra y gracia del Espíritu Santo, nació de Santa María…
Some well-meaning police officer had plucked the rosary from the crime scene that had been my home and gave it to the social worker who’d taken me away when I was five. Or so my first foster mother, a Protestant woman who thought it was a necklace, told me.
Santa María, Madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros pecadores, ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte.
The words, the prayers, were inside me, though I didn’t know it until years later when I changed foster homes and attended mass, for what I thought was the first time. The mass had been in English, but the quiet click of beads and my foster mother’s murmurs had triggered a memory. Soft Spanish words, lyrical and familiar, spoken by a woman whose face I couldn’t see, but who smelled like cumin, came back to me in jagged pieces of memory.
I completed the rosary, kissed the dangling crucifix and begged holy Mary to cast her grace over Miguel. I prayed hard, with my eyebrows pressed together. I kissed the crucifix and started the rosary again.
The familiar words lulled me to sleep.
A stabbing pain in my palm woke me. I uncurled my fingers, wincing. I’d clutched the rosary in my sleep, the cross poking into my palm. The nightmare that had caused me to make a fist was a phantom at the edges of my mind, shapeless but menacing.
I checked my phone. No missed calls from Miguel. It was five a.m. I slid out of bed, careful not to wake Sarah, who was curled in her bed across from mine. I peeked out through the curtains. The western horizon was still dark, but the dawn light was chasing away the night, and overhead the dome of the sky was lavender.
I went to stuff my rosary back into the pillowcase, but instead found myself slipping the loop over my head. I grabbed my backpack and left the bedroom, closing the door carefully behind me.
My skin was sticky with sweat. My sweatshirt was twisted around my arms and neck, and my jeans were sliding down my hips. I tugged at my clothes until I no longer felt like I was suffocating, then tiptoed to the bathroom.
Hanging my rosary over the towel bar I stripped and jumped into the shower, washing quickly and hoping the noise wouldn’t wake Lily and Avery, whose bedroom shared a wall with the bathroom.
Quickly toweling off I then bent and brushed my hair. I caught sight of my face in the mirror as I flipped my head up, my wet hair gathered in one hand. I pulled my hair tighter, smoothing the sides up with my hands. There was Sia of two years ago, high tail gelled into tight curls. Trying to fit in by looking every bit the part of the tightly put together Mexican girl.
I let my hair fall, wet and black against shoulders that were undeniably brown and thought of Mr. Jones’ hand against Maria’s shoulder.
Most of my other clothes were packed, and I didn’t want to dirty the outfit I’d planned to wear for the car ride, so I shook out my clothes and put my jeans back on. Dropping the rosary over my head I watched it fall to lie between my breasts. The gold coloring in the crease between Jesus’ legs and along his neck caught the light. I put on my shirt and sweatshirt.
By the time I was done in the bathroom the living room was full of dawn light that filtered into the kitchen, dispelling the shadows.
I made coffee and curled up on the couch with the coffee pot and my backpack. I had seven hours before my final. Even with bathroom breaks, fifteen minutes to walk to the campus library when it opened at eight, and a stop for lunch, I should have more than enough time to study for my Bio 220 final. I opened my book to the chapter on the brain.
When the final was over I would go to the library and wait for Miguel. It was Thursday and we always hung out on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. Maybe my prayers would work and he’d show up.
* * * *
“Where have you been?” Lily demanded.
“Oh my God, I called you eight times,” Avery said.
My roommates’ exclamations buffeted me as I opened the door. There was a moment of silence when I felt them staring at me, then Sarah rushed over with a hug.
“I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.” I kept head down. I’d tried to hide my anger and worry before I opened the door. Tried to be nothing more than a college sophomore excited about winter break, but something must have shown on my face. My roommates looked from me to each other, their expressions changing from exasperation and anger to real worry.
“It’s okay, honey.” Sarah pulled me away from the others and petted my back. Though we were both sophomores, she’d traveled for a year before coming to college, was two years older than me, and sometimes acted like she was my big sister more than my friend. “Do you want to lie down or something?”
There were times it was nice to have Sarah worrying about me, and there were times I wanted to be left alone.
“I don’t want to make us any later. Let’s go.” I didn’t want to face them in the bright living room. I’d rather be curled up in the back of the car where I could hide.
“We’ve got the stuff loaded, your bag too. I hope that’s okay,” Avery said hesitantly.
“Thanks, let me grab a few things.” I rushed past them into the bedroom.
I dropped my backpack onto the desk and pulled out my cheap pre-paid cell phone. There were fifteen missed calls from Sarah, Lily and Avery, which I’d ignored as I waited on the bench outside the library, long past the time when Miguel should have shown up, and then hours more, when I should have been back on campus so we could leave for the trip.
Sarah walked into our bedroom and quietly closed the door. “Are you sure you’re okay?” she said, swooping her hair behind her ear.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Just a rough day,” I told her, smiling briefly as I unloaded my notebook from my backpack and stuffed in my headphones and portable CD player along with a battered CD case. It had been a Christmas gift one year. My other foster siblings had received similarly out-of-date electronics, so I’d assumed we’d been gifted the unsellable stock from some local electronics store. Sarah had sensed my embarrassment about it, and laughed it off, saying I was simply being retro. I stared at the blue plastic in my hand, unable to focus on anything else.
“Sia, do you want to talk about it? Did you bomb your final?”
I looked at Sarah, with her shining fall of blond hair and happy middle-class background. She was frowning in concern, her forehead and the corners of her eyes wrinkled.
I could tell her: Miguel disappearing, the market research flyer, Mr. Jones and the strange manipulation I wanted to call abuse, the authorities who wouldn’t listen.
“No. I’m okay.” I zipped up my bag.
“Were you with Miguel?” She said his name hesitantly.
“Miguel?” I whirled on her. “Did he come by here, why didn’t you tell me?” I’d mentioned Miguel to them a few times, telling them that he was my friend. When we were drinking they sometimes teased me that he was my boyfriend, but I always denied it.
“Sia, calm down.” She held up one hand, eyes wide. “I only asked because I know you hang out on Thursdays. Did something happen?”
“He’s missing,” I said after a pause. “I was the last person to see him. I went to the library and waited for him. I just really hoped he’d show up.”
“Oh my God, that’s terrible.” Her eyes were wide and a little watery. She really did believe it was terrible that he disappeared and that made my eyes fill up too. Sarah had never met Miguel, but she was more outwardly upset about his disappearance than any of the people in his life. She hugged me and I pressed my face into her shoulder, accepting the comfort.
I broke the hug, wiping my eyes with my fingers. “I should have called you, sorry.”
“You should have told me, I would have waited with you.”
“Do the police know he’s missing?” she asked.
“Yes, and his case worker.”
“Oh, then you have nothing to worry about. They’ll find him. They’re trained for this kind of thing.” Sarah smiled happily, the surety that the authorities would take care of it written all over her face. That wasn’t true, not where I’d come from, not where Miguel was now. My reality was—and maybe always would be—a world away from hers.
I was back to flipping between anger and fear. I held onto my anger, letting it fill up my brain. He should have contacted me, shouldn’t have left me guessing. It wasn’t my responsibility to look for him. We were friends, nothing more. My scholarship said I had to mentor him, not save him. If he wanted to be stupid and get messed up in something he could.
Except, he was supposed to be here, with me, so I didn’t feel so alone.
We piled into Lily’s SUV. Music, route and snack breaks were recalculated since we were leaving several hours later than planned. The music didn’t match my mood, and as my roommates sang along with an R&B hit I slipped on my headphones and curled up against the window to watch the light.
I woke up when the first two tires blew. Lily screamed and struggled to control the fishtailing vehicle.
“What happened?” I yelped. I held my head where it had knocked into the window as the car swerved, then ripped off my headphones.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” Lily chanted as she flipped on the hazard lights and slowed.
“That was scary.” Avery laughed nervously. She twisted in her seat to smile at Sarah and I who were in the back. “How’s the backseat contingent?”
“What was that?” Sarah asked.
“I think the front tires popped,” Lily said. I could hear a rhythmic thump, thump as Lily continued to drive on the blown tires. “I’ll pull over as soon as there’s a place.”
I rubbed my eyes and looked around. We were on a two-lane highway on the side of a mountain. I could see stars through the sunroof. I almost never saw stars. There was too much light in L.A.—light pollution they called it. I liked the light pollution, it was comforting, a way of knowing that other people were awake and aware.
There were two loud cracks followed by pops, and the car swerved violently again. The passenger side, where Avery and I sat, rammed into the guardrail and scraped along it with a scream of metal. My teeth clattered together from the force of the impact, the elbow rest slamming into my ribs. I could see the mountain dropping away on the other side of the rail.
I undid my seatbelt and lurched sideways into Sarah. “Stop, Lily, stop the car,” I shouted. I didn’t want to go over that cliff.
“I’m trying, I’m trying. Something’s wrong.”
“Pull to the left. You’re going to push us over the edge,” Avery yelled. Like me she was leaning away from the now badly damaged passenger side. My window was shattered, the fragments of safety glass still in place but rattling with the motion of the car.
Sarah’s hand was tight around mine, our forearms linked. “Just stop the car,” she shouted angrily at Lily.
The car swerved to a halt in the middle of the road, straddling the lanes.
Lily was cursing under her breath. She took her hands from the wheel, holding them up and out as if someone were pointing a gun at her. They were shaking so badly it looked as if she were vibrating.
“My heart is beating so fast I can feel it in my teeth.” Avery was holding the armrest with both hands. I watched her loosen her grip finger by finger.
“I have service, thank God. I’ll call AAA.” Sarah held her phone up to the window, then pulled out her wallet and started flipping through her cards.
“Why did we crash?” Avery asked, sounding more puzzled than upset as she calmed.
“Avery, shut up.” Sarah was looking pointedly at Lily. “We’re all safe, that’s all that matters.”
Avery shook herself and touched Lily’s elbow. “We’re only twenty miles from the cabin, it’s okay.” She rubbed Lily’s back and arm, urging her to put her hands down. “We’re not in the snow yet, everything’s fine Lily. This could be worse.”
The headlights were still on, illuminating an empty stretch of road. A figure, dressed in black and running at a crouch, passed through the light.
“Did you see that?” I demanded.
They stilled. As one they turned to look at me.
“See what?” Sarah asked, leaving a long space between the words.
“A man just ran across the road.”
“Sia, no one would be running across a mountain highway.” Avery’s hands were back on the armrest. “Don’t say something like that when we’re in a precarious situation. You’re making us all nervous.”
“Avery, I saw him.”
“Did you hear the noise?” Lily whispered. She hadn’t spoken since stopping the car and her quiet voice pierced the rising tension between Avery and I. We all looked at her. “Right before the other tires blew. I heard a sound. Two pops.”
I sagged a little in my seat, taking a moment to calm myself, then straightened, prepared for whatever was about to happen. I had heard the pops too, but hadn’t been sure until Lily confirmed it.
“Probably the individual you saw was just walking, there must be cabins around here.” Avery nodded, convincing herself. “The noise was the tires popping.”
They didn’t understand. My friends didn’t recognize danger, couldn’t see it seeping into the car.
“Call 911,” I told Sarah.
“Why?” Avery demanded. “It was only someone walking.” She whirled on me, looking almost angry that I would make this a crisis when she didn’t think it was. “The noise was the tires.”
“Avery, those were gunshots. The pops came before the sound of the tires blowing. Someone shot out our tires.”
My statement hung there, pushing against their understanding of the world. It took each of them a moment to accept that they’d gone from a reality where gunshots were for TV and movies to a reality where guns were shot at you and could kill you. I saw it on their faces when that started to sink in—a tightness around the eyes and lips for Sarah, Avery swallowed quickly and closed her eyes, Lily covered her face with her hands.
“I need to call my Dad.” Lily reached for her phone.
“I’m calling 911.” Sarah released my hand, gripping her phone in both palms as she grimly hung up on her last call and dialed those three terrifying digits. “Hello, 911? Someone is shooting at our car.”
I sat forward, my shoulders against the front seats as I scanned the road for a hint of the figure I’d seen. “Lily, call him later, you look out your window. Avery, look out yours.”
“I can’t see anything,” Avery said grimly. Her window had broken in the crash, same as mine, and was an opaque web of safety glass fragments. I put my hand on her shoulder and she touched my fingers. Her hand was ice cold. Less than thirty seconds ago she hadn’t thought there was a problem but now, based on nothing more than what I’d said, she’d gone into danger mode. I wanted to hug her, thank her for trusting me, but it wasn’t the time.
“Then you watch out the front, I’ll look out the back. Is there a flashlight?”
“G-glovebox,” Lily said, without looking away from her window. Avery handed me a heavy black flashlight, the kind cops carried, and I turned back to my seat.
Sarah was describing our location to the 911 operator.
I leaned over the rear seat, turned on the flashlight and shined it out the back window. Most of what I got was glare, but I was able to illuminate enough of the road behind us to determine the man wasn’t at the back of the car.
Sarah touched my leg and I looked over at her.
“Thank you,” she mouthed, phone to her ear.
I wondered if she was thanking me for taking charge, for forcing her to call 911, or for being a person who knew what gunshots sounded like.
My window shuddered as something slammed against it. I swung around. The window bulged, then fell in, scattering safely glass as the others screamed. Black gloved hands, one holding a knife, came through the window. I slammed the heavy flashlight on the wrist of the hand with the knife. The impact rattled my arm all the way up to my shoulder.
The attacker yelled in pain, withdrawing from the window.
“What is that, what is that?” Lily screamed.
“Lily, I can’t look, you have to tell me.” I wasn’t stupid enough to take my eyes off the now-empty window. I was waiting for the next attack, kneeling on the seat with my flashlight raised and ready. Shining the light outside I saw there was about ten feet between the car and the guardrail.
Beside me Sarah was screaming into her cell phone.
“There’s something on the road.” It was Avery who answered. Her words broke at the end, cracking like the windows. “It’s black. It’s in the air. It’s like fog…but it’s black.”
“Avery, that doesn’t make any sense.” My arm fell slightly as my attention wavered. I kept my gaze on the window, sure that was where the threat was, but now worried Avery or Lily would crack under the stress of the situation.
“It’s true, it’s true,” Lily moaned.
All Sarah said was my name but the horror in her voice had me turning, looking out the front window.
Spread across the road was a thick blanket of black fog. It rolled and swelled like the surface of the ocean but it was moving quickly, like a video of waves on fast-forward. The headlights didn’t penetrate more than a few feet and the fog seemed to be rising even as I watched, as if we were drowning in it. It was sickening to look at, the quick movements so unnatural that I felt bile rise in my throat.
“Sia, Sia!” Sarah screamed in my ear. I jerked around to see our attacker leaning in my window. In the car’s dome light I could see he wore a black sweatshirt and ski mask along with the black gloves. He was no longer holding a knife.
I aimed for his head, but he was ready for me, catching my arm and wrenching the flashlight away. His grip on my wrist ground the bones together. I fell off the seat to the floor. I twisted my upper body as I fell, breaking his grip. Scrambling back onto the seat I braced my back against Sarah, who wrapped her arms around me.
He came in the window again. I brought my feet up and kicked him in the face. Satisfaction filled me when his head snapped back. Faster than he should have the man recovered and grabbed my ankles. He started pulling me out through the window, my butt sliding across the seat. My jeans caught on bits of glass stuck in the door.
“No!” Avery screamed. She was backwards in her seat, clinging desperately to my pants. Lily had snatched the cell phone from Sarah, who was losing her grip on me as my upper body fell back, landing across her lap.
All I could see was a tangle of my own dark hair mixed with Sarah’s blond strands as she bent her head over mine. Her screams and pleas were barely audible over my own gasping breaths, which rattled loudly inside my skull. My arms were wrapped around Sarah’s waist above my head, but he was pulling us both across the seat.
I let go of her, ignoring her cry of “No!” I tried to hold on to the front seats, the seat belt connector, but I couldn’t get a good enough grip on anything to stop him.
I wiggled and thrashed, managed to shake my left foot free and kicked the wrist of the hand that held my right leg. The force of the kick sent shocks up my leg, but he didn’t let go.
“Help, someone help us!” Sarah screamed. She and Avery had grabbed the neck of my sweatshirt and under my arms. I could feel cold fingers at the back of my neck, almost strangling me with the added tension, but I was glad. They wouldn’t let me go.
He caught my left foot, jerked hard and my thighs and butt slid over the door. The small of my back rested painfully on the shattered pieces of glass. Sarah and Avery lost their grip on my arms, but scrambled to grip my wrists. My arms were fully extended, my body the rope in a game of tug-o-war.
“Let her go, let her go,” Sarah screamed. “Sia, hold on!”
I wrapped my hands around their wrists, tipping my head back between my extended arms to look at them. They both wore grimaces of fright and determination. There were tears on Avery’s face.
He jerked on my ankles and the jagged edges of safety glass scraped my back. I screamed in pain.
Sarah released my right hand, leaned forward, and grabbed my jeans. “Let her go!”
I couldn’t see it, but I heard the thud of a fist against flesh. Sarah’s body, which had been arched above mine, fell away.
“Sarah!” Avery’s fingers were squeezing my wrist.
My roommate lay limply across the backseat, blood tricking from her nose and the corner of her right eye.
The man dragged me the rest of the way out of the car in less than a second, Avery’s fingers scraping my palm as we struggled to hold on. I twisted and grabbed the door as I cleared it. He dropped my legs and I fell to my knees, still clinging to the door.
Blackness surrounded me, so dark it felt oily on my skin. I realized I was in the black fog and squeezed my eyes closed.
I knelt there gasping, trying to ignore the horrible sensation of the oily fog against my face and exposed back, where my clothes had ridden up. I heard him come up behind me and I shot out an elbow. It caught him in the thigh, but didn’t stop him. His arm wrapped around my neck. I clawed his forearm with my nails, acting on instinct.
His other hand pressed one of those plastic medical masks over my mouth. The air I breathed in tasted like plastic and cleaning solution. I continued to struggle even as the chemicals took me under.