Authors: Charles de Lint
"What did your Papá say about starting fights with Marina?" she asks.
I jump in before Ampora can. "It's okay," I say. "We're not fighting. We're just talking about Wildlings."
Elena crosses herself.
Oh, yeah. That's another reaction: The Wildlings are a curse that can be warded off with prayers and by burning candles to the saints. Elena's reaction isn't so different from how Mamá sees it, but she's not nearly as intense about it as Mamá.
There's footage running now on the TV of Congressman Householder being interviewed in his Washington office about the failure of his quarantine bill. Ampora points at the TV screen.
"There," she says. "It's guys like that who are behind this. Rich old white men."
Elena sighs and goes back into the kitchen. I don't like Householder any more than Ampora does. He's not even our representative, but I'll bet more people in Santa Feliz know who he is than they do the name of our own congresswoman. If you believe him, everything that's happening here is our fault and Santa Feliz should be sealed off before we start infecting the rest of the world.
"Well, he's not exactly brimming with compassion," I say.
"I could tell you what he's full of," she says.
I smile. "Are we actually agreeing on something?"
She pulls a face, gets up and stomps off to her room. The door slams shut. The girls and I enjoy the rest of the documentary in peace.
We're watching a dance competition with Elena when Papá finally gets home.
"I'm so sorry," he says when he comes through the door. "I tried to get away, but we really need to get this contract done and—"
"It's okay," I tell him. I put my arms around my stepsisters. "I've been having a great time."
"Elena said there was some trouble with Ampora?" Papá asks when he's driving me home.
I shake my head. "We were just talking about Wildlings. She thinks it's a big government conspiracy and I don't."
"Whatever the cause," Papá says, "it's a terrible thing to have happen to our young people. My heart goes out to the parents of those children who died in that laboratory."
"Do you really think Wildlings are a terrible thing?"
He gives me a sharp look before returning his attention to the road.
"You're as bad as the girls," he says, meaning Ria and Suelo. "They think it's wonderful, like those books that they've read a hundred times."
"The Animorphs," I say, referring to the girls' favourite series of books from back in the nineties, where superhero kids fight off an alien invasion by shifting into animals. Ria and Suelo can almost quote them word for word.
"It's not natural," Papá says.
"Maybe it's completely natural."
He frowns at me, then shakes his head.
"You really are as bad as the girls," he says.
"At least I'm not in denial about it, like Ampora."
"Ampora's stubborn—like her mother."
"Hey, she's my mother, too."
"You know what I mean."
I nod and look out the window. We drive under the I-405, leaving the barrio behind. Going away from the barrio always gives me a funny feeling—like a big part of what makes me who I am has to be stripped away to become the gringa Mamá thinks I should be. But I can't turn into a good little gringa. It doesn't matter that I live on this side of the underpass, or even that I'm a Wildling now. I'll never stop being the Mexican girl whose roots are deep in the barrio. I don't care what Mamá or Ampora think.
I'd love to come out of the Wildling closet, but that's not going to happen any time soon. I glance at Papá. Neither he nor Elena would take it well. Mamá would go ballistic and have me in church and praying for forgiveness every moment that I wasn't in school. But I'd love to see the look on Ampora's face. And the girls would be in my corner. It would be so much fun to share the secret with them, but that can't ever happen.
"You all right,
?" Papá asks.
I find a bright smile to give him. "I was just thinking of a history essay I have to do. I haven't even started the research."
A short, but gentle lecture on the importance of doing well in school takes us all the way to the house I share with Mamá and my stepdad.
"I'm sorry I was late," Papá says as I start to get out of the car.
I give him a big hug and stand at the end of our walk to watch him leave. I turn to go in and my phone rings. I check the display. For a moment, "Theo Washington" doesn't register. When it does, I press Talk.
"Chaingang," I say. "What's up?"
"We need to talk," he says.
"Not on the phone."
My pulse quickens. Something has to be wrong.
"I'm just getting home from my dad's place," I tell him. "And I'm still grounded, remember?"
"Can you sneak out later? I could meet you on the beach."
"This can't wait?"
There's a long moment of silence, then he says, "It's about Josh."
I stiffen as worry blossoms into full-out anxiety.
"Is he okay?"
"Yeah, so far," Chaingang says. "You sure you can't come?"
"Not for an hour or so. I'll get away as soon as I can."
"Call me when you're on your way," he says. "And sweetcheeks? Be careful. Make sure no one sees you once you're out of the house."
He cuts me off before I can tell him not to call me that.
I go into the house, trying to hide my worry. But it's hard. The last time Josh got into trouble we almost lost him for good.
It's almost four a.m. before I can sneak out. Mamá's had one of her restless nights and she's been up talking to the saints for ages. I've been taking catnaps, waking up every half hour or so to see if I can still hear the murmur of her voice. When I'm sure she's asleep, I put on my running gear and slip out of the house.
I'm not planning to actually go for a run—this is early, even for me. But it's a good excuse in case I get caught coming back inside. Officially, I got grounded for three weeks for staying out all night when Josh got kidnapped. Mamá thinks I was out looking for him, which she understands. She's only mad because I didn't call. But the reason I didn't call was because that little adventure took us into some whole Wildling otherworld that kind of sits on top of the one we live in. Or maybe it's side by side.
I know. I'm still trying to get my head around it, too. But the point is, there was no cell reception, so I couldn't have called even if I'd thought of it. Trust me, when you're that far out of the normal world, calling your mom is pretty much the last thing on your mind.
And then, ever since the news about those murdered kids got out, Mamá's been more protective than ever.
So I'm grounded except for school, going to Papá's and my early morning runs. No band practice. No hitting the waves. Mamá knows I'd rather surf than run, so even though I get to stay in shape, not being able to catch a wave is a hard punishment. Running doesn't even come close.
We live less than a block from the ocean. I send Chaingang a text, then let my Wildling senses flood out as I jog down to the boardwalk. My running shoes are almost silent on the pavement. I can hear the wind in the palms and the siren call of the waves. The air is filled with the scents of eucalyptus and brine and a thousand other smells.
I stop at the boardwalk and look around. This early in the morning, even the treasure hunters with their metal detectors aren't out. The machines aren't smoothing the sand. There aren't any joggers or dog walkers or anybody. It's just me. I love being out when everybody else is asleep.
"Hey, Marina," a voice says from behind me. "Thanks for coming."
I just about jump out of my skin before I turn to look at Chaingang.
"How …?" I begin, but I don't have to finish because I already know.
He didn't sneak up on me. He was already here in his Wildling mouse shape. He's probably been close by all night, waiting for my text. This has to be serious.
"No problem," I tell him. "What's up?"
"Let's talk by the surf," he says. "Less chance of anybody listening in."
"Will you stop being so mysterious!"
"I'm not being mysterious—just careful. Walk with me."
He grabs my hand and leads me to the shore, letting go when he sees he's got my attention and I'm staying with him. We walk along the water line. The waves wash in, erasing our footsteps almost as soon as we make them.
"Lenny Mount's dead," he finally says.
"Oh, I'm so sorry. He was the other Wildling in your gang?"
"How did it happen?"
"He was killed."
I remember how Chaingang told me this had something to do with Josh, so I say the obvious: "Because he was a Wildling?"
Chaingang shakes his head. "No, because he knew me."
"I don't understand."
"Some old-school cousin killed him as an example."
I stop and he does, too, but he doesn't look at me. His gaze is out on the ocean, tracking the slow progress of a freighter.
"An example of what?" I ask.
Chaingang finally turns to me. There's something weird in his eyes and it takes me a moment to figure out what it is. When I do, a chill goes up my spine.
Okay, this is Chaingang, so scared probably isn't the right word. I mean, normally nothing fazes him. But something's definitely got him spooked and I'm not sure I want to know what could do that.
"Here's the deal," Chaingang says. "Lenny was killed as an example of what'll happen to the people closest to me if I don't do what this guy says."
to the killer? And he's still walking around in one piece?"
"You don't get it," he says. "This guy's on a whole other level. He picked me up by the throat like I was some little kid. He could've killed me, too, right then and there, and I couldn't have done a damn thing to stop him."
"What does he want you to do?"
He looks away again. "He wants me to kill Josh."
My breath catches in my throat.
"Yeah," Chaingang goes on, "and it has to look like it was done by a human. Nothing to lead back to Wildlings or those old-school cousins. I've got a week to do the job. If it's not done, then he'll start in on my grandma and—other people close to me."
"This isn't making any sense."
"Tell me about it."
But when I start to think about it, I see a sick logic.
"You know what?" I say. "This must have something to do with how Auntie Min and some of the other cousins think Josh is some kind of chosen one."
Chaingang nods. "Poster boy for when the older cousins out themselves."
"Except some of those older cousins don't want that to happen."
Chaingang nods again. "One of them, for sure. And he doesn't want anyone to get the idea that Wildlings are involved. He was real serious about that."
For a long moment I can't speak.
"What—what are you going to do?" I finally manage to get out.
"I don't know. I've got a week to figure out who he is and then take him down. But I need your help."
His face closes down. "Hey, you don't want to get involved, no problem."
I put a hand on his arm.
"I didn't say that," I tell him. "It's just—what could
"Well, we need to know who he is, what his weaknesses are—if he even has any. I thought you could talk to Auntie Min. See if you can find out who he is. But don't come right out and ask her. Just kind of ease up on it."
"You don't think she's mixed up in this, do you?"
"I don't know what to think," he says. "All I know is I don't trust anybody except for you and Josh. And we can't get him involved. Not yet, anyway."
"How can we not tell him?"
"Because he's liable to fly off the handle like he did when the ValentiCorp people grabbed him. Or he'll get all freaked and that'll be a giveaway. I figure this dude's watching me. That's why I need
to talk to Auntie Min. He can't see me going to her."
"Yeah, I know," he says. "If he's watching me, then he's seen us together."
He actually gets a shy look, which might be the weirdest thing that's happened so far this morning.
He clears his throat. "I don't want him to figure out that I'm setting you up to warn Josh or any of the elders, so I was thinking we could pretend that we're—you know, seeing each other. On the sly."
"Like we're a secret couple?"
"I know. It's stupid."
"No, it's a good idea. But we'll have to sell it."
That catches him off guard.
"Sell it?" he says.
"You know." I step up close and put my arms around his neck. "Like this."
I stand on my tiptoes. He bends down and our lips meet.
I don't know where I got nerve to do this. I guess it's because, for all his big, tough rep, I've always felt that he has a soft spot for me. That I can do this and he won't be rough or take advantage of me.
But I'm not expecting it to be so
. No, scratch that. It's not nice, it's wonderful. His arms and chest are hard with muscle, but his lips are soft and by the time we break off I realize I've forgotten to breathe. But the best thing about it is the look in his eyes, so close to mine. I get the sense that he's drinking it all in, every moment, so that he'll never forget it.
I know I won't.
"That …" I have to clear my throat. "That should work for whoever's watching."
"Yeah," Chaingang says. "It sure worked for me."
But then he seems to catch himself. He takes a step back, but one arm stays around my shoulders.
"We should go," he says.
His eyes say we shouldn't. His eyes say we should just lie down here together and forget the world. And I want to. Oh, I want to. But wonderful as that kiss was, I know we can't be together. He's a drug dealer and part of a gang. He's been to juvie and his brother runs the Ocean Avers. I don't want any part of that life.
But if he were to step away from it all …
I don't let myself go there. You either embrace someone for who they are or you walk away. You don't try to change a person.