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Authors: Malín Alegría

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BOOK: Crossing the Line
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Melodee stepped right up to Fabi's face and sneered in a dead serious voice, “If I hear that you're talking behind my back, I will get you. I will get you so bad. You'll wish you were never born. Got it?”

Fabi nodded, trying not to breathe.

“Fine.” Melodee smiled smugly. “And can you do the whole school a favor and buy some new clothes?” she added with a cruel laugh. “Later, loser.”

Fabiola listened to Melodee's footsteps echo down the hall. She wished for the courage to break that little witch in two like a twig. This was a perfect example of why there were rules in school. She had violated the most important one: Don't wander the halls alone.

If only Georgia Rae hadn't moved. If only
Fabi
lived someplace else, somewhere far,
far
away. But wishing never got her anywhere.

The lunchtime bell sounded, interrupting her pitiful thoughts. Fabi sighed and gathered what was left of her self-respect and headed to the library.

 

After school, Santiago was leaning against the hood of his black truck in the Dos Rios High parking lot. Fabi raced up to him and gave him a great big hug. She hadn't realized how badly she needed to see a friendly face.

“Hey,
guapa
,” Santiago said, hugging her back. “You okay?”

Fabi smiled, trying not to show too much emotion. “I'm just glad to see you.” Santiago and her dad were the only ones who called her
“guapa
.” It was actually kind of embarrassing, since no one but her family thought she was pretty.

“So how was your first day? Where's Alexis?”

Fabi opened her mouth to tell him about her new art teacher, but just then Alexis appeared from nowhere and jumped on Santiago's back.

“Hey, Santi,” she said, grinning and hugging his neck. Alexis was literally bouncing with a radiant glow as her cousin lowered her to the ground. “Oh, high school is so much
fun
,” she went on. “I met so many cool people and they all wanted me to be their friend and they all wanted to sit with me at lunch. And you should see the mariachi group here on campus. They are so professional and they wear all-white outfits with green bows and red sashes. I told them I played violin and they want me to try out, but I also signed up for cheerleading and drama. Did you know that they do musicals here? And there's just so much to do I don't know how I'll find time to do homework! Oh, my, I need to practice. I can't wait to tell my voice teacher.”

“I didn't see you at school today,” Fabiola said to Santiago when Alexis finally paused to take a breath.

Santiago smiled, knowing he'd been caught. “Well, you know, I was going to come. After I dropped you two off and everything, I realized that I forgot this book I was supposed to turn in last year and when I got home —”

“Heads up!” someone called out.

Fabi looked up to see a football coming straight at her. Alexis screamed. Fabi raised her arm, ready to block the hit. But then a big, beefy shoulder banged into her, shoving her back, hard.

“Sorry 'bout that,” Dex Andrews said, attempting to help Fabi but all along staring at Alexis. He'd caught the football, of course, and was now casually tossing it in his hands as if nothing had happened.

Alexis was practically drooling like a lovesick puppy. “Oh, thank you so much for saving my sister from that horrible ball. I don't know what we would've done if you hadn't been here!”

“Yeah” — Dex smiled — “my boy has terrible aim.” He gestured to a pack of jocks laughing and making hooting noises twenty feet away.

“No, he doesn't,” Fabi yelled, pissed. “You did that on purpose.”

Dex turned to Fabi with a fake-worried expression. “Why would I do something like that? And to you?”

Santiago squeezed Fabi's arm and stepped in between her and Dex.

“'Cause you're a punk and that's what punks do,” he said.

Dex straightened up, sizing up Santiago. He was a foot taller and at least fifty pounds heavier, but that didn't intimidate Santiago one bit.

“Santiago Reyes!” Mr. Castillo, the vice principal and ex–high school football star, called out from the top of the stairway. All the students around them stopped and stared. “I heard you had the flu today.”

“I did,” Santiago said, his feet grounded firmly and his voice defiant. “But then I got better.”

Mr. Castillo obviously didn't believe him, but he let it slide. “Excellent, then I will expect you in my office first thing tomorrow morning.”

Santiago squinted his eyes tight just for a second. He did that whenever he was really mad and trying to control his temper. “Yes, sir,” he said, still holding his face up to Dex.

The vice principal looked at Dex and then at Santiago again. “All right, you boys need to go.
Now!

“Yes, Mr. Castillo,” Dex answered, turning to leave. But before he did he turned back to Santiago and said, “I'll see you around,
bro
.”

Santiago snapped, “I'm right here,
baby
, whenever you're ready.”

“Fabiola!” the vice principal called out.

“Yes, sir?”

“Get your cousin out of here. Right now.”

Fabi pulled Santiago away.

“I'm leaving already,” Santiago shouted, climbing into his truck. The girls scrambled in after him as Santiago angrily turned up the volume on the radio and peeled out of the school parking lot.

“I hate Mr. Castillo,” Santiago raved. “He's always trying to talk to me like he's my dad or something.” He stared straight ahead, lost in his thoughts for a moment. “He's just trying to score points with my mom.”

Fabi and Alexis said nothing on the trip home. This could not be a good start to the new school year.

S
unday was menudo day. Customers, young and old, came to Garza's after church for a bowl of Leonardo's tripe stew. Some claimed that it had magical properties — the ability to revive the soul, soften tempers, and cure a wicked hangover.

That Sunday after the first week back at school, Fabiola was busy busing tables, taking new orders, and topping coffee cups. Her sister was sitting with her grandmother Alpha, whispering. There was a stack of schoolbooks to her right, but Alexis was interested only in the latest gossip. Across the room, Grandma Trini was dusting the Little Rafa shrine with loving care as she softly sang an old love song,
“Un viejo amor, dadadidadadadida.”

“Time for another fill-up,” Grandpa Frank called out, waving his empty cup in the air.

“Yes, sir,” Fabi replied while carrying a bucket heavy with dirty plates to the back, where Chuy, her dad's assistant/right-hand man, was busy loading the dishwasher.

“How's it going, Chuy?” Fabi asked slowly. Jesus “Chuy” Mendez was born in Eagle Pass to a Mexican man and a Kickapoo Indian woman. But he was born at home and his father had taken him to Mexico, so he didn't have any birth records. Now back in Texas, Chuy was taking English classes in the evenings and looking for his mother on weekends. He liked to practice his English with Fabi because she never made fun of his accent.

“Many of customers to … day.”
Chuy nodded as a couple walked in, setting off the door chime. Magda showed them to a clean table by the door and motioned for Fabi to wait on them.

“Good morning,” Fabiola greeted the elderly couple as she approached, pulling out her order book from her back pocket. “Welcome to Garza's. Can I take your order?”

The woman with fine, short white hair smiled, looking a tad embarrassed as she glanced at both sides of the menu. “I'm sorry, but we're vegan,” she said in an East Coast accent. “We don't eat things made from animal products. How are your beans cooked?”

Fabi's eyes lit up. “Vegan? I've heard of that. That's cool. I'm a vegetarian.”

The woman looked happily surprised.

“Really, I am,” Fabi assured her. “And I'll be honest with you, most of our food is cooked with pork fat. But I can ask my dad to put together a veggie fajita plate or rolled potato and zucchini tacos, grilled in a little olive oil and topped with fresh shredded lettuce and diced tomatoes, green onions, and jalapeños?”

The man laughed. “That would be great. We actually didn't know what we were going to eat. Everything we've seen so far is big on meat and cheese.”

“Welcome to the Rio Grande Valley,” Fabi said, rolling her eyes in a friendly way. “I'll be right back with your water.”

The door chimed again and Santiago stood at the entrance, waiting to be noticed. In a matter of seconds Grandma Trini was screaming and rushing over, covering him with kisses.

“Ay,
mi
baby. What a miracle. Look at you. You finally show up. Where have you been? You been working out,
mijo
?” She squeezed his arms. “You look like you've been working out. You hungry? What do you want?” Trini turned to the kitchen and shouted for Chuy.

Santiago jumped onto the stool next to Grandpa Frank. He gently slapped him on the back. “How's it going, Grandpa? How's the coffee?”

Grandpa Frank smiled, revealing his gold tooth as it shined brightly. “Delicious.” Alexis and Abuelita Alpha joined them. Santiago's magnetic charm drew people to him like ships to a beacon on a stormy night.

Fabi headed to the kitchen. Her dad was mixing a pot of chili. His lunch was in the corner — untouched. “Hey, Pa, I have a couple here that wants vegan food. I thought we could …”

“Be-
what
?” her dad asked, annoyed. Customers rarely made special requests or complained. The menu at Garza's hadn't changed in twenty years. Her father saw no reason to tinker with what worked. “What's that?”

“Remember how I was telling you that I'm a vegetarian now and I don't eat any animals?”

Her dad sighed, moving sluggishly around the kitchen. Fabi noticed the dark bags under his eyes and wished for the millionth time that her dad would take some time off.
Ha! You can rest when you're dead
, he always said.

Mr. Garza came over to Fabi. The familiar warming scents of cinnamon and chili powder drifted into her nose as he put his hand on her shoulder and leaned in so no one would hear. “I don't know why you keep on with this diet stuff. I think you're fine ….”

Fabi pulled back. “It's not about diet stuff. I just want to be healthy, okay?”

“You don't think menudo is healthy? Look at me,” he said, and pounded his wide chest. “I eat my food every day and I'm strong like a bull.”

“Dad, it's not that,” Fabi protested, but she knew she was wasting her breath. Her dad was not going to listen. No one in her family ever listened.

“You tell those
be-ganes
,” he declared, his voice getting louder, “that if they don't like our food, they can take their business someplace else!” And with that, Leonardo Garza turned and dropped a heavy skillet on the industrial-sized stove with a loud clang.

“But, Dad,” Fabi pleaded softly.

“Go tell them!” he shouted, motioning for her to get out of
his
kitchen.

Frustrated, Fabiola went back to the customers and apologized. It was always the same thing with her dad. Every time Fabi tried to suggest something new to add to the menu — ways to attract different kinds of customers — he always shot her down. The couple was nice and left quietly. She watched them go, but was soon interrupted by her cousin.

“Hey,” Santiago complained from the counter, “I didn't order this.” Chuy emerged from the kitchen wiping his hands. “I said I wanted chicken, not cheese enchiladas.”

Chuy pressed his lips together nervously. Then he said, “No, you say cheese,” in his halted, broken English.

“You calling me a liar?” Santiago snapped. “You can't even speak English right. I don't know why you even work here!” He pushed the plate away as if it were something disgusting like roadkill.

“That is quite enough, Santiago,” Magda ordered sternly from behind the register. Although Fabi's dad was the king of the kitchen, the rest of the restaurant was under her mother's control. When she gave an order, everyone jumped — even some of the local customers. No one wanted to get on her bad side.

“Aw, Tía,” Santiago said, acting like nothing had happened. “I was just messing with him. You know how much I like this border brother.”

“Chuy is a hard worker,” Magda stated, putting her strong arms on her hips. “He works six days a week alongside your uncle and goes to school in the evenings. When are
you
going to come in and start working for all the food you eat?”

“Aw, Tía,” Santiago cooed again. “You know I'm going to do it. I love you guys. You're my family. I'll come in. I promise. I just need to take my car into the shop. Then I thought maybe we could all drive down to the island for the afternoon.”

“Santiago,” Magda scolded, but there was no anger behind it. “You know I can't take time off from the restaurant.”

“But even God took a day of rest,” Santiago urged innocently. Then he turned and called over his shoulder, “Isn't that right, Chuy?”

Magda shook her head. “Oh, I can't stay mad at you. Just get your food and go fix that dumb car of yours,” she said, shooing him away.

A car honked outside. “There's my ride,” Santiago said.

“Who's that?” asked Abuelita Alpha, peeping out the window.

“Oh, it's just some friends,” Santiago said, sliding the enchiladas into a Styrofoam box. “Friends!” Alpha said, surprised. “Isn't that Victorino Salinas's kid?”

Grandma Trini rushed to the door as Santiago was trying to leave. “What are you doing with the Salinas brothers?” she cried.

“Grandma,” Santiago tried to explain, “it's not what you think.”

“No?” Trini exclaimed. “Really? How do you know what I'm thinking?”

“They're just giving me a ride, okay?”

“Not in that car. Not with those people.
Con esa gente no se juega
,” Trini protested.

Alpha made the sign of the cross. “That's the devil's car.”

Santiago laughed. “Oh, come on, you two. I promise it's nothing like that. I just need a ride to the mechanic. If you want, I can call you when I get there, all right?”

The two old ladies weren't convinced. Alpha was praying the rosary silently with her eyes closed as Trini blessed Santiago with the sign of the cross on his forehead. When he'd finally managed to break free from the grandmothers, Alexis and Fabiola followed their cousin out the door and watched him hop into the black Cadillac Escalade with tinted windows. On the back window was a picture of a skeletal figure draped in a long robe and holding a scythe.

Alexis's breath caught. She turned to Fabiola with a scared look on her face.

“La Santa Muerte,”
Fabi whispered. Saint Death.

Inside the restaurant, there was a charged buzz, as if someone had kicked a hornets' nest. Locals were comparing rumors. Rudy, the used-car salesman, claimed that the Salinas brothers must be working with the drug dealers across the river if they were praying to
La Santa Muerte
, patron saint of drug dealers, prostitutes, and thieves. Liza Anzaldua, Fabi's older cousin, claimed it was all the marijuana they smoked that was making them crazy. Uncle Tito thought it might be a resurgence of Aztec culture in the new generation. But Abuelita Alpha was the most vocal and declared that
La Santa Muerte
was a devil-worshiping cult, and it had to be stopped!

Cherrio, an old friend of Grandpa Frank's, said, “What are you going to do, Alpha, take on
la mafia
? That's who's spreading that stuff, you know.”

“Well, I know the first thing I'm going to do,” Grandma Alpha replied, frustrated. “I'm going to church to pray. And if you are smart you'll go, too, Cherrio.” She shook her pale, wrinkly finger at him. “Lord knows the last time you went to confession.”

The old man shooed her off. Grandma Alpha was always scolding people for not going to church. Cherrio turned away from her and grumbled loudly into his cup, “Who made you Mother Superior?!”

Everyone started to laugh. The mood had lightened a little. Grandma Trini leaned in to Alexis and asked her to sing one of Little Rafa's romantic ballads. Alexis smiled as she danced her way to the jukebox and punched B-14. The high-pitched tones of an accordion melody erupted from the machine. Alexis hooked a microphone to the box and started to sway side to side in rhythm with the country beat. It was Fabiola's favorite song, “Cowboy Kisses in the Night.”

Then Fabi's jaw dropped. She couldn't believe it. Her dad slowly walked out of the kitchen, took off his apron, and handed it to Chuy. He never left the kitchen! Leonardo ran his fingers through his hair as he crossed the room and reached his hand out for his wife. Magda met his eyes and smiled shyly, like a schoolgirl, and followed him toward the makeshift dance floor — the space cleared when a couple of tables were pushed to the side. Leonardo and Magda glided effortlessly across the floor — they didn't have to look at their feet or anything. The door chimed open. But Fabi, like everyone else in the restaurant, was so mesmerized by the dancing that she couldn't take her eyes off them. Fabi loved to watch her parents dance. It made her heart want to burst with pride. She noticed Alexis grinning from across the room. Their parents were still so in love after so many years.

As the crowd whooped and cheered for more, Fabi turned to see if anyone needed anything. And that's when she saw Dex Andrews standing by the door. What was he doing here? Fabi's mom made a shushing sound to grab her attention. Even though her mother was in the middle of the dance floor, she still ran the restaurant with a stick. Magda gestured for her to go see what he wanted, and there was no arguing with her mom.

Dex stared at Alexis as she began to sing a new song, an upbeat
conjunto
classic. There was a strange look in his eyes.

Fabi didn't like it. She didn't like
him
, and especially didn't like him coming to her family's restaurant. Fabi marched to the table where Dex had taken a seat. “What do you want?” she snapped.

Dex smirked. “How 'bout we start with a menu?”

“Oh, come on, what are you doing here? We both know you don't want to eat here.”

“You don't know that,” Dex snapped back.

“Are you trying to tell me that in all the years we've known each other, you never once came to my family's restaurant, but now, all of a sudden, you have an urge for our food?”

“Maybe I never had a reason to come before,” Dex said, winking at Fabi.

So his reason now was her sister, Alexis? Oh, please! Fabi felt nauseous. “Well, we don't have menus. Actually, we're all out of food. Sorry.” She smiled back so hard her cheeks hurt.

“Oh, Fabi,” interrupted Grandma Trini, coming up behind her, “why are you acting so
maleducada
, and to such a handsome young man?” Trini pressed her chest forward. “And look at his letterman jacket.” She hit Fabi playfully on the arm. “He's athletic. You like athletic boys, don't you, Fabi?” Trini smiled brightly at Dex and purred, “You should really try the chili con carne. It's real hot and spicy. You like hot and spicy?”

Dex started to squirm, and his face was turning bright red. Maybe Grandma Trini was not so embarrassing after all, Fabi thought with a smirk.

“I'll be right back with your order,” Fabi said, and quickly walked away, leaving Dex alone with her cougar grandmother.

BOOK: Crossing the Line
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