Authors: Vanessa Diffenbaugh
Judging by the looks on their faces, it was like she'd said she had to go to the moonâor back to Mexico.
“I'm sorry. But I've missed more than a week already. I can't miss another shift.” She paused, waiting for them to say something, and when they didn't she turned to Luna: “I'll get you ready for bed, and then you can watch TV. Alex will just have to tuck you in when you're tired. Or fall asleep on the couch, I don't care.”
Maria Elena never let them sleep on the couch, not even for a nap, and there was something about the suggestion that seemed to terrify her daughter. The color drained from her face. Letty reached out to hug her, but she wriggled away and pressed herself flat against the wall.
“What?” Letty said, growing exasperated. “Alex can take care of you for a few hours, you know he can. You were just home alone for a week and you were fine.”
But looking at them, she knew they had not been fine. Alex was still taking antibiotics for his skin infection and Luna had lost weight, and those were only the things she knew about. There could have been dozens of other near misses and nightmares between when she left them and when she finally got in touch with Sara. The buoyancy she'd felt just minutes before was replaced by a heavy weight. She didn't want to leave them, but what else could she do? Sara was the only friend she trusted, and she had just been with Letty's kids for days and bought her a plane ticket home. Letty couldn't ask Sara to come back barely an hour after she'd left, especially not when she had a class to teach. Besides, if they didn't get used to it they would all starve, and her parents in Mexico would starve too.
“Fine,” she said, turning away. The longer she lingered, the longer she negotiated with her daughter's pleading eyes, the harder it would be to walk out the door. “Sleep under the table. I'm already late.”
In her bedroom, she hurried into jeans and a fresh black tank top, scouring a pile of laundry for a clean apron and settling on a dirty one. Avoiding the mirror, she pulled her heavy hair into a high bun. When she walked out, Luna stood by the front door, her rain boots on, skinny knees bare below short shorts.
“I'm coming with you.”
“You can't come with me. I work in a bar.”
Luna tugged on one gold hoop earring, the way she did unconsciously in the middle of the night, whimpering from a bad dream. “You work at the airport.”
“I work at a bar, in the airport,” Letty corrected.
Letty sighed and reached out her arms, and Luna fell against her stomach. “I don't want to go. Really. But we have to eat. If I don't work, we don't eat.” She tilted her daughter's face up. “Okay? You'll stay for me?”
Luna shook her head no. Her eyes filled, and she started to cry, big gasping sobs. Was she mad? Scared? Or did she just want her way? Letty vaguely remembered a tantrum of similar proportions about a missing yellow sweater, but maybe she was remembering wrong. Really she had no idea, and was struck again by the knowledge that she didn't know her children at all. Alex stood in the doorway watching, and when Letty turned to him for help he shrugged his shoulders. He didn't know either.
Letty walked down three flights of stairs with her daughter hanging around her waist. In Building B, crazy Mrs. Starks paced inside her apartment. Letty could see her silhouetted against the blue light of the television. Her gaze dropped to the apartment below, where Mr. and Mrs. Ramos used to live. Mrs. Ramos, with the embroidered curtains and embroidered tablecloths and embroidered napkins and embroidered everything, with whom Maria Elena could always leave Letty in a pinch. But the Ramoses had been gone for more than a decade now, and no one had moved in to replace them. There was nowhere at all to leave Luna.
From the lit window on the third story, Letty saw Alex watching. He would take care of his sister. With a swift twist Letty broke free of Luna and started to run.
“Go home,” she shouted over her shoulder, but Luna sprinted after her, her short legs spinning in circles. Looking back, Letty could see the sharp bones of her daughter's rib cage heaving in and out, the veins of her clenched fists bulging in desperation.
You'll understand when you're older,
Letty wanted to yell back, but maybe she wouldn't, because Letty could barely understand herself. All she knew was that she needed to work. To do anything else was to risk losing what she had left, her job and her home and her children. Blood beat in her temples. She couldn't imagine how Luna was keeping up on her tiny, thin legs, but every time Letty glanced back there she was, gravel flying behind her in a wild spray.
Letty ran faster than she ever had. Her only chance was to get to the frontage road that ran along the freeway and turn before Luna could see her. Not knowing the way, she would stop running and let Alex carry her home.
But just then Letty heard a shriek. Spinning around, she saw Luna flat on her stomach, bloody hands lifted up.
She stopped in her tracks and ran back to where her daughter lay.
“What are we going to do?” Letty wailed desperately, idiotically, as if she were the bleeding six-year-old splayed across the road and not the mother standing over her. Luna didn't answer. Her eyes were shut tight, and she sucked in her lower lip, snot and silent tears running down her face.
Letty rolled her onto her back and then pulled her into a sitting position. “Oh, my God, can you even stand?” she asked, and when Luna stood, blood from both knees dripping into her rain boots, Letty asked: “Can you run?”
Luna hobbled, and then jogged, and then ran.
Reaching for her hand, Letty pulled her forward, and together they sprinted, their faces matching masks of fear, all the way to the terminal and into the airport bar.
here was blood in the gravel where Luna fell. Alex waited until they were out of sight before sprinting down the stairs, around the site of the accident, and all the way to the freeway. Without pausing he climbed the steps of the pedestrian bridge and continued, over the freeway and up the steep sidewalk into Mission Hills. Glancing over his shoulder, he could see his dark apartment at the end of Mile Road. He ran and ran and ran away from it, even as his heart pounded in his ears and he gasped for breath. He couldn't stop. His mother couldn't do it alone. When Sara saw his face she would know, and she would come back. She had to.
Alex paused at each corner, comparing the names of the streets to the map he'd internalized from a lifetime of sitting at bus stops. Every street in Mission Hills was named after a tree, and he passed them one at a time as he worked his way toward Sara's condo: Sycamore, Ash, Cherry, Elm.
All at once, he stopped running. Hands on his knees, chest heaving, he remembered the envelope beneath his mother's bed.
Wes Riley, 536 Elm Street, Mission Hills, California.
This was it. All his life he'd been waiting for the chance to see his father's house, and now, with his grandparents gone and his mother and sister at workâthis was the time. It seemed impossible his father could still live thereâevery photo on the Internet showed him with a different country as backdropâbut maybe Wes's parents did. And maybe they would help.
He meant to keep running, but he was tired and, all of a sudden, nervous. As he got closer, his steps slowed, until he stood unmoving at the corner of the five hundred block. It was dark already; he tried to make out the addresses, but the numbers were too far away. It could be any one of the oversize houses on the block, all immaculate, all with neat rows of flowers and bushes trimmed square under wide windows.
Crossing to the even-numbered side of the street, he walked from house to house, pausing in front of every quiet face: 512. 520. 524. Then, on a giant white house, in the place where all the other numbers had been, a sign:
WELCOME TO THE RILEYS'
The sign itself was almost too much for Alex. With one swift blow it destroyed every late-night fantasy he'd ever had about his father. They were poor, he'd decided, living in the only rotten house in Mission Hills, without even a crust of bread to share, or else his grandparents were evil, and had threatened Wes if he so much as wrote a letter to his son. These were his favorite fantasies, when he imagined his father didn't want to leave but was forced to by circumstances beyond his control. But a bright white house with a
signâthey were neither poor nor evil; they couldn't be.
Alex took in other details: a blue door, an iron balcony, wooden beams supporting a tile roof. The front window was arched, the high walls stucco. In a pot under the
sign a bright red bundle of flowers had been overwatered; dirt spilled in a line down the side of the pot and onto the cement porch.
He could tell by the dark windows and the empty driveway that no one was home, so he walked up onto the front porch to peek inside. It was dangerousâthey could be back any minuteâbut he'd waited all his life for this moment, and he wanted to see everything. Behind the glass he took in a polished wood table surrounded by glossy black chairs, and through an arch he made out the outlines of a kitchen, white floor and white tile and white appliances, everything as stark and bright as the exterior except for a round, bright green table. The table was stacked with what looked like dirty breakfast dishes, an open box of cereal beside them. Alex had an urge to close itâ
It's your stale cereal to eat,
he heard his grandmother say, as she'd said for months and years, until he'd remembered to close the box on his own and she didn't have to say it anymore.
At the far end of the porch, a wooden swing hung from the eaves. He walked over and reached out, setting it gently in motion. His mother had sat here. He was sure of it. He imagined her walking to Wes's house after school, her backpack heavy with books, and sitting here hand in hand with his father, watching the world go by. A
New York Times
sat open on the swing now, and he picked it up before setting it down quickly, exactly as he'd found it. No one could know he'd been here.
Just then he heard a noise behind him. A car on the road, slowing down, and before he could even worry about whether or not it could be his grandparents, he felt a pair of headlights slice his midsection, a car turning in to the driveway.
They were home.
He raced across the porch and was halfway down the front path when a door opened and slammed shut. Alex stopped in his tracks and turned to look.
But it wasn't his grandparents.
It was his father.
He recognized him immediately, the light from the streetlamp reflecting off his dark blond hair. He wore a loose set of pale blue scrubs, a highlighter tucked into the front pocket. He waited for Alex to speak, and when he didn't, he walked around the car and paused.
“Can I help you?”
A voice in Alex's head screamed.
Please. Help us.
But instead he shoved his hands in his pockets and backed away. He was looking at the man who'd left his mother, the man who'd spent fifteen years no more than a mile away but had never once come to visit, the man who'd held babies all over the world and had never held his own son. He could ask him to help, but it wouldn't do any good. He'd made his decision a long time ago.
“No,” Alex said. “Sorry. Wrong house.”
Wes stood still, looking at him, and before he could say another word, Alex turned and ran.