When we moved to the big house, Abuela said it was a dangerous place. Peligroso. Mom cut her a sharp glance, and said, “English, Mama.”
Abuela rolled her eyes at me, and I smiled, trying to apologize for Mom. She was nervous about this whole Brady Bunch re-marriage thing, and thought if we let Abuela speak Spanish, it would alienate the new family. I didn’t mention that maybe it was better for them not to understand that Abuela thought moving here was a shit idea.
But as I wandered through the ivory hallways, up the curved staircase (that didn’t even have the decency to creak), and into the perfectly square, nine by nine room at the back of the house that was mine now, Abuela trailed behind me muttering to herself about in-between shadows. She poked at the wall and leaned against it, as if she thought her meager weight would be enough to shove it over and the whole house would collapse.
She had a point, I guess. It was a brand new house in one of those brand new subdivisions that look like a beehive or an ant farm – like God was having a particularly organized day and arranged the houses as perfectly as a Zen sand garden. We were all of us moving in fresh, so neither half of the family had the home court advantage. Which was B.S. since my new stepdad and his girls wouldn’t fit in the house Mom, Abuela and I used to live in. But we could, Mom liked pointing out, have just shacked up with the step-fam, which would have made everyone uncomfortable or something. Whatever.
Ok, I would have hated it. But I’d make a bad Cinderella. Not only because I don’t have the right tools between my legs.
It was a lot like Cinderella though, when I thought about it. Mom used to work for Mr. Benedic, as a low-level admin assistant or something in his swank office downtown, and one day she forgot that she’d slipped her shoes off under her desk before running after a delivery guy who’d dropped his wallet. She’d ended up on the sidewalk outside in her little skirt-suit and pantyhose. Of course she’d turned around and Mr. Benedic had been right here, trying not to laugh. He’d offered his arm (“So gentlemanly,” Mom always cooed), and escorted her back to her desk. And the next day when she got to work there was a little box on her chair. Inside was a pair of soft slippers with a rubber sole made for indoor-outdoor wear.
Now we were in the Happily Ever After phase. And I was even getting stepsisters.
Benedic wanted me to go to a fancy private all-boys school, and Mom was all for it because it was Catholic, to boot. “Benny went there, and his father and uncles, and his grandfather. It would mean so much to him if you agree,” Mom said, and I could see the hope in eyes and the smile waiting just behind her mouth to spring up. She always looked like that these days: either smiling or about to smile. Because of Benedic. And what kind of asshole doesn’t at least try to help his Mom be happy? Not my kind.
Plus, Benny bribed me with my own car, since St. Dominic’s was fifteen minutes away. It was twenty years old, but it was a Mercedes freaking Benz, so I didn’t complain even when it overheated every few days. Benedic patted it affectionately, and said, “I drove this baby to school when I was your age, too. A total chick magnet.”
I caught Mom’s pleading glance, so only nodded and thanked him instead of telling him what we call girls now.
The first night, it was just me, Mom, Abuela, and Benny in the huge dollhouse. Benny’s girls were joining us right before school started, since they stayed with their Mom out in Boston for the summer.
I’d been asleep for at least an hour when Abuela scratched on my door and said, “Julio, come outside with me.”
“Abuela.” I pulled my pillow over my head, but she stalked in and smacked my shoulder.
“Up!” she hissed.
Suppressing a groan, I sat and swung off the bed. It was sticky in my room – thanks to the bad insulation – so I’d been sleeping without covers and in my boxers. “Lemme get dressed,” I said, pushing her out of the room.
I grabbed some jeans and sneakers, and pulled tee over my head. Abuela was already down in the kitchen when I got to her, with her shawl pulled tight over her tiny shoulders. As if she could possibly be cold. I rolled my neck and danced on my toes, trying to wake up. “What are we – ” I started to ask, only to freeze when I saw the bottle of golden tequila in one of Abuela’s hands. She was busy tearing off the foil from the stopper. “Abuela?”
“They’ll like it,” she said. “Get the chocolate from the cupboard.”
I didn’t question, just went through the dark kitchen to the pantry and swung it open. There wasn’t much, just a half-empty spice rack and a ton of Cambell’s soup cans. A bag of long grain rice, and three golden boxes of Ibarra chocolate. I grabbed one and opened it, pulling out the top disk. “Two,” whispered Abuela, and I took another. The bitter chocolate smell wafted up from the paper the disks were wrapped in.
Outside the air was thick, but not as hot as it would be when the sun came up. I shut the sliding glass door carefully and followed Abuela over the patio. The whole neighborhood was dark and quiet, though I could hear traffic from the nearby state highway whooshing every few seconds. Here in the yard, the grass was fake and thick and dark green, even in the spare moonlight. Our privacy fence walled us in like it was a real castle, and there was a single baby tree with thin, teardrop leaves that was useless for shade in the afternoon. Abuela made straight for it.
I joined her, crouched at the thin, snaking roots, just as she uncorked the tequila and began pouring it out in thick glugs. “Dios te salve, María, llena eres de gracia,” she began, and I whispered the rest of the prayer with her. She directed me to tuck slivers of the chocolate into the earth when we finished. “Los duendes like sweet things,” Abuela reminded me.
“Goblins?” I sat back on my heels. “Abuela, I don’t think goblins live in places like this.”
She frowned at me and pointed where she wanted the next triangle of chocolate buried.
We buried chocolate and tequila at all the corners of the yard, and in the front, too. The tree in front was an oak, and Abuela said we’d use it to ground the property. That was the problem, apparently. The place wasn’t a protected home, because it wasn’t grounded. It was new, and we were coming from different worlds to try and make a new kind of family. We were “in-between” like shadows, and those are the best places for the duendes to slip through and snatch away children. I said I was too old for them to be interested in my nightmares, and Abuela said I shouldn’t be so selfish.
Mom and Benny didn’t even protest when Abuela took over one of the little tables in the foyer to set up an altar. We decorated it with red and purple scarves, a Virgin prayer card, red and white candles, and a little bowl of tequila. I protested, though, when Abuela put me in charge of tending the little milagros she hid around the house: a fresh hardboiled egg in the oak roots ever Saturday to draw away the influence of the Evil Eye, tiny wax hands under all the beds, and a Seven Day Ca
ndle in the dining room.
I heard Benny say to Mom, “It doesn’t bother me, sweetheart. She’s making it her own home, and I’m glad.”
I didn’t take my duties seriously until I met Ivy.
She was the youngest of my new stepsisters, and if any of us was most like Cinderella it was her.
At five, she had that aura of goodness – like you see around a kid who survived leukemia or something. Where everyone is all “wow, she’s so strong and beautiful and saintly.” Except, Ivy had never been sick and wasn’t even particularly talented at anything. Except being kind. And sure, pretty. She was a perfect little doll for our dollhouse: hair that curled in huge black ringlets, planet-sized blue eyes, freakishly white skin. Maybe it was only freakish compared to mine.
I’d come home from late rugby practice (which was part of my scheme to be memorable at my new school – they’d made me cut my hair, take out my earring, and I had to wear khaki pants every day and keep the silver Guadalupe charm hidden under my shirt – I mean, who’d ever heard of a Mexican rugby player?) and found her poking at the roots of the oak tree with a stick. “What the hell, crazy girl?” I snapped, it not occurring to me that she wasn’t just some neighborhood kid stealing chocolate from the goblins.
She stood, her head only coming up to my stomach and looked up at me with those freaking eyes and I would dare a better man than me not to have just come unglued.
I stared with my mouth open as she lifted out the remainders of some melted chocolate, covered in dirt and tiny bits of rock and grass. “Our tree grows chocolate!” she declared. “I have never, ever heard of that – but I wonder if I can harvest it somehow?”
Her voice was light and she articulated her words better than any five year old I knew – shit, she articulated better than just about anybody in my high school.
“It’s a – uh – it’s a fairy tree,” I said.
“Fairies!” she squeezed the filthy chocolate to her frothy pink shirt and grinned. “I am determined to believe in faeries until I am at least forty-two.”
“You should meet my grandma,” I said holding out my hand.
Ivy nodded. “I would very much like to. Are you Leo? Like the Lion?”
“Julio. Like the Emperor.” I winked. She put her hand in mind, and the chocolate smeared between us.
That night was the first night I stuck my fingers, all ten of them, into the ground behind the house and whispered not only the Hail Mary, but three of every prayer I could think of. And it was the first night I heard the duende, scrabbling through the walls.
picture by: Sparlingo