It’s the Little Things that Kill You Slowly
San Jose, California, Friday, September 7, 5:12 p.m. PST.
A cold wind flattened Tommy Galvez’s T-shirt against his chest as he hurtled up his apartment building’s exterior stairs. If he touches her, I’ll kill him. Reaching the top, he avoided grasping the grimy railing, and winced. A few feet down the open walkway, his neighbor the ratty-haired alcoholic mom, leaned against the railing. Whether she was drunk or sober, he suspected she let her kid get into trouble, so Tommy would stop and help her. Today her naked toddler pressed his face against the bars and peed over the walkway’s edge. At least Juan’s head wasn’t stuck in the bars again.
She shifted as if to stop him. “Tommy, can you—”
“Sorry. Not now.” He scrunched his nose as he slid past them and raced to his door.
“Tommy!” Alexia, his seven-year-old sister, had her face pressed to their apartment’s window. She bounced on a couch cushion, then scrambled over the arm and burst out of their green door. It banged against the wall. More paint flaked off and dusted the concrete. She clutched their family’s emergency phone in one hand and her purple dinosaur in the other. Pigtails flying as she jumped, she held up her arms to him.
He scooped her up. “Did Liliana leave with Alejandro?”
Alexia dropped the phone and caught it against Tommy’s chest. “Yeees.” A smile followed her singsong tattling. “I told her you’d be mad if she left me alone.”
Alexia had called him ten minutes ago. How far could Liliana have gone with Alejandro? After her twelfth birthday, Tommy had caught the fourteen-year-old drug dealer chatting her up at the bus stop.
“Go back inside. I’ll be right back.” After Alexia closed the door, Tommy reversed course and charged to the stairs. He descended to the first floor and marched to Alejandro’s. The entire hallway reeked of weed’s pre-smoked skunk funk, even with a breeze blowing.
He pounded the door’s cheap wood hard enough to rattle the entire thing and scatter more flaking paint. “Liliana! You have ten seconds to get out here, or I’m breaking in. One. Two.”
The knob turned on seven.
Liliana stepped out in shorts that could function as underwear and a seriously low V-neck shirt. She gulped air as if she’d run to meet him.
“Where’d you get those clothes?” he asked. “You better not be high.”
“I’m not. See.” She tilted her chin, widening her eyes for him to see her pupils weren’t dilated. “Alejandro gave me the money to buy them.”
Another reason to beat him. She seemed sober, but . . . “You’ve had enough time to eat a pot brownie, so I’m still gonna change his oil.” He yanked her out of his way as someone shoved the door closed behind her.
A lock clicked as he touched the knob.
Clenching his fist, he pounded. “Alejandro, if you even look at her again, I’ll break every bone in your body—starting with your face!” At six foot four, Tommy could easily carry out the threat with muscles honed by hours of training for surfing contests and working with heavy equipment at the auto body shop.
“No, Tommy,” Liliana wailed and tugged on his arm.
“You”—he pointed at her—“get in the car. We’re going to Antoinette’s.”
She backed away, blinking tears. “We don’t have a car anymore.” Her words ended in a high-pitched squeak as she ran to the stairs.
Tommy winced as pain washed over him, too. “I meant Khalil’s truck.” He called after her. At least she ran toward their apartment. She passed Alexia on the stairs.
Doesn’t anyone do what they’re told?
Alexia ran toward him, chewing on her dinosaur’s tail—a habit she’d given up when she was five years old. After the car accident, she’d started doing it again.
She still didn’t connect the accident that had killed Papá and left Mamá with permanent brain damage to no longer having a car. Had that only been two months ago?
Anger settled in his fists. First losing his parents and now having to deal with his three sisters’ pretzel-like emotions made him feel like a head gasket about to blow. He wanted to kick Alejandro’s door in, but destroying a guy’s face in front of his sister—not a good idea. Okay, the whole idea sucked, but it’d make him feel better and might keep Liliana safe.
Alexia forced her tiny hand into his. “What’s wrong?”
Tommy glared at the door, then sighed. If he got himself arrested, who would take care of the girls? “Nothing. Let’s find Liliana and take Antoinette’s stuff to her.”
The day their parents would have taken their older sister and her belongings to California State University in Sacramento, Antoinette had loaded a backpack, boarded a bus, and set out alone. She’d been waiting several weeks for Tommy to bring out the rest of her things.
She had prepaid her tuition and three months of her apartment’s rent; however, her college savings wouldn’t last long with the cost of Mamá’s care facility eating away at it.
“How was school, mija?” Tommy said, ignoring the neighbors peeking out their windows, probably wondering if it was safe to come out or just curious about the commotion.
Alexia skipped beside him with her dinosaur clutched to her chest. “My teacher said you have to read and sign my papers.”
“Oookay.” Would Liliana be too bratty to read them to him? We’re going to Antoinette’s, so I don’t have to ask.
“Hey, Lexi, we can visit Mamá, too,” he said. Mamá didn’t make sense when she talked, but she always smiled at him. He had kept his promise to visit her every day on his way home from work—until today—thanks to Liliana’s obsession with the drug dealer.
“No!” Alexia stomped a pink tennis shoe. “My real Mamá doesn’t drool like a baby!” Instant tears streamed down her cheeks.
Not you, too. He plucked her up and plopped her on his shoulders.
She giggled, and her feet tapped a rhythm that matched his footsteps as he carried her down the hall.
“Ugh. Number seven.” She gagged.
“Hang on.” Tommy sucked in a breath through his mouth and hurried past the apartment that always reeked like fifty cats used it as a litter box.
She gagged louder.
“Don’t puke in my hair.” He trotted up the stairs. She giggled.
What would help Liliana laugh again? She’d been a beast ever since their parents never came home. How could he stop her from making stupid choices? He sighed and stopped before their apartment door left gaping open. He couldn’t even get her to close it.
Maybe for Liliana, closing it meant accepting that Papá and Mamá really weren’t coming home.
Made sense. Outside this door, it was easier to pretend they were. For him, walking into their home that no longer smelled like Mamá’s fresh frijoles or her windmill-shaped speculaas cookies made it real. Not seeing her and Papá holding hands and laughing in the kitchen made it real. Tommy pretended it wasn’t real by keeping their parents’ bedroom door closed. His sisters didn’t go in there, so maybe they thought the same thing. Grief burning in his gut reminded him of corroding battery acid. One day, he feared it might consume him.
Alexia tapped her heels on his chest. “What’s wrong, Tommy?”
Clearing his throat, he leaned his head back and shook it against her belly. “Nothing.”
She squealed, grabbed his ears as if they were handles, and wrapped her legs around his neck.
While she laughed, he clutched her knees to prevent choking and forced himself to go inside. Everyone cried when they saw their family pictures on the entryway wall, but no one wanted to take them down. To distract Alexia so she didn’t notice them, he wobbled as if he were about to fall.
Her giggles grew louder, and she hung on tighter. He blinked tears.
His booted footsteps echoed as he clumped to the kitchen. “Liliana,” he hollered, his voice harsh with emotion. “Put on some clothes Papá and Mamá wouldn’t freak out about and get in Khalil’s truck. Give me any crap, and I’ll carry you out there.”
He plucked Alexia off his shoulders and stood her on a chair. Her short arms couldn’t reach the knockoff-brand cereal sitting on the other side of Antoinette’s two stacked boxes. Was there enough for a snack? He rattled the bag, then handed it to Alexia. “Share these with Liliana. I’m gonna change clothes.”
Before he walked out, he carried Mamá’s favorite breakfast bowls to the sink. Papá had bought them for her because they had windmills on them. Although she loved those, tulips, Dutch desserts, and other things that reminded her of growing up in the Netherlands, she never talked about her parents who still lived there. Whenever they came up in conversations, she’d laugh and insist she was more Mexican than Dutch now.
Tired as he was after a long day at Khalil’s auto body shop, Tommy always left the kitchen as clean as she had kept it.
He dragged a finger over her clay cooking pot and the chip he’d made by dropping a pan on it. Mamá had teared up over the damage to her olla, but she hadn’t yelled at him for it.
No one used her olla, or her stash of chili peppers, garlic, and spices hanging in the tiered baskets. Mamá and Liliana had used them every Sunday when they made traditional Mexican meals together. The only thing the cranky preteen nightmare made now was quesadillas in the microwave.
Should he give the supplies away?
That meant admitting Mamá would never be herself again.
He couldn’t deny the truth anymore. It had been obvious after she’d beaten Tommy with her Bible her first day home from the hospital. The following morning, she punched his older sister in the face. The bruise on Antoinette’s cheek had turned purple. Later that night, Mamá kicked them both. Everyone had cried when he held her down to stop her from hurting them. They knew she’d never do it if she were in her right mind, but that didn’t help.
Afterward, Antoinette said they needed to send her to Pinos Sombríos Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. Tommy refused to do it. Antoinette pointed out they might be able to help Mamá recover, and if she attacked the younger girls, they could lose custody of them. She also said she’d only be there for a few months until Papá’s sister could come from Mexico to help them.
So, they’d done it. Leaving Mamá in a place where people waited to die was as hard as burying Papá.
He blinked more tears as he walked into his bedroom to trade his grease-and-oil-stained coveralls for jeans and a T-shirt.
When he returned to the kitchen, he found Liliana scowling as she scrounged cereal out of the bag. Now, she wore jeans and Mamá’s favorite blouse.
“It’s my turn.” Alexia snatched the bag.
“Hey, you both need to share. Lilia.” Tommy swept a finger up and down, pointing at her clothes. “That’s better. Papá wouldn’t have yelled himself hoarse over those.”
She rolled her eyes.
“Tommy, don’t forget my papers.” Alexia held out her red homework folder to him.
“Okay. I’ll read and sign them later. We gotta hurry.” He stuffed the folder between Antoinette’s two large boxes. “Let’s go.” He hoisted the boxes and herded his sisters to his boss’s work truck. Using the brand-new Ford F350 was risky. Tommy had been driving since he was eight, but ten years of experience didn’t mean a peso since he couldn’t pass any written tests. At least Khalil Karim, his Moroccan boss, trusted him without a license.
“Buckle up,” Tommy told the girls while he did so himself.
Alexia bumped his elbow as she squirmed to click her seatbelt into place.
Liliana faced the truck’s front passenger window. Her reflection predicted his grim future. Narrowed eyes. Pinched lips. Locket between her fingers. She always slid her necklace’s heart-shaped USB across her pursed lips when her internal radiator was about to explode. Was she gonna bail and run to her boyfriend? “Liliana, buckle it—now.”
She snorted but did so.
What would Papá say to her? “Tell me about your day, Lilia,” he said.
She continued to stare out the window.
“Tommy!” Alexia pointed at a large woman wearing a bright orange dress standing beside their caseworker’s lime-green Honda Civic three cars over. “That’s the lady who came to my class and wanted to know where Antoinette is.”
Ellen Baggnato? Why was the caseworker who’d helped Antoinette file the paperwork to get custody of the girls talking to Alexia now? Had one of their neighbors called Child Protective Services on him? Did they think he couldn’t take care of the girls? Did they think he was abusive because he yelled at the dope dealer? Maybe one of their neighbors told CPS Antoinette lived hours away so she could attend Cal State in Sacramento. If so, they might lose custody of the girls. At twenty-one, she was the only one old enough to have it. Neither she nor Tommy were legal U.S. citizens, and the younger girls only needed one guardian. Now that he was eighteen, he could be deported to Mexico. California’s sanctuary law made things easier, but the state was breaking federal laws, so Papá had always said they should be careful. “Get down. Don’t let her see you.”
Liliana sank in her seat as fast as Alexia. At least she listened now.
“Did you tell her Ant was at work?”
Alexia pulled her dinosaur’s tail out of her mouth, but her lower lip stuck out in a pout. It had taken forever to convince her it was okay to lie, but only about where their older sister was. “Yes.”
“Did you tell them you couldn’t remember where?”
The lip pushed out even farther. “Uh-huh. They asked about you, too.”
Tommy frowned. “What’d she want to know about me?”
“Where you worked.”
As soon as the older lady hobbled up the stairs to their apartment, he exited the parking lot. “What did you say?”
“Um. That you worked out in the ocean so you could win surfing contests.” She grinned at him.
He smiled at her, even though that dream had died the instant the drunk slammed into their parents’ car.
Once on the freeway, Tommy’s muscles remained in a tight bunch. How were they going to avoid the social worker? He added that to his list of worries while he followed the directions Liliana provided, and Alexia chattered nonstop.
What do I do if the state tries to take the girls from me?
Sacramento, California, Friday, September 7, 7:30 p.m. PST.
After two hours on the road, Liliana stretched and said, “We’re close to Ant’s. Next right after the light.” Since she was at least talking to him, he didn’t tell her that he’d memorized the directions after she’d read them to him earlier. He and Dino had made a few deliveries near Antoinette’s apartment before she moved there. Years ago, Papá had taught him to picture places in his mind so he could find them again without reading signs.
“Hey, um, I need help making a simple motor for a science project,” Liliana said.
Tommy glanced at her. “Okay. When is it due?”
“Not for six weeks, but I want to get it done, so I don’t have to worry about it.”
“I’ll make you a deal. You obey the house rules for two weeks, and we’ll build something that will get you an A and extra credit.”
Liliana stared at him with her mouth open. She snapped it shut and glared at him.
After he pulled into Antoinette’s parking lot, he said, “You can start by texting Ant. Tell her we’re here. She has to let us into the building.”
Scowling, Liliana tapped on the phone.
Ahead of them, the sun shone on eight pale-gray apartment buildings clustered in two rows of four. They were decades-old but in better condition than anything in their San Jose barrio. They also hadn’t been tagged by gangsters marking their territory.
Before the accident, one of Antoinette’s teachers had recommended she apply for California’s pilot program to fund this cheap housing for low-income students. When Tommy found out she had to prepay just to hold her reservation, he told her it was stupid to ask poor families to pay in advance. Antoinette put on her I-know-better-than-you face and showed him the other options. She’d have to rob a bank to pay for the resort-hotel type of housing advertised for other students. With her choice, she could dip into her college savings instead of burning through them.
As they approached the building, a guy wearing a wide-brimmed hat and riding a lawnmower zipped along a narrow strip of lawn. Two passes had finished the job. He moved on to the next mini yard, leaving a trail of grass clippings blowing in a breeze that bent the wilted palm trees.
Girls Antoinette’s age strolled by in tank tops and shorts. If they were in the barrio, dealers would’ve already hit on them, tried to sell them dope, or both.
Tommy circled the lot twice before sandwiching Khalil’s truck between a clunker and a middle-aged sedan.
“Liliana . . .” He glanced at her. She held the family’s emergency phone that used to be Papá’s. It still had their family’s picture as the wallpaper. Tommy and his sisters had surprised him with the expensive phone on Father’s Day. A smile lifted Tommy’s lips at the memory of his expression when he’d opened it.
Papá had never wanted anything for himself. He and Mamá insisted that whatever was left after food, clothing, medical expenses, and a few gifts for Christmas and birthdays, went into college savings.
He clenched his fists. Why had God taken them?
Liliana’s sniffling as she stared at the family picture intensified his grief but not his anger. She hurt too. “Lilia,” he said softly. “Text Antoinette, please.”
“I already did.” She wiped her eyes as she switched the phone to GPS mode and closed out that feature. “She’s sending a friend down to let us in.”
Tommy cleared his throat and grabbed the handle to get out. Before he twisted it, a blonde in a sundress flounced between Khalil’s truck and a newer Honda Civic. Phone to her ear, she flung open its passenger door and seemed oblivious to being a millimeter shy of scraping Khalil’s paint. Kneeling on the seat, she stretched across the console with her skirt riding up high on her thighs. “I can’t find it!” she shouted.
“She’s loud,” Alexia said, cranking her neck to find the source. “What’s she doing?”
Before Alexia asked why that lady got to show off her panties, Tommy leaned forward, blocking her view. “Dunno. Where’s the book you wanted to read to me?”
She unbuckled her seatbelt. In true Alexia fashion, she clung to him like he was a jungle gym and would have climbed his frame if he were standing. He’d created a monster the day he taught her how to sit on his shoulders while they were surfing. Today, she settled for plopping onto his lap.
Outside, the woman continued to shout. She’d resorted to squatting while she peeled her floor mat up.
Alexia exhaled on the window where the A/C chilled it and drew her name in the fog.
“Hey, no graffiti.” Tommy picked Alexia up and used her back as a squeegee to wipe it off. She squirmed and giggled until he put her on his lap.
The woman screeched.
“Why is she in the way?” Alexia swore at her in Arabic.
If Antoinette had heard, she’d complain that Alexia spent too much time at the mechanic’s shop with Tommy and Khalil. “No bad words, Lexi,” he said.
“You said al’ama this morning.” Her saucy tone along with her head tilting mimicked Antoinette’s attitude.
Tommy sighed. Some days even his youngest sister was a rogue wave battering the life out of him. All week, she’d refused to leave for school until she wore pink from her pigtail holders to her tennis shoes.
He started the truck and cracked his window. “Excuse me, ma’am, I’ve got—”
The woman spun. “Can’t you see—oh!” She clutched her phone to her chest. “Oh, um.” Her cheeks flushed. “I mean, I’m sorry. Are you a model for the art class?”
“No. We need to get out. Excuse us.”
She pulled her door away from Khalil’s truck.
He stepped out into a burst of wind that reminded him of Antoinette shoving her blow dryer in his face.
As soon as Alexia followed him out, the gust wrapped her waist-length black hair around her body.
Great. She’d taken out her pigtails. How long would it take him to comb out her snarls tonight? He lifted Antoinette’s boxes out of the truck’s bed as Liliana walked to the tailgate. She held her equally long, dark hair away from her face.
The woman remained in her passenger’s seat with her door cracked. “Hurry quick, Saundra. I’m sitting next to this guy who reminds me of that model on the poster in your room, but hotter.”
Was she livestreaming? He didn’t look to find out. It wasn’t unusual for him, Antoinette, and Alexia to draw this kind of attention. Although Liliana was pretty, she didn’t get the same reaction as the rest of their family. She’d blink tears when people complimented their sisters.
“He’s taller than your basketball star, too,” the woman continued. “Yeah, jet-black hair that makes his gorgeous blue eyes stand out.”
Rolling the blue eyes he’d inherited from Mamá, Tommy motioned with the boxes. “Let’s go, girls. Alexia, walk over here where I can see you.”
She bounced along beside him, dinosaur flopping, hair blowing in the breeze.
Carrying the two boxes stacked so high Tommy couldn’t see where he was going turned out to be a seventh-grade dropout mistake. Everyone who noticed probably laughed at him for having to rely on his younger sisters to guide him. He couldn’t even do that right. With the side of his face plastered against the box, he could only see in one direction and had to walk sideways to watch Alexia.
After a long march across the baking asphalt, Alexia hollered, “Almost there. Keep it coming. Oh, don’t close the door!” She darted away.
A guy opened the glass door for Alexia and held it there.
“Thanks.” Alexia’s voice grew muffled. She must have put her dinosaur in her mouth. “I got it.” She planted her hands on the glass and strained her french fry-thin arms.
Careful to maintain his balancing act, Tommy maneuvered his load into the air-conditioned building. A large crowd had gathered in a living room-sized lobby off to his right. Young men and women glanced at him from their positions on the two couches or at one of the four tables. Antoinette said the renovators had designed the apartments after Cal State dorms. That must be the common room. “Do you see Ant, Lexi?”
Most of the observers returned to their activities. A few continued to stare at him.
“Nope. Why are they looking at us?” Dinosaur clutched to her chest, she ducked under the box and trampled Tommy’s foot.
“You must be Tommy and Alexia.” The female’s murmur barely broke through the chatter of the women sitting at a table a few feet away.
“Who’s she?” Alexia’s loud question drew giggles and more stares from the nearby table.
Unable to see past his load, he turned to find out who Alexia was talking about.
A pretty girl in a shapeless dress that dragged on the floor met his gaze for a brief instant. She was pale, even for a blonde, and had dark smudges under her eyes. Had she stayed up late studying or partying? “I’m Tiffany, Antoinette’s roommate. She—”
“Hey, Tiff.” A guy with bulky, linebacker shoulders filling out a black football jersey smirked as he limped up to them with a leg in a brace. Golden hair hung in a shaggy surfer’s cut to his chin. His broad, short face was as compact as his body and built with the sturdiness of a loggerhead turtle. He raised a hand to point two fingers through the tangle of hair dangling in front of his brown eyes, then swung them toward Tiffany. “Lookin’ forward to tonight.”
Her pale face lost more color before she tilted her head down.
“You okay?” Tommy asked, adjusting his grip on the boxes. “He bothering you?”
Tiffany didn’t respond or look up.
Loggerhead chuckled and limped toward two guys at a nearby table. Both had hair as pale as the Sonoran Desert sand dunes and light brown eyes. The only difference between the two was one gringo’s skin was comparable to the white hockey stick on his T-shirt. He must never go outside.
Smiling, all three exchanged knuckle bumps. They were athletic, clean-shaven, had grease-free designer clothes, and no visible signs that they worked for their tuition. The blond in a pale blue shirt double-tapped the table and looked at the guy built like a loggerhead as he said, “Score one for the home team, huh, Baldy?”
Baldy? Was he dissin’ Loggerhead’s long hair?
Tommy had tried to grow out his hair like that once. Mamá demanded he keep it short. Now that she didn’t always know who Tommy was, he kept it the way she liked it, hoping she’d recognize him someday.
He shook away the memory and focused on Baldy. He and his friends seemed to be ignoring them now.
“Tommy.” Tiffany’s whisper held a sense of urgency.
When he looked down at her, the little blonde’s direct stare stabbed him with intensity. “Antoinette sent me to meet you. She’s getting ready for her date. You should talk her out of—”
“Thanks for waiting for me, Tommy!” Liliana stormed up to them, stomping each foot like it was a hammer, and her words were nails in his coffin. “I told you I had to tie my shoe.”
“Hello, Liliana,” Tiffany said. “You could be Antoinette’s twin.” The compliment was spoken with a touch of sadness, but Liliana grinned as if Tiffany offered to name a new car after her.
“C’mon, I’ll show you where our room is.” Tiffany led them to an elevator. While they waited, she drifted to Tommy’s side, jammed her hands into her dress’s deep pockets, and glanced around like a dealer about to make a sale. “Tommy,” she murmured. “Stop Ant from going on a date with the immigration attorn—” The elevator opened.
Date? Immigration attorney?
Before he could ask questions, six women burst out of the elevator in a stream that would have flowed around them if Tiffany hadn’t stepped away from him. After the stampede of perfume-scented females passed, he searched for his youngest sister. “Alexia?”
Tiffany held the empty elevator doors open, inviting him in. “She’s here, Tommy.”
His youngest sister’s giggles told him she was hiding under the boxes.
“I am, too,” Liliana grumbled. “Thanks for asking.”
“You don’t run off after butterflies.” But Liliana might run off after the drug dealer. “Both of you, come over here so I can see you,” he said, nudging the seven-year-old along as he walked into the elevator.
Tiffany shifted to the far-right side, allowing room for the girls between them.
Liliana didn’t obey his instructions.
Before he could turn to find her, females chatting about class schedules walked into the elevator and filled the space. It was too full for him to move without smacking someone with a corner of the box.
“They’re both here,” Tiffany said. “Alexia, push three.”
“Who is Ant going out with?” Tommy asked while Alexia jabbed the button.
Tiffany glanced at the other women and shook her head before lowering her chin, so her long hair hid her face.
Everyone got off on the third floor. “This way.” Tiffany stood so close to Tommy’s elbow, he grazed her with it when he started walking.
She flinched as if he’d burned her and hurried ahead of him.
He followed her down a hallway clogged by a man with a huge TV box on a dolly. Students formed a single-file and squeezed around him.
Tommy eyed the box. It’d be nice to be able to afford that and college.
“That TV is going into our room.” Tiffany put her hand on Antoinette’s box.
Startled, Tommy looked down at her.
“When you’re alone with Ant, talk her out of her date with the attorney.” Tiffany joined a crowd of students in bathing suits, squeezing past the bottleneck caused by Tommy and the other deliveryman. She slipped to the end of the hallway and rounded a corner.
“What did she say?” Liliana asked.
“Something about Ant’s date. I—”
“You’re only three hours late.” The female’s harsh sneering tone coming from Antoinette’s apartment, wasn’t his sister.
The scathing comment seemed to be aimed at the sweaty deliveryman. He was an older guy whose arms trembled as he wheeled the dolly inside. “I left three messages for Jazzy,” he said. “Is that you?”
Tommy followed him to the door and peeked in over the top of him.
The studio apartment had been converted into a three-person squeeze. Bunk beds took up one wall, with dressers flush against the end of the beds. A third bed, on stilts, perched over a desk and a portable closet. Two desks were visible near a breakfast area in front of a window.
A beautiful Latina who filled out her stringer tank top and short shorts with a swimsuit model’s perfection shrugged. “No. I didn’t get any messages.”
“It says Jazzy on her phone.” Liliana’s soft mutter barely carried from her mouth at the height of Tommy’s elbow to his ear.
“I’m leaving the worst review you’ve ever had.” Jazzy pointed at the wall with the window. “Put the TV there and go.”
Antoinette hated snobs. Had there been an epic battle between them yet? It’d be fun to get popcorn for that show.
“Who are you?” At first, attitude puckered Jazzy’s face, then she visually licked Tommy as if he were ice cream.
“Tommy.” Alexia hooked her finger into his hip pocket while she chewed her dinosaur’s tail. “Where’s Ant?”
“I texted her,” Liliana said.
“Hey!” Antoinette squealed.
He turned slowly, so he didn’t lose the top box.
Antoinette rushed out of the bathroom to his left, along with a cloud of steam and a fruity scent. A waist-length mass of hair as dark as Papá’s hung over her shoulder. She had his dark eyes, too, but her excited expression when she saw family was typical of Mamá. The only noticeable sign that Antoinette had her Dutch genes was the five-nine height.
“Ant!” Alexia met her halfway and hugged her legs. “Lilia’s in trouble. I’m not. Do you have a treat for me?” She pulled back and aimed the full strength of her pleading-eyes superpower at her.
Antoinette bent over and returned the hug. “I have Tic Tacs.”
“Your muscleman might need a break.” Jazzy winked at him before climbing up to the bunk bed on stilts.
“Oh, Tommy!” Antoinette peeked past her curtain of dripping hair. “Sorry. Set those boxes on my bed.” She used her comb to point at the other top bunk.
While he carried them over, Jazzy’s intense focus followed him.
After the deliveryman unloaded his cargo, Liliana walked as if in a trance to the new TV leaning against the wall. “How much did this cost?” Her tone praised the TV’s existence.
Something that expensive could feed our family for weeks.
Jazzy climbed off her bunk. “My boss gave it to me to show his appreciation for the work I’ve been doing. Oh, Antoinette.” She strolled over and rested her hand on Tommy’s arm. “Could your muscleman put my TV on the wall for me?” She looked at him in the kind of way that made a guy sweat.
“You can do it yourself.” Antoinette’s tone chilled the room.
Liliana clapped a hand over her own mouth and bounced her gaze between the two Latinas.
Jazzy sneered at Antoinette and stalked over to climb her ladder.
Lips curling into a smile, Antoinette reached over her bed and dug in her purse. The mints rattled in their container as she passed them to Alexia. “Share these with Liliana. I’m excited you’re all here, but I wasn’t expecting you today. I’ve got an appointment I can’t change.”
“Appointment for what?” Tommy asked and shook his head when Alexia offered him a Tic Tac.
Pinching her lips between her teeth, Antoinette combed her hair. “I’m meeting a friend.”
“Can we watch cartoons on that TV?” Alexia’s eyes begged as much as her voice. Her superpower was on maximum. She squeezed her dinosaur between her palms. “Pleeease.”
“I’m sorry, Lexi,” Antoinette said. “I have to go soon, which means you do, too.”
“Jazzy,” Tommy called.
Antoinette’s flirty roommate’s full attention swung to him. She leaned over her upper bunk’s edge, flashing her assets at him. “Hmm?”
“I’ll put the TV up if the girls can watch cartoons while I talk to Antoinette.”
His older two sisters stared at him with their mouths gaping. Liliana’s jaw snapped shut first. “Cartoons?” She exhaled a snarky-attitude grunt. “I’m not a baby.”
“Play games on the phone.” He aimed his gaze at Jazzy. “Do you have any power tools?”
“I’ll ask the maintenance guy.” Jazzy dashed out of the room.
Scowling, Antoinette glanced at her watch.
What We Do for Family
Sacramento, California, Friday, September 7, 7:15 p.m. PST.
After Jazzy returned with the tools, a phone call diverted her. She sauntered into the hall, leaving Tommy to work without a distraction.
As soon as he finished anchoring the TV to the wall, Antoinette held out a soda to him. “Here’s payment for bringing my things.”
He waved off the drink to straighten the TV. “I still expect free medical when you’re a nurse.”
“Deal.” Antoinette shoved the soda into his hand. “I’ll walk you to the door.”
“Hold on. I have to show you something. Girls, see if the TV works. I plugged in her Apple TV. See if you can find something from Angel Studios.”
Liliana turned it on. Alexia scrambled up onto Antoinette’s bed. Facing the expensive electronic babysitter, she flopped onto her belly and anchored her palms beneath her chin.
He tilted the boxes apart, retrieved the red folder he’d shoved between them, and gave it to Antoinette. “What do these papers in Alexia’s homework folder say?”
While she scanned the pages, he opened his soda.
“You’ll need to sign this paper every day after Alexia reads two books to you or Liliana,” Ant whispered the instructions to hide that he couldn’t figure it out himself.
“Did you email Aunt Selena?” he murmured.
“Why didn’t you say so? When is she coming? How soon can we get Mamá out? Did you ask her if she’s bringing some of the money back?” If they even got a couple thousand Dad’s sister borrowed, they’d be able to pay the bills.
“She never answered. It’s not like her. I don’t know what’s wrong. Maybe the cartel caught her trying to sneak her family out.”
Tommy frowned. “Maybe that’s why Ignacio hasn’t called either.” Their godfather had served in the Mexican Marines with Papá and Tommy’s uncle. Whatever the three of them went through together, they swore an oath to take care of one another and their families. Tommy gasped. “I just remembered I heard Papá ask Ignacio to get her out—the day he died.”
They stared at one another before Antoinette grabbed his arm. “Something is wrong. That’s why he didn’t come to the funeral. We’re on our own.” She wiggled her toe into the rug fibers the way she had done at home when she felt guilty. “I need to drop out and come home.”
“No!” Handling everything terrified him, but he couldn’t cave now. Papá and Mamá insisted getting an education was the key to leaving the pit they lived in. Everyone had worked hard to build up Antoinette’s savings, so she could eventually help them. He guzzled soda, then wiped his mouth on his arm because it drove her crazy. “We’ll be fine. I’m in charge.” Papá would ask questions. “Tell me about your date.”
Her hands tightened on Alexia’s folder. “Date? Oh, um, don’t forget to send lunch money with the girls.” Antoinette edged him closer to the hallway as she spoke.
He planted his feet and took a swig of his soda. “Who is this guy?”
“He’s just a friend. You’re collecting admirers. If you’re not careful, one of them will fall in love with you.”
Tommy ignored a girl in the hallway who had done a double take. “No worries. Me and college girls don’t mix.”
“You need to get over Emily.”
Not anytime soon. The day he’d seen Emily’s tire blow on I-5 had changed his life.
At first, she had insisted she could fix her own flat. Her sprained wrist, an injury from an intense volleyball tournament, said otherwise. She was as blonde and blue-eyed as his mother and more than just hot. She had completed most of her degree in mechanical engineering.
After he’d sold his lucky surfboard to buy her an engagement ring, she’d discovered his humiliating secret. In her direct, to-the-point way, she informed him that his “deficit” would hold them both back and destroy their relationship.
Yeah, that was the last time he’d admit having a “deficit” to anyone.
Antoinette slapped his arm with the folder. “You’re smarter than most of the guys on this campus. How many of them speak five languages? I don’t know any.” She slapped his arm again. “Listen to me. Just because Emily’s a mechanical genius too doesn’t mean she isn’t socially stupid.”
“Uh-huh. Speaking languages you hear all the time and reading them are not the same. So, about this immigration guy you’re dating. Who is he?”
“How did you find out—ugh!” She swept her pick through her hair. “It’s not a big deal. Rex Kennington is a friend who offered to make me dinner for my birthday.”
Tommy had gotten into more fistfights over her being viewed as eye candy than about him being too dumb to read. Papá would ask her where she was going and when she’d get back. Tommy needed a less direct approach. “He’s making you dinner at his place?”
“Yeah. Don’t worry. I’ve gone out with Rex before. He’s nice and studying to be an immigration attorney. He’s helped a lot of people obtain citizenship.”
Something about this guy bothered Tiffany. “So, he lives on campus?”
“I’ve got it under control. I’m an adult, and you’re not Papá.” She kept her tone light but was all attitude. While doing the saucy head tilting that Alexia had mimicked, she gestured with her chin out the open doorway. “And I don’t want to be late.”
He refused to budge past the doorframe. Game on. “So, you’re leaving for it soon. He’s rich. He can afford to take you out to dinner.”
“Please don’t start. Guys here are different from our barrio.”
“No, they’re not. The girls and I will hang out with Jazzy and Tiffany until you come back.” He finished his soda and tossed the can into a recycling bin by Antoinette’s bed.
“It’s just dinner.” She dragged her pick through her hair but looked like she wanted to stab him with it.
“With an entitled guy. What do you think he’s after?”
“Leave before I get a broom and beat you like I did for ruining my quinceañera dress.”
He’d only been pretending to spill his red punch on her expensive dress, but his cousin intentionally bumped Tommy’s arm, causing him to do it. Tommy had been sore for a week after her retaliation, but Dino got away without a mark. Out of habit, he held up his hands to protect himself from an attack. “Whoa, all I’m say—”
“No, Ant, don’t hurt Tommy!” Alexia ran over to cling to his leg. Hopefully, she didn’t turn as sticky as epoxy again. For weeks after the accident and Antoinette’s move to Cal State, Alexia had been terrified everyone would leave her.
Tommy picked her up and stepped closer to Antoinette. “Want to leave without a parade following you? Tell me where he lives.”
Antoinette’s jaw tightened.
“Oh, my cartoons are back on.” Alexia squirmed, apparently forgetting the warzone. Once on her feet, she scampered over to scramble up Antoinette’s bunk bed ladder.
Tommy leaned on the doorframe Antoinette had backed him into. He folded his arms across his chest.
Antoinette glanced at her phone. “Fine. I’ll write it down.”
Her unusual attack stung worse than a jellyfish. “Girls, let’s go!” He turned to leave.
Antoinette grabbed his arm. “I’m sorry. That was mean. I know you’re worried. You passed his place to get here. It’s the red-roofed townhouse after the Chevron and Einstein Bagels.”
He stared at her until she blurted out, “His apartment is on the left side of the building.”
Nodding, Tommy called the girls over a second time.
Liliana dragged Alexia over. They exchanged teary goodbyes and long hugs with Antoinette, then trudged outside.
His older sister didn’t meet his eyes as he followed the girls, but Jazzy did. As she slid by him into her apartment, she brushed her chest against his. Her tongue slid across her upper lip as if it were sugar-coated. Her smile promised it was.
“You still there, Jazzy?” asked a male voice emanating from the phone by her ear.
“Yeah, but . . .” Her questioning gaze focused on Tommy’s mouth.
His stomach turned queasy. She had the brains of a mosquito, the ego of a Kardashian, and her bed probably had as much traffic as I-5.
“Tommy, I’m hungry.” Alexia grabbed his fingers. He allowed her to drag him away.
On the way to the truck, Tiffany’s concern and Antoinette’s stiff responses buzzed his mind. He and the girls could spy on the townhouse. If the date lasted too long, they’d pretend to sell Girl Scout cookies and knock on Rex Kennington’s door. Liliana would love torturing her. Alexia would think it was funny.
“Tommy.” Alexia peered up at him with her superpower. “I’m hungry.”
Tiffany’s warning still buzzed in his mind. He hoisted Alexia to his shoulders. “Let’s get McDonalds and bug Antoinette.”
They sat so long in the drive-thru, Tommy wished he had a comb to work on Alexia’s hair. His stomach growled. After paying for groceries, rent, and Mamá’s two-hundred-dollar seizure medication, he only had enough money to feed his sisters.
His phone rang after he passed them the food. Before Liliana opened her box, Alexia held out her drooping fries to him. “Wiggly ones are ick.”
Good thing she’d be full after eating a few nuggets. He answered his phone on the fifth ring and switched it to speaker as he ate her “wiggly” fries.
“Hey, cuz.” Dino’s voice had the I-need-something tone.
If it was help on a long-haul shipment, an advance would give Tommy enough money for dinner tonight.
“Khalil said you drove to Ant’s school,” Dino continued. “Are you still there?”
“I need help. My rig broke down on I-215 southbound by the College Avenue exit sign.”
“That’s the exit we took.” Liliana swirled a fry in catsup, then popped it into her mouth.
If I’d known he was coming out here, I would’ve had him take the boxes. It wasn’t far and checking it out gave them something to do while they waited for Ant’s date to get interesting. “Be there soon.” Tommy palmed the truck’s wheel into a left turn and pulled out of McDonalds parking lot.
With moderate traffic, it took him and Liliana a few minutes to find Dino with the rig’s hood up. He stood beside the four-foot-tall engine compartment, resembling a dark-haired hobbit from Lord of the Rings in chinos and a checkered shirt. The thick mustache following the curve of Dino’s lip lifted as he smiled.
“Stay here. Don’t get out,” he told the girls as he watched traffic speed by.
Liliana silently texted while Alexia munched on her nuggets.
Tommy slid outside the truck and approached its bed. He helped himself to items in Khalil’s truck-wide toolbox and took one of the slotted vehicle ramps to use as a ladder. As tall as Tommy was, he still needed the boost to reach the engine.
After he anchored the ramp between the tire and the road’s shoulder, he climbed up and hollered over the rush of traffic. “Got any legal runs you need a partner for?”
Furniture wasn’t all Dino hauled. Smuggling families and farmworkers didn’t pay as well as the dope he sometimes hid in his shipments. Papá would be furious if Tommy risked going to jail and making everyone in his family suffer.
“Not if this thing is busted.” Dino cursed his rig and spit on it.
“You’ve got a loose bolt on your alternator.” Tommy tightened it with Khalil’s impact wrench. “Try starting it.”
Dino stiffened, and his mustache quirked as he scowled. “What’s Lilia doin’?”
As Tommy stepped off the ramp, he followed his gaze.
Liliana ran toward them with traffic skimming past only a few feet from her.
“Lilia!” Tommy yelled over the top of his cousin. “I told you to stay in the truck.”
She skidded to a stop before plowing into Dino and held out the phone. “Something’s wrong. Ant isn’t making sense.”
Tommy took the phone. “Ant, what’s goin’ on?”
“Tommmy. Comget meeh.”
“What’s wrong?” Tommy hoisted up the ramp.
“I dunno. Ro-room slidesss. On-only had onne drink.”
Ant didn’t like getting drunk, didn’t get high, and Tommy hadn’t been gone more than thirty minutes. His heart raced as if he’d lost his brakes on a downhill race. “Did he drug you?”
Dino’s eyebrows shot up.
Liliana clutched her USB locket. “Where is she?” A semi whooshing past blew her hair into her face.
“Are you at his place—the one you told me about?” Tommy asked Antoinette. His heartbeat thudded in his ears, making her slurred words even harder to understand.
I’ll kill him if he hurts her. “Liliana, get in Khalil’s truck.” Tommy grabbed Dino’s arm. “I need you.” He herded him to the truck and dropped the ramp into the bed. “There’s no room up front. Get in.” As Dino hopped into the bed, Tommy bolted for the driver’s seat. “Ant!”
Not her, too! I’m such an idiota! I never should’ve left her.