Read Little Deadly Things Online

Authors: Harry Steinman

Little Deadly Things (7 page)

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“Don’t just stand there,” she said. “Come kiss me.”

Jim smiled and complied.

“Te
quiero,”
they both murmured. I love you.

“You look tired,” Jim said. “Hard day?”

“The usual,” she said.

Marta had been stricken with JRA—juvenile rheumatoid arthritis—when she was nine. The autoimmune disease provoked swellings, fevers, and rashes. It held a vise grip over her knees, elbows, and hands and lent a slight S-curve to her spine. On the days when it was difficult to stand, she used the herbs Abuela showed her in El Yunque, the rainforest.

Jim embraced her again and the two stood silently, each drawing strength and comfort from the other. “Don’t just stand there. Kiss me again,” Jim said, parroting his wife’s command. He held the embrace and pressed his face into her hair and inhaled. Then he kissed her again.

“Well, big boy, you’re in a good mood. Did you have a good day at work?”

“In fact, I did.”

“Something special?”

“I have something exciting to tell you. But I want you to keep an open mind, okay?”

Marta stiffened in his arms. “Does this something have anything to do with Eva? Did she come to see you today? Friend in need?”

“Marta, please. Just listen.”

“Every time you ask me to keep an open mind, it’s about Eva. That woman is toxic. Did she say that you owed her?” Marta looked at him and shook her head. “You don’t have to say a word. I can see it in your face. Well, you’ve paid your debt just by being her friend.”

“She’s changed. Just hear me out.”

“Changed? I doubt it. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. And I don’t trust her when she’s around you.”

“Marta—”

“Sorry, but that’s how I feel.”

“If it weren’t for Eva—”

“I know that. But she’s a thief and she’s carrying a torch for my husband. You expect me to welcome her back with open arms?”

“I’m hoping that, finally, you will. What she did was wrong, but she was young.”

The room went silent. Presently, Marta drew in a deep breath and exhaled slowly. She pinched her ear. “Okay. Tell me what she’s up to. Tell me why I should ever work with her again.” Her voice sounded resigned, but she stilled herself and listened.

He began, “You have to admit you two made a formidable team in college. Your work in biology, her work in chemistry, and her business skills? You did some good science.”

“I’m not sure it makes up for the rest. What makes you so sure that Eva won’t do the same thing all over again?”

“There’s no guarantee,” he conceded, “but Eva seems more mature than she was at Harvard. Maybe running a business helped her control herself.”

“No, that was the problem. She wants to control everything, and I don’t want to have to be looking over my shoulder again.”

“Look, Eva is the most driven person we know. When she puts her mind to something, watch out. All we have to do is keep her pointing in the right direction.”

Marta considered. “It’s tempting. Like a jewel heist is tempting. Okay, what’s her grand scheme this time? No promises. Just tell me.”

As Jim started to explain, Marta thought back to Harvard, to Eva, and everything that threatened to take her away from her rainforests.
Oh, Abuela, things haven’t gotten much clearer since our summer together. I wish you could tell me what I should do now...

      
03

___________________________________________

TAÍNA

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA
EL YUNQUE, PUERTO RICO
APRIL 2022

T
he night before she left for Puerto Rico—the day after the funeral—thirteen-year-old Marta Cruz asked her father about the old woman’s prediction.

Rafael Cruz didn’t seemed to hear her or had chosen not to answer. Marta thought he looked lost in his own kitchen, gazing without focus around the East Los Angeles apartment. Marta’s awards, drawings, and report cards covered one wall. A montage of photographs of a tropical forest covered another. Father and daughter sat at a worn grouping in the tiny kitchen, a table and three straight-backed, caned chairs. One chair was empty.

Marta moved with grace despite her limp, open-faced despite her sorrow. A halo of glossy black curls framed her pale skin, a remnant of the Spanish conquistadores who mixed their blood with the conquered—her father’s caramel-complected people of Mexico’s northern mountains, her mother’s broad-faced Taíno, the native people of Puerto Rico. A roll of the genetic dice and recessive traits from each bestowed Marta with fair-skinned beauty, a hint of Iberian bronze that would deepen in the sun. Delicate facial bones outlined sharp features. Her eyes, as dark as her father’s, were permanently curious and gave the impression that everything she saw was new.

“When I met your mother she was every bit as beautiful as you. Her hair was glossy, black, and straight. She brushed it one hundred times every night.” He gazed into his memories, then shook his head and turned back to the inescapable present. “That was before the cancer ate through her.” His voice trailed off.

“Dad?” She waited a few moments. “Dad? What about Abuela?”

Marta wanted to get her father talking again. It had been three days since her mother’s death, and he seemed paralyzed with incomprehension. He even seemed oblivious of her own grief. She thought that her future might as well have been buried with her mother.

Elena Cruz had been the daughter of one of the last of the bohique, a medicine woman of Puerto Rico’s Taíno Indians. But Elena looked past the flowers and plants and remedies that grew in the island’s rainforest. Television had shown her a different beauty, ersatz splendor, effortless wealth. A different sun shone in Los Angeles and the forest’s profuse bloom was reduced to a florist’s inventory. Dull smears of crimson replaced the sunset arcs of red, yellow, and violet—the Caribbean’s palette. That was before the night sweats and pain.

“Dad, tell me about when you and Mom met. Tell me about when you were happy. Please, Dad, that’s what I need to hear.”
If I have to leave my mother’s grave, I need something to hold onto.

Rafael’s face softened. He looked at her, and for a moment, Marta saw his eyes brighten.

“You know that you’re every bit as beautiful as your mother? No, more beautiful even.”

Marta felt her eyes moisten and wondered when her father would show his own tears. If he would only give in to his grief, then maybe he could see her pain.

“I met her when I was a busboy at a fancy restaurant for
los ricos.
I hated the white linens I folded before service and the white skin and white teeth of the people around me.”

“Dad—”

“Sorry. But that’s where I met your mother and it is where the story begins. She was the housekeeper for the owner of the restaurant. La señora’s house was in Malibu, by the ocean.”

“One night la señora asked your mother to help in the restaurant. It was her night off. One night every two weeks. But if la señora asked, then who was your mother to say no? I was told to drive her back to Malibu. It was a long drive—two hours!—and I wasn’t being paid for the driving. I knew it wasn’t your mother’s fault, but I was angry and I didn’t speak a word to her, not once during the entire trip.”

“When we arrived in Malibu, your mother pointed to a driveway that climbed up a steep hill from the coast. The house stood up on stilts, balanced on a hillside above the ocean. It looked like a shoebox with legs.”

“I asked her about this crazy house. She told me that the hillside turns to mud when it rains and the houses slide into the ocean unless they are on pilings. I wondered if these people were so rich that they could throw away their houses. The thought made me dizzy.”

He lapsed into silence.

“Dad?”

“Yes?”

“I miss her, too.”

“Oh,
mija.
My poor Marta.” Rafael reached an arm around his daughter’s shoulders. She shifted to wrap both her arms around him. Minutes passed as they clung to each other.

“I’ll tell you what I remember about Abuela’s prophesy and you can ask her for the rest. I don’t know if it will help. She speaks in riddles.” He thought for a bit and continued. “She’s known all over the island. When a child is sick or an adult is injured, they find her. When a wife can’t conceive, when a farmer loses his strength, they turn to her for one of her herbs. Even the other bohiques come to her for advice. She could cure anything. Anything except Elena.”

Marta stifled a sob, even as her head lay still on her father’s shoulder.

Rafael sighed and kissed her forehead.

“During our wedding ceremony, Abuela took a handful of herbs from an old leather pouch she carries around her neck. She put the dried leaves into a tin can along with a white-hot coal and placed it at our feet. Soon a sweet smoke enveloped us. I breathed it in and started to relax. I did not even feel the hands that lowered me to the ground.”

“I felt your mother’s presence more than I saw her. I saw our lives like two vines, braided strands. Hers was a rich, deep forest-green and mine was the dark color of good earth. Then we saw a new strand, a brilliant gold that outshone everything else. That was you,
hija,
that was you.”

Rafael shifted to face Marta. He reached and cupped her face. She felt the rough skin of his palms on her smooth cheeks. She hugged him tighter. He wrapped his arms around her and held her to his chest. She felt like she might break any moment.

“The vision—at first it was a beautiful dream. I was elated. But then I saw that this shining golden thread was wrapped with a black fiber that would choke it. That is when the vision ended.”

The shaking started gently. It built within Rafael like water simmering to a boil. For the first time since Elena died, he gave free rein to his grief and sobbed. Marta wondered how he would survive the summer without her. How would
she
survive? She’d be alone. Why did her mother make her promise? Why was it so important to leave her father and miss the last days of school? To miss the summer?

 

Elena Cruz’s dying wish was that Marta go to be with Abuela. Marta protested, “How can I leave Dad?” He needed someone, she said, while she thought,
Why am I being sent away?
But her mother was resolute. “Promise me!” she demanded in a hoarse whisper. “You must go to your abuela. She will help you grow. She will help your legs. Maybe you will learn something from her to help your father. He’s strong and proud but he’s so frightened. Please—go and be with Abuela.”

The flight to San Juan was a day-long course in agony. Her legs twisted in the cramped seats and pain ground through them like slow-moving knives. Gnarled swellings throbbed in her ankles and knees. She had a flu-like fever and a light pink flush dusted her skin in a way that would never be mistaken for a healthy glow. Lines of worry carved a map of fear into her face. She tugged at her black curls and then tucked them behind delicate ears, again and again.

Abuela waited as Marta stumbled into the terminal. Even in the jostling chaos of the crowd, her grandmother stood alone, unperturbed, travelers flowing around her like water around a rock. Marta was exhausted and was grateful to let the old woman take her arm and guide her through the airport.

Neither said a word along the trip to the northeast part of the island. Marta’s breath hitched.
If I start to cry now, I don’t think
I
could stop.

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