So I went to Esquivel Communications, hardly daring to ask my question, I was so afraid what the man might tell me. Sure enough, he had some excuse about not being able to make contact. I wanted to be sick. He was lying, and had been lying all along. He had seen me come through those doors a week ago in my dirty country clothes, asking to send a message to a remote mountain town, and he marked me for a fool. And I had been just that.
Suddenly I was angrier than I had been in a long time. But I waited, trying to keep my features calm and my breathing somewhat normal until the one other customer in the room left. Then I drew my gun and leaned over the counter. “You lying son of a bitch.”
He protested, of course.
With a single motion, I knocked papers, a bell, a small sign and a decorative Indian pot off the counter onto the floor. Then I passed the gun into my left hand and pulled out my hunting knife.
The man’s story changed a little. Now he really hadn’t been able to reach anyone near Castaño, but could’ve probably reached El Cid Academy if it hadn’t been for an equipment failure. “But it’s working again now, and of course I won’t charge you to send your message today.”
“You’ll refund every last thing I’ve given you and you’ll send that message now, while I’m standing here watching you.”
“Be reasonable. I’ll refund you half.”
“Do you know this knife can cut through bone? I’ve done it. It works really well.”
He took a step back. “But I don’t have your money!”
“I spent it. I’ll try to pay you back—I swear! But I’ve got a family to feed.”
“And I’m trying to get medicine for a kid who’s dying because you won’t get off your ass and send my message!” I stabbed the knife into the wooden countertop, then trained the gun on him, holding it in both hands to prepare for the kick. “Look. Just send my message. Send it now, and I’ll not waste any ammo on you.”
His lip started quivering, and words tumbled out, all confused and disjointed. Tears began rolling down his cheeks. He babbled something about broken equipment, school books, death, food, and taxes. Something about rent and mafia payoffs. “I swear, I really do think I can get it fixed by tomorrow. . .”
“So you lied about that, too?”
He nodded and sank to his knees, whimpering.
There’s something about such craven cowardice that makes me unwilling to waste valuable bullets. “Get up,” I told him.
Now he started bawling, shaking his head and trying to sink into the floor.
“I said get up!”
He was really howling now. I stood for a moment, totally unsure what to do. I sheathed my knife, walked behind the counter, and still training the gun on the man, in case he had any tricks, I tried to open the register. “What button do I press?” When he didn’t answer, I kicked him hard in the ribs.
He yelped and sniveled something I couldn’t make out. I tried a few more buttons and suddenly the drawer sprang open. It was full of money. This man didn’t have an honest bone in his body! For a moment, I rested my finger on the trigger of my gun, but what would killing him do for me? Or for Ishkin? I took some money out of the drawer, enough to pay myself back for all the unsent messages, then slammed the drawer shut. I kicked the man again and was satisfied to hear a rib crack.
And then I left, not trusting myself to stay even a second longer.
I hurried to lose myself in the chaos of the streets, just in case the man tried contacting the police. When I finally figured I was safe, I sat on a step in the shadow of a boarded-up doorway and had a good cry.
It was too much. I was an ignorant country girl with no education, no skills, no prospects, and the unasked-for responsibility of a dying boy on her hands. Why had I ever thought I could strike out on my own? I should’ve stayed with Auntie and tried to get an education at her school. Or I should’ve gone back to Will, who could protect me. I should’ve stuck to my first plan and run away with Robert, who has brains and connections and could’ve helped me make something of myself. Out here all alone, I couldn’t even figure out how to send a message.
The realization of just how stupid I was made me cry even harder, so that I didn’t hear anyone approach. A touch on my shoulder made me reach for my gun in a panic, but it was only Vince, bending over me and frowning in concern. I threw myself into his arms and he held me and played with my hair. When I finally stopped crying long enough to take a deep breath, he asked, “Are you done yet?”
I looked away, searching my pockets for a handkerchief. “I think so.”
He handed me a clean handkerchief out of his own pocket. “Sara told me about your brother. He must be pretty bad off.”
“I don’t think much can help him at this point.” I stuffed the handkerchief into my pocket, figuring he wouldn’t want it back until I’d washed it. “But it’s not just that. Ishkin is only a friend. I said he was my brother so the hospital would take him.”
We sat in silence for a little while, then Vince stood up and held out his hand. “Have you eaten yet today? I was just on my way to get something.” When I hesitated, he added, “My treat.”
I took his hand and we went to a dark and grimy café. I had no appetite, and I was afraid anything I tried to put in my mouth would stick to my tongue or become a hard lump in my throat. “Maybe just some coffee,” I told the girl behind the counter.
Vince raised an eyebrow. “She wants hot chocolate,” he told her.
I was too startled by this generosity to react, and even when we were sitting at a table in the corner, the mug of chocolate steaming in front of me, I could only stare at it.
“What’s the matter? Never had hot chocolate before?”
This made me smile. “Of course I have. We’re not total burros out in the country. It’s just. . . well, it’s been a long time.”
Vince tore into his sandwich, but kept an eye on me as I cautiously took a sip of the chocolate. The taste reminded me so much of the chocolate my grandmother made when I was a kid, that I was afraid I’d start crying all over again. “It’s good. Brings back a lot of memories.”
“Tell me some of them.”
“What, my memories?”
“I like to hear people’s stories, only most of the stories around here are the same.”
“Mine aren’t very interesting.”
“Tell me one, and let me decide.”
“I wouldn’t know where to start.”
“How about you tell me why you left your husband?”
“That’s a very long and complicated story.”
“I like complicated stories, so tell me. Then I’ll tell you one of mine.”
So I told him all about Will-- how he was a runaway who came to live with my neighbor when I was a kid in Valle Redondo. I told how he rescued me when Strecker led the Guard raid on our valley, killing hoarders like my mother and grandparents. And I told how Will and I had finished growing up together, sheltering first on the reservation and then finding work with Unitas.
“To me, he was my brother and my best friend in the world. It never crossed my mind he thought of me any different, until the day he asked me to marry him.”
“There must’ve been some sign he was in love with you,” Vince said. “No guy can hide it for that long.”
“There was a lot I didn’t want to see,” I admitted. “It all made sense later, but not at the time it was happening.”
“Why did you marry him, if you didn’t like him that way?”
“A weak moment.”
By now Vince had finished eating. “You shouldn’t promise a guy forever just because he catches you in a weak moment.” He stood up. “That chocolate smelled good. Want another one? I’m going to get one to go.”
“We’ll take them with us. I promised to show you a whirlpool, remember?”
I let him buy me another hot chocolate, this time in a paper cup. After we left the café, he pulled a flask from his coat pocket and poured a bit of whiskey into each of our cups. It made the chocolate a little less sweet and a lot warmer.
We walked through the business district and out toward where the buildings were spaced farther apart. And then we were among homes—big ones. Some had tile roofs, some were adobe, others were stone, brick or wood. Many of them were occupied by squatters, but some were simply abandoned, windows shattered and roofs partially caved in. Vince led me around to the back of one of these empty houses and climbed in a window. I drank the last of my chocolate, and with the whiskey burning in my stomach, I followed.
The house was dim, dusty, and freezing cold. Graffiti decorated the walls, and what few bits of furniture remained were scarred and broken. I couldn’t begin to imagine why Vince had brought me to this place, but the traces of old finery in chipped tiles and water-stained moldings fascinated me as we walked through the rooms. Then we were at a staircase that plunged into what seemed an endless black hole in the floor. On a shelf by the door were some old candle stubs, and Vince lit one and started down. “Come on.”
I hesitated. Did I really know this guy well enough to go into a dark basement in an abandoned house with him? It was stupid and crazy, no matter what my instincts were telling me.
Resting my hand on my gun, just in case I was wrong about him, I followed him down the stairs and into a room of tiles and chipped plaster, with a few dark hulks of old furniture and appliances lining the walls. Vince stood at the end of the room, his face illuminated strangely by the candle. “Here’s your whirlpool.” He pointed to a big square metal thing.
I shook my head. What was he talking about? I took a few steps and looked more closely.
“It’s a washing machine,” he said.
“But what. . . ?” And then I saw the tag on a corner of the panel, next to a round dial. It read: Whirlpool.
“What?” He set the candle on a chipped plate and held out his arms. “Come here and tell me what I am.”
I did. I’m still not sure why, except in that moment he seemed like the only man I had ever loved. For me, sex had always been by force or obligation, so choosing to enjoy his body didn't seem wrong at all. If anything, it felt like I had finally done something right.
We walked back toward downtown as the sun was setting, not saying much, but not needing a lot of words, either. From time to time I searched my feelings for any sense of guilt or confusion, but found just a deep contentment. I had been with a man and actually enjoyed it! Only one small matter worried me.
“Gitana will have it in for me if she finds out.”
“She won’t hear it from me.”
We continued in silence for about a block before Vince spoke again.
“You’re not mad it can't be forever between us?”
I shook my head. “I’ll be leaving soon, no matter what happens with Ishkin. Besides, I know the score. I already talked to Sara about you.”
He squeezed my hand. “Don't believe everything you hear, even if it's from my sister.”
He wanted to go the hospital to check up on our guy who was wounded the night before, so we got some hot soup to take with us. We parted ways at the hospital, with a quick kiss on the stairwell and an agreement that it would be best not to wait for each other and to each find our own way back to headquarters.
I’m sitting on my pallet now, with Ozone lying nearby trying to catch a nap before we do guard duty for the mafia group we helped the other night. Gitana is playing with her kitten, and Vince and I have been careful to give no indication anything is different between us. I would have thought such a pretense would hurt, but it only makes me a little wistful for what I know can’t ever be.
Well, it’s time to wake Ozone up and see what kind of trouble we’ll get into tonight.
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