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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

In the Country We Love

My Family Divided

Diane Guerrero with Michelle Burford

Henry Holt and Co.


The Silver Key

Every doorway, every intersection has a story.
—Katherine Dunn, novelist

Spring 2001—in the Roxbury section of Boston

My mom was making me late—and I hated to be late. Especially for a school I loved. And most especially when I was preparing for my first solo. It was a big deal for a freshman to land a solo. Huge, actually. In fact, even getting into Boston Arts Academy had been a miracle. It was my ticket out of the hood.

“Diane, come eat your breakfast,” my mother called from the kitchen.

“I gotta go!” I yelled, because—let’s face it—like many fourteen-year-olds, I had ’tude.

“You’ve got another second,” my mother said, following me down the hall. “You need to eat something.”

“No, I don’t have another second,” I snapped. “Why do you always do this to me?” Then, before she could say another word or even hug me good-bye—slam!—I stormed out the door and off to the train.

It was nice out, around seventy degrees. After a freezing winter, the weather was finally improving—and so, it seemed, was my family’s luck. The day before, my dad had won the lotto. Not a crazy amount of money, mind you—a few thousand bucks—but for us, it was the jackpot. And on top of that, the love was flowing again in our house. My four-year-old niece, who’d been away from our family since my older brother, Eric, and his wife had separated, was back to spending time at our place. I saw it as a sign that things were looking up. That better times were coming.

As I dashed onto campus, I looked at my watch. Three minutes until the bell. Even before eight a.m., the place was buzzing. Do you remember Fame, that eighties TV series about a performing arts high school in New York City? Well, going to BAA felt like stepping onto the set of that show. In one room, there’d be all these kids dancing around and going berserk. Next door, another group would be belting out songs or creating art on the walls. The energy was insane, particularly right before Springfest—the one night our parents got to see us perform. It was one of the most special nights of the year. And my number—a love song duet called “The Last Night of the World” from Miss Saigon—was part of the finale.

Right on time but a bit out of breath, I rounded the corner into humanities class. That’s how our day was set up: First, we had our academic subjects like math and science, and then came the afternoon courses I lived for—theater, art, music. And because Springfest was only three weeks away, I’d also started staying late to squeeze in some extra practice time. I didn’t want my solo just to be good. I wanted it to be absolutely perfect.

The morning dragged by. Nine. Ten. Eleven. Noon. And with each hour that passed, I felt more and more weird. Not Twilight Zone weird, but more like that pit in the stomach you get when something is unsettled. I figured it was because of how I’d treated my mom; I knew I needed to apologize. Then again, I wouldn’t actually say I was sorry. To avoid that awkwardness, I’d cry a little to show her how much I loved her and hadn’t meant to be such a dick.

At last, the school day was over—which meant rehearsal time. When I got to the music room, a big studio, my teacher, Mr. Stewart, was already there. So was Damien—the sweet black kid with a ’fro and glasses who was the other half of my duet.

“You need to warm up?” Mr. Stewart asked me. As usual, he was wearing a tie, a dress shirt, and that big grin we all knew him for. He was seated at the piano.

“I’m cool,” I said. I stashed my backpack in a chair and quickly took my place near Damien. Mr. Stewart spread out his music sheets, rested his fingers on the keys, and played the ballad’s opening notes. Damien’s part was first.

“ ‘In a place that won’t let us feel,’ ” he sang softly, “ ‘in a life where nothing seems real, I have found you . . . I have found you.’ ”

Next was my verse. “ ‘In a world that’s moving too fast,’ ” I chimed in a little off-key, “ ‘in a world where nothing can last, I will hold you . . .’ ”

Mr. Stewart stopped playing. “You sure you’re okay, Diane?” he asked.

I shrugged. “I’m fine, I guess,” I told him. “Just rusty.”

Crap. I’d been practicing this song in my bedroom mirror for days; I knew it up and down. But for some reason, it wasn’t coming out right. Probably nerves.

“Let’s try it again,” Mr. Stewart said.

I stood up tall and cleared my throat. The music began. As my part approached, I closed my eyes so I could concentrate.

“ ‘In a world that’s moving too fast,’ ” I sang, “ ‘in a world where nothing can last, I will hold you . . . I will hold you.’ ”

I opened my eyelids long enough to see the teacher nod. Exhale. All year, I’d been trying to figure out whether this music thing was for me. Whether I could really make it as a singer. And thanks to Mr. Stewart, I was starting to believe I had a shot. He’d taken me under his wing and was helping me find my sound. My voice. My place. I couldn’t wait for my family to come and hear me.

On the way home, I stopped at Foot Locker. After my papi’s Powerball win, he’d proudly given me a crisp fifty-dollar bill. “Buy yourself something nice, sweetheart,” he told me. “Anything you want.” I’d decided to splurge on sneakers, this cute pair of classic Adidas shell-toes. I’d had my eye on them for weeks; I thought I was Run–D.M.C.

They were fresh as hell (yeah, I was living in a ’90s dream). “Aren’t these hot?” I said to my friend Martha, this shy girl from my neighborhood who happened to be in the store that day. She smiled, showing off a mouthful of braces. “You can wear them out of the store if you want,” the clerk said. “I’ll wrap up your other pair.” Moments later, I handed over my cash, stuffed my old tennis shoes in my bag, and headed off to the T—the Orange Line. That was at five thirty.

At six fifteen, the train pulled into the Stony Brook station. I strolled across the platform, the whole time staring down at my Adidas. So dope. Outside, the sun was setting a bit. I knew my parents would be wondering what time I’d get home. I decided to stop and call.

I spotted a pay phone—yes, pay phones were still a thing—and walked toward it. I removed a quarter from the back pocket of my jeans, pushed in the coin, and dialed. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. “You’ve reached Maria, Hector, and Diane,” said my mother’s voice on the machine. “We’re not here right now. Please leave us a message.” Beep.

One of my parents was always home by this time. Always. And neither of them had mentioned having plans. Where could they be? With my hands trembling, I searched my pockets for a second quarter. Empty. I threw off my pack, unzipped the back compartment, and swept my forefinger along the bottom edge. Bingo. I forced the coin into the slot and pressed hard on each digit. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Again—no answer.

All at once, I swung on my pack and jetted. I’d run these three blocks to our house dozens of times; I knew the route in my sleep. Let them be home, I prayed with every step. God, please—let them be there. The faster I sprinted, the slower I seemed to be moving. One block. One and a half. Two blocks. A girl on her scooter called out, “Hey, Diane!” but I was way too out of breath to even answer her. My right shoelace came undone. I didn’t stop to retie it.

When I made it onto our street, I saw my dad’s Toyota station wagon in the driveway. Relief. They didn’t hear the phone, I reassured myself. They’ve gotta be here. I rushed up to our porch and pulled out my set of keys, riffling through them until I got to the silver one. I slid it into the dead bolt, held my breath, and tried to brace myself for what I’d find beyond that door. I still can’t believe what I found.

Copyright © 2016 by Diane Guerrero