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MARIPOSA ISLAND, TEXAS
My brother Joaquin knows the Callahans are back on the island just by the look on my face. And there’s no doubt he’s pissed about it.
Squatting on our screened-in porch in front of our door, working to repair the loose doorknob Mami has been after him about, he glances up at me and he knows. He just does.
Good, noble Joaquin. Always trying to do the right thing for Mami and never winning. His efforts end in explosive arguments or him cursing her later behind her back, working himself up into such a frenzy he needs to listen to music on his Walkman at top volume or guzzle a Budweiser to calm down. Such a waste of energy if you ask me. Better to ignore her. Hide from her. Agree with her even if you don’t. It isn’t that hard to do, really. Not if you do it often enough.
I don’t even have to say anything to him and he figures out the Callahans are back. After all, school ended last week. It’s been just a few days since Joaquin walked across the auditorium stage at LBJ High School in a rented burgundy cap and gown, and later Mami, Joaquin, and I enjoyed a celebratory dinner at El Mirador, compliments of Joaquin’s boss, Carlos. The Callahans always show up a week after school lets out. It’s been that way since the summer after I finished seventh grade.
“Hey,” Joaquin says, lifting the bottom of his white T-shirt to wipe the sweat off his face. He squints up at me.
“Hey,” I answer back. “I have a babysitting job tonight.”
Joaquin stands up, arches his back. He flips the screwdriver he’s holding in his hand over once. Twice. Both times he catches it without even looking. He keeps his gaze on me.
“It’s so hot, Elena,” he says. “Why the hell do the Callahans come to Mariposa Island every summer? Why don’t they go to, like, the coast of Maine?”
I shrug. “Who can understand the ways of the rich?”
“Fine,” he says. “But I have a shift at the restaurant tonight. So I hope you won’t be home too late. Someone has to be here to pour Mami into bed.”
I roll my eyes. First of all, it’s almost always me who pours Mami into bed. He knows this. And secondly, any chance he gets to go after Mami, he does. One time in middle school, he brought home pamphlets about alcoholism from the school nurse and started marking Mami’s bottle of Bacardi with a black magic marker. That lasted about two weeks. Honestly, he can be so dramatic sometimes.
“Mr. and Mrs. Callahan are just going out to dinner,” I say as Joaquin resumes his squat and peers at the front doorknob like he and it are about to engage in hand-to-hand combat. “I have to get the kids into bed, and I’ll probably be done by ten or so. Maybe ten thirty.”
“How old are those little brats now, anyway?” Joaquin asks, jiggling the doorknob, his brow furrowed.
“Jennifer is eight and Matthew is four,” I answer. “At least Matthew’s out of diapers. And they’re not brats. They’re sweet kids. I mean, a little spoiled, yeah. But they like me. They never give me any trouble.”
“A regular Mary Poppins you are,” Joaquin says dryly.
“Are you going to let me in or not?” I ask, one hand on my hip.
Joaquin jiggles the doorknob one more time, and rocking back on his heels, he opens the front door and wordlessly lets me enter. I’m pretty sure the accompanying slam is meant for me.
I have an hour until Mami gets home from work, so I hunt through the pantry until I find an almost-empty bag of potato chips. I’ll finish them and Joaquin will have another reason to be pissed at me, but at least he gets a free meal every shift at work. And El Mirador is better than Mami’s dinners. With her it’s always ropa vieja or mac and cheese or overcooked burgers for the five millionth time.
Taking the kitchen phone off the hook, I stretch the cord as far as it will go and slide onto the floor behind my bedroom door.
Michelle answers on the second ring.
“Hey, it’s me,” I say.
“Hey,” she responds. “So can you make it out tonight? To the party?”
I crunch down on a chip and lick salt off my fingers. “Yeah, I should be able to make it.” The Callahans are often home sooner than they say.
“What about your brother?”
“He has to work.”
“God, Michelle, don’t be gross.”
“How am I being gross?” she asks. “I literally just said shit to express my disappointment that your brother isn’t going to make it to the party.”
I cram a handful of greasy potato chips in my mouth and talk through my crunching, little explosions of chips flying from my lips. “It’s gross because … you think my brother … is cute.”
“You’re the one who’s gross, eating and talking at the same time,” Michelle answers. “And your brother is cute.”
I swallow and shout into the phone. No words, just a loud, sustained yell.
“Jesus!” Michelle cries, and I burst out laughing. “Fine, I won’t bring up your brother again.”
I slide down my bedroom door farther until my chin is resting on my chest. Madonna stares down on me from the poster on the wall, her eyes killing me with confidence. I wonder how long before Mami makes me take that poster down. I need to make sure I keep my bedroom door closed more often.
“My brother never does anything fun anyway,” I say. “He just suffers.”
“I’m not even going to respond because I’m afraid you’re going to shout again,” Michelle answers.
“Let’s move on to other boys I’m not related to,” I say. “Namely, Jimmy Paradise.”
It’s ridiculous this could actually be someone’s legal name, of course, and that this person could be as hot and cool and amazing as his name suggests, but Jimmy Paradise is a real person, and he’s had that very real name since he moved to Mariposa Island this past school year, in the middle of tenth grade. In the five months he’s been here he’s had one suspension and two girlfriends, and every time he walked into my Spanish II class I wanted to die. I let him cheat off me on every verb conjugation quiz. Señora McCloud doesn’t know I’m almost fluent, but Jimmy figured it out. After every A he made, he flashed his paper at me and winked.
“I’m sure Jimmy Paradise will be there,” Michelle answers. “Honestly, I don’t know what you see in him. Too many muscles for my taste.”
“What?” I shriek, savoring my last chip. “You have no taste. That’s your problem.”
“Oh, please. Whatever.”
She may sound annoyed, but I know she’s not. Michelle and I have been best friends since second grade. Or maybe third grade, I’m not sure. I just know I can’t remember a time when we weren’t slipping notes to each other during class or trading scented erasers or going through our freshman yearbook putting dots next to the names of all the kids in our class who we were sure had done it.
We talk and talk, and before I know it, an hour has slipped by and I hear the front door open and then shut. I feel my chest tighten.
“My mom’s home,” I say. “I gotta get off.”
Copyright © 2019 by Jennifer Mathieu