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I studied the grains of rice on my plate, separating them into neat little piles with a fork.
Thirty-one grains. Exactly one month since we moved to the Philippines.
Five grains. Five years had passed since the last time my father kissed me good night.
Twelve grains. I would be turning twelve in just three days.
“Pablo—” Mamá’s voice buzzed in my ear like a pesky mosquito. Her breath was shallow, the way she breathed when she was trying not to lose her patience. “Por favor, Pablo. Eat. Lentils and rice.”
I didn’t look at her. Instead, I eyed the small bowl of lentils with ten spoons lined up beside it. At least she’d finally gotten it right. Sauce didn’t have any business touching rice. And once my teaspoon was soiled, I would need another clean one to keep on eating.
The pile with thirty-one grains disappeared into my mouth, and then I took a bite of lentils with the first spoon. Mamá exhaled. “So, I was thinking. Maybe we could invite some of the neighborhood kids for cake and ice cream for your birthday? Just a couple?” she asked.
There was a moment of silence. I glared at the twelve grains. I hated birthdays. I hated crowds. I hated messes. I hated noises. And most of all, I hated parties. Those grimy neighborhood kids—I could already picture them leaving fingerprints on every square inch of the house, rearranging everything I’d so carefully arranged, while ice cream dribbled from their chins.
“If it’s all the same, I’d rather it just be the two of us,” I muttered.
I looked up from my plate, parting my lips as I wracked my brain for a good reason.
I’m not in the mood.
What’s the point?
Truth was, I’d run out of good reasons.
All I managed was a weak smile. The color of her eyes went from a sharp green to a soft hazel. “All right, then … Shall I make Abuelita’s orange almond cake? I know it’s your favorite.”
The sound of a shrieking parrot echoed from the living room. Ordinarily, Mamá ignored her cell phone during mealtimes, but the parrot ringtone was her boss, Miguel, the founder of El Lado Salvaje sanctuary—which in Spanish meant “the Wild Side.”
“I’ll be back. Keep on eating,” she said, fast-walking to the hallway. “Hola, Miguel. Good evening,” I heard her say. She paced and listened and paced and listened, uttering an “Uh-huh” now and then. After a few seconds she halted. I knew she was about to lose it by the way her arms suddenly thrust out. “Qué? So what do you expect me to do?” After that, she switched to all Spanish, which I usually understood. But her words were just too fast. Instead, I watched her body do the talking. Her shoulders and hips popped. Her chin jutted out. Her head bobbed from side to side.
As soon as Mamá hung up, she inhaled deep. It was the kind of inhaling that was supposed to blow away her anger from the inside out. I knew it well, because she was the sort of woman people called “fiery.” Hot-blooded. Short-tempered. Spirited.
She came back into the kitchen holding a rose quartz crystal in her hand—one of her calming stones. “That was Miguel…”
I glanced up at her. “Another abused animal, huh?”
“No. Not quite.” Mamá gripped the crystal even tighter. “Miguel’s friend, the man who donated the land where the sanctuary is on … He’s asking for a favor. A big favor. Seems nobody else is willing to help. Help a girl … an orphaned girl.”
For a second I thought I’d misheard. But then I saw the signs—a quivering lip, flushed cheeks, eyes glossy with emotion. It was the same expression she had every single time she got suckered into helping some poor, helpless animal.
Except this time it was a girl. Mamá was going to rescue a girl. Not a wild animal. A girl.
My head felt like a can of soda about to explode. Mamá’s mouth moved. But her voice was muted. Then it was as if she was screaming in my ear. “YES, PABLO. A GIRL … I don’t really have that many details. I don’t even know what really happened to her. All I know is that she needs help,” she said.
I slumped in my seat. My eyes hopscotched around Mamá’s face. Her freckles were oddly comforting. But then I stumbled on a new one—a tiny freckle near the bridge of her nose.
It was weird—the freckle and this girl.
I was horrified and fascinated at the same time.
“So, what are you supposed to do? It’s not like you’re some orphan-girl expert or anything,” I finally replied.
She began clearing dishes. “I have no choice, Pablo … When I needed a fresh start, a new job, Miguel was there to help me. Now it’s my turn to pay it forward.”
That was that. Her mind was made up. She had no choice. Of course she didn’t. It was something she had to do. One more life to save and several months later, we’d be off somewhere else.
Another country. Another adventure. Another place I’d have to get used to.
Costa Rica, Brazil, India, Kenya, Indonesia, the Philippines.
Where to next?
“I think I’ll go to sleep now. Good night,” I grumbled.
Mamá looked up from the sink full of dishes. “Good night, mi amor.”
Copyright © 2020 by Tanya Guerrero