If you’re looking for a creepy story that will give you goosebumps and remind you to always be aware of your surroundings, you’ll love Wendy Heard and her latest book The Kill Club. A story about a lost girl who is promised a new life in return for killing someone, this shocking suspense novel will have you obsessively reading throughout the night. Check out the stunning cover and the first three chapters of The Kill Club by Wendy Heard.
Something is on fire. I can smell it.
I pull my truck up to the curb in front of Carol’s little house. The street is quiet, the palm trees black against the charcoal night sky.
I roll down my window and inhale. Yeah. Fire.
Joaquin is giggling wildly next to me. “A whole cup of coffee. He spilled it right on his teacher. I thought he was going to die. Literally. Die.”
“Was the coffee hot?” I flick off my headlights.
Joaquin gasps. “Oh my god, what if it was hot?” A new round of hysterics seizes him. “And, Jazz, this kid is really shy. I felt so bad. It looked like the teacher peed her pants.” His laughter rises an octave. He makes a weird squealing sound that sets me off, and now I’m laughing so hard I’m crying. Joaquin’s told me about this math teacher, an authoritarian woman who carries a yardstick around like a nun from the eighteen hundreds.
I wipe my eyes. “Did he get in trouble?”
“Naw. She was actually kind of cool about it. Said it’s what she gets for drinking too much coffee.”
“That’s good.” I fix his long emo bangs, which have parted themselves dorkily straight down the middle. His hair is lighter than mine, more brown than black, like my biological mom.
“Stop,” he protests and squirms away.
“Do you want to look like the nerd you are?” I grab him and force him to let me fix his hair.
The porch light goes on. Our faces snap toward it. My stomach sinks like I’m on an elevator. Carol. The name, even the thought of her, fills me with dread.
“The warden is watching,” I say.
“She’s so crazy right now, dude, she’s back at that snake charmer church.”
“No!” I groan. “Not again. I can’t. I can’t.”
“She’s speaking in tongues while she’s making dinner and stuff. Abbadabba shrrramdabba hanna shackalacka…” He rolls his eyes back in his head and raises his hands. It’s a perfect imitation of Carol. “She needs to pray to be a better cook. She burned the mac’n’cheese yesterday, set the fire alarm off. How do you even burn mac’n’cheese?”
I shake my head. “She’s gonna try to make me go to church with her and repent for all my sins. Which is so tedious because, as you know, it is quite a list.” I flip my visor down and examine my reflection, fixing my own bangs, which hang shaggy over my dark eyes. My eyeliner is a mess. I lick a finger and try to do damage control.
Joaquin gets his phone out and checks Snapchat. “She took my Miley Cyrus poster. Stole it while I was at school.”
I shoot him a sideways look. “’Cuz she knows you’re jacking off to it, you little pervert.”
He elbows me, which makes me jam my finger into my eye. I cry out in protest. He shoves me again. I raise a fist like I’m going to actually punch him, and he cowers dramatically. I return to my eyeliner and he returns to Snapchat. He sighs. “But yeah. She stole my precious Miley.”
“In my day, we looked at the Victoria’s Secret catalog like normal people.”
He waves his phone at me. “Take some of the parental controls off this thing and I’ll just look at other stuff on here.”
“You know I’ve seen porn,” he drawls in his most grown-up voice.
They don’t prepare you for any of this. I turn toward him. “Just because you already saw it doesn’t mean I want you to have access to the whole internet in your room all by yourself. There’s some crazy shit out there.”
“Worst sister,” he grumbles. “Best sister.”
A corner of his mouth creases, mischievous. He has my crooked smile. “You’re conservative because you’re old.”
“Shut up! You little shit.” He knows I’m already feeling weird about turning thirty even though it’s two years away.
The front door opens and Carol appears, a slim silhouette against the golden living room light. “Time’s up,” I say. “I hereby release you from my gay dungeon of sin and return you to your pristine temple of Jesus.”
He grabs his backpack and pockets his phone. “Thanks for dinner.”
I capture him in a tight hug and press my face into his sweatshirt, savoring the scents of school and deodorant and laundry detergent. “I love you, kid.” He hugs me back, still sometimes cuddly despite the onset of puberty. I pull away and pat his cheek. “You’re due for a refill on your insulin. Meet you after school Monday?”
“What about your show?” he asks.
“I don’t have to be at the venue till nine. It’s plenty of time.” I grab his sleeve. “Are you taking care of yourself? Checking your blood sugar, tracking your carbs?”
“I’m fine. I’m being good.” Unexpectedly, he leans over and kisses my cheek. His face is smooth and soft. I know he wishes he had facial hair, but I can’t help being glad it hasn’t come in yet. “Stop worrying,” he says.
“But you’re my little angel.”
“Stop!” He crashes out of the truck onto the sidewalk. “My baby!” I cry after him. He pulls his hood over his head and trots toward the house.
I get out, beep the alarm on my truck, and follow him across the street. The neighbors’ pit bulls hear our approach and erupt into barking. Through the chain-link fence, I see their shadows in the backyard as they strain against their chains. I feel sick with pity for their eternal captivity.
The spring air is cool on my skin. I rub my arms, run my fingers over the tattoos that cover them from shoulder to wrist, and trot up the three concrete porch steps. In the middle of the dead lawn, Joaquin’s old play structure looks injured, as though it’s been frozen mid- limp in a quest to run away. Carol’s old Ford Taurus cowers behind the ancient Chevy that’s been rusting in the driveway since I lived here. This used to feel like home, but now it feels like returning to the scene of a crime.
Joaquin brushes past Carol with a muttered “Hey” and heads straight for his room. I get a rush of spiteful satisfaction at how much he obviously loves me more than her. It’s stupid; of course he loves me more. She’s the worst. But still.
Carol watches me approach. Her dishwater-blond hair falls lankly to her shoulders, her weathered face drawn into a frown. Her eyes drift down over my Trader Joe’s T-shirt.
“How ya doing?” I ask in a tight voice I never recognize.
“You had him out too late,” she says in her old-school smoker voice.
My hackles rise. “It’s only eight o’clock.”
She grips the doorknob. “While you’re here, I may as well tell you. We’re going to be skipping Sunday dinners for a while.”
“I don’t have time to get into this with you right now, Jasmine.”
I hold a hand out, but the door pushes forward. “That’s not our deal. If you’re going to cut Sundays, you have to give me a different—”
The door clicks shut.
I want to bang on it, bash it in and take Joaquin away from her. But I can’t. I have to just stand here staring at the door like a little bitch while she gloats over another in her endless chain of victories.
On the soft sand below the Santa Monica Pier, with the lights of the Ferris wheel sparkling in the waves, kids in sopping T-shirts screech like seagulls as they chase each other with bits of seaweed stolen from the sea. Devin rests his forearms on the splintery wooden railing and pretends to watch them from above. He’s really got his eyes on Amber.
A middle-aged woman leans on the railing nearby.
He catches her checking him out, and he shudders. Like he’d ever be interested in this soccer mom-looking cougar. He returns his attention to Amber.
Careful in her heels on the boardwalk, Amber weaves through the groups of tourists. She’s beautiful tonight, but then she’s always beautiful. Her fluffy blond hair flutters in the salty breeze, her smooth, round cheeks and lips cherubic in the colorful light that shines from the stores and restaurants. She’s still wearing the black dress she wore to work, but it looks like she freshened up her makeup. Her lips are a bright, blinking crimson.
She disappears inside Rusty’s Surf Ranch. Who is she meeting? Maybe her best friend; they hang out a lot in the evenings. Either way, Devin will make sure she gets home all right.
He knows Amber loves the Twilight Saga—she has all four books and an Edward Cullen poster in her apartment—and he’s pored through the series, learning what she likes and doesn’t like. One thing he’s learned is that Edward is always, always trying to keep Bella safe, just like Devin tries to protect Amber.
Devin pulls his baseball cap down over his eyes and enters the beach-themed restaurant. “Can I—” a hostess begins, but he brushes her off and heads for the bar.
He sits on a stool with his back to the room and orders a beer from a muscular, white-toothed bartender. He’s learned to dread service industry people like this after a lifetime of them soliciting his father with their headshots in restaurants.
Once Devin has his beer, he turns and scans the room for Amber. He keeps his face hidden behind his glass and the visor of his cap. This is out of consideration for Amber’s feelings; he’s perfectly entitled to be here. The restraining order expired three months ago and they won’t renew it unless he threatens Amber’s life, which of course he’d never do. Now that there’s no restraining order, Devin hopes they can move into the next phase of their relationship.
If this were Twilight, they’d be at the part of the book where Edward is keeping an eye on Bella, but Bella can’t find out without risking the Cullen family’s secret. It’s a risk Edward is willing to take. That’s how much he loves Bella, and this is how much Devin loves Amber.
There she is, tucked into a booth near the stage where a singer wails along with her acoustic guitar. Amber sits close to her companion, a handsome, well- dressed Asian man. Who the fuck is this?
As Devin watches, she awards the man a sunny, blue-eyed smile, baring snow-white teeth. Her wavy mop of blond hair cascades over her shoulders and around her cleavage.
Hot, angry heat burns through Devin’s limbs.
This is too much. He needs to take control, like Edward did in Port Angeles when Bella almost got herself raped by that group of guys. Yes, that’s the part of the story they’re in, the part where Edward takes control.
Someone sits at the bar a few stools down from Devin. He glances over and snorts out a laugh. It’s the middle-aged woman again. She gives him a shy smile. He wants to tell her she’s wasting her time, that he’s already got a girl twenty years younger than her and twenty times hotter, but she takes a flip phone out of her purse, opens it, and puts it to her ear. A flip phone?
Really? She’s poor and old. Well, she can dream.
Amber and the asshole finish their dinner and go on the Ferris wheel. They play games in the arcade. They stroll around the wood-planked pier. This piece of shit is barely taller than Amber. Devin himself is six foot one. Amber and her date take a seat on a bench at the end of the pier near a street musician with an electric guitar and a parrot. Beyond the musician, the dark ocean laps peacefully, and a full moon shines down on the water. She rests her head on her date’s shoulder.
Devin can’t feel his hands or feet. The jealousy that sweeps through his gut drains blood from every other part of his body.
Eventually they get up and stroll back toward the entrance to the pier. She leans into her date’s ear and says something, points to the arcade. The douchebag finds a pole to lean on. Amber turns into the arcade— oh, this is perfect. She’s going to the restroom.
Devin hurries past Little Dickwad, fighting the urge to punch him. He trots through the noisy arcade, past teenagers playing foosball and groups of girls in a video game dance-off. The back door releases him into the empty, restless night. A women’s restroom sign flashes brightly against the concrete beams and the stacks of empty crates and pallets. He slinks along the side of the building. He waits for voices, the flush of toilets, anything to indicate there are more women in the bathroom with Amber. Nothing.
He tiptoes through the door into the brightly lit, urine- and-bleach-scented ladies’ room. A row of four stalls stretches off to the right opposite two dingy sinks. One of the stall doors is shut.
Softly, carefully, he pulls the exterior door closed behind him.
The tinkling of urine hitting toilet water echoes around the concrete room. He hopes she’s using a seat protector. He doesn’t want to catch any diseases.
The toilet flushes. He tucks himself behind the door of the first stall. She should have a chance to wash her hands.
She opens the stall door and click-clacks toward the sink. He can see her in the mirror; her cheeks are flushed, and a small smile plays on her red lips. She dispenses soap and washes her hands in the sink. When she turns to use the hand dryer, she spots him.
Her cheeks go white. She gasps, trips over her feet and starts to fall. He jumps forward, heroic, and grabs her by the throat. She writhes in his grip, which makes her cleavage jiggle appealingly.
“No,” she screams. She thrashes, makes an animal sound, frees a hand, and scratches at his face. Her eyes are wild, panicked. He ducks from the clawing fingernails. She wrenches herself sideways, topples to her knees. He dives down, scrabbles to catch her wrists, her waist, but she spins away. Her shoes go flying. She launches to her feet and explodes through the exterior door, another scream tearing the moment apart. He jumps up and bursts through the bathroom door a half second behind her.
One of her hands grips the door frame and she takes a hard, graceful leap into the arcade. She pushes through a crowd of boys surrounding a basketball game. Devin follows. Blind fury. Rage. Bella doesn’t run from Edward. Bella loves Edward.
A foot sticks out and Devin crashes forward, bashing his chin on the linoleum floor. He rolls onto his back, hands clutching his face, bleeding, groaning in pain.
“The fuck you doing?” A group of Latino teenagers tower over him. The one talking wears a bandanna around his shaved head and has a neck full of tattoos that snake up onto his cheeks. The clang and clash of arcade games echoes against a loud background pop song and the smell of popcorn.
“You chasing that white girl?” The boy’s eyes are black in the colorful light.
“No,” Devin says. “Looked like you were.”
“She’s my girlfriend. We got in a fight.”
“Uh-huh.” The boy glances at the front entrance, where Amber has disappeared out onto the pier.
Devin pulls the neckline of his T-shirt up, presses it to his bleeding chin. “It’s fine. Everything’s fine.”
“Everything is going to be fine when you get your ass up and walk calmly out the back door and let your lady go on with her business.” The guy points back the way Devin came, which is bullshit. It’s going to be so hard to catch up with Amber if he goes out the back.
He glares up at the guy, assesses the group of friends with face tattoos, and says, “Fine. Can I go now?”
“Go on then.”
Devin gets unsteadily to his feet. His chin isn’t bleeding that much, but it hurts. It hurts. This is Amber’s fault. How could she? How dare she?
The bandanna guy shoves him away. “Don’t be a fucking psycho,” are his parting words.
Furious, humiliated, bloody, Devin shoulders his way through the arcade. He turns right out the back door and heads toward the Ferris wheel, which towers overhead, heavy with lights and laughter. Shoulders crowd him on all sides—did he accidentally get in line for this thing? “Excuse me,” he growls. He pushes through tourists and teenagers.
“Hey,” protests a young woman whose breast he’d accidentally elbowed.
Someone pinches his back, hard. He cries out and claps a hand to it, but it’s like someone is stabbing him with a pencil. “What the fuck,” he roars, but the world tilts sideways and all the oxygen is sucked from his lungs.
The middle-aged woman from the bar. She’s right beside him. She’s the one poking him. She gives him a cold, dangerous look, and the sharp thing stabs deeper into his back. He tries to grab at it, but his hand doesn’t work. His legs go limp. He grabs someone, clings to a young woman for help. She cries out. He drags her down with him, gasping like a dying fish. His body is in a vacuum; his lungs are being vacuumed out of his chest.
Pain sears his stomach and wraps around him like a snake. He opens his mouth to scream and vomit explodes from it. The vomit is frothy, dark with blood. He digs his nails into the splintered boards beneath him. His hand closes on a small, waxy paper cardboard rectangle. His eyes blur. Pain sucks his vision into a tiny pinprick. Voices swirl around him, panic and fragments of sound.
“He’s not—” “Call 911!”
“I think he’s having a heart attack. What do you do for that? CPR?”
“What’s he holding?”
Someone yanks the rectangle from his hand. “It’s a playing card.”
Through a layer of beige smoke high up in the atmosphere, the sun filters hot and hazy down onto the asphalt, and the air smells like burning plastic and stale campfire smoke. I almost get trampled by the horde of pre-teens stampeding out of my old middle school, a Spanish-style monument to the former opulence of East LA. A line of cars inches past, all of them covered in a fine layer of white ash.
The kids don’t spare me a glance; I look like many of their parents, tattoos and all. A group of girls brushes past me so close one of them jostles my shoulder.
“Watch it,” I snap. The girl gives me a dirty look.
A stocky man pushes a refrigerated cart through the crowd, beads of sweat rolling down his face. “Paletas!” he calls to the kids. A Popsicle sounds amazing in this nasty heat, but I’d never eat something sweet in front of Joaquin. I always tell him if he can’t have it, I won’t eat it either.
Where is this kid? I pull my phone out of my back pocket to dial Joaquin. It goes straight to voice mail, which is what it’s been doing all weekend. At the beep, I say, “Where you at? You better not have lost your phone. I have your insulin and I’m out in front of Hollenbeck.”
I shove my sunglasses on, fix my bangs, and search the sea of dark-haired heads for Joaquin’s. I spot Miguel and Antonio and wave at them. I expect Joaquin’s face to materialize between them, but when they approach me, he isn’t there.
“Hey Jazz,” Miguel says. I pull him into a hug and rub his shaved head. Grinning, I say, “Damn, you’re getting tall. What’s your grandma been feeding you?” Antonio gives me a faux punch on the arm, and I kiss him on the cheek. He’s a serious soccer player and is small, dark, and wiry.
“Where’s Keenie?” I ask. It’s the name we torture Joaquin with.
“He’s absent,” says Miguel. “I figured you were here to pick up his homework or something.”
“Absent? Why?” I look back and forth between them. They shrug. A vague foreboding takes root in my stomach, and I get my phone out to text him. I ask, “Did you talk to him this weekend?”
Antonio says, “We think your mom took his iPhone.
We haven’t talked to him since Friday at school.” I look up from the screen. “Wait, really?”
He nods solemnly. It’s clear this is a fate hardly worth contemplating.
“She can’t do that. I pay for that phone.”
They give me sympathetic looks. The injustice is not lost on them.
I heave a frustrated sigh. “She’s gone religious again. That’s probably why. She took his posters down and stuff.”
“Ohhhhh,” they groan.
A horn beeps. A man beckons impatiently from a double-parked Ford. Antonio hefts his backpack. “That’s my uncle. I got soccer practice.”
“You’re practicing today? It’s not healthy to exercise in this.” I gesture to the dirty brown sky.
“Got a game next weekend. Can’t take a day off!” He runs to the car and I say goodbye to Miguel. I return to my truck for a sweater to cover my tattoos and button it up as I weave through groups of kids congregated on the sidewalks. I catch a whiff of bad weed as I hurry up the stairs and through a high arched entryway into the administration hallway. A familiar stretch of rust-brown linoleum leads me to a glass-windowed door at the end of the hall. Above the door, a sign reads Administration. It’s silly, but this office still gives me the heebie-jeebies. Inside the main office, a grumpy-looking white lady behind the counter regards me over a set of turquoise reading glasses. “May I help you?” She obviously doesnot relish the prospect.
“May I speak with Mrs. Galleguillos?”
“Mrs. Galleguillos retired. We have a new assistant principal. What is this regarding?”
“My little brother. Joaquin Coleman. I’m supposed to drop his insulin off, but he was absent today, so I thought I could leave it for him in the office to pick up tomorrow. I’ve done it before with Mrs. Galleguillos.”
“And your name?” “Jasmine Benavides.”
“Take a seat.” She heaves herself up from the desk, pushes off, and limps toward a hallway on the left.
I sink into the proffered plastic chair with my purse on my lap. Inside is the white CVS bag containing Joaquin’s prescription, my precious cargo. A teenager occupies the chair next to me, a baby on her lap and a little girl in a stroller sucking on a chile mango lollipop. I flex my fingers, and the blurry skull and crossbones on my ring finger stretches.
A brown-haired woman in black slacks and a crisp white blouse emerges from an office. “Jasmine?” she calls, her eyes searching the waiting room. “Jasmine Benavides?”
I raise my hand hesitantly like a kid in a classroom. “That’s me.”
“Oh.” Her eyes scan me from head to toe as though the sight of me takes her aback. I realize I’m still wearing my giant aviator sunglasses, and I push them up onto my head. She smiles. “Sofia Russo. Come on back.”
I follow her through the short hallway to the office I remember from my own days here. A new placard has been stuck to the door that declares her to be Ms. Russo, Asst. Principal.
I sit in a wooden chair across from the desk, and she sits in her office chair in front of the computer. “What’s your brother’s name?”
Ms. Russo clicks a few things with her mouse and types some words in. She leans toward the screen. She’s young, around my age or just a bit older, and has pretty Mediterranean features with thick dark brows, high cheekbones, wide mouth, and lots of dark lashes. Her neck and chest are golden-tan against the pristine white of her shirt. She’s one of those women with perfect finishes.
“Here he is.” She click-clicks. “What grade is he in?” “Eighth. He’s thirteen.”
Her eyes light up. “Oh, I know Joaquin. He came in third in the science fair. He’s a great student.”
“Yeah, he is.” A little prideful smile teases at my lips. Just a couple months ago, I walked in on Carol reaming him for mixing household chemicals into a giant dirt
volcano in the backyard. “But it really erupts,” he was protesting.
Ms. Russo says, “I have you listed as an emergency contact. Jasmine Benavides. Correct?”
“Call me Jazz. Please. I hate Jasmine.”
“Okay. Jazz. But I don’t have you listed as a guardian.
That’s…Carol Coleman? Your mother?”
No. Not a mother. I want to scrub that word from her mouth. “That’s our foster mom. Joaquin’s adoptive mom.”
“Do you want to call her? I can’t dispense medication without her permission, but we can just conference her in, and then I can—”
“Don’t call her.” My head feels light. I don’t like sitting in this chair of judgment and laying out the details of our fucked-up family for this woman’s examination. Old feelings associated with being a foster kid are overwhelming me. Always the charity case, the subject of pitying looks, of disgust when I got lice first, of whispers when my clothes weren’t clean, when I got into fights.
“Are you all right?” Her voice is kind and warm, and I hate it.
I pull it together. “I’ve done this before. Mrs. Galleguillos knew us. Carol isn’t good with Joaquin’s meds, so we kind of worked around her.”
A knock sounds on the door frame. It’s the front desk woman. She hands Ms. Russo a few forms. Ms. Russo scans the forms and shoots her a sharp look. “When did these come in?”
“Counseling office just sent them over.” She exits unceremoniously. Ms. Russo bites her glossy lip and scowls at the pages in front of her. She flips through them quickly, one-two-three, then looks at the front page again.
“What is it?” I ask.
Her eyes flick down to my collarbone, where my chest piece, a set of wings that stretches from shoulder to shoulder, pokes out of the neckline of my sweater. Hesitantly, she says, “I don’t want to upset you. You’re clearly very attached to your foster brother, and you’ve—”
“Just brother,” I correct in a sharper voice than intended.
“Oh. I’m sorry. I assumed—”
“Same mother, fifteen years later. What’s this?” I gesture toward the papers.
She drums her fingers on her desk. “I’m struggling with the confidentiality protocols.”
“Why? What is it?”
“This is disenrollment paperwork.”
I’m confused, and I stare at her blankly for a few seconds. “Like, he isn’t enrolled here anymore?”
My head spins. “But…Why?”
“So he can be homeschooled, or that’s what it says here.”
“Homeschooled by Carol? She’s not a teacher. She can’t do math to save her life. She didn’t even finish high school.”
“I don’t think that’s a requirement to homeschool your children.”
I rack my brain, trying to make sense of this information. “But we already have his high school picked out. It’s a science and technology charter school. He’s so excited.” My heart pounds, panicked, furious.
“Do you think he’s in any danger? If so, we can call DCFS.”
“And say what? That I don’t think my ex foster mother is going to keep a close enough eye on my brother’s diabetes? That she’s not going to homeschool him well enough?”
“Are you kidding me? Do you think they’re going to— ” I’m breathing too fast. Even if DCFS took a call like that seriously, which is laughable, what’s the alternative? Sending Joaquin to some foster home where I’d never see him, where he’d have to start over the way I did, where unknown horrors might be visited upon him? It’s not like they’ll let me have him; it’s not like I haven’t tried.
I can’t be here.
I get up and leave. I pass the secretary, making her jump, and slam through the office door into the hallway, banging it so hard I almost break the glass. I push through a group of kids milling around a single plate of nachos in the hall, taking the stairs two at a time. “Wait,” a voice calls from behind me. I ignore it. A hand grabs my shoulder to stop me. I spin, muscles tense, and yank my arm away hard.
The hand belongs to Ms. Russo. She steps back, the look on her face wary and a little afraid.
The kids watch us with huge eyes. One of the boys claps a hand to his mouth.
I lift my hands in the air. “I’m sorry. Just don’t grab me. I’m sorry.”
The boy chants, “Fight, fight, fight,” loud enough to set the girls into giggling.
Ms. Russo shoots him a stern look that shuts him up instantaneously. To me, she says, “Let’s go back inside. I want to help you.”
“No. I’m going to Carol’s. I’m going to find out what she thinks she’s doing.”
“All right. I’ll contact social services first thing in the morning. We’ll get this figured out.”
“I’m telling you right now, they’re not going to do shit.” “Why don’t we take it one step at a time? I’ll call them, we’ll see what they do, and then we’ll figure out what’s next?”
She’s being nice. She’s not mad at me for being angry or for swearing. I feel bad. She’s just trying to help. “Okay. Call them. Thank you.”
“I have your phone number, correct?” she asks. “On Joaquin’s emergency card?”
“Yes. That’s my cell.”
“I’ll let you know how it goes.”
The brown, apocalyptic sky feels like an omen. This isn’t good. It’s not good at all.
I clutch the white CVS bag and tiptoe into the bank of knee-high weeds around the side of Carol’s house. Dusk is sinking slowly onto the city, cooling the air before it cools the ground. The thing about smoke in the air is that it makes for a beautiful, blood red sunset. I pause outside the house to watch the ruby turn to purples and grays, and then it’s just a dim, starless sky. I turn toward the backyard and let myself silently in through the waist-high chain-link gate. As I sneak underneath the kitchen window, my phone buzzes inmy pocket. I pull it out. Andre.
I swipe right and put it to my ear. “Hey dude, let me call you back,” I whisper.
His voice booms out of the phone. “Where’s the pile of cables we set aside? The extra long ones? Matt can’t find them.”
I turn the volume down. “They’re piled up by Dao’s pedalboard.”
“They’re not there!”
“Well then I don’t know! I gotta go. I’ll see you at the venue.” I hang up on him and return the phone to my pocket.
I creep through the tall grass to Joaquin’s window. This is how I communicate with Joaquin when Carol’s being really unhinged. We cut a flap out of the screen a long time ago. She went through a fasting phase last year and never understood that kids with diabetes can’t go without meals, so I snuck him food through the bars every day. It was funny; she couldn’t figure out why he was gaining weight. She thought Jesus was feeding him with the Holy Spirit. Nope, it was Jazz, messenger of God, feeding him In ‘n’ Out.
I lift my hand up to knock on the glass, but I stop. The window looks different. It’s a strange shade of dark.
I set the CVS bag down, grip the wrought iron bars, and pull myself up to get a closer look. The window looks brown somehow, patchy.
Wait. Is it…is it boarded up?
I jump down, get my phone out of my pocket, turn the flashlight on, and shine it up through the bars.
Holy shit. It’s boarded up from the inside.
My body snaps into action. I grab the CVS bag, wade back through the dead grass, slam the gate open, and charge up to the front door. I press the bell hard, once, twice, three times.
She answers quickly. Maybe she saw me coming. She doesn’t open the steel-and-mesh screen but stands behind it, one hand on the doorjamb.
“I need to talk to you,” I say.
“What about?” Her thin hair is tied back into a low ponytail, her chest gaunt under a baggy pink T-shirt.
“About Joaquin. What do you think? Why the fuck is his window boarded up? Why does his school say he doesn’t go there anymore?”
She sighs, opens the screen, and comes out onto the porch with me. She’s wearing her usual eighties jeans and dirty white sneakers. She gestures that we should sit on the stoop, and I sink down onto the concrete step beside her.
She looks me in the eyes. Hers are faded gray and lined at the corners. “I know you care about him. No one doubts that. But I am his mother. Not you.”
Those words are the hardest pill for me to swallow, and I’ll never, ever get used to them, no matter how many years go by.
My voice is rough. “Since you’re such a mother, do you want to do the doctor’s appointments? Deal with the insurance? Check his dosages? Because you’ve spent the last ten years pretending his diabetes doesn’t exist.”
“He hasn’t had any symptoms in years, Jasmine.” “Because he’s been on meds!”
“You have this need to be involved, to control him.
You need to let go. He isn’t sick. It’s you.”
The urge to do violence swells huge inside me, but I have to stay calm. I take a deep breath and force my fists to unclench. “Every holiday, it’s this bullshit again. You trying to give him candy he can’t eat, trying to prove he’s fine. He isn’t fine, Carol. He could die. Is that what you want?”
“Doctors can only fix the symptoms. God is the only one who can heal.”
“Diabetic ketoacidosis. It takes two days to set in with no insulin and would kill him in a week. Do you think this is a fucking game? Do you not remember what happened?” I’m on my feet now; I can’t help it. My heart is being raked from my body, my naked soul slick with fury.
Three years ago, before Joaquin got good at taking care of himself, one horrible Christmas found me kneeling over him in his bed, trying frantically to shake him awake. A urine stain spread out around him on the sheets, and his pulse was thready and irregular. I’d slung him over my shoulder and run out to my truck. That drive to the ER was the longest car ride of my life. Unwelcome images flash through my mind—Joaquin limp and covered in piss, flopping around under the seat belt while I tried to see the road through tears that fogged my vision almost to obscurity—
“And the Lord will take away from you all sickness,” Carol continues. “He needs to grow his faith, and he can’t do that while being fed lies at school, lies by you. He needs to be surrounded by the Word.”
“Is that what they told you at church? After they collected a tenth of your benefits check? Don’t you remember what the doctors told you last time? Or do you think it’s God’s will that Joaquin should die in a diabetic coma before he can go to high school?”
She stands up and brushes her hands on her jeans. “Romans 1:26.”
“And God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones.”
I push that aside to deal with another time. “This is not about me. You can think whatever you want about me, but—”
“I’m exhausted by you, Jasmine.” She lets herself back in the house and shuts the door behind her.
I bang my fist on the steel screen. “Do you want him to die? Is that what you want?”
I stumble backward down the steps, pull my keys out of my pocket, and grip them so tight they cut into my palm. I’m in my truck without knowing how I got there. I thrust the keys into the ignition and crank the manual gearshift into first gear. The truck peels away from the curb too fast. At Cesar Chavez Avenue, I slam the brakes, grip the steering wheel, and scream at the top of my lungs.
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