Juan Pablo and the Butterflies
Juan Pablo cracked open the door of his modest home and peered down the darkened street. The bratatat sounded louder than the blaring music and a furious rev of engines. Like a hammer to glass, the onslaught of noise destroyed the quiet of the butterfly sanctuary. Headlights swept El Rosario’s plaza as several trucks and an SUV circled the cobblestone square. Armed men hung off the side of the trucks and the relentless barrage of their machine guns filled the star-filled night.
Narco-traffickers. Here in El Rosario, home to a billion monarch butterflies and the two dozen families who loved them.
Juan Pablo slammed the brightly painted front door with the rainbow-colored WELCOME! sign. For the first time in his life, he found the rusty old lock and bolted it. He rushed to switch off the lamp at his abuela’s bedside before collapsing to the floor. He finished his ninth desperate text to the Novedades de México, the major newspaper for Mexico City.
Help! Narco-traffickers are shooting up the plaza in El Rosario. No one is left but our neighbors Mario and Rocio Ruiz and my abuela, Dr. Elena Venesa. She is unconscious with a fever—we need a doctor. Please send help.
After hitting send, he texted Rocio, who was hiding in the cantina:
Juan Pablo: They’re here.
Juan Pablo: Can u get here?
Rocio: Too late. Under the bed. Scared. Praying. You? Elena?
Juan Pablo: Same. She is so still.
Rocio: Abuelo will request an ambulance for her.
Juan Pablo: Be safe, Rocio. Don’t come out until they are gone. Promise me.
Rocio: I promise.
Juan Pablo stared with horror at his shaking hands. His violinist’s fingers, long, calloused, agile, and strong, had never failed him before. He clasped them tight, and made his way to the door to listen.
Last week a large black, red, and white banner sporting a menacing el diablo with sinister eyes and a leering grin stretched across the sole road into their sleepy town. This was how the drug cartel marked a territory and warned the people that the police could not protect them now. The tourists had departed with most of the butterflies nearly a month before. Of the locals, everyone with relatives in Mexico City, Guadalajara, or anywhere with a larger population and so somewhat safer, had packed up and left. Everyone promised to send help back to save the old lady they all loved, but no help ever came. No ambulance dared pass these murderous gangs.
Machine-gun fire cracked like thunder and lightning into the sky.
Would Rocio be safe under the bed?
Born auspiciously one year, one month, one day apart from him, Rocio was his best friend in this life. (Even though she was bossy and they spent half the time arguing with each other, like two puppies roughhousing, his abuela said more than once. You, Juan Pablo, such a know-it-all, and Rocio, always so bossy, this great cosmic dance between you two is hilarious already . . .) He closed his eyes, conjuring Rocio’s waist-length dark hair and bright, teasing eyes, her skinny legs, and big feet.
Rocio’s uncle in La Peñita de Jaltemba, just north of Puerto Vallarta, begged them to leave before it was too late, but both Mario and Rocio had refused. They would not leave either him or his abuela. “Even if my abuelo could bear to lose the cantina to the banditos, how could we possibly leave Elena and you, JP?”
Mario had agreed with his granddaughter. “Elena saved my beautiful wife’s life. She saw my daughter into this world and then Leonardo and Rocio. She taught Leonardo all she knows about the herbs and potions and helped him become a doctor too, bless her.” Rocio’s mother worked as a nurse in Arizona, helping to pay for Leonardo’s medical school in Puerto Rico and she was now very close to becoming a U.S. citizen. “We owe everything to Elena; we all do,” Mario added. “Besides, Rocio would never forgive me if anything happened to you, Juan Pablo.”
You could sometimes reason with these modern-day monsters, Mario had heard. Wasn’t it rumored that they sometimes paved a road or built a school or gave money to an orphanage? Mario planned to beg them to let an ambulance through for an old woman. “We will pay whatever they ask. Even the worse banditos would not let an abuela die for no good reason. And since no one is here but us and the butterflies, they will soon tire of El Rosario and be gone.”
Juan Pablo’s hands combed back his long hair, as if this would help him think. Just keep Rocio safe—that’s all he knew. They wouldn’t hurt her, would they?
She was just a girl, only fourteen.
The relentless gunfire and booming music snatched the hope, replacing it with an escalating fear as Juan Pablo thought of the hundreds of stories of the narco-traffickers’ brutality and viciousness. Like a deadly virus consuming my beloved country. His abuela had shaken her head helplessly, knowing of no medicine or magic with which to save Mexico from this terrible plague. Everyone had
at least one relative, often more, who had lost their life’s savings, died, disappeared, or lived in fear of dying and disappearing. This army of the devil shot people for no reason anyone knew, and like demons from hell, they often tortured them first. They were known to disappear whole families, killing those police that they couldn’t bribe, and taking over whole towns before stealing everyone’s money. They recruited boys even younger than him, forcing them to rob, hide drugs, kill, or be killed. His abuela always imagined El Rosario, their tiny portion of paradise, was at least safe, that the mountains and the butterflies themselves would always protect them. But this was not so anymore.
The gunfire and rev of engines abruptly ceased.
Unlatching the rusty lock, Juan Pablo cautiously cracked the door an inch in order to better hear. A man shouted orders, his loud demands rising above the noise of drunken laughter. Tajo, Rocio’s dog, barked frantically at the commotion.
Gunfire sounded again, followed by Tajo’s surprised yelp.
“No, no. Dios mío,” Mario cried out, this barely audible. “Tajo. Tajo.”
Juan Pablo’s brows drew a sharp line above his green eyes.
Did they shoot Tajo? Why would they shoot a little dog?
Sweet, friendly Tajo, their town’s mascot. Tajo, whose wagging tail greeted the tourist buses, who followed them up to the meadow in the afternoons. Tajo, who loved his violin’s music, Mario’s leftover uchepos, and Rocio’s gentle hands. If they killed a small dog, what else could they do? Would they let an ambulance through to aid an old lady? Would they leave a young girl unharmed?
The answer ricocheted through his mind, but how could he stop them? He was just a teenager, tall maybe, but skinny too. He had no gun, power, and worse, no courage. He might love superheroes, but he was not one of them. All he knew was music and books; he was the exact opposite of an action hero.
He shut the door again, bolting it again.
His gaze found his abuela’s still form on the small cot. How could the old woman fall ill now, when they needed her most?
His abuela was both a real doctor and the local curandera. The old ways had been passed down to her and after absorbing this ancient wisdom, she had gone on to attend Mexico City’s medical school. She had wanted to make sure she knew every aspect of healing.
Still, it was the old woman’s shamanic powers that were a good deal more popular than her famous doctoring skill. Nothing made his abuela happier than taking away people’s aches and pains, their troubles and struggles. She took away the pain of childbirth as well as the opposite, the struggle of transitioning. She cured little Jose’s poor hearing, but also his mother’s gambling problem, Ms. Sanchez’s strange rash, but also her husband’s infidelity, Mr. Hernandez’s high blood pressure, but also his depression. Occasionally she worked miracles, curing dementia, diabetes, and even many different cancers. People sought her out from hundreds of miles away.
Now, of all times, for the very first time, she was the one who needed help.
The old woman might imagine she was connected to the spirit realm, but if he could not get her to a hospital, she would be living in this strange and magical place, a place the old woman maintained was as real as life on earth. Life, all of it, according to his abuela, was a manifestation of the spiritual; when the body died, the soul shot straight to the spiritual realm to become one with the Sky People.
Who are the Sky People? he must have first asked long ago, realizing his abuela felt a connection to people he did not see.
You once lived in the sky, Juan Pablo. Don’t you remember? When he shook his head, he received a tsk, tsk, finished with a smile. Now you live in this skin bound to the earth. But all the souls that love you, and there are more of them than you will ever know here, live in the sky.
Well, for instance, your mother, Julieta. Your other abuelos and their parents. The souls of everyone who has ever lived. The Sky People.
Like Rocio’s heaven and angels?
People who think of heaven don’t realize that the spiritual realm and our material world on earth are not separated by death, but rather they interact with each other in powerful, important ways. The two realms act more as mirrors reflecting each other . . . The closer you are to the Sky People, the more the separation blurs.
Still later, as doubts grew with his age, he finally said, Scientists would say the Sky People live only in your imagination.
Ah, she nodded. This is true. The imagination is how the Sky People talk to us.
Pacing now, he covered his ears to escape the distant drum of the ugly music. Before this invasión, his biggest problem had been finding good Wi-Fi for his violin lessons, perfecting Bach’s Allegro, and whether he should read the last Harry Potter book in his beloved Spanish or in the sometimes more difficult English.
Seeking the old woman’s familiar comfort, he approached the cot and stared down at her small brown head peeking out from her favorite orange blanket. The blanket formed the shape of a colorful kite, her long gray braid its tail, as if waiting for a wind to carry her up.
For several minutes, he closed his eyes, willing her to wake.
His eyes flew open to the miracle. The old woman’s soft brown eyes stared back. “Abuela, you’re awake! You’ve been asleep so long . . .”
She shook her head and closed her eyes again as if pained. “It is time.”
“Time?” he repeated before starting to explain the dangerous siege taking place outside their door.
She stopped him with a slight shake of her head. “It is time for you to make the journey north. To follow the butterflies.”
“Follow the butterflies? North?”
“Sí, to America.”
He tried to make sense of this, but couldn’t. Her illness must be speaking.
“Take your violin, of course, and the seeds. Use them to make your way.”
The townspeople sold packets of milkweed seeds to the tourists. Milkweed fed the butterflies on their perilous journey from El Rosario to the great lands of North America. It took four generations of butterflies traveling 4,200 kilometers to make the mystical pilgrimage, a journey that ended with their return to the ancient forested mountains of Sierra Madre. Tourists came to their small town from all over America to see the millions of winged creatures together in one magical place. During the winter months, as the butterflies’ numbers grew and grew, these winged creatures swallowed up the whole of the blue sky. Other times they appeared as a colorful stream riding an invisible river of wind above. The delicate beings clustered so thick on the trees, it was not uncommon for branches to break off, sending thousands of orange and black butterflies into the air with a cacophony of sound and color.
The butterflies sustained the people of El Rosario.
“Be generous with our seeds,” his abuela continued, unaware of the emergency just down the street in the square, or even her grandson’s desperation. “And always follow the butterflies’ path; they will not steer you wrong.”
He glanced anxiously at the door, as if the banditos might be bursting through any minute.
“Cross the Sea of Cortez to Baja, and continue north. I think you should pass over the invisible line separating our two lands in
Tijuana. This might be difficult, but you are clever. You will find a way. Follow the ocean’s shore north, just like our butterflies.”
All he could think of was getting the idea out of her mind. “Abuela, you don’t understand. Banditos, here, in Rosario—”
Yet the old woman was not listening. She reached for his hand, as if needing more of his wide-eyed attention. “To save a life and slay a beast. This is your journey, your transformación. Promise me,” she said with sudden intensity before she remembered. “You must reach Pacific Grove before summer’s end. In August, late August . . .”
Pacific Grove? This was another butterfly sanctuary, he knew, but one far away in California, the golden land of dreams: Hollywood, Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Disneyland. (Since they were small, he and Rocio dreamed of visiting the Magic Kingdom, and sometimes he could even cajole Rocio into pretending they were in Disneyland.) There was also the Golden Gate Bridge that spanned the beautiful city by the bay. Beyond San Francisco stretched the land of the magnificent redwoods, trees taller than the tallest buildings. (His abuela had always dreamed of touching a redwood tree in the north and “looking up to see how small I am.”) California, this golden land, more than a thousand miles away, but might as well be a million miles away, for he could never reach it. He had no car, no money, and most of all, no papers.
“Promise me,” she demanded again.
“Sí, sí,” he had finally relented to ease her worry, stealing another anxious glance at the door.
“Remember, the Sky People will always be with you . . .”
A large butterfly floated in from the tiny kitchen off to the side.
He stared in wonder at the miracle as the winged creature drew close and began circling his abuela’s cot.
The wrinkled face changed with a smile, despite her illness and fever, and a twinkle lit her strange amber eyes. “A good omen, that.”
“Impossible . . .” Juan Pablo managed the single word.
Butterflies cannot fly at night. The sun fueled their flight. Without the warmth of the sun, there could be no flying.
Butterflies, according to his abuela, were the living symbols of spirit energy in the material world, a reminder to all souls of a transcendent purpose.
He watched as the butterfly floated out of sight again. Never, in all his life, had he seen a butterfly fly at night.
He was about to give it chase, to set it safely in a tree, but his abuela’s eyes closed again and she muttered her last words, the strangest of all. “He will be waiting for you in the sanctuary at Pacific Grove, Juan Pablo.”
“Quién, Abuela? Who will be waiting for me?”
She sounded far away. “I see it Juan Pablo. I will be there, too, listening when you play. All the Sky People will be listening.”
“Abuela, you cannot go. We cannot go . . .”
Yet, just like that, she went very still, lifeless once more.
They needed an ambulance to get her to the hospital. The old lady was all he had in this world.
She was exactly half of what he loved. The other half was made up of music, the butterflies, and Rocio. Every year fewer of the colorful winged creatures returned to El Rosario, and this year, in alarmingly diminished numbers, they had left for North America early. That his abuela would begin fading with the butterflies seemed like a coincidence, but she always said coincidences were no more than an awakening to the miracle of life.
Dropping to the floor, he hung his head helplessly between his knees.
Clear as stars in a cloudless night sky, a voice sounded in his mind, “Save Rocio.”
His head shot up and he scrambled to his feet. “Abuela?”
The slightest rise of her chest triggered a relieved gasp.
He was going loco. He must have only imagined those words. He did not have to wonder why. Rocio might not be safe if these banditos found her. He found his iPad:
JP: Are you okay?
As he waited for Rocio’s response, and the seconds ticked off, his tension mounted. He stared at the screen until it blurred. He needed to get Rocio back here. They would lock the door and keep the lights off, hiding until the banditos left.
He thought of the superheroes he loved: Spider-Man, Batman, Harry Potter. They knew fear, but ignored it. Fear never stopped them from acting. Nothing that could happen to him would be worse than someone hurting Rocio.
Moving to the door, he slowly opened it again. Men’s voices rose against the screaming backdrop of shrieking music. The booming, rhythmic thud of their music was worse than the machine-gun fire to his sensitive ears. The cars were parked strategically between the Cantina where Rocio hid in the family’s apartment above, Carlos’s souvenir shop, the café, and the petro station.
Their cottage was very last on the street before the landscape opened up to the forest sanctuary of the mountain. Normally, at this hour, every home would have been bustling with the familiar noise of families having dinner, making music, playing games, or just watching TV. Now the streets appeared dark and deserted, like a ghost town. The strange quiet produced an unnatural stillness, but one that ended in sudden chaos at the cantina.
He would just sneak up to see what they were about. To make sure Rocio stayed safe.
Returning to his abuela’s bedside, he hurriedly brushed his lips to her forehead. “Keep fighting, Abuela. Be strong. I will be right back,” he promised, even though he suspected she no longer heard the words of this world.
A quarter moon rose in the night sky. Nearby, the orange point of Mars hung in the velvet space, all of it surrounded by a thousand tiny pinpoints of light. The air felt mild for spring, poised on the edge of summer’s warming. He quietly shut the door before slipping into the darkness.
He kept to the sides of the modest homes lining the cobblestone street, moving cautiously, stealthily toward the plaza. If only he had Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak. His curly dark hair, dark jeans, and black sweatshirt and sneakers blended into the shadows, but anyone looking might spot him.
Only the bass of the banditos’ music interrupted the eerie quiet. He reached the last house before the shops began. Normally the bright yellow adobe house boomed with the boisterous noise of three generations of Rodriguezes, but now stood as still and dark as Espy’s café and bakery tucked alongside the petro station in the plaza. The restaurant sign for Florendo’s Ts—the cantina’s only competition in town—hung lifeless over the patio. Juan Pablo could barely make out the outrageous claims in the dim light: Voted best Tortillas, Tacos, and Tequila in Mexico. Mario was alternatively amused and infuriated by his competition’s blatant exagerando. The chairs and tables were piled up six feet in a corner, covered in canvas in case of rain.
He made no sound as he continued to the petro station.
Juan Pablo slipped behind the side of the building and pressed against the wall, hidden in the shadows. The station’s lights were off, and the little store inside was closed and locked, despite the now empty shelves. He started past the restrooms and as he did so, his foot brushed a strange, unfamiliar lump. He stumbled, washed in a hot panic as he righted himself. For several tense moments he held perfectly still, understanding the English metaphor frozen with fear for the first time.
Collecting his wits, his gaze finally fell to his feet to ascertain what the small lump was.
Tajo’s body. Poor, poor brave Tajo.
They shot him dead. Why would they kill a little dog? If they would snatch such a small life for no good reason, what might they do to the rest of them?
Terrifying images answered the question.
Save Rocio. Nothing else mattered.
The music’s volume rose suddenly. Like an alarm bell, he forced himself to move. He at last came to the other side of the building, now close enough to see.
Men gathered in front of a truck, passing a bottle of tequila and two odd-shaped pipes between themselves. Machine guns hung recklessly from their shoulders. Rows of shiny bullets belted their waists. Laughter erupted but he couldn’t make out the words beneath the blaring song “Cuerno de Chivo,” or “Goat’s Horn,” an awful song about the love for a rifle.
This was not his beloved Beethoven or Bach or Haydn.
The Torres family had left Mario a gun, Rocio had told him. Just in case, but what folly that seemed now.
One man, one gun against a dozen machine guns.
A man, his skin darkened with tattoos, mentioned the foco wearing off and needing more. “First,” he managed before a wheezing inhale, “Alimenta a la máquina.” Feed the machine.
“Mas? You loco, Rencor,” another laughed, as he took the cigarette.
The last year he went to school, before he and Rocio started at the online Khan Academy, Juan Pablo’s teacher had shown a slide show about the dangers of this drug called foco. English translation: crystal meth. People became hyped up and crazy as it first stole your good sense, next your money and morals, and finally, your teeth. His teacher said people who were addicted to foco had been known to murder in order to get high.
Juan Pablo had asked his abuela Why? Why did people choose this craziness?
There are many reasons, but they all stem from people becoming separated from love. People find themselves sad and without hope. Futures without hope are empty places, frightening because of it. These drugs appear on their paths, and like all material things, as an illusion of happiness. Desperate, they grab them and cling greedily. But soon they discover the chimera has been replaced by an ever-widening pit of despair and misery. A very few find the strength to climb back to the light, but most of these poor souls fall into the darkness.
They looked like any gathering of friends on a street corner after a long day’s work. Perfectly ordinary, except for the tattoos and guns slung over their shoulders. And the shiny gold jewelry hanging from tattooed necks, the diamonds decorating their fingers. Still, they all wore a uniform of black pants or jeans and red or black shirts or sleeveless white T-shirts.
Nature pairs black and red to warn us, he remembered his abuela once said to Leonardo, who she had many years tutored in herbs and medicines to prepare him for medical school. Whenever you see it, be careful . . .
He abruptly found himself staring at the shortest man. Stocky and muscular, he wore only a vest, as if to show off his physique. In other circumstances Rocio, he knew, would have made fun of such a person. Look at my muscles, she would pretend to preen. I am Mr. Peacock. He and Rocio would have laughed at this fun.
Ropes of various lengths hung from his belt like trophies. A shorter gold one stood out against the black pants, but what the heck was it?
Another group of men sat at a table on the cantina’s patio. An enormous man stood protectively behind them with his ear to a phone. Probably a bodyguard, the way his gaze swept the area, as if his eyes refused to settle on any one thing. A loose-fitting black dress shirt over black trousers draped his massive shape. A bear housed in human form. He had a large round head, as bald as a soccer ball, and
almost as big. His puffy face squeezed his small, dark eyes. It was impossible to imagine this man smiling.
The festive lanterns strung across the patio looked out of place.
He needed to get closer.
A simple plan formed in his mind. As soon as the banditos left or fell asleep, he would find Rocio under the bed and escort her to their hideout in the meadow. Even if the men found him and his abuela, Rocio would be safe there.
It was not a good plan, but it was the best he could do for now.
Juan Pablo slipped quietly around the back of the gas station. He came around the other side, close enough to hear the words of the men gathered at the truck. Laughter and smoke and the horrible music greeted him, the assaults of sounds no louder than the furious thud of his heart.
At first he thought they talked about braids, how there would be no more or trophies from this ghost town. They used coarse words for women.
Braids, trophies . . . Juan Pablo’s gaze returned to the ropes hanging from the Peacock’s belt.
These were not ropes, but hair. Girl’s braided hair. Just like ill-fated animals’ heads on a trophy hunter’s wall, no girl had willingly parted with her braids.
He thought of Rocio’s long hair.
He sucked in his next breath with the terror of it.
Get Rocio out of here.
Memories flooded his consciousness, warning him of the stakes here.
Almost every day he and Rocio hiked to the meadow blooming with a million golden creatures searching for a place in the sun. He’d play the piece he was learning while Rocio danced around him, butterflies decorating the dark hair like living flowers. The girl flew round and round, Rocio’s laughter singing with the music.
They learned how to stop time with their joy.
Following his abuela’s suggestion, he and Rocio had built an Indian tepee in the forest just beyond the meadow. No one else but his abuela knew about it. The tepee became their secret, a private tent where they passed the endless hours of childhood playing imaginary games: Indians—Rocio was the chief and he was the brave; hospital—Rocio was the doctor and he the patient; school—Rocio was the teacher and he the student; and the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry—finally, he was Harry Potter and Rocio was Hermione. But lately, as they began outgrowing imaginary games, they hiked up to the tepee just to read good books like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Old Man and the Sea, but also The Fault in Our Stars and The Hunger Games. For these interruptions of their normal life, they had begun to abandon their constant arguing, and simply lay side to side and head to head. Without ever speaking of it, they both understood that something new had slipped between them, something that waited like the butterflies for the sun . . .
He released his breath all at once, tense with a rising dread.
They would soon leave, he told himself. Rocio was hidden and safe. No one would find her.
The giant bodyguard bent over and whispered to a man at the table. This man must be el amo de la droga, the boss. He wore a gray felt hat and leather vest over a black T-shirt. Weird pink sunglasses, perched on his nose, failed to hide his droopy eyes. Like he was half asleep and not too bright to begin with. The boss man held up a hand as he removed a phone from his pocket.
The music stopped. The other men fell silent.
“Amigo,” he said into the phone after a minute. “Sí, this is Carlos . . . Ha! The legions of dead do not concern us.” He chuckled. “We have the best químicos this side of the Rio Grande.” Listening, he knocked back a shot of tequila.
Juan Pablo grasped the meaning of the man’s words. The cartels were said to have huge vats of acid that destroy bodies, leaving no trace of a human being. Thousands upon thousands of people had disappeared this way.
The saddest thing is loved ones not knowing, his abuela had said. Their hearts wage a battle between hope and grief, which eventually becomes the darkest despair.
He cautiously peered out again.
The boss man Carlos wore a creepy smile, as if the smirk came with murderous thoughts. His abuela always said people’s deeds were etched on their face. Kindness is written there, but cruelty, too. He now knew what she meant. The man’s face spelled the word mean. Not a normal mean, but the kind of mean that was for no reason. English word: malice.
“Our crew will clean up when it is done,” Carlos continued into his phone. “Armies disappear, trust me on this. That’s right. You don’t want to let us down. My brother has no patience these days. In fact he has hired . . . the Hunter”—he pronounced the word slowly, for emphasis—“to take out our garbage. Ah”—his smirk appeared again—“now you are afraid. Good. Then get it done.” He returned his phone to the pocket.
Juan Pablo was surprised to see that the mention of the Hunter held the awesome power to, if not frighten, then agitate these men. “It is true?” the tattooed man Rencor asked. “Your brother has hired the Hunter?”
Carlos nodded in a pretense of indifference. “He has been useful to us lately. He took out those four Texas border agents who were stealing from us. Then, that new pandilla that was causing problems.”
“Sí, when he has a reason,” one of the men said, disgruntled. A fist-sized upside-down cross studded with diamonds hung over his black T-shirt, catching the light. “If the Hunter enjoyed killing, but no, he might be looking at you across a room, and boom.”
“Sí, sí,” the Peacock nodded, nervous or maybe excited, Juan Pablo couldn’t tell. “Once at a party, he killed six people. Big customers, too. And afterward he just sat there, red boots resting on the table, smoking his cigarro.”
“That was maldito loco.” The tattooed man Rencor nodded. “No one had the balls to ask why?”
An odd-looking man sitting across from Carlos spoke next, his words seeming to have more weight than the others. “You can’t trust him.” Long hair was wrapped tightly on the crown of his head like an old woman, making his already long face seem even longer. A line-thin mustache sat above a small mouth. “La mitad de la raza.” He spat on the patio. “I don’t trust any Americano, even half-breeds like him.”
Rencor nodded as he leaned toward Carlos. “One time Salvador sent the Hunter to clean up. It was a big job, so Salvador sent a crew of five with him. The Hunter said he didn’t need help, but Salvador insisted, for safety. And then no one came back. Sí, the mess was no more, but neither was the crew.” He locked gazes with his boss. “Remember, Carlos?”
Juan Pablo tried to imagine this Hunter, the man with the red boots, but he could not. How could there be a man worse than these men?
Even Carlos appeared uncomfortable with the subject. “He gets the job done. No questions. Finito, done, everyone is muerto; the problem is no more.” He looked around, as if for a distraction, just as Mario appeared carrying a bottle of tequila.
Even Juan Pablo saw Mario’s fear across the distance.
Which was what Carlos lasered in on. “Any mujer hiding here, old man?”
Mario’s eyes widened. He shook his head. “No, no.”
For a long minute Juan Pablo saw Mario through Carlos’s predatory gaze. In his sixtieth decade, short and heavy, Mario was no
match for even one of these men. The old man’s large belly spoke of his easy life of few worries. Rocio, your abuelo, bless his soul, his abuela warned recently, as she concocted a potion for his bad knees and weak heart. He needs to stop eating like a barn animal and start eating like a hummingbird or I fear even my medicine will fail. Mario looked as soft and scared as an old rabbit caught in sight of circling hawks.
“Look at that.” Carlos first smiled, but then took on a tone of disgust. “What kind of man cannot hide his fear?” He motioned to his bodyguard. “Dimi, search the apartment upstairs.”
Dios mío. Juan Pablo pressed harder against the wall.
The giant man headed into the apartment above the cantina where Rocio hid.
Would he find her? Be still, Rocio. Hold very still . . .
Juan Pablo heard the elephant boots pounding up the stairs. Maddeningly, the rancorous talk of the men drowned out any more sound. Several tense moments passed, until—
Rocio’s sudden scream electrified the air. The men fell silent for a minute. From upstairs a masculine grunt greeted the girl’s terrified protests and the brief futile sounds of a scuffle. The clap of the boots going down.
The men erupted into collective laughter as the big man appeared with Rocio over his shoulder. Her fists still pounded his wide back, but she might have been hitting air for all the effect. He set her on her feet and stood behind her as if presenting a present. Rocio wore her favorite jeans and purple Winnie the Pooh T-shirt, a long-ago gift from a cousin who actually went to the Magic Kingdom. Her long hair fell in tangled disarray down her back, her bright eyes, changed with fear, looked out from beneath the sharp line made by her bangs. The big man’s hands dug into her slim shoulders.
Seeing the men at the table, she shook her head slightly, listening to the crude comments her appearance solicited.
Gun pointing, Mario came out from the kitchen in protest, but stopped in an instant. As if conjured in a magician’s trick, four guns pointed at Mario. The old man’s gun fell with a loud clamor to the floor. He slowly held up his arms in surrender. A bandito rushed forward and claimed his gun.
“She is my nieta. She is only a girl.”
“Ah, but she is a pretty little thing, no?”
“Ripe for the plucking . . .”
“Too young for my tastes,” Carlos said, disappointment in his tone.
“But I love the virgins.” This was muttered by the Peacock, and he waved one of the braids like a snake wagging its tongue.
Carlos laughed with his men at this. “That virginity is worth more than you make in a month, amigo.”
“I will pay for it,” he answered, cheerfully. “I am very good at breaking them in.” Now he made a crude gesture with his hips.
“Hmm. Any other bids for the treat?”
Numbers were shouted in an obscene bidding war.
As if encouraged by his men’s awful enthusiasm, Carlos’s droopy eyes came to rest on the girl. “It looks as if I will first make sure this shiny piece is worth such a sum.”
Juan Pablo felt dizzy with sickness.
Carlos snapped his fingers, ordering Rocio tied up.
The bodyguard laughed and tossed her over his shoulder again. Just like that, he carried Rocio away upstairs. The girl’s fists pummeled his back and she kicked for all she was worth, but to no avail.
A loud buzzing filled Juan Pablo’s ears, as if to block out the obscenities that followed this show.
“First, food, grandpa. Get some food out here pronto.”
Mario stood in a terrified stupor of helplessness and desperation.
A gun fired close to Mario’s feet.
He stumbled back into the kitchen. The men laughed uproariously.
With his heart pounding furiously, the queer ringing growing louder in his ears, Juan Pablo closed his eyes where he stood, trying to think of how to save her, the girl that he loved more than life itself.
The Sky People will always help you in a time of need, but you must always ask first.
Abuela, he had laughed, how can the spirits help me? Help anyone? If they are made of light?
O, many ways. If you just show them a problem, they will show you the solution.
It is different each time. Sometimes the answer appears in a dream. Or, a message. Often they will direct your mind to the solution that is right in front of you.
As he had grown older, Juan Pablo had gone through a period of doubting the reality of his abuela’s Sky People and he had often teased her about them. Abuela, why don’t you ask the Sky People for a large-screen TV so we don’t have to watch these science shows on my iPad. His abuela loved science; she was a serious consumer of science programs.
O, Juan Pablo, for someone so smart, you are sometimes very foolish. I’ve told you a hundred times, the Sky People are not like a fairy godmother or Santa Claus. They don’t answer wish lists like that . . . She became distracted by a bluebird perched on a sunflower outside the window. Not usually anyway . . .
Those last words, not usually, served as motivation to test the old woman’s beliefs when Joshua Bell, the world’s best violinist, came to Mexico City last year. Though he had nothing to lose, he felt as ridiculous as a kitten battling a pesky moth. Nothing happened at first, but then he hadn’t really expected anything to happen. Then . . . three days later, someone, probably a rich American, left a $100 bill in his violin case as he played in the plaza for the tourists. This
windfall had bought the best night of his and Rocio’s life: a long bus ride to Mexico City, a wonderful dinner at the restaurant of one of Abuela’s friends, and the performance of a lifetime. Since that nice bit of magic, he had asked the Sky People for help many times, but only, as his abuela advised, for guidance with music. He still wasn’t completely sure he believed in his abuela’s Sky People, but somehow, whether it was a trick of his mind or no, he did always receive help just when he needed it most.
He would never need help more than now.
Juan Pablo sent a furtive, frantic prayer to the Sky People for help. He imagined the earth cracking open up and swallowing these beasts, but no such thing happened.
Which is not to say nothing happened.
The speed with which help came was a shock; it landed like a hard blow to his head. From that moment on he never thought; he only acted.
Retracing his steps, he ran back to his house. He slipped through the door. The profound stillness in the room brought back the awareness of the powerful buzz in his ears. Like static, it felt like a cacophony urging him forward at a furious speed.
Wasting no time, he turned on his iPad’s flashlight.
He placed the stepladder under the uppermost shelves. Carefully marked jars, all sizes, lined the shelves and it took several frantic minutes to find the right one. Gripping it tightly, he clicked off the light, jumped off the ladder and rushed from the room, never noticing the momentous event that had transpired in their small home.
Juan Pablo ran past the Rodriguezes’ house and rushed behind the gas station again. If the cantina’s grill was hot and Mario was cooking, the back door to the kitchen would be open. He hesitated before racing across the open space between the two buildings. Ignoring the familiar, once comforting scents rising from the cantina’s kitchen, Juan Pablo stepped to the back door.
Breathing hard and fast, he looked in.
Mario’s face was marred with fear as he tried to still the shaking in his hands before pouring the freshly made salsa into serving bowls. A large pot warmed the beans on the grill. The cantina’s best steaks sizzled away. A pile of tortillas warmed there, too.
Juan Pablo stepped into the light.
Mario spotted him with a gasp.
Juan Pablo motioned for silence.
Mario cast a furtive glance at the men on the patio and looked back at the boy. He shook his head furiously, motioning for Juan Pablo to vamoose, to save himself, but instead the boy moved in swift, sure steps to the pot of beans. He unscrewed the lid to the jar and dumped all but an inch of the precious liquid into the pot. The rest was poured into the salsa. Mario’s brows drew a sharp line across his wrinkled forehead. For a long moment, the old man stood staring stupidly at the boy.
Abruptly his face changed with the shock of what Juan Pablo was doing.
Juan Pablo nodded slowly.
Mario shoved him into the darkened pantry.
Terrified by what he had done, what was about to happen, Juan Pablo drew in the sweet scent of Mario’s famous pan dulce, staring without seeing the bags of black beans, boxes of onions, bags of flour and corn, and cans lining the shelves. How long would the poison take? Five minutes? An hour? He didn’t know.
Keeping to the shadows, Juan Pablo stepped out to watch.
Mario stirred the pot reverently now, as if the dark brown stew held their fates—and it did, it did. He hastily began preparing the plates. The men began shouting to hurry with the food. Mario had never moved faster.
It took four trips but finally all the men were served. Both groups of men gathered at two tables, side by side. Each man had a plate
full of beans and a steak. The pan of tortillas sat alongside multiple bowls of salsa.
As the men ate greedily, ravenously, Mario returned to the kitchen to prepare pitchers of water along with another bottle of tequila and a bottle of rum as demanded. These too, soon sat on the table. Returning to the kitchen, he pretended to tend to pots and pans as he watched the food disappear amidst laughter and rancorous talk.
Inching further out of the pantry, mesmerized by the scene before him, Juan Pablo’s heart fell in sync with the rhythmic thud of the music as he remembered that terrible day last year, the first hint that the long shadow of Mexico’s problems had reached into Rosario.
That day he had come home to find Mario consulting with his abuela.
I can’t go on Elena. At first it was one Federale, Fernando. A free dinner once in a while. Fine. The price of doing business, but Dios mío. Now he brings his amigos. I am supposed to feed sometimes ten men every other day. No tip, no nothing, barely a gracias. I cannot refuse. People have been killed or disappeared for less or they lose everything to a suspicious fire. I could not pay Leonardo’s tuition this month—
Ah, his abuela had scoffed, her eyes smiling at her friend, this trouble has a simple solution.
The whole town knew the rest of the story. Two days later, the next time the federal officers showed up at the cantina, they ate and drank their fill before piling into their SUVs and driving off. That night Mario received a phone call from the hospital informing him that several of his customers had contracted food poisoning.
What did you give Mario, Abuela? he had asked in the days following.
Datura. It is a rare and beautiful flower, growing in marshes by rivers. The tiniest amount will make you wish for death.
You will die?
Not always, his abuela had said. Sometimes you live if you are young and healthy and there is a hospital nearby.
Now, as Juan Pablo watched and waited, he felt certain they would not actually die. He intended that they only wished they were dead, sick enough so they would not—could not—hurt Rocio. They were all young men, he told himself. They could probably get to the hospital in time.
He watched as the big man removed his phone. What was he doing? Taking a picture? No, a video. Holding it up, he swept the phone in a circular motion over the cantina’s patio, stopping on a man sitting across from him. The man with the old woman’s bun on top of his head.
Juan Pablo could not believe what happened next.
Carlos’s gun appeared in his hand. “Hold still, amigo,” he cautioned. All the men tensed, turning to Carlos as he took aim. The anxious moment collapsed as Carlos rubbed his hand down his face. “My vision is blurred. Geezus, this shit is potent.” Blinking, undeterred, Carlos aimed and fired once.
The man’s bun exploded.
The shock gave way to hearty laughter, continuing as the man reached to feel for his bun that was no longer there.
“Haircuts are free,” Carlos joked, laughing at his comrade’s terror. The men relaxed as their laughter died. Yet, his victim seemed frozen in time, his eyes bulging.
No one seemed to notice at first.
The noise continued over the booming beat of the music. They kept eating and drinking their fill. Finally, one by one, hands pushed plates aside. Pipes were passed around. Mario appeared with the pot of beans, but there were no takers. He tried not to look at the frozen man, a trickle of blood dripping over his thin lips.
“This shit is really tough,” Carlos said, grabbing the sides of his head to stop the strange sensations burning through him. “Jesus, I am . . . high.”
“Sí. I can’t get a breath . . .”
“Water,” Rencor demanded. “I need . . .”
He never finished as he was stopped by what seemed some great internal shock.
Mario rushed inside to fetch more water. He filled the pitcher and began gathering glasses onto a tray, but his hands shook badly. He pressed them against his thighs, took a deep breath, and offered up a prayer.
Juan Pablo came slowly out from hiding.
“Jesus. What’s wrong with Kooch?”
Just like the first victim, the man Carlos referred to sat staring dumbly into space, his eyes unblinking and bulging hideously. His hands wrapped around his throat as if he was choking himself to death.
“Dios mío. I can’t see,” said another man furiously rubbing his eyes.
The man Rencor grabbed the table. “Hilado . . . alto, alto . . .” Just like that he toppled out of his chair and onto the floor, convulsing violently.
The man next to him emitted a stream of vomit onto the floor.
Swear words and screams blasted forth in unison, louder even than the music.
“What the . . . ?” A man’s last word stopped as his mouth began foaming. Bubbles of spit erupted over his lips just as he, too, started jerking as if electrocuted.
Chaos erupted all at once. Shouts and screams and cries for help.
Juan Pablo stepped forward to watch.
Within minutes five of the men writhed in agony on the floor, clutching their bellies as they convulsed in tight balls.
Sweat poured off Carlos’s face and he suddenly lurched forward, ejecting a grotesque stream of puke over the table. He fell face-first into it, his body shaking violently.
Breathing in pained grunts, wiping the sweat from his eyes as he gripped the table, the giant bodyguard stood unsteadily to assist his boss, but stopped, seized by an internal agony. With a loud warlike
cry, the big man fell backward, toppling like a tree and crashing onto a table. He moved no more.
Juan Pablo tensed for one moment as one of the last men alive managed to get his machine gun into his hands, but in the few seconds he tried to determine who he should shoot, the gun dropped and he fell over with uncontrollable shaking.
Only two men remained seated, but only one was still alive. The Peacock, with the damning trophies of his victims’ hair, managed to stand on unsteady legs. He looked up from the dying men that surrounded him and suddenly found Juan Pablo. Their eyes locked, the key tossed away. “You . . .” he began with a soft viciousness, but he was breathing in huge, unnatural heaves. “. . . don’t know what you’ve done . . . persona estúpida . . .” He drew his gun and he took one, then two steps.
Mario stepped in front of Juan Pablo just as the man dropped to his knees with a scream of gut-ripping pain. Then he, too, dropped first to his knees, the gun falling, and then he fell over.
Only three men still shook now, but their bodies no longer produced the violent shaking, only a small tremble of their muscles’ last grip on life.
In minutes even these stopped.
Retrieving the last bottle of Tequila and a glass, Mario folded himself at the table furthest away. He started to pour a drink, but stopped, his disbelieving gaze staring at the scene from a horror movie.
The old man burst into silent tears of relief.
As if in a dream, without any real consciousness, Juan Pablo went to the box and turned the music off. The sudden silence was broken by a steady pounding sounding as if from far away. It came as a start to realize the loud thud was the cry of his own heart.