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Authors: Vanessa Diffenbaugh

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BOOK: We Never Asked for Wings
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S
he retraced her steps, 5 to 15D to 15, a map open on the passenger seat, where Maria Elena had been. As Letty drove she tried to imagine her children's faces when she walked through the door, but she'd spent so many years trying not to look at them that she couldn't picture them clearly. The fear in Alex's eyes she remembered, and the feeling of Luna's fingertips on the back of her neck when she crawled, late at night, into the bed they shared; but the features themselves were blurry. She couldn't quite imagine them. Instead, she tallied other details: Alex's straight-A report cards taped onto the ceiling above his bed, his white button-down shirts, Luna's long braids and the way she ate an ice cream cone, only the top half, while the bottom dripped in streaks down her arms.

She loved her children. It was there, under the fear, under the avoidance: a love lit with awe, so bright it hurt to look. They were perfect, in their own ways, and they looked perfect too. How was it possible—with the mud and dust of the Landing—that they were always so clean? It was something she should have asked her mother, the details of their bed and bath and school routines, but Maria Elena was hundreds of miles away already, probably cooking something for Letty's father in that big empty cave of a house. The thought of her parents there, speaking Spanish like newlyweds, made her angry all over again. They wouldn't even have had a home to go back to if she hadn't bankrolled it for so many years. And this was how they thanked her: abandoning her outright, without even a warning.

All night and all day she drove, staring out the window as cities stretched into deserts, deserts climbed into mountains. Light carved dusty villages out of the landscape, shacks made of corrugated metal and flapping tarps and walls of crushed cans, dark blue like the Jumex juice of her childhood. Hungry children and chickens scoured piles of garbage, and she thought about what the dishwashers at work told her:
en México ni hay nada que robar
. Nothing even to steal, they'd told her, and she'd thought she understood. But she hadn't. She'd understood poverty, seen violence and despair. But she hadn't known hunger. Even at her most desperate, most afraid—all the years the taxis and pizza boys and even the cops wouldn't answer a call from the Landing—she'd always known that just across the freeway there was another world, so close she could smell it, warm like spun sugar at the county fair, so close it seemed the wind could shift just an inch and it would be hers.

Which was worse? she wondered, as four, five, seven, twelve hours passed. Here, there was nothing even to steal. There, she had known, every moment, everything that could have been hers, and wasn't.

The sky grayed and then darkened. Shivering, she reached for her coffee, cold now, and checked her speed. The gasoline light flicked on. Letty startled. She'd filled up in Guadalajara (where she'd tried and failed, again, to reach Sara), and then stopped at a shabby taco stand by a small puddle of a lake, but the service station there had been out of gas. So she'd started up the mountain with half a tank. It had been a bad decision; a terrible decision, she realized now, as she scanned the vistas frantically for light. She had no idea where she was, and she had no more than forty miles before she'd be stranded alone on the side of a Mexican freeway in the middle of the night.

After ten minutes, her panic growing with every mile, she spotted a power line, and then a billboard, and not long after that, a gas station came up fast on the right. She pulled off the twisted highway into the dirt lot. The light over the single pump glowed orange and was speckled with the black carcasses of dead bugs. Underneath it a man sat alone in a folding chair. She saw the lit end of his cigarette first, and then the tattoo creeping out from underneath his white tank top and up the side of his neck. He looked her age, or maybe a few years older, his half-closed eyes evaluating her in a way that would have made her pull right back onto the road if she hadn't been so desperate. In neutral, she idled. Maybe two hundred yards farther, she could make out a small gathering of houses, a closed store. But there wasn't another gas station. She needed to fill up, and she needed to try Sara again. She had no choice but to stop.

The man stood up when she got out of the car and stamped out his cigarette.
“Cuánto?”

She dug into her pockets. At the last gas station she'd exchanged money, but she was almost out again. Setting her remaining pesos on the hood of her car, she opened the gas cap.

“As much as it will take.”

He stepped forward to take the money. The air that accompanied him smelled of gasoline and smoke, a lethal combination, and she was aware all at once of her black pants, too tight, and the low tank top she wore for the specific purpose of attracting attention behind the bar. He took her money and reached for the pump without ever taking his eyes off her.

She backed away. With her hand she made a sign like holding a phone to her ear. “I need to make a call.”

Gas ticked into the tank. He set the nozzle to automatic and pointed to a pay phone, glassless and graffitied, in front of a bathroom.

“Can you make change?” She held a twenty-dollar bill into the space between them. Snatching it out of her hand, he pushed it into his jeans before withdrawing a handful of coins from the same dirty pocket. He held them out to her.

It wasn't an even exchange, not even close. “More.”

He lifted one corner of his mouth in a half smile, his eyes on her face, her neck, and the thin strap of her tank top.

“Quieres más?”

The hand not holding the coins moved back to his jeans, closer to the button than the pocket this time. He was cheating her, but she was a woman alone in a foreign country in too-tight clothes and needed to call Sara, so she grabbed the coins out of his dirty hand and ran to the phone. Her heart racing, she fed the pesos into the machine so quickly they spit back out the bottom.

“Necesitas ayuda?”
His voice was far away, but coming closer.

She pushed the coins in faster, acutely aware of her position inside the three metal walls of the phone booth. If he got near enough, he could block her exit, and she had no idea what she would do then. She doubted there was anyone close enough to hear her scream.

He was only coming to help, she told herself, but there was something about his swagger, the way he looked at her chest instead of her eyes, that told her he could just as easily be coming to hurt her. Without waiting to see which it was, she bolted out of the phone booth, sprinting in a wide arch around the light and jerking the pump out of her car with one hard yank. Gas spewed everywhere. The handle limp and leaking, she dropped it on the ground, jumped into the driver's seat, and peeled away.

She'd been right to run.

His sharp whistle, as he watched her struggle with the pump, was enough to let her know. She'd been stupid, and she'd been lucky, and not for the first time in her life. Her jeans were wet in a line where the gasoline had struck her, and as the car filled with fumes she was transported back to the Landing, to the very last time she'd ever been left alone with either of her children.

She drove faster, trying not to remember, but there it was: Maria Elena and Enrique walking out the door, Alex almost two years old, crying as he woke up from his nap. It was a Sunday. Maria Elena had asked Letty to babysit, so she and Enrique could go to a church meeting, and Letty had pulled him out of his crib and taken him immediately outside, where he was always happiest. They climbed rocks and tracked footprints. They waded with nets and buckets, and then they wandered back to the parking lot, where Tony Morales was working on his car. She'd never liked Tony, and she might have gone straight upstairs if she hadn't, just the night before, had an epic fight with Wes on the phone. He'd called to tell her he wouldn't be coming home from college for the summer, that his father had gotten him an internship.
Why don't you come to New York?
he'd asked, which was impossible, of course, but when she'd told him that, he'd accused her of not caring about him anymore and being too afraid to tell him. Which was ridiculous.

That wasn't at all what she was afraid to tell him.

So there she'd stayed, lingering on the stoop, leaning over the open hood, half-flirting with Tony and half-watching Alex. He was down to his diaper, a heavy, sodden thing, and she kept trying to coax him to her with a shaker full of puffed cereal, but he wouldn't come, just continued through the maze of wrenches and tubes and rags littering the lot. He picked up something that looked like a giant pair of toenail clippers, then set it down and reached for a two-liter jug of orange soda.

Put that down,
Letty said, but he didn't, and Letty didn't make him. He started to drink. It was only after Alex fell, and Tony had begun to scream, that Letty saw the iridescent puddle, leaking from the soda jug and pooling by Alex's diaper.

It wasn't soda; it was gasoline.

By the time she reached him he'd gone rigid. She searched for a pulse but found only salt water, dried in rings around his pudgy wrists and ankles, and she pictured him as he'd been just an hour before, hands and feet in the mud, yellow hair lit up in the sun as if it had been electrified. Behind her, Tony pounded 911 on his cell phone while Letty watched Alex's cheeks turn white, then purple. He needed oxygen. He needed oxygen, or he would die, but when she peeled back his lips she found his jaw locked shut, tiny rows of baby teeth blocking his windpipe. She didn't remember deciding to do it, remembered only reaching for the screwdriver, and the sound of Alex's teeth, breaking, and then the infinite minutes she spent breathing through the toothless gap and waiting for the ambulance to arrive. He'd lived, and recovered, and even forgotten, but it was the last day Maria Elena had ever left her to be a mother alone.

—

The clock on the dash read 2:00
A.M.
It felt like she'd been driving forever.
I'm coming,
she wanted to scream, but she also wanted to give up, to curl up, to go to sleep. Why was she trying? It had been too long already, and suddenly she wasn't sure she was even moving. She checked the weight of her foot on the gas and looked for progress out the window, but the mountains were all the same, one after the next. Had she driven over this many mountains with her mother? She couldn't remember. It felt like an eternity since Maria Elena had been in the car beside her, not a single night. Up ahead a yellow sign warned of curving roads, and she moved one hand to her stomach, aching with hunger or fear—she'd never been able to tell the difference. If it was fear, good, it would keep her awake, and if it was hunger, too bad. She didn't deserve to eat and there was nowhere to buy food anyway. The children and the chickens crossed her mind, and she turned the radio on loud to drown out the desperate image.

Static blasted from the speakers.

She took her eyes off the road to adjust the dial.

Later, she would remember feeling a brief, powerful moment of peace just then, before she looked up and saw the sharp curve in the road and the headlights directly in her path, lighting the way forward.

P
us oozed from a wrinkled patch of scalded skin. Two days had passed, but if anything it looked worse: crusty and swollen and transitioning from white to a dull green around the edges. All the bandages in his grandmother's first aid kit were too small, so Alex left the burn uncovered beneath his shirts, patting it down with a tissue every few minutes, so the broken blister wouldn't soak through his sleeve. No one had noticed, but this morning it was starting to smell bad, and he worried one of his classmates might say something. Plus, he hurt all over, not only the arm with the burn but his head, and the back of his neck. Walking to school he'd started to shiver, though it was late May and sunny.

He might not have gone to school at all if it wasn't for Yesenia. They hadn't talked about it again, but today was Friday—the day she'd asked to come over to see the feathers. He couldn't risk skipping school for the first time all year and having Yesenia think he'd done it to avoid her, so he'd woken his sister up and, ignoring the pain, gotten them both ready and out the door as usual.

They had been shy in class all day, Yesenia's eyes meeting Alex's and then darting away, and when the final bell rang they both took their time packing up their things.

“Ready?” Alex asked when the classroom was empty.

They walked to the Landing in a line—first Luna, then Yesenia, and then Alex. Alex offered Yesenia his rain boots, but she refused, walking barefoot instead. Her heavy orthopedic shoes swung one in each hand, and he saw now just how thick the soles were, and uneven—a one-inch platform on the right shoe, a three-inch platform on the left. Her hips dipped with each step, her shorter leg straining to find the ground. But bare, her tiny feet were perfect. She'd painted her toenails purple, and the mud rising between her toes made Alex's heart pound.

The tide was way out; the exposed sludge had cracked. When he was a boy, whenever the water receded past the tip of the dock, he would point out the window and Enrique would grab a bucket, and together they would peer into the rivulets that formed at the bottoms of the cracks, catching the tiny crabs and fish and water striders swimming in circles, looking for a way out. Now a snowy egret had taken their place. It stood tall on its long legs, bright white and grand, its head bowed.

Yesenia slowed.

“Walk in front of me,” she said. “I don't like people walking behind me, especially when I'm barefoot.”

“Why not?”

“I just don't.”

They switched places, walking in silence until they reached the empty parking lot. Luna ran up first, and Alex told Yesenia to wait while he went to get a towel to clean her feet. He caught his breath while she wiped away the mud. He felt even worse than he did when he'd woken that morning, his body aching all over, but he didn't want her to know. Smiling too widely in an attempt to disguise his pain, he led her up to the apartment.

“Where is everyone?” she asked.

He'd meant to come up with a story—his mom was at work, his grandma was at a church meeting, something—but he was suddenly so exhausted, and so relieved to not be alone anymore, that he had neither the strength nor the desire to lie. He let his sister answer truthfully.

“They went to get my grandpa.”

“In Mexico?”

Alex nodded.

“When are they coming back?”

“My mom said today, but—” He paused, trying to think of a way to explain his mother that did not sound criminal: “She's usually late. It's better with them gone, though. My grandpa's protective of his feathers.”

Alex retrieved a lollipop he'd reserved for exactly this purpose and bribed Luna onto the couch. He turned on the TV.

“Stay,” he told his sister, and then turned to Yesenia. “They're in here.”

Yesenia followed him into his grandparents' bedroom, where they stood over the almost-finished mosaic. Her eyes grew wide, and Alex could tell she felt about the piece the way he always had, that they were standing in the presence of something miraculous. It shouldn't be possible to create such detail with something as imprecise as the tip of a feather, yet his grandfather was able to, over and over again.

“You can see how he starts, here,” Alex said, pointing to the ring of exposed wax around the moon. From the envelope of feathers on the workbench he pulled a deep blue feather, cut it half an inch from the top, and pressed it into the wax. It looked like a kindergartener had added the final stroke to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. He pulled it out again, turning to the black metal cabinet that stood beside his grandfather's workbench.

“He files them in here, so they aren't exposed to light.”

Reaching for the second drawer from the top, he glanced reflexively over his shoulder—he'd never looked at his grandfather's feathers without him there. He flipped through the files until he found his favorite. It was labeled first with the color, using a system Enrique had inherited from his father:
MINERAL RED 1033,
and then with the bird species and date found:
ALLEN'S HUMMINGBIRD, APRIL 2006.
The feathers inside were Alex's favorite, and had been his grandfather's favorite too, for being exactly the same color as the setting sun. The red-throated birds passed by en route to Mexico every year, and Enrique encouraged their visits with a web of hummingbird feeders forever full of sticky sweet syrup.

As he extracted the envelope from its file, a blue Post-it note fluttered to the floor. He recognized his grandfather's handwriting immediately and bent to pick it up. It was only two lines, the small, neat printing centered on the paper.

For my Alex,
it read.
Make wings.

“Wings?” Yesenia asked, looking over his shoulder.

Alex understood what he meant: use them. They are yours now, the note said, to have and to hold and to analyze and to deconstruct. Enrique knew his grandson wasn't an artist: on the most recent occasion he'd attempted to teach Alex the family trade, the day had ended in a four-part experiment mixing campeche wax with various substances—beeswax, candle wax, white glue, maple syrup—and then heating them at different temperatures and for different lengths of time. But he knew also that his grandson worshipped the feathers as much as he did, just for different reasons: Enrique loved them for the masterpieces he could create; Alex loved them for the clues they held to the world around him.

Alex put the note back where he found it.

“It means they're mine now,” he whispered. “It means he's not coming back.”

—

In the living room, Luna chewed on the now lollipop-less stick and jumped up and down on the couch.

“Stop that,” Alex said, yanking the stick from her mouth. “You'll choke.”

His grandfather wasn't coming back, which meant his grandmother wouldn't either. He imagined his mother charging in alone to find Luna impaled on a lollipop stick and Alex delirious from fever. It was more than she could handle. It was more than Alex could handle.

“But there's nothing to do,” Luna complained. “I've already seen this one.”

Alex was about to snap at her to watch it again, whatever it was, but Yesenia raised her eyebrows and nodded to the recliner pressed up against the window.
You look like you could use a break,
her eyes said. Which was the understatement of the century.

“I'll play with you,” Yesenia said, turning to Luna.

“You will?” She bounced off the couch and knocked right into Yesenia. “What do you want to play?”

“What do you have?”

“Yahtzee?”

Luna went to get the game, and Alex sank into a chair. He hadn't realized how tired he was, or how cold. With Yesenia in the house he felt like he could relax for just a moment, and he did, the sound of dice in leather shakers like a bedtime story in which all the kids were happy, and safe. Almost as soon as his eyes closed he fell asleep, and when he woke up hours later to Luna shrieking something about Park Place, he saw the coffee table had been pushed to the side of the room and a Monopoly board—along with every other game they owned—had been laid out in its place. It was dark out. Alex was sweating.

Yesenia looked up. His already hot face flushed. He was grateful to have her there, but embarrassed too. When he'd invited her over he'd imagined their fingers in the feathers, soft and maybe even touching, not Alex asleep in a chair and Yesenia playing endless games with his little sister.

“Are you hot?”

Alex shook his head. “Cold.”

Yesenia disappeared and came back with the blanket from his bed. He pulled it up to his chin, and Luna crawled onto his lap, wrapping her arms around his neck.

“Are you okay?” Luna asked. “I don't like you like this.”

“He's just a little sick,” Yesenia said, running her fingers through the knot of hair over Luna's ear, untangling it strand by strand. She turned back to Alex. “Are you hungry? There are taquitos.”

The heavy scent of hot oil hung in the air.

“You made them?”

“They were in the freezer. I just microwaved them.”

The freezer—of course. For two days they'd eaten everything raw and cold, corn tortillas with butter and jam, and beans and black olives straight from the can, Alex too scared to light the stove. But his mother couldn't cook either, and his grandmother knew it. She'd probably left a dozen meals labeled with instructions in the freezer, but he hadn't thought to look.

He shook his head no, his temples pounding with the effort.

“Did you eat?”

Luna nodded.

He let his eyes close, just for a moment.

—

When he woke again his sister was asleep. He felt her thin weight on his legs, her toothpaste breath on his cheek. Something was pressed against his lips. He opened his mouth, tasted powdered grape. He chewed. They're back, he thought, but when he opened his eyes it was only Yesenia.

“I'm going home,” she whispered.

“Will you come back?” His voice broke. It was Maria Elena he wanted, but Yesenia nodded and pressed both his eyes closed.

“I will. First thing in the morning.”

Minutes later, or hours, Alex woke to a sharp knock on the door. Yesenia had forgotten something. He thought of her muddy feet—maybe she wanted to borrow his rain boots after all. He tried to get up, but his hot body was heavy, and he was just starting to drift off again when the knock returned, louder this time. It wasn't his body that was heavy, he realized then, it was Luna, still asleep on him. Wriggling out from under her, he lifted her up and set her on the couch. He wasn't cold anymore. Whatever Yesenia had given him had worked. He would thank her, he thought, opening the door.

But it wasn't Yesenia.

It was Sara, his mother's best friend. And seeing her there, he knew. His stomach sank. They were dead. All of them.

“I'm sorry,” Sara said. The cell phone in her hand counted the seconds on a flat screen. Someone was on the other end of the line. The police station? The morgue?

“What happened?”

“It's your mother,” Sara said, holding up the phone. “She's been in an accident.”

BOOK: We Never Asked for Wings
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