Warning: Excerpts May Contain Spoilers

BOOK ONE EXCERPTS

 

Chapter One (Marisol)

My best friend died last night.

I’d been tossing and turning in dreamless sleep for hours. The apartment was too hot, and the air felt thick despite the inch I’d cracked my bedroom window to let in the cool autumn air. When my cell phone began to buzz insistently, my eyes were already open, staring at the chipped white paint on the ceiling. I tossed my twisted sheets aside and grabbed my phone off of the half empty bookcase beside my bed.
It wasn’t a phone number I recognized.

“Hello?”
“Is this Denora Garro?” The woman on the other end of the line sounded tired, her voice softening when she uttered my name. I recognized her immediately - her words still carrying the undertones of a Spanish accent that all her years living in New York City never seemed to erase. I had known this woman when I was a child, but I hadn’t seen her in a couple of years.
“Mrs. DeLaCruz? What’s going on?”
“I’m sorry to call you so early…” There was a long pause, her voice cracking. It sounded like she was trying not to cry. “Denora, Marisol has died…”
I felt my heart skip a beat. Whatever I’d expected her to say, that certainly wasn’t it. If it had been anyone else telling me this hated news, I’d have thought they were playing a cruel joke.
“I don’t understand. What happened? Was Mari in an accident?” I could hardly breathe. It couldn’t be true. Though I hadn’t seen Marisol in months and had barely been in contact with her for much longer, there was a part of me that couldn’t imagine a world without her in it.
“Marisol… took her own life.” She barely got the words out, her voice growing heavy with tears. I sucked in the breath I’d been holding and tried to move my mouth - but no coherent thought would form, denial circling like a record on repeat inside my head.
This can’t be real. There must be some mistake. Mari wouldn’t do that…

Marisol and I had been best friends throughout our childhood. We’d met the first day of Kindergarten and had been inseparable ever since. Then my mother died, and my life fell to pieces. They say teenagers love to make overly dramatic statements like that: “My life fell to pieces!” Well, mine actually did.

When I was thirteen, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. I didn’t understand the gravity of the situation then, but within a year she was gone, leaving my father to raise me and my brothers alone. A week before I started High School my father packed us all up, selling our apartment in Manhattan and moving us out to a much smaller, much cheaper apartment out on the edge of Brooklyn. Starting a new school was hard enough without being ripped from my home, my friends and everything I knew and loved.

Of course, things only got worse from there. My father started acting strangely after mom’s funeral. He began missing work, locking himself away in his room for hours without speaking. A few months after we moved in, we celebrated my fifteenth birthday. That morning Dad kissed me on the forehead and left for work. We never saw him again.

Part of me liked to think he died of a broken heart, missing our mother so badly… instead of the more pathetic reality that he just up and left me and my brothers to fend for ourselves. That was three years ago. I’ll be turning eighteen in a couple of weeks.

“Denora? Are you still there?” Mrs. DeLaCruz spoke in a low tone.
“Yeah. Sorry. It’s just such a shock…” I mumbled.
“The wake is tomorrow evening at seven. I hope you and your brothers will be able to attend.”
“Of course. We’ll be there.” I rustled through my bookcase, looking for a pen and paper to take down the address of the funeral home. When she hung up, I curled into a ball on my bed.

I quickly found myself staring at the opposite wall. After losing my parents, I had painted their likenesses as a mural in my bedroom so I could never forget a single detail. Their smiling faces brought me comfort when I felt alone and hopeless. My beautiful mother, her crystal-blue eyes the same color as mine, looked down upon me as I wept my heart out for Marisol. She’d been of mixed background - half black and half white - every bit of her graceful and warm. I’d inherited her lovely, straight dark hair and thick lips. My dashing father stood beside her with his fair skin, high cheekbones and long dark eyelashes that mirrored my own. I sometimes felt as if his smile alone could lend me strength.

My eldest brother, Julian, looked just like him. Julian had just barely turned twenty-one when our father disappeared. Within days of hearing the news, he left college and moved back in with me and the boys, taking on all the responsibilities of the parent in the house. My eldest brother seemed to be made of some kind of impenetrable iron and ran on batteries that never gave out. He designed websites during the day and worked as a bartender in the evenings. Julian kept us fed, clothed and on time - except maybe for me. He’d given up on trying to make me do anything ages ago.

I could hear voices trailing from the hallway, deep and resonating, like our father’s had been. There was a knock on my bedroom door, and I held my breath, hoping my brothers couldn’t hear my sobbing through the paper-thin wall that separated us.

“D, I made coffee. You planning on leaving your room and joining us… for once?” Felix sounded cheerful. He was the second eldest, and probably the smartest one out of all of us. He’d graduated High School early, and was enrolled at N.Y.U., studying to become a doctor. Our mother had been a triage nurse, and Felix inherited her love of medicine, along with her light-olive complexion and thick black hair.
The fourth sibling is my baby brother Oliver. Losing our mother when he was only eleven, Ollie seemed to take all of it personally, like it was his job to be lighthearted and keep the rest of us in good spirits. He looked the most like our mother, even down to the reddish birthmark on his left arm, which she’d also possessed.

I could hear the three of them in the kitchen, laughing and talking with their usual boisterous zeal. Part of me knew I should go out there and tell them what had happened, but I couldn’t bring myself to say it aloud. Not even to them.
Marisol took her own life…

I closed my eyes and tried to picture her face. The last time I’d seen her had been six months before. After school I sometimes traveled into Manhattan to hand out fliers for a local tattoo parlor in exchange for extra pocket money. That day I’d been standing on the corner stuffing the small green fliers into the hands of everyone who passed me, when I saw her across the street. I didn’t know if she’d spotted me or not, but she was walking fast. It took me half a block to catch up with her.

At first she looked as if she didn’t recognize me. We had barely spoken in over two years - not since my dad’s unexpected disappearance. I’d pretty much shut everyone out after that. Losing people was just too hard.

“Mari?” She looked so different, her dark brown ringlet curls hanging like a curtain to her waist, held out of her eyes by two small braids at her temples. She’d grown out of that awkward pimply phase, her skin pristine, a warm caramel color that melded with her golden-brown eyes and long, dark eyelashes. That day she was wearing make-up, and a tight turquoise dress. Standing there in my black jeans and tank-top, my hair shaved into a short mohawk, I must have looked like a completely different person to her. She searched my face until recognition blossomed. Instead of smiling, she looked uncomfortable.
“Hey, D! It’s been a while.”
“Yeah. How’ve you been?”
She was fidgeting with her hair, her eyes darting right to left as people passed us on the street.
“I’m great. Look, I’m meeting up with someone. It’s nice seeing you.” She smiled reservedly, anxious to go.
“Okay. You too…”
She’d already starting walking away. I watched her leave, feeling weird and unwanted. Marisol had always been so warm and friendly, like she held some secret joy that radiated from inside of her at all times. Her sunny disposition was infectious, seeping into my bones until I couldn’t help but smile back when she was near me.

The person I’d encountered on the street that day had been distant and cold. I wondered if she were angry with me for not keeping in touch and a knot of guilt started bubbling in the pit of my stomach, making me vaguely nauseous.
It was probably my fault. I was the one who had stopped calling - stopped visiting. I was the one who had isolated myself.
I could feel the knot of guilt even now, lying in my bed remembering.  Sick with grief,  I shut my eyes tight to hold back tears and faded into restless sleep.
 

Great Aunt Henriette (Coffee Grinds)

My Great Aunt lived in the first floor apartment of a grand brownstone in Park Slope. As I rounded onto her block I was struck by the defined distinction between her neighborhood and ours. Finely manicured trees lined the sidewalk in perfectly rectangular plots, separated from the infrequent pedestrian foot-traffic by pretty wrought-iron fences. It was one of New York’s historic neighborhoods. Tall, stately townhouses made of stone and covered with ivy made me feel as if I were stepping into another place and time. At the very least, the foul smell of garbage I’d avoided on my way to the subway station was absent here.

My boots dragged as I climbed the stone steps up to the door of her building, though I couldn’t help but smile at the Medusa-head bust carved above the doorway when I got there. The snake-haired witch seemed the perfect guardian to the domain of my insufferable Great Aunt.

I took a deep breath, steeling myself for the inevitable confrontation with Henriette - and entered. There she sat in her over-sized recliner, a proud pout on her maroon tinted lips. Her dark skin was practically unblemished, despite her seventy-seven years. My mother’s maternal aunt had barely a wrinkle, except for the deep crease between her eyebrows formed over countless years of scowling - much as she was doing when I walked through the door.

Vicky, her nurse, was busy fumbling around in the kitchen nearby. I could hear the clanging pots and cups over the blaring radio, a Russian pop song thrumming through the apartment.
“Why is that child here?” Henriette grumbled. Despite the noise, Vicky heard her and quickly made her way into the living-room with two cups in hand. One she set on the small table beside Henriette’s recliner - most likely Great Aunt’s favorite tea with lime and honey. The second cup she held out to me - fresh and hot, black coffee with sugar.
“I told you she was coming.” Vicky said softly, nodding as I took the cup from her and plopped myself down on the plastic-covered couch across from Henriette’s recliner.

As  un-aging as my Great Aunt appeared, her health was gradually failing. Her face looked like someone in her late forties, but her body was swollen and she needed assistance to get around. I spied the walker covered in folded blankets, hiding in the bottom of an open closet.
Guess we weren’t going anywhere today.

“I don’t want her here - she aggravates me.” Henriette said, picking up her tea with delicate hands and blowing across the steaming surface. Her eyes were glued to me the entire time.
“Can you not talk about me as if I’m not sitting in the same room?”
“Get out.” She snapped blandly.
“Would love to, but Vicky needs a break from your crazy-ass.” I smirked at her, watching her deep brown eyes widen with shock. Vicky sucked her breath in sharply as she hurried back to the kitchen, the tense hostility in the air coming down like a fog - choking and thick.
“Vicky!” She called after her, her voice taking on a desperate tone, “You’re not going to leave me alone with this devil-child!”
Vicky peered around the corner from the kitchen. Her light green eyes found mine and I could see the pleading even before she spoke.
“Miss Denora?”
I smiled reassuringly, “It’s fine, Vicky. Just get ready to go. I can handle her.”
Henriette slowly sipped her tea and picked up the folded newspaper sitting on the side-table nearby, her mood suddenly calm.
“Where is Whiskers? Vicky, put out some milk for Mister Whiskers.” She rifled through the pages of her newspaper, her attention suddenly engrossed in the murders and political scandals of the week.
It was almost as if she’d completely forgotten I was there.

I took a slow sip of the bitter coffee. No amount of sugar could disguise its awful flavor. The cup was delicate porcelain with a floral motif and gold around the rim, but the lip was chipped and there was a dark stained ring around the inside that refused to be scrubbed away by Vicky’s diligent washings. I focused my attention on the bottom of the cup as I took another sip. The sudden silence of the room felt unnatural - all the boiling hostility from moments before still hanging in the air.
Small black coffee grinds swirled around the dark liquid at the bottom. I held my breath, gulping down the remainder, and found myself staring at the grimy little specks as they settled against the surface of the porcelain interior, resembling an oddly familiar shape.

“Looks like a bird.” I muttered to myself as I rose and headed for the kitchen, dirty cup in hand.
Henriette’s head jerked up, her eyes furious.
“What?”
“Nothing. I was talking to myself.”
What looks like a bird?”
Where moments before she was forgetful and irritated, now she seemed intense and sharply focused. For a brief instant, I could picture the strong beautiful woman she once was, before age cut her down - physically and mentally.

I held out the cup so she could see the strange shape the coffee grinds had left at the bottom. Tilting downward for her to see into it caused the grinds to slosh into a pile, and the fleeting image of a bird in flight was smeared away.
She squinted into the dingy porcelain.

“Gone. Must have been meant for your eyes alone.” She tipped her head to one side, her shiny black curls bobbing up and down around her face. As suddenly as it appeared, the mask of clarity and beauty that had settled over her was gone. The scowl perched itself in its usual place between her eyebrows. “See, Vicky? The Devil is leaving her messages in cups now!”
“Crazy old bat.” I laughed, turning as I headed back towards the kitchen. Vicky had turned off the radio and was sitting at the small round table in the corner, fastening the tiny buckles on her shoes. I set the cup in the bottom of the sink and noticed the empty cat bowl at my feet.
“Where is Mister Whiskers, anyway?”
 

FOLLOW ME