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I WAS SITTING ON a bench in the Place Without a Soul when it happened, another one of my episodes. The ones that shove me so deep inside of my crazy head that I can’t see out. This one was the worst yet, because I’m not even sure it actually happened. I think I might have hallucinated the whole thing.
So, yeah, I’m pretty much certifiable.
The Place Without a Soul—that’s what my best friend, Bree, and I decided to call this neighborhood. It’s only a mile or so from my house, but it feels like a completely different world. It’s as if someone comes in to paint the grass green at night, when all the perfectly formed nuclear families are sleeping in their enormous houses. And the flower beds. Who lines up flowers that way? Do they use rulers? I think they must, because every little flower is almost precisely three-point-five inches from the one next to it.
Here’s the thing: six months ago, I would have hated this subdivision with all of its pointless order. Now it makes me feel safe. Or at least it did make me feel safe, until this afternoon.
There I was in the neighborhood’s private park, babysitting my little cousins. I was hanging out on a bench that’s made to look like wood but is actually plastic. Luke and Anna were climbing up the corkscrew slide, and it looked like Anna might fall. I jumped up and hurried toward her. By the time I got there, she had already tumbled halfway down, knocking Luke to the ground. Of course, he burst into hysterics. Luke’s five, and a total spaz. I scooped him up and carried him back toward the bench.
That’s when I noticed.
There’s a little creek at the other side of the park. No one is allowed to go down there. All the parents in the neighborhood worry that the water’s too dirty, and they say the rocks are dangerous. I saw something rustling in the bushes, and at first I thought maybe it was a coyote. There are a bunch of coyotes in the neighborhood, which is sad, if you think about it. I mean, they must be pretty desperate for a place to live if they’re in the Place Without a Soul. Not a whole lot of vegetation, unless you count the neatly aligned crepe myrtle trees.
I may be afraid of a lot of things these days, but I am not afraid of coyotes. Humans can coexist with coyotes just fine. I shushed Luke and called quietly to Anna, pointing in the direction of the bushes. I was hoping maybe we would see it—a real live coyote, hanging out in a rich subdivision three miles from downtown Atlanta.
But that’s not what we saw. Instead we saw that boy—his arms wildly shoving the bushes apart. That boy who was not yet a man, the one whose features I knew too well, whose face was etched into my mind, the shape of whose hands I couldn’t seem to forget. That boy with light-brown skin, deep-brown eyes, short dark hair.
My mouth went dry and my hands started to tingle. This wasn’t real. I knew this wasn’t real. Why would he be here, crashing through the bushes in the Place Without a Soul? I took a few steps back, trying to shove his image out of my mind, trying not to let my body remember the grip of his hands.
“Gretchen?” I barely heard Anna’s voice, small and faraway. “Gretchen, what’s happening?”
And then, before I even knew what I was doing, I grabbed her hand, slung Luke onto my hip, and took off. I rushed the kids across the street, stumbling toward their house. My heart was beating fast. Too fast.
I threw the door open and we tumbled into the foyer. Feeling dizzy, I looked up at the chandelier that barely filled the cavernous room. I tried to focus on the light refracting through its crystals. I tried to let the light take me to a “peaceful, safe place.” I did exactly what my mom’s friend, the meditation instructor, told me to do. I tried to imagine that those shards of light were actually rays of sun, sparkling across a blue sea. I tried to place myself on the edge of a dock, shaded by palm fronds and suspended over still water. I tried to visualize those palm fronds rustling in a salty breeze. But all I could hear was my heart, beating too fast, shoving blood through my body.
I was not finding my “peaceful, safe place.” I was suffocating. Even in this two-story entryway filled with empty space, I felt like the walls were closing in. I gasped and turned the dead bolt, peering through the etched lines of the frosted-glass window. I watched as a fluffy little dog darted across the lawn. The kind Bree calls a kick-dog.
Definitely not a coyote. Definitely not him.
I collapsed onto the hardwood floor, sucking air deep into my lungs. I wanted to go back to that safe place—really, I did. But the light ocean breeze kicked into a powerful wind, and I started to worry that a tsunami was forming on the horizon. And then, across the choppy, whitecapped water, Luke was calling my name, but his voice was distant.
I felt Anna’s small hands, cool against my searing hot skin, shaking me. But they couldn’t bring me back.
“Dad,” I whispered. I managed to hand Anna my cell phone as my body curled into the fetal position. “Call Dad.”
* * *
It’s forty minutes later, and Anna and Luke’s mom is home from work early. I’m climbing into the passenger seat of my dad’s car, feeling like a nutcase. Again.
“Are you sure you’re okay, Gretch?”
“Yeah,” I say, reaching down to adjust the seat. “I think maybe I just need to lie back for a minute.” And come up with a new “peaceful place.” Clearly, Bora Bora’s not working for me.
“Sure,” he says. “The lever’s in the front, sweetheart. A little to the left.”
Dad got a new car—a Nissan Leaf. He’s so proud to be the first in the neighborhood with an electric car. He drives it like a badge—a merit award for his progressive politics.
I find the button and ease the seat into a reclining position.
“I’m sorry you had to come over and rescue me like that. Is Aunt Lauren upset?”
Understands what? I wonder. That I probably shouldn’t be trusted with her kids? Not in my condition. But Luke and Anna are family, which must be why she took pity on me and gave me a job in the first place. Aunt Lauren and my dad are cousins—the kind who basically only have genetic material in common. For instance, until she asked me to help out with her kids, my dad wouldn’t be caught dead in this neighborhood. Apparently, there was a big controversy fifteen years ago, when the suburban developer came in with a backhoe and plowed down hundred-year-old hardwoods. Dad was on the front lines, protesting the intrusion of McMansions into his quirky old neighborhood. After a long community battle that included forty-year-olds chaining themselves to trees, the huge houses went up practically on top of one another, and Dad vowed never to enter the subdivision again. Except now he’s here all the time. He’s kind of like my designated driver. I haven’t been behind the wheel of a car in months—not since the incident.
“I called Dr. Cohen,” Dad says.
Dr. Cohen is the person who was supposed to make me feel better. But all she did was give me some stupid “diagnosis.” A “disorder” with a meaningless acronym. Then she handed my dad a prescription for drugs that made me feel—well, drugged. I hated it. I hated her. I convinced my parents that I was well enough to quit, but only under the condition that I would try alternative therapies. Thus my mom’s hippie friend and her guided meditations.
“Dad,” I say, “please.”
“Maybe we jumped the gun, Gretchen. You were doing so well—”
“I’m okay,” I tell him. “It was nothing.”
“We need to consider going back on the meds for a while, Gretch, just until you’re feeling stable again.”
“We didn’t jump the gun,” I say. “I promise. It was just—I don’t know. I don’t really get what happened.”
“Will you tell me about it?” He is using his concerned voice.
No, I won’t tell him, not that I may have seen the boy. I can’t. How could I explain to my father—to anyone!—how I always look for him through the car window, at the grocery store, how I almost want to see him? Maybe after so many months of looking, I have finally imagined him into being. Because how could he have been in the Place Without a Soul? He must have been in my head. But, God, he was so real. Which is a clear sign that I have completely lost my marbles.
Dad does not need to know this. Dr. Cohen absolutely does not need to know this.
“There was a dog in the bushes, and it sort of spooked me.”
“You weren’t ‘sort of spooked.’ You had a panic attack—a debilitating one.”
“I know,” I say. “I get it. But everything is okay.”
“Really?” he asks, wrapping his hand around mine.
“Yes,” I say, giving his hand a little squeeze.
* * *
When we pull into our driveway, Mom steps out through the side door, which is strange—she’s usually not home this early. But I’m guessing she’s been home for a while already, because she’s wearing the fur-lined clogs she uses as house shoes and the big cashmere sweater that she likes to climb into after a particularly long day at work. She’s rubbing white lotion into her hands, wringing them back and forth.
“I’m canceling the meeting with the prosecutor,” she says.
Well, hello to you too, Mom.
“You’re not ready to do this.”
She’s referring to the incident, which probably only lasted two minutes—one hundred and twenty seconds, maybe less. But it changed my life. Every single one of those seconds runs through my head all the time. Since I’m unable to escape them, I might as well talk to the federal prosecutor. Though it’s still a mystery why she cares, so many months later.
“Gretchen?” Dad puts his hand on my shoulder and leads me up the stairs to our house.
“I want to talk to her,” I say.
The three of us are now standing on the top step. The warm air from the house spills out through the open door. I breathe in the lavender scent of Mom’s hand lotion. She always says it’s a natural stress-reducer. Which makes me wonder what she would be like without the lavender …
“It’s all good,” I say, sliding past my mom and into the house. “I’m fine.”
Big fat honking lie.
I CAN’T GET THAT girl out of my head—the one that ran away from me in the park like I was a deranged rapist or something. I was walking Amanda’s fancy dog through this weird neighborhood that looks like a movie set. It feels like one too, come to think of it. It’s so quiet and empty during the day, it’s like nobody actually lives here.
But, yeah. The last thing I need is for a bunch of strangers to be afraid of me.
Maybe I did something to freak her out without knowing it. Christ, it’s been months since I’ve even talked to a girl, unless you count Sally and Amanda, who are, like, fifty, or Ms. Pérez, my lawyer. She’s probably younger than fifty, but she is one scary woman.
I’m hoping the judge will be as terrified of her as I am.
And that girl in the park—she didn’t look like any girl I’d ever seen. I mean, not even on TV. I think it was her hair. It was superstraight and shiny. The color was like a little bit orange and a little bit blond. Her skin was white-white, like a statue. She was looking at me like I was a ghost or zombie or something, and then she grabbed those kids and took off, running and stumbling.
Damn. That girl was crazy. I mean, crazy beautiful, but crazy all the same.
I’ve been in this place for fifteen days, and I’m already scaring away the white girls. What the hell is wrong with me? Back in El Salvador, I spent five long years working as a guide for visiting church groups. They called themselves missionaries, but they were pretty much tourists. Those groups had tons of white girls, and I never had any problems with them. So what did I do to scare away this one?
“Phoenix, dinner!” Sally is calling from the top of the basement stairs.
When I get up to the kitchen, Amanda is already at the table, pouring herself a glass of white wine. Sally and Amanda love to drink wine, which, until coming to this house, I had never actually seen. Plenty of people drink back home, just not wine. A bottle of that stuff costs, like, twelve dollars, which is the same as a couple of bottles of vodka. I’m pretty sure vodka is way stronger. So, I think most people figure: What’s the point?
I don’t really drink—not since a bad night a long time ago. I was a cipote back then—just a stupid kid.
“Hey, you!” Amanda says, cheerful as always. “How was your day?”
“Nothing to complain about,” I reply. “I’m alive, right?”
She laughs nervously. I don’t think Amanda really gets my sense of humor. Sally does, though. She grins wide. “And you’re living with two of the most fantastic women ever to walk the earth, yeah?”
Amanda and Sally got married a couple of years ago in New York City. They told me they had to go there because, back then, women couldn’t marry each other in Georgia. They had a big party here, though. They have photos all over the house. They both wore white dresses. I don’t know how long they’ve been together, but I know Amanda has an ex-husband and grown kids, and I’m pretty sure that this obscenely big house is a holdover from those days.
I won’t lie—the whole thing took a little getting used to when I first came home with them.
First off, I’m staying in the basement, which is about three times the size of any house I’ve ever lived in. I think it’s called a basement because you have to go downstairs to get there. I guess I knew what a basement was before I showed up here, probably from horror movies. Those missionary kids loved their horror flicks. We watched them all the time, after their parents and counselors went to bed.
But Sally and Amanda’s basement isn’t, like, scary or dark or anything. It looks exactly like the rest of the house: Big windows with heavy curtains, fancy leather couches. There’s even a pool table down there, like the kind you see in bars on TV, and a dart board, too. The pool sticks are lined up on the wall and there’s chalk laid out on the table. Sometimes I’m sort of tempted to try playing pool, but I don’t want to mess anything up down there.
Amanda said the basement is where her sons stay when they come “home” to visit. But they’re adults now, with their own homes. They live in Seattle and Los Angeles, but I guess they visit pretty often, because they have this big empty apartment that looks like a bar, always waiting for them.
Well, almost always. Now I’m here, taking up space.
And then there’s the whole lady-couple thing. Amanda and Sally are great, and they’re trying hard to make me feel like I belong here. But, I mean, it’s a little weird hanging out with them, just because it’s not every day you see two old women hugging and kissing. They hug and kiss a lot. Where I’m from, there aren’t many married couples living together at all, since one of them’s usually over here working in the U.S. The couples that are together don’t exactly go around hugging and kissing. They’re also not gay. I think it will be a century or so before gay people can get married in El Salvador.
We pass around a big bowl of salad, some rice, and grilled fish. Their food is insanely good, and every day it’s something different. I definitely don’t miss the food back in Ilopango—except maybe pupusas. I could eat about twenty pupusas de loroco right now.
“The grouper is brilliant, Amanda. Just brilliant.”
Sally’s from England, so she has a funny accent and she says “brilliant” a lot—it took me a few days to figure out that she wasn’t talking about how smart everyone is. I’m not used to British accents, either, so I sometimes have trouble understanding her. I’m pretty sure England doesn’t send missionaries to El Salvador. At least, I’ve never met any.
I nod vigorously and shove in another mouthful of rice.
“Any word from your brother?”
“Not today,” I say. “Maybe he’ll call later.” My stomach does a weird sort of twist, and I look down at my almost empty plate, trying not to think about what my brother is eating tonight. He’s in Texas, living in some sort of group home for kids. I think it’s better than detention—anything is better than that hellhole. But still, it must suck. It doesn’t seem fair that I’m here, and he’s still over there. Plus, the stupid kid refuses to call me. We haven’t talked once since I got out, which worries the hell out of me. I feel like crap when I think about it—me being here, eating this awesome food, while he’s over there, alone.
Christ, I live with a lot of guilt. Maybe it’s a Catholic thing. Maybe I should be Lutheran, like Sally and Amanda. They don’t seem to feel guilty about much of anything. Honestly, I didn’t even know what Lutheran was until a couple of months ago, when Sally showed up across that glass divider in the visitation room, picked up the phone, and told me she was a visitor with the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer. I sat there in my stupid blue prison jumpsuit and stared down at the floor, pretty much incapable of forming any reply as I listened to her try to make small talk. Sally thought maybe I didn’t speak English, even though the people who sent her to visit me said I was totally fluent.
I was just so completely—I don’t even know how to explain it. Tongue-tied? Freaked out by being in a place that felt like prison? Crazy worried?
But then she said, “Tell me about Ari. He’s your brother, right?”
I looked up into her blue eyes—they were so intense, even across the glass divider.
“How do you know about him?” I asked her.
Her eyes got wide and then they wrinkled a little at the edges, because she was smiling.
“You do speak perfect American English,” she said. And then: “I already learned about your case, Phoenix. The nonprofit I volunteer with, they explained before they sent me to you.”
I had no clue who’d sent her to me, but somehow those eyes told me it was okay to do what I was about to do. So I did it. I cried like a goddamned baby. I cried and cried, and I told her our sad, sad story. The guys in the little booths next to us leaned back to look over at me, maybe to make sure that I was okay, or maybe to see who the major asshat was, talking to the white lady with frizzy hair and crying his eyes out.
Anyway, when the guard showed up to tell her to leave, Sally went straight out to hire a lawyer, just because she wanted to do me and Ari a favor. I mean, that stuff really happens. Who knew?
Three weeks later I was leaving that hellhole with Sally, Amanda, and Ms. Pérez, who looks like a normal lady lawyer but apparently is a miracle worker. Because here’s the thing: I came to Georgia on a plane packed full of guys just like me—two hundred of us, caught at the border, running away from the hell that’s breaking loose in El Salvador. I am the only one of those two hundred guys who walked out of detention. The rest of them are still in there, or maybe they’ve already been sent back.
I can’t even think about what’s gonna happen to some of those guys when they get off that plane. I’m not trying to be overly dramatic or anything, but a bunch of gangueros back in El Salvador want people like us dead. And they’re not afraid to kill. Believe me. I’ve seen it with my own two eyes. Those guys kill people for the stupidest reasons—like walking across an invisible line into their territory or trying to hook up with one of their girlfriends. The lucky ones are the ones sitting in detention—the ones who got away before getting a bullet through the skull.
No. They aren’t lucky. There’s nothing lucky about being in that place. I’m the one with the crazy good luck. Sally and Amanda and my kick-ass lawyer have bought me a little time. So here I am, eating fresh grouper in the middle of Georgia, a thousand worlds away from my pinche hometown, and a thousand miles away from my stupid-ass little brother.
This isn’t how it was supposed to go down.
Copyright © 2016 by Marie Marquardt