Sneak Peek: IF BIRDS FLY BACK

Prepárese para el viaje (literario) de su vida y lea un repaso de IF BIRDS FLY BACK de Carlie Sorosiak!

Linny y Sebastian están buscando a alguien. Para Linny, es su hermana quien huyó sin decir adiós, y de quien no ha oído desde entonces. Para Sebastián, es el padre que nunca conoció. Cuando un verano fatídico los reúne en su búsqueda, ¿podrán concentrarse en lo que han encontrado en lugar de lo que han perdido

IF BIRDS FLY BACK es una magnífica nueva historia contemporánea sobre el amor, la familia y cómo seguir adelante sin soltarse. Hoy  tenemos los primeros cinco capítulos para que puedas comenzar este viaje emocional ahora mismo!


Get ready for the (literary) trip of a lifetime and read a sneak peek of IF BIRDS FLY BACK by Carlie Sorosiak!

Linny and Sebastian are both searching for someone. For Linny, it’s her sister who ran away without saying goodbye, and who she hasn’t heard from since. For Sebastian, it’s the father he never knew. When one fateful summer brings them together in their searching, will they be able to focus on what they’ve found rather than what they’ve lost?

IF BIRDS FLY BACK is a gorgeous new contemporary story about love, family, and how to move on without letting go. Today, we’ve got the first five chapters so that you can start this emotional journey right now!


CHAPTER ONE

Linny

If you watch enough movies, it becomes pretty darn obvious when momentous things are about to happen. Classical music booms ominously like thunder. A character bites her bottom lip and gazes meaningfully into a sunset. Everything unfolds in slow motion. Occasionally, there are swans.

In real life? No swans. Just a somersaulting feeling that blooms in your belly and works its way to your hands until your fingers refuse to function as fingers. Which is exactly what’s happening right now.

I blink, keep blinking, but he’s still there. Álvaro Herrera. One of the most enigmatic writers in the history of cinema. His book Midnight in Miami inspired my all-time favorite cult film. It’s even better than The Rocky Horror Picture Show, if you can believe it. Even better than that supercool biopic about a guy who carves through mountains with spoons.

But I’m not staring at Álvaro because he’s famous. I’m staring because he’s supposed to be dead.

The last time anyone saw him, he was at a party in Miami’s Art Deco District, and the next day—poof! No Álvaro. He stopped showing up for film openings, for lunches with friends. After three years, people assumed the worst.

So naturally I think I’m hallucinating, as all five foot six and potbelly of him sways unsteadily in the Silver Springs parking lot. Present-day Álvaro still looks like book jacket Álvaro: same brown skin, same brilliant smile, same black hair fanning across his forehead like a crow’s wing, except his hair’s probably dyed now because he’s—what? Eight-two? So old, he’s even wearing those white orthopedic shoes that my grandpa used to have. Behind him is a black sedan, and he turns and raps twice on the trunk with his knuckles.

This is the perfect shot. I can tell because my shoulders are tingling (call it a sixth sense or whatever). If I panned slightly to the left, I could get everything in frame: the slanted light filtering through the palm trees, the conch-shell pink of the apartment building across the street, the supposed-to-be-dead writer knocking on the mysterious black car. Every single thing is harmonious, intriguing, significant. In film, most people think that the big picture is what’s most important—the entire effect. But really it’s the smallest details: the sparkling glint of the windshield, birds swooping in the distance, that perfect shade of pink. Pair this shot with some fast-paced guitar music, and voilà—I’d have the opening to a kick-ass documentary, something to show UCLA’s admissions committee.

I should be whipping my video camera from my backpack, capturing the gravelly sound of Álvaro shifting like a shadow onto the curb. But I’ve found that shoving a lens into strangers’ faces is a good way to scare them away. (Or to have them toss neon-blue slushies in your direction. Either one.)

And I can’t afford to lose Álvaro Herrera. Not when he’s about to change my life.

Ten feet away, Álvaro is pawing the air as if grasping for an invisible cane. Even from here I can smell his liberal application of aftershave. I tiptoe closer to him—one inch, two inches. The banner above our heads reads OVER THE HILL BUT NOT OUT OF OUR HEARTS! Underneath in smaller letters: Welcome New Residents and Volunteers. He gestures to it and announces to me, “Este lugar esta hecho una mierda.”

“True,” I say, because this place is shitty. Silver Springs Retirement Community, a monstrous cement structure sandwiched between fancy condos in Miami Beach, is hardly the Ritz. Here and there are Art Deco leftovers, shards of marble and colorful geometric tiles, but most of the building’s beauty has been stripped out or jackhammered away. It’s what my sister, Grace, would call “a soul-sucked place.”

More Spanish flies from Álvaro’s mouth, and I hold up my hands to catch it, tell him my foreign-language skills are así así. Only so-so. Everyone assumes I’m Cuban or Colombian or Puerto Rican on account of my copper-brown skin and two feet of dark curls that Hula Hoop in the humidity. At least once a week I have to run through my genealogy when strangers chuck Spanish at me in the supermarket. I’ll admit, sometimes it’s annoying. “My grandpa was Nigerian” doesn’t immediately register in Miami Beach, where even the gas stations sell Cuban sandwiches.

“Ah, lo siento,” Álvaro says. He squints into the sun, woolly mammoth eyebrows blocking half of his vision. Then for some reason, he asks my name.

“Marilyn,” I say, extending a hand like I’m on a job interview. “Well, Linny.”

My name, chosen by my parents in a fit of nostalgia for past Christmases, when Great-Grandma Marilyn was still alive and kicking, isn’t so cool for a sixteen-year-old. Forget the Marilyn Monroe connection. (My parents certainly did; why else would they’ve named me after a white sex symbol?) Generally speaking, “Marilyn” is for older women with cat’s-eye glasses, for country club goers and savings bond buyers. Silver Springs is the first place I’ve volunteered where “Marilyn” actually fits.

I prefer Linny.

“Marilyn Wellinny,” he says, as if tasting the words. There’s something beautiful about the way his tongue curls around English, like it’s another language altogether.

“Just Linny,” I say.

He shakes my hand back, and it’s like squeezing tissue paper. “Tell me. Shouldn’t you be in school?”

“Um, it’s June . . . the summer.”

He lets the words linger for a moment and then swirls his head around, double-checking the season. “Sí,” he says. “So it is.”

Up close, I notice that a newly healing cut lightning-bolts above his right eye. (What’s that from?) The rest of his face looks gooey, like it’s sliding off his bones, and he has enough underarm skin to flap and fly away. His flamingo-patterned shirt is unbuttoned into an uncomfortably low V, revealing a serious tan and a sprawl of black chest hair. I wonder if he dyes that, too.

And then I wonder why I’m deeply contemplating chest hair. It’s just so . . . abundant.

Focus, Linny. Focus! “You’re Álvaro Herrera,” I say.

He laughs. “Sí.”

“And you’re going to live here?”

“Desafortunadamente.”

“Yes, unfortunately, but I was kind of wondering why you came back?”

He cocks his head at me, extracts a cigarillo from his chest pocket, and fumbles around for a match. “You ask a lot of questions.”

“Oh. Sorry, yeah. Sorry. It’s just—” It’s just what? How do I even begin to explain this?

A driver steps from the mystery car, yanks a suitcase from the trunk, and walks over to us, extending an arm for Álvaro to hold. “After you, sir,” he says.

Álvaro waves good-bye, but I follow them. Of course I do.

Because here’s the thing: my eighteen-year-old sister, Grace, climbed out of her bedroom window five months ago, and I haven’t seen her since. (There were no swans then, either; she disappeared soundlessly one night, as if slipping into a crack in the sky.) Feeling very much like an unwanted sofa left at the curb, I tried everything I could think of to reel her back: calling a hundred motels in cities where I suspected she was, tracking activity on her credit card, placing ads on missing-people websites, checking and rechecking to see if she reactivated her phone plan. For three days the police shuffled in and out of Grace’s room; my parents clung to each other; we’re not prayer people, but we prayed.

Nothing happened.

So I started a log of people who disappeared and came back. To say I’m obsessed is like saying Martin Scorsese is sort of a good director (i.e., a vast understatement). I spend an unfathomable amount of time trolling the internet, collecting stories about mysterious reappearances; other people have hobbies like beach volleyball and croquet—I have movies and my Journal of Lost and Found. My thinking is, if I can discover why people return, then I can figure out a way to bring Grace home. But until right now, I’d never actually witnessed a person reenter the world. More than a miracle, Álvaro feels like my miracle, because if he can swoop back into this life, then my sister can, too.

My sister will. I’ve never been more certain of anything.

When we were in elementary school, our friend Cass had a ginormous Map of the World rug on her bedroom floor, and every day after class, the three of us would grab hands, close our eyes, and spin on top of it, promising that no matter where our feet eventually stopped, we would travel there together someday. Turkmenistan, Chad, the middle of the Indian Ocean—it didn’t matter. Right before the spin, Grace would grip my hand extra, extra hard so she didn’t fly away without me.

That’s how I know she’s coming back.

In the Silver Springs lobby, the driver politely drops the luggage with a “You’re here, señor,” and Álvaro pays him with a fifty-dollar bill.

To a nurse behind the front desk, Álvaro says, “¡Estoy aquí!”

A purple badge on the nurse’s substantial chest indicates her name is Marla, and she’s Happy to Help. Her expression, puckered up like a tortoise’s, suggests otherwise. A few banana fritters rest half eaten near her keyboard. “Honey,” she says. “Ooooh no, honey. Gracias and hola’s the only Spanish I know. So let’s try it in English.”

“I’m here,” he says again.

Marla says, “All right, honey. Let me just get your welcome packet and fix you up and then we can—”

But Álvaro is already shifting away, leaving his luggage in the lobby like a stood-up prom date. A nurses’ aide follows him down the hall, calling, “Señor Herrera! Señor Herrera!

Marla pushes back her chair, revealing her yoga-ball girth, and peers at me over the desk. Sugary fritter residue glistens on her fingers as she licks them one by one in between. “Can . . . I . . . help . . . you?”

Oh, right. Me. Probably acting extremely suspicious here. I tug at my white T-shirt. “Yeah, please. I’m one of the new volunteers. Linny Carson.”

“Ah!” she says, friendlier. “Got us another high school do-gooder! Lord, I can’t believe it’s that time of year already!” Grabbing a clipboard, she flips through a numbered list. “I’ve got a Marilyn Carson here. That you, honey?”

I nod reluctantly, craning my neck around the corner. Did Álvaro make a left or a right?

“You overachiever beavers put me to shame!” Marla howls. “When I was y’all’s age, growing up in Georgia, we just hung out at the beach.” She tells me to leave my backpack behind her desk and then makes a “follow me” motion. I trail behind the twitch of her butt cheeks.

Silver Springs is laid out like an octopus: a gigantic
mid­section with corridors like tentacles. The hallways are cramped, claustrophobic, and confusing. I keep hoping that Álvaro Herrera will pop out somewhere, lost, asking for a map, but I only see four or five residents. As if on cue, Marla says, “Most of them are baking by the pool like chickens. Days like this, we herd them out there. Get some sunshine in their veins!” She pulls at her chest. “These scrubs do not breathe! I’m sweating. You sweating?”

I have a near-constant stream trickling between my boobs. The summer’s already the kind of hot that makes a nudist colony seem mildly appealing. It’s Florida, I want to tell her. Everyone’s sweating.

A gust of scorched air smacks our faces as we step into the courtyard, where at least a hundred residents are sprinkled across the concrete. Ever seen Birdman of Alcatraz? Somehow Silver Springs reminds me of a prison movie. There’s a pool, but no one’s swimming. On the back wall is a faded mural of the ocean, and I can’t help but wonder: when was the last time these people saw the real beach? It’s only two blocks away.

Marla says that for the next three hours I’m to introduce myself around the courtyard and “make friends.” Handing me a sticky “I Am a Volunteer” badge, she adds, “My fritters are getting cold. You all right here?”

Am I? I vaguely nod, although all I can think about are the residents dead asleep in the courtyard. Mummifying in the sun. They are left-behinds, just like me. Their children—maybe their grandchildren, or their partners—have stuck them here and skipped off to better things.

When it comes to movies, I’m drawn to drama like this (complications, grittiness, imperfect relationships), but in real life, these things are far from stellar. I didn’t fully understand that until dysfunction found my family, tapping us on the shoulders and dumping a bundle of grief into our laps.

Hey, wait a second.

The Left-Behinds. That’s actually a decent title for my screenplay. I started it a few months ago—to process what happened to my family, what happened to Grace, what’s still happening to me. Okay, this might sound a little hokey, but ever since my sister disappeared, I’ve been living in black and white. Full-on classic movie without any of the good bits. It’s the sad channel, twenty-four seven.

I’m convinced that when Grace left, she dragged all the color with her.

I’m convinced that Álvaro’s going to help me get it back.

THE LEFT-BEHINDS (scene 1)

Open on:
GRACE’S BEDROOM—LATE EVENING

The room is bright and remarkably colorful: vibrant greens, yellows, and blues.

A full moon hangs high in the sky as GRACE, guitar slung over one shoulder, opens the window and climbs halfway out. On the windowsill, she leaves a cup attached to a long line of string. Another cup is in her hand. As she launches into the air, yellow-feathered wings unfold from beneath her sundress.

She is gone in an instant.

The room quickly fades to black and white.

An unspecified amount of time later, LINNY appears and picks up the cup, transfixed. She begins to whisper into it.

LINNY

Where did you go?

(beat)

Grace? Where did you go?

A pause before GRACE’s voice trickles down the string.

GRACE

You remember when Mom used to read us Where the Wild Things Are?

LINNY

Yes?

GRACE

It’s nothing like that.

LINNY

Oh.

GRACE

Hey, cheer up.

LINNY

I can’t. It’s like you disappear a hundred times a day.

GRACE

What do you mean?

LINNY

Well, I could be brushing my teeth or doing my laundry or painting my toenails, and a memory of you will explode inside my chest.

GRACE
(remorseful)

Sounds painful.

LINNY

It is. Like, remember how you used to empty the kitchen cabinets of pots and pans, forming makeshift drum sets, and I’d draw crowds with chalk on the driveway—a pink-and-green blob for each one of your fans? Or how when I was six and you were eight, you developed the habit of wedging your leotard between your butt cheeks in ballet class? You’d yank the fabric as high as it would go and duck-waddle over to the mirror, urging me to do the same. Well, I’ll want to joke about this with you—and that’s when the stumbling feeling will hit, over and over again, because you’re not stretched out in our backyard hammock, a book like Into the Wild balanced on your knees. And you’re not in the band room at school, showboating on the piano, a crowd of boys leaning in to catch a whiff of your Granny Smith apple body lotion. And you sure aren’t planning epic trips to the middle of the Indian Ocean with me, or knocking on the wall separating our bedrooms, complaining that it’s two a.m. and you’re too wound up to sleep.

(beat)

Grace?

LINNY drops the cup and sticks her head out the window, her neck craning to the sky.

LINNY (continued)
(angry)

Grace?

The scene is rewound, as if going back in time.

 

CHAPTER TWO

Sebastian

“Of course dark matter is invisible, but that doesn’t make it any less real.” A Brief Compendium of Astrophysical Curiosities, by Dr. Boris P. Mangum, p. 8

For the last seventeen years I’ve made up stories about my dad. The guy bolted before I was born—and that’s all I know about him. That he left.

So I thought: Maybe he’s a physicist.

Or a tuna fisherman like on the Discovery Channel.

Or an archaeologist, stuck in another dimension.

I scribbled the following in the margins of my favorite book:

A THEORY FOR ABSENT FATHERS #1:
Invisibility necessitates imagination.
x + y = z, where x = clues, y = stories, and z = who he is

Mom neither confirmed nor denied my suppositions, only said things like “Sebastian, can this wait?”

“Sebastian, not at the table, mi amor.”

“Sebastian, we’ll talk about this later.”

So I built an image of my dad based on possibilities. I assembled clues. Hechos. Like how Mom kept a blank postcard from Italy in her nightstand, which clearly suggested that my father was a Venetian gondolier. Or how there was a baseball in the back of her closet, which almost proved that my father was a professional sports player.

Clues turned into stories. I figured that even if my dad was invisible to me, that didn’t make him any less real. He was as real as my stepdad, Paul, who (incidentally) can’t pitch a baseball at ninety miles an hour.

It’s 10:30 a.m., and I’m reclining in our living-room La-Z-Boy. Chowing down peanut butter toast. Paul rounds the corner in his black suit, his sandy-blond hair perfectly coiffed.  He does a double take. “Change your mind, champ?”

I massage the area above my lip. “I—uh—it’s just a bit of stubble.”

Paul is a helicopter pilot and a big believer in mustaches. I don’t think I’ve ever disappointed him more than last week when I said I didn’t want to grow one. He has a massive handlebar and looks perpetually prepared for the rodeo.

“Right,” Paul says, deflating. “Well, when you change your mind, I’ll let you borrow my kit.”

The man has a mustache kit.

My real father better not have a mustache kit.

I give him a thumbs-up and go back to my toast. It’s not that Paul’s an awful guy. He just has a specific look that he reserves exclusively for me. His eyes squint in a question: Where did you come from, and what the heck are we going to do with you? Unlike me, Paul is buff and into all kinds of martial arts. My best friend, Micah, and I often substitute his name in Chuck Norris jokes.

Balancing my toast in one hand and phone in the other (it’s an art form), I text Micah: When Paul does a push-up, he isn’t lifting himself up. He’s pushing the earth down.

My phone dings back a minute later: Paul is the only man to ever defeat a brick wall in a game of tennis.

Hah. Good one.

I hear Paul’s BMW revving in the driveway—then skidding down the street. I turn the TV to the Science Channel, where Morgan Freeman is talking about wormholes in that voice of his. In the hallway, my five-year-old half brother, Louis, is lining up his toy soldiers. I woke up with seven of them in my bed this morning. Imprinted into various parts of my body. Butt. Elbow. The left side of my neck. And I had Play-Doh in my hair. Apparently I am the deepest sleeper in the history of sleep.

Louis lion-roars and then swats his hands through the soldiers. They scatter, thumping against the wall.

Every time I hang out with Micah lately, Mom reminds me that I’m missing valuable bonding time with Louis. “When you’re at college, we’ll hardly ever see you.” What she doesn’t know is, you can love someone to pieces and hate them at the same time. Going to Cal Tech at the end of the summer is the equivalent of someone offering me space in a lifeboat.

Maybe I’m still angry because I was the last to know. Paul married my mom six years ago, right before she got pregnant with Louis. The wedding date was on the kitchen calendar before Mom bothered to mention it, and she told the checkout lady at Fresco Mart about Louis—that’s how I found out I was going to have a brother. I overheard it at the grocery store. When Mom and Paul brought him home from the hospital, the three of them looked—I don’t know. Complete? I wasn’t aware I was missing that kind of bond until I saw it right in front of me. Louis, with both his parents. Louis, with his dad.

It made me want to punch the air.

The phone rings, and Mom yells, “¡Yo lo contesto!” And then again, in English: “I’ll get it!” I hate when she catches herself. Before Paul, we only spoke Spanish in the house. Had ropa vieja for dinner on Fridays. Pulled up all the living-room rugs so Mom could teach me salsa steps. Paul’s parents are Danish immigrants, so you’d think he’d get the “I want to hang on to my culture” thing. But no. Apparently only certain cultures are worth holding on to, while others are chucked aside. Paul preaches assimilation above all else.

In the kitchen: Mom’s voice. She isn’t laughing. Usually she laughs on the phone—even with telemarketers. Maybe it’s her boss, asking if she wants another shift at the diner. A kitchen cabinet slams.

Louis has decimated his entire regiment of soldiers and has fixed his sights on the TV.

Do NOT cut off Morgan Freeman. Anyone but Morgan Freeman!

Right as Louis starts pushing buttons on the remote, Mom enters the living room, still gripping the phone. Wet faced. Her voice reminds me of a dying dinosaur. “Louis”—scratchy throat—“I need to talk to Sebastian alone, please.” When my little brother doesn’t budge, she yells, “¡Louis, ándale, ándale!” and then cracks a bit more, realizing he doesn’t know that language. Eventually—from facial expressions alone—he gets the picture and scrams.

All the while my stomach is in my shoes.

“Uh, what’s up?” I say, nervously biting the last piece of peanut butter toast.

Her dark hair fuzzes around her in waves. Disoriented, rubbing her eyes—“You know that man who wrote about Miami?”

Be more specific, I try to say. But the peanut butter’s firmly cemented to the roof of my mouth. It comes out like “Beeee maaaa sppefff,” followed by strange clucking noises when I attempt to extract said peanut butter from said roof of mouth.

Then she drops the bomb. Nagasaki style.

“Álvaro Herrera. He’s your father. Oh God. Oh God.”

I suck in. Peanut butter lodges in the back of my throat. I don’t even know who Álvaro Herrera is, but I can’t believe she’s finally told me! I can’t believe I’m choking!

“Sebastian?” Mom says. “Sebastian!”

I heave forward, out of the La-Z-Boy. Mom thwacks my upper back with the palm of her hand—six times, by my count—until I retch a chunk of toast onto the new carpeting. It’s vaguely the shape of Michigan.

“Oh my God,” Mom croaks, dropping to her knees. “Oh my God, Sebastian.”

My throat is a bit irritated, but this does not dissuade me from speaking. “Who . . . is . . . he?”

Hands on her face—“You don’t recognize the name?”

I shake my head. The room feels too warm.

“He’s a—well, he’s a writer. Midnight in Miami. You’ve probably heard of the movie. He wrote that book.”

I startle. “That guy? The dead guy?”

“He’s alive, Sebastian.”

“Wait. Who was that on the phone?”

“Your aunt Ana. Remember, she works with geriatrics? She heard through the nursing home circuit that he’s back, and I—” She gathers her breath. “Someone spotted him in Miami.”

“A nursing home? How old is he anyway? Know what—doesn’t matter. No me importa. I’m going to Miami.”

“You most certainly are not!”

I scrunch my eyebrows, confused. “What?”

“I said: You. Most. Certainly. Are not!” She glances into the hallway, where Louis is peeking into the living room. We must be a sight: on our knees. Mom, on the verge of sobbing. Me, crouched like a scared monkey.

“Why the hell did you tell me then?” I say.

“Sebastian! Language.”

“Fine. Why the heck did you tell me?”

“Because!” She throws up her hands. “Because if you asked another question about it . . . I panicked, okay?” Gesturing to the TV screen—“What if he’s on the news? What if I walked in tomorrow and you were watching him on the screen, and I’d have to lie to you, Sebastian.”

My voice has too much growl in it. “How’s that any different from what you’ve been doing for my entire life?” Was I the last to know about this, too?

“Hey. Not fair. Everything I’ve done, I’ve done to protect you.”

“From what?” I point at the TV, as if Álvaro Herrera is about to pop out of the box. “From a guy in a nursing home who I’ve never met?¿Seriamente?”

“¡Sí!” she shouts. “¡Exactamente! That is exactly right! He left me, Sebastian. Do you understand?”

“No! I don’t. How could I when you’ve never told me anything?”

She clamps her teeth together. “Fine. We met at a film festival before I moved to California. I was trying to launch my acting career, and Álvaro—he saw my first movie. I had a small role, but he said I was good and we hit it off. Four months later, he proposed. He had a ring, Sebastian—plans for a wedding, the whole thing. And then he left. I was pregnant with you, and he . . . never found out. After he left, I didn’t think he had the right to know.”

That’s awful. Incredibly awful. But . . .

“I’m sorry,” I say softly, standing up. “I’m really sorry that happened. But just because he left you”—choosing my words carefully—“doesn’t mean I can’t know him. Maybe he’s changed.”

Mom sounds so tired. “People don’t change.”

Theoretically, everything is explainable. That’s why I like physics. If you want to know why a pineapple and a slice of pizza fall at equal speeds when dropped off a building, there’s a reasonable answer for that. Plus there are all these outrageously named theories. Like, I kid you not, the Hairy Ball Theorem.

In the last year alone, I’ve read A Brief Compendium of Astrophysical Curiosities by Dr. Boris P. Mangum seven times. I write theories in the margins. About physics, about my own conundrums.

I thought: If I can solve the mysteries of the universe, then I can sure as hell figure out the mystery surrounding my dad.

I thought: Rational explanations and order should exist everywhere in the world.

Should being the operative word.

A tuna fisherman I understand. Stuck in another dimension I understand. An eighty-two-year-old presumed-dead writer wasn’t even on my radar.

A THEORY FOR ABSENT FATHERS #2:
The end of invisibility directly correlates with the beginning of complication.

All morning, I Google “Álvaro Herrera” in my bedroom. Discover a website called findalvaro.com, where someone has posted three hours ago: Silver Springs. Miami, FL. I swear it’s him. There are twenty-five responses, all saying something like No shit! Take a picture!

“Álvaro Herrera” gets thirty thousand image results.

Álvaro on Hollywood Boulevard.

Álvaro in Havana.

Álvaro on the set of Midnight in Miami.

I skim some of the attached articles. They tell me he never had children. (Inaccurate. Am I the only one?) They tell me that Álvaro’s novels are translated from Spanish, that he came to the US in 1961 as a political refugee, and that Warner Bros. adapted his first novel, Midnight in Miami, in 1963. It’s about a bartender named Eduardo Padilla who gets wrapped up in a spy ring. There is side-boob in it but no actual boobs. Álvaro has a cameo.

Looks like the type of people interested in Álvaro also have a healthy obsession with Bigfoot, Bat Boy, and Elvis. He’s famous, sure. But mostly with conspiracy theorists, die-hard movie buffs, fans of Cuban literature, and the Latino community. I doubt 95 percent of the population would recognize him. And those who do would probably want to invite him to dinner. Take a billion pictures. Steal his underwear or something.

By the fifteenth article, I’ve made my decision. Hell, I made my decision at the exact moment Mom blurted out his name.

(That’s part of my problem. I do everything too fast. I swear I only have one button: Go. Someone forgot to install the brakes.)

I log on to the Silver Springs home page, which profiles a white and faded-blue building surrounded by palm trees. A cheesy talking flamingo juts onto the screen and offers a virtual tour. (Wish I were kidding. I couldn’t make up that crap.) So I follow this flamingo to the Volunteer section and fill out a form. Boom! Twelve minutes later, I receive an email saying my application has been approved. I start tomorrow.

Next step: plane tickets.

This is the hardest bit, because I’m flat broke. Can’t-even-find-a-dime-in-my-sofa broke. So I do the only thing I can: I sell my Chinese fossil collection on the internet. I kiss every one of them good-bye, box them up, ship them to the highest bidder. Then I spend a thousand bucks on a one-way, last-minute ticket from Los Angeles to Miami. Boarding: seven hours from now.

Ay. Stomach lurch.

I’ll call my aunt Ana when I touch down. I’ve met her a bunch: every Christmas, some Easters. She’s cool. Hopefully cool enough to let me crash on her couch for part of the summer.

Mom keeps knocking on my door. She never comes in unannounced because of . . . because of that one time. So I put on my headphones—I have A Brief Compendium of Astrophysical Curiosities on audiobook as well—and enter a staring contest with the poster above my bed. The cast of X-Men glares back.

All the while, I’m going over the plan.

Step 1: Fly from LA to Miami.

Step 2: Talk to Álvaro Herrera.

Step 3: Glue all my broken pieces back together.

Dr. Mangum is saying, “A supernova is so bright that, even if but for a moment, it can outshine a whole galaxy. Scientists do not yet know the detailed mechanism of igniting stars.”

I write in the hard copy:

THE STARS-ARE-LIKE-SECRETS PRINCIPLE:
Both can run out of fuel. Even if they remain dormant for years, all it takes is a catalyst. One day, they will explode.

 

CHAPTER THREE

Linny

WHO: Santiago Lopez, host of the popular Argentinian game show ¡Arriba!

WHEN: 2012, shortly after his nightly broadcast

WHY: He disappeared for six days, and when he finally returned to the set, his only explanation was “The grand prize last week was a Hawaiian vacation. I thought to myself, If they can go, why can’t I?”

NOTES: Maybe Grace is on an extended vacation? Maybe she’ll come back on her own a few days from now—sunburned from the beach?

 

I don’t spot Álvaro Herrera for the rest of my shift, but I resolve that—the next time I see him—I’m going to get some answers.

In the Silver Springs parking lot, my phone buzzes with a text from Ray: Hope you didn’t party too hard with the old people. Attached is a selfie of him and Cass lounging at the beach. She resembles a praying mantis in her wide-lensed sunglasses, but her bathing suit is very Cass: aggressively pink, fringed, rhinestone studded. Ray is rocking a pair of orange swim trunks that mimic his fiery hair.

I squint at the picture for a sec before trying to whip out a reply, but then it occurs to me that the un-freaking-believable news is best shared face-to-face. I unchain my bike and fast-pedal down to Cass’s favorite beach spot: by the Hilton, next to the constantly shirtless ice cream man with the six-pack abs. I park between two red convertibles, kick off my Chuck Taylors, and hotfoot it through the burning sand.

When Ray sees me, he says, “Sup, Linny!” and I scoot onto his towel. Although we’ve only known each other four and a half months, he greets me with the biggest smile, like we’ve been best friends for our entire lives.

“Just a warning,” he says. “I might’ve had three ice cream cones within the space of an hour. Half of my body is sugar.”

Cass affirms, “It’s true. And now he keeps asking me to go for a run with him. I’ve explained to him the mechanics of boobs without sports bras, but it’s not sinking in.”

“Care to join me in the sugar high?” Ray asks.

I laugh and shake my head. It’s funny—sugar is actually the reason we’re all friends. Cass and Ray met at Dylan’s Candy Bar, the ultrahip sweets boutique where they were coworkers for an ill-fated seventeen days. (Ginormous lolly­pops.
Accidental fire. You get the picture.) Although Ray joined our trio after Grace left, I still find it intensely weird that he only knew of her.

But I do adore him. He’s on the track team and is constantly trying to drag me into sprint workouts to, as he claims, “reduce my anxiety.” I refuse most of the time (running is his thing, very much not mine), but it’s nice to be asked. And honestly, it’s nice to be understood. Ray came out the week before summer break, and even though almost everyone was cool about it, some people (aka dickwads) weren’t. He knows what it’s like to walk around under a spotlight.

He and Cass are my only friends who don’t give me that look—a mixture of aw, poor you, little sisterless girl and your family must be so screwed up for Grace to disappear like that. It involves heavy eyebrow arching and an upward pout of the lip. What’s unbelievable is, sometimes I catch my glance in the mirror, giving myself that look. Because it does suck, and no one knows that better than me.

Pulling out my camera, I switch it on so I can film Cass’s and Ray’s reactions to the Álvaro news. I call out, “Take one.”

Cass is largely preoccupied with spritzing bronzing oil onto her endless legs to attract all the boys, as if every guy within a fifty-mile radius didn’t already have a moth-to-flame reaction. Fresh conquests perpetually snake their arms around her shoulders. She parades them through Miami Beach Senior High’s halls like prized kills, raccoons she’s just snuffed with her BB gun. Last month I shot a short movie of her getting ready for a date. The lighting was all wrong, but with her chalky eyeliner and mass of blond hair, she still looked luminous, more of a Marilyn Monroe than I’ll ever be. (Not that I lack curves. The curves are aplenty. I just prefer to be behind the camera, capturing the things that no one else sees: all the seemingly insignificant details that add up to something wonderful and big. I love that about movies, the way they dive into you as deep as you dive into them.)

When Cass hears “Take one,” she snaps to attention. So does Ray. He lifts and throws one shoulder forward into an exaggerated pose. “What’s our motivation in this film?” he says.

Cass says, “How about . . . we’re criminals?”

“Criminal masterminds,” Ray adds.

“Yes! And we are on the run because we are literally too brilliant for anyone to handle.”

“From now on, I will only answer to the name Mr. Brilliant McBrilliant. Or the Red Falcon!” He actually flaps his arms. We’re attracting curious stares from passersby on the beach; an older man and his much-much-younger wife stop in their tracks.

I slap my hand on my thigh. “Guys. Pay attention. Ask me about Silver Springs.”

“Sorry,” Ray says, withdrawing his wings. “So, how terrible was it? On a scale from one to I’m About to Be Eaten by Vultures.”

“Actually,” I burst, “it wasn’t bad at all. I—”

“There was Jell-O, then?”

“What?”

“Well, I assumed you must’ve gotten free Jell-O or something.”

“No, I—”

“Because the last time I visited my nan, I got free Jell-O, and she smoked me at canasta—”

I cut him off. This is bigger than desserts. I adjust to close-up. “Ray. I saw Álvaro Herrera.”

I expect Cass to drop her bronzing oil or Ray to drop his jaw. I get neither.

“So . . . ,” Cass says. “He is . . . who?”

Slowing my speech and enunciating, as if this will do the trick, I say, “Ál-va-ro Her-rer-a.”

“Nope,” Ray says. “Still don’t know who you’re talking about.”

“Oh, come on,” I say, flicking off the camera. “Really?”

“Wait, wait,” Cass chimes in. “Didn’t you tell me about him? Famous writer guy. What’s that website: findalvaro
.com? You can submit a video of him and win, like, a thousand bucks.”

“Thank you,” I say, gently punching Ray’s shoulder. “At least one of you was paying attention.”

Cass says, “Well, did you get a video, Camera Girl?”

That’s one of her nicknames for me. Half of me likes it, because it comes from a good place; the other half hates how I sound like the subject of an endangered species documentary. Behold, the elusive Camera Girl in her natural habitat!

I shake my head and straighten out a curl, press it between my lips.

“Ugh,” Cass moans. “Why not? Do you know how many Pie in the Sky croissants that would buy?”

“Um, yes,” I admit. “We could fill the bottom of a swimming pool.”

“Then what’s the deal?”

All during high school, I’ve carried my camcorder everywhere, gathering images like magpies collect shiny objects. How can I explain that seeing Álvaro means more to me than every single one of those images combined? That it has everything to do with my sister? Whenever I get into a situation like this, I picture Brad Pitt in Fight Club, except he’s saying: “The first rule of Grace’s disappearance is you do not talk about Grace’s disappearance.”

I settle for a white lie: “I—um—just couldn’t get my camera out fast enough.”

“But he’s definitely alive?” Cass says.

“Or definitely a ghost walking among us.”

“Don’t be creepy.”

“In that case,” Ray concludes, “we’ll meet you outside the lobby in the morning.”

I cock an eyebrow. “You can’t be serious.”

He smiles with all his teeth. “We never joke about celebrities.”

Around five o’clock, just before biking home from the beach, I check my texts: eight panicked messages, all from MomandDad.

Where are you?

Please call when you can.

Linny, you have a curfew.

Linny. Call in the next fifteen minutes.

It escalates from there.

I call them “MomandDad” because, in the weeks following Grace’s disappearance, my parents started becoming the same person, as if their unanimity would somehow hold our family together. They’re developing similar faces: tight skin, fake smiles, shiny cheekbones. Mom’s skin is five shades darker than Dad’s, but if you squint, the color differences blur. Even before Grace ditched us, they liked uniformity in everything. Case in point: most houses on our street are painted a tasteful Dolphin Egg Blue, and they like that. “Seriously,” Grace used to say, “what the hell is a dolphin egg?”

Parking my bike, I check our mail (no letters from my sister, again) and have barely stepped onto the porch when Mom swings open the door with “Why didn’t you return my text messages?” Lysol fumes trail from the kitchen. We have a cleaning lady, but Mom now insists that Ella misses spots, that merely clean isn’t good enough. I think she’s trying to scrub out every stain my sister left behind, to give me a stable environment or whatever.

“I—I didn’t hear it ring,” I say.

“Then turn it up louder.”

Inside, I flop belly up on the living-room couch, and she hovers over me, her nose razor-sharp from this angle, all her curls pinned in a knot at the back of her head. “Really, Mari­lyn? Ella just had those pillow covers dry-cleaned. . . . She was supposed to, at least.” Although the outside temperature is trending toward ninety degrees, Mom shows no evidence of sweating in her gray pantsuit (a perfectly reasonable outfit for cleaning?). If she has one superpower, besides her uncanny ability to stress me out, it’s her freakish tolerance for the Miami heat. “And you’re all drippy. And sandy. Those pillows are pashmina,” she says, as if the word should resonate.

When I film people, I often focus on their mouths. Most directors say that “the eyes have it,” but I disagree. Mouths straighten out in anger and purse in frustration and pucker in love. From below, I can see all the way into Mom’s mouth: the arc of its roof, the sharpness of her molars, how wide she opens her jaw when she speaks—like an anaconda accommodating its prey. I start mind-filming the scene: on set there would be a great storm cloud behind her. A tornado or a hurricane.

“Well,” she says, “dinner’s in fifteen. You can tell us all about your day at Silver Springs.”

I roll over and firmly press my face into the pillows. Mom wasn’t kidding: they do smell clean, like spring. I hear her heels click-clack back into the kitchen, then the frustrated snap of rubber gloves, the suctioned pop of the cleaning-solution bottle, opening, spilling again onto white tile.

Mom is laying silverware on the table, and she no longer sets a place for Grace; it makes me nauseated.

It’s a Monday—and we used to grill suya on Mondays (from Grandpa’s spice mix recipe). We are now a take-out family: Chinese noodles, Mediterranean deli grape leaves in plastic boxes, pizza and more pizza, and did I mention pizza? Tonight it’s hot dogs with ceviche (trust me, the combo works) from one of my favorite restaurants in town. Mom looks like she wants to disinfect everything before we eat it, but I dive right in. I’m tempted to shout at her: And I’ve only washed my hands seven times today! Only seven times!

What makes you stay silent when every inch of your body wants to scream?

Dad is still in his white doctor’s coat, his blondish hair slicked to precision. “Excellent flavor profile,” he says, biting into his hot dog. We discuss food a lot to avoid discussing other things. I’m not sure that any of us has said Grace’s name out loud in months.

And I can’t exactly talk to them about their work—because I have been forbidden to say “vagina” at the dinner table (although I hardly think it’s a dirty word). MomandDad are gynecologists. Every adult on my dad’s side is a doctor. Like swallows, this family has a predetermined life cycle: Miami to Princeton to Miami again. A recent article in the Miami Home Journal called Dad’s work “majestic,” a peculiar adjective that should be reserved for deep-sea photographers, ballerinas, and unicorn trainers—not people who spend most of their waking hours examining vaginas. Mom graduated second in her class at Princeton Med (just above Dad). Although born in Florida, she’s always talking about how different this country is from Nigeria: “There were so few women practicing medicine in Lagos. So few! I wanted the best for myself—the best for you girls.”

You girls—meaning Grace and me. MomandDad think we should be doctors, too, and that’s 80 percent of the problem. I haven’t told them about The Left-Behinds yet. My goal is to finish it by the end of August so I have time to tweak it before applying to study film at UCLA. MomandDad won’t take it well—film school, my screenplay, none of it.

“So,” Mom says, eating her hot dog with a knife and fork. “Meet anyone nice at Silver Springs?”

Against my better judgment, I tell her about Álvaro Herrera.

“That pervert writer?” she asks. “Didn’t he write that really trashy book?”

Leave it to Mom to bypass THE FACT THAT HE’S SUPPOSED TO BE DEAD and jump straight to sex. I roll my eyes and wish I could delete my words from the scene. “He’s not actually a pervert.”

“Anyone who writes about intercourse like that is a pervert.”

“Mom. Isn’t sex, like, your business?”

She purses her lips. “There’s a difference.”

According to MomandDad, discussing sex in a medical capacity is acceptable. They take issue with the practical application, especially when it comes to their daughters. Not that I’m having sex. My experience with guys extends to two quick groping sessions under the school bleachers and one liquor-propelled tongue tangling last winter, which ended in Todd Banbury vomiting all over my new jean jacket. I’m still very much the Virgin Marilyn.

Dad says, “You really need to meet residents more suited to your life goals. Why not find some retired doctors to network with?”

Right, because that’s what volunteering at Silver Springs is about: beefing up my Princeton premed application and networking with other do-gooders who’ll grow up to pursue do-gooder careers (and make lots of money, have Dolphin Egg Blue houses, yada yada yada). At least, that’s what this summer was about. Now I’m focused on figuring out where Álvaro went and why he came back, along with finishing The Left-Behinds.

Mom’s palms are pressed together, a prayer. “Please, you need to make an effort. The biggest barrier between you and Princeton is your attitude. Attitude, attitude, attitude! What am I always telling you about networking? Every encounter is an opportunity.”

“Got it.”

“You’re so close.”

“Yep.”

“So close.”

“Oh wow,” I say, “this hot dog is supertasty,” and they both agree. I wish I could fight with them but I can’t. Not yet. For one, Grace always flung herself into the front lines—saving me from the impact—and I never learned the art of combat. But the main reason is, my sister didn’t leave a note for MomandDad. She only left one for me.

I just have to get away for a while, okay? Feed Hector 4-5x a week, pls.

Hector is Grace’s pet box turtle who she found injured near a pond a few miles away and was nursing back to health. My sister dictated care instructions for a flipping turtle, but didn’t say good-bye to our parents.

So I had to tell them.

I had to show them the message in her handwriting. I had to watch as their souls tried to escape from their mouths. I had to memorize the take-out menus; answer questions for missing-person reports; look at my mother on the couch, her hair zigzagged around her like lightning bolts, as if she’d spent the last few hours trying to pull it out. I remember she didn’t smell like Mom—not like rosemary and latex gloves. She smelled like sadness. (That’s when I learned that sadness has a smell.)

Now we jump every time the phone rings. We clench our hands at news reports about missing girls. We leave the porch lights on all night, just in case she comes home.

My family is a newly formed tripod. Any little thing could topple us.

THE LEFT-BEHINDS (scene 2)

CARSON FAMILY GARAGE

Full color.

LINNY (ten years old) and GRACE (twelve) are crawling through a labyrinth of cherry planks—
a massive bird’s nest.

LINNY (Voice-over)

Remember the summer Grandpa died, and we got all his woodworking equipment?

GRACE (Voice-over)

God, that got so ridiculous. Dad was always complaining about how much money he’d get for the wood on eBay.

LINNY (Voice-over)

Yep. The garage was such a mess.

In the center of the nest is a clear space with a little movie set—two feet by two feet of plywood dolled up with wallpaper scraps and flowers. Balls of clay are rolled into miniature people. LINNY and GRACE arrive in the center. LINNY provides stage directions while GRACE maneuvers the clay people around the set.

CLOSE-UP—

GRACE’s back: in places, smooth skin gives way to puckering, as if something is growing beneath.

LINNY (Voice-over)

That world made me so weirdly happy. You know, being the director and the scriptwriter. Not just Camera Girl.

GRACE (Voice-over)

But you remember what happened next, right?

LINNY (Voice-over)

Of course I remember.

CUT TO—

CARSON FAMILY DRIVEWAY

DAD cracks the movie set in two, maybe thinking it is junk. MOM leaves the pieces by the mailbox for the garbageman. It is a clay people massacre.

GRACE (Voice-over)

Want to know a secret?

LINNY (Voice-over)

Yeah?

GRACE (Voice-over)
(whispering)

I’m still not over it.

 

CHAPTER FOUR

Sebastian

“This is all hypothetical, of course. Which means that one day, it could be proven true.” A Brief Compendium of Astrophysical Curiosities, p. 340

“Death by peanut butter toast?” Micah says, after I’ve sneaked out of my house and into his.

“How tragic is that?” I say.

“That’s like ‘I decided to take a piss in the middle of a field and accidently peed on an electric fence and died’ type of level.”

My flight to Miami leaves in two hours and forty-five minutes. In the meantime, I’m recounting this morning’s events to Micah as he fights off enemy troops in Dark Ops Resolution, our favorite video game. The boom-boom-boom of semiautomatic weapons fills his basement.

I’ve just told him about spending the summer in Florida. He looked confused. Then pissed. And now he’s pretending he’s over it and is mainly focused on securing the high ground behind the bridge.

I left out the small, insignificant little fact that Álvaro Herrera is my dad, except he doesn’t know he’s my dad, and now I’m traveling to Miami to tell him. I don’t say anything because 1) It’s a heaping gulp of words, 2) Micah would lose his shit, and 3) We cannot simultaneously lose our shit. I’m still working out answers myself.

I mean, where has Álvaro been?

A THEORY-IN-PROGRESS FOR NEWLY DISCOVERED FATHERS:
All hypotheses are fair game.

He could have mysteriously disappeared like those astronauts in “And When the Sky Was Opened”—the best episode of The Twilight Zone.

Or maybe he’s a time traveler—actually gone a few seconds, but everyone thinks he’s been gone three years.

“Incoming! Incoming!” Micah yells. The whoosh of a grenade launcher and then “God! Shitting! Damn it! Where’s your head, dude? You’re killing us.”

“We still have half our troops.” The sound of a bomb blast. “We still have a third of our troops.”

Micah’s thumbs dart all over the controls. He’s a finger ninja. “And you’re volunteering at an old-people’s home? Jump left! I said left! I bet you’ll meet an eighty-year-old babe with a healthy appetite for younger men.”

“Jesus, Micah—”

“God damn it, Sebastian! Left! With an L! She’s going to fall so head over heels in lust for you that she’s going to write you into her will. ‘To my teenage lover, I bequeath you my cardigan sweaters and set of wooden golf clubs.’”

“You’re going to make me barf.”

“I’m just saying, you’re undermaximizing your dating potential by missing out on the over-eighty demographic. Something to think about. LEFT!”

“Bueno, got it, got it.”

“I’ve stuffed your suitcase full of condoms.”

“What?”

“And your wallet. There are three in your wallet. DO YOU SERIOUSLY NOT KNOW THAT LEFT IS DIFFERENT FROM RIGHT?”

We curve around the abandoned amusement park, staying low. It’s hard to focus.

Partly because I keep thinking about my eighth-grade field trip. My class went to the California Science Center to see bodies without their skin—nothing but muscles and veins and bones. That’s how it feels: like I’ve been stripped down. Like my insides are no longer insides, but I don’t want everyone to see the mess.

And also because I’m going to be thousands of miles away from Micah this summer, and we’re going to different colleges this fall (me: Cal Tech for astrophysics, him: Berkeley for God knows what). Say what you will, but bromances are real. We’ve been friends since fifth grade, when his Christian missionary parents adopted him from a Korean border town. One of his favorite anecdotes is about the origin of his name: “It was Chung-Hee, but in their infinite wisdom, my parents thought that wasn’t American enough, so they named me after a rock instead. Personally, I would’ve liked ‘Bald Eagle.’ Might as well go full-out.”

To his credit, Micah goes full-out on everything. Like last year when he decided that not being a rocker couldn’t stop him from looking like one. The result: hair buzzed short in the back but long enough in the front to braid.

I kind of envy him.

Blood splatters all over the screen. Micah throws down the controls and sighs. “Dude. You suck.”

“You were always better at this game.”

“Don’t say were.”

“What?”

“Don’t say were. Like you’re dying or something.”

I push his shoulder. “You ol’ softy.”

He shrugs me off and looks at the clock. Two and a half hours until takeoff.

I load my suitcase, which is twenty-eight condoms heavier than at last check, into the back of his rusted-out Ford Fiesta. We drive with the windows down.

“One last alphabet game for the road?” he asks, tapping the wheel.

“Sure.”

“J,” he says.

“Jennifer Lawrence,” I say. We came up with this game in middle school: listing all the girls who’ll never sleep with either of us.

“Julie,” he counters, “the redhead from the video store.”

“Jessica O’Conner.”

“Cheerleader Jessica?”

“Yep,” I say.

“I don’t know, man. She might sleep with you.”

Micah is always quick to point out that I dated a cheerleader. Savannah. One and a half disastrous months that I’ll never get back. During that time, Micah came up with no less than a hundred euphemisms for Savannah’s “pom-poms.”

“That was a fluke,” I say. “I was a project or something.”

“Don’t minimize that victory. She was capital H hot. Just slightly less hot than your mom.”

“Find. Another. Comparative.”

“All I’m saying is, if I had your mom, I wouldn’t be leaving her at home for the summer.”

“And all I’m saying is, if you don’t stop talking about my mom, I will have to suffocate you in your sleep.”

Micah chuckles. “So, she really doesn’t know you’re leaving?”

“Nope.”

“Why not?”

“It was a spur-of-the-moment decision.”

“Uh, and she’s going to be . . . fine with that?”

“Nope.”

“Well, that’s a shit storm waiting to happen.”

At the airport, I hug Micah good-bye. You know, a man hug. Double pat on the back. And two hours later I’m in the sky.

AN ALTERNATE FORMULA FOR DISCOVERING ABSENT FATHERS:
x (y) = z, where x = concrete information,
y = travel to the subject, and z = the assembly of broken pieces

 

CHAPTER FIVE

Linny

WHO: James Willis, singer for the band Middlehouse

WHEN: 2013, after he skipped out on the MTV Video Music Awards

WHY: From what I can tell, no one knows why he disappeared, but he came back eight days later to open for Maroon 5.

NOTES: Grace actually went to this concert in Orlando. . . . Connection? (She said it was the greatest Middlehouse performance ever—and she knows best.)

The morning before Grace disappeared, she slipped her headphones over my ears while I was sleeping. I woke up to see her standing over me, every one of her curls tightly coiled—a ready-to-burst appearance. Two fake butterfly tattoos were dancing on her collarbone, highlighted by her scooped tank top that she absolutely swore Joan Jett once owned (the guy at the vintage shop told her so).

“Thank God you’re awake,” Grace said. “I’ve been waiting forever.” I miss that about her—how she stressed the second syllable of important words, how she had the husky voice of a thirty-five-year-old lounge singer, and I was always shocked when it came out of five-foot-three her.

I didn’t have time to ask, “Jeez Louise, what’s with the headphones?” because she shushed me with her index finger and declared, “This song will change your life.” An electric guitar solo began to rattle—fast and alive—through the headphones, and I started bobbing to the beat, because she was right. As the family music virtuoso, Grace is always right about life-altering songs. She can play eleven instruments (if you count the kazoo, which I totally do) and is the proud owner of no less than two hundred records, mostly of women who wore their hair all big in the eighties.

“Not bad,” I told her, and she pounced on me—sat on my stomach like she was squeezing closed a suitcase—until I admitted, “Okay, okay, it’s great.”

I remember this, and then I remember that she’s gone.

The missing her practically blows me off my feet.

It’s eight in the morning, I’m (shakily) standing outside Silver Springs waiting for Cass and Ray—and there’s a man in a red baseball cap photographing the building from between two palm trees. He calls out to me: “Do you mind moving about three feet to the right? I’m trying to get a good shot!”

“Oh,” I mumble. “Sure.”

News of Álvaro Herrera’s appearance is spreading slowly—but it is spreading. According to findalvaro.com, only the die-hard followers believe that he’s alive and at Silver Springs. I wonder how long it’ll take before other people discover that the rumors are true.

Fashionably late, Ray and Cass rock up in Ray’s clunker of a truck, which is old enough to be a resident of Silver Springs. In places it’s graying—stripped down to the metal frame, green paint hanging on in fragments. On the sidewalk, they describe their plan, which includes claiming they’re visiting their grandma Ethel (who would be a very lovely woman, if she existed), obtaining visitor badges under aforementioned pretenses, and gawking at Álvaro Herrera from afar.

“So you’re going to lie,” I say, slightly regretting my decision to tell them.

“It’s only a white lie,” Ray says, pointing to the building. “I’m sure somewhere in there’s an Ethel.”

“True,” I admit. “But I still classify ‘falsely entering a nursing home’ under ‘morally dubious activities.’”

“Chill out, my little Linzer Torte,” Cass says, and my stomach drops a notch. Grace came up with that nickname. “We are superstealthy when it comes to celeb spotting.”

Turns out that Marla’s not at the front desk, so I sign myself in while Cass and Ray scurry through the lobby. We check the courtyard—no Álvaro. And the halls—no Álvaro. We spend a nice morning in the game room, playing Ping-Pong with two women in canary muumuus, one of whom is named Ethel. (Ray gets such a kick out of that, Cass has to pinch him to stop the giggles.)

And then, in the cafeteria at lunchtime, there’s Álvaro Herrera, sitting alone at one of the long plastic tables with an ashtray in front of him, studying the smoke mushrooming from his lips.

“That’s him?” Ray says.

I nod. “Try not to stare.”

A small crowd has formed, and a ripple of voices drifts across the room. “Is that really . . . ?” “I thought he was . . . ?” “I saw him yesterday, but . . .” Three nurses hold up the wall behind him, but none of them moves to snatch his cigarillo.

And there’s something else. Someone else.

I notice a guy my age—or maybe a bit older—leaning against the vending machine and staring at Álvaro. Like, staring. He has a slightly offbeat look, like a puzzle improperly put together, and if I’m reading it correctly, his bright-green T-shirt says I Believe in Science. He has dark, wild hair. (Side note: Wild is not a word I use lightly. His hair is like Ringo Starr’s in the mid-sixties, if Ringo got caught in a windstorm.)

Even so, something about him makes me acutely aware of my outfit: tattered jean shorts and a baggy white blouse that matches the chipped polish on my nails. I fiddle self-consciously with a few renegade curls. Most of my hair is woven into a fishtail braid after a lost battle with my straightener.

Ray and I grab trays and silverware while Cass plops down at one of the tables. With her sparkly silver crop top and sheet of blond hair, Cass usually draws attention, but no one notices her, or us lesser mortals, or anyone but Álvaro.

A cafeteria worker serves something that resembles meat loaf (or turkey?), and Ray and I take seats next to Cass, who’s been smacking the same piece of cinnamon gum for the last half hour. I offer her some of my meat substance, but she points to her mouth and says, “Nah, I’m good.”

“Go talk to him,” Ray urges me.

“I will,” I say. “I’m just waiting for the right moment.”

The air conditioner must be broken, because the room feels like a jungle. Heavy-duty fans are positioned in the corners, creating a wind tunnel effect and eating up most of the whispers. So it’s impossible that Álvaro hears Cass when she leans over our table and says between smacks of gum, “He’s . . . so different . . . from what I thought he’d be,” but that’s when Álvaro begins banging his hands against the table. A frantic look shoots into his eyes. They widen. His jaw clenches. Bang, bang, bang. Palms flat, slapping the plastic in a repetitive motion like a wind-up toy. Focusing on his mouth, I expect him to say something—scream, shout, whatever—but his lips remain cinched together.

Bang, bang, bang

Ten seconds pass.

Bang

Ray’s neck has gone a dark pink, and he keeps side-eyeing me like: We should do something, right? But I have no idea what to do. Most of us don’t. Except the nurses, who rush to his side, and the puzzle boy, who darts from the room. I wonder where he goes.

Bang, bang, bang

It takes all three nurses plus Marla, who has run from the office, to calm him. “You’re all right, honey,” she says. “You’re all right.”

Clearly that’s not the case. Clearly something’s wrong.

THE LEFT-BEHINDS (scene 3)

CARSON FAMILY BACKYARD

LINNY (eleven) and CASS (eleven and a half) are collecting fireflies. Each girl has a Mason jar with ten or so, their little butts lighting up the darkness.

GRACE (thirteen) rushes out the back door and into the yard, barefoot and screaming. Clearly something is wrong. The skin on her back is no longer puckering, but giving way to lines of soft spikes.

GRACE

I told you not to do that!

CASS
(confused)

What are you talking about?

LINNY
(guilty)

We aren’t going to keep them. You know, just look at them for a while.

GRACE

They’re wild things, Linny. Let. Them. Go.

So LINNY and CASS unscrew the lids and watch the blinking lights fade away. GRACE reaches out to them with her fingertips, trying to lift off the ground.


Fuente: Epic Readers

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