He went real still and got a closed expression on his face.
“I also figure you can talk … or at least some semblance of it. You can holler pretty loud so your vocal chords work just fine. You’ve acted like you were gonna say something then just stopped like you’d thought better of it. Even yesterday you looked like you were chewing on words you were dying to say but didn’t. If you stutter or something like that then don’t worry about it, it isn’t anything to be ashamed of. Or maybe you have a lisp or something. Just whatever it is give it up already. I’m not going to bite your head off just because you put words together funny.”
He looked away and all I could do was shake my head.
“And something else … twice now the Blue Hats have seemed to call you ‘Montoya’ or something like that … like they knew you.”
He paled like he was getting sick.
“So anyway, if we’re going to be friends and you hang out here with us I just think it would be mannerly to be honest and upfront about any potential problems we might run into.” That got a reaction. His mouth fell open and I got the impression if he hadn’t already been sitting down his sitter would have hit the floor.
Then he looked at me, took a deep breath and said, “¡Madre de dios, usted es una muchacha loca! I wonder the men of your family ever let you out on your own.”
I wasn’t sure what I expected the young man I called Abel to sound like but the deep, chocolaty tones of his Spanish accent sure wasn’t it. But if he was Spanish … what the heck … why … then I got an awful feeling … and the Blue Hats seemed to know him so well … and my suspicions must have shown on my face.
“You will hear my story? Wait to decide how much to hate me?”
All I could do was nod while I called myself every type of fool in the book.
“Mi nombre … my name … es Abelardo Montoya. I was born in Madrid. My father was un conductor de camion … what you call a truck driver. He drove a bread truck but he was killed during a labor strike when I and my brother were very little. My mother sent us to live on our grandfather’s granja … his farm. It was a good life until the putrefaccion, what you call the Heart Rot, came to our ciudad … our little town. When the farm died so did my Abuelo. Then my uncle came from the city, bringing his family, to take over. I don’t know what happened to mi Madre; she just disappeared like so many others in the big cities. My uncle, he said there were too many of us to take care of, some would have to go. He put the girls to work in the soup kitchens … his sons he kept at home … but my brother and I and two other cousins … we were sent to the army for to pay the taxes.”
I did not want to feel anything for the person in front of me but I did, against my better judgment.
Abel shrugged, “My brother died. He became so hungry that he ate old leather that had been boiled and it poisoned him. One of my cousins died during entrenamiento … the training, where they teach you to be a soldier. No one cared. Men were dying in the camp every day. It was fewer to feed. Then the UN came with promises of food and fuel for every soldier – that they’d give our honor back to us – if we volunteered to help save the world. We were told our families would also be taken care of if we did this thing. Even though my cousin and I were scared, we volunteered. We were tired of being hungry and knew our Abuelo would have sacrificed everything for his familia, had died for his family, died for us that we might eat.”
He sighed again, this time looking ashamed.
“We came to America. It was so different from what we had left. Everyone had so much. We became jealous. We were also too proud, thinking that we were making things fair for everyone by making the America share what she had. We were fools. When the rot came I felt bad. People were very scared and worried and they reminded me much of my family and the place I had left behind. My cousin and I expected to help set up feeding stations and other programs like had been done in other countries. Instead it quickly became every man for himself. Some of us did try and do good but … it was so hard. The officers would punish us and call us soft, or tell us we were being brainwashed by the enemy. I hadn’t realized America was the enemy. Then the killing started … and other things you are too young to hear about.”
This time it was me who snorted, easily understanding what he was trying not to say. All I had to do was remember the early radio messages and the look I had seen in the eyes of the men who had put the burning sticks to Abel’s back.
“We were torn. Many of us kept asking when we would go home. Soon, soon they would say. Then my cousin found out something terrible. They had lied to us … about feeding our families. Word got out and we were angry, so angry. There were riots in the camps. When they found out who had told they shot my cousin dead and told us to get back to work and to shut up, that our families were likely dead so now they were our families and we would do what we were told or die just like my cousin had.”
His hands were curled into fists so tight his knuckles were bloodless and white. The look on his face was terrible.
“I made a vow to get the man who had killed my cousin, for all I knew my last family, and to also get revenge on all of those who had lied to us and brought us so far from home for what was nothing but evil deeds.” He quieted briefly and then said, “I have done terrible things Day-cee, so terrible I fear the day I will have to confess them. I lived only for revenge for a long time. But then I grew to hate myself, sickened by what I had become so I escaped … ran until I could run no more. I fell in a ditch and would have been happy to have died there and never drawn another breath.”
He refused to look at me, I guess not willing to see what he thought he would see on my face.
“Unfortunately, God did have me wake up; I was not to escape myself so easy. When I woke there was the old woman there going through my belongings. She thought I was dead and then cried because I wasn’t and thought I was going to kill her or worse. I do not really understand how it came to be but she and I walked into the wilderness here and … and I did my best to atone by taking care of her. She was … loca I think … a little crazy. Sometimes she would talk to people who were not there or wander off and I would have to find her again. That is what happened the second time we met, I found her and had tucked her into a camp to sleep while I hunted something to feed us with. The animals are becoming fewer and harder to catch. I had fed her what little we had; the food you gave me … it was like … like my abuela’s. It had been so long since I had bread … and you were very sneaky to hide that other sandwich in my pack. I worried that you gave me too much of your food.”
At his hangdog expression I relented enough to say, “You worried for nothing. I’d never let Daniel go hungry. There was enough to share so we did.”
“Si … yes, you were very strange to me. A girl and a young boy, wandering around by themselves but the old woman she said you would have familia, that you could not take care of yourselves. I think them careless to let you wander … there are bad men … and women … who would do unspeakable things if they caught you. I tried to find you but could not and soon we were driven deep into the higher parts trying to avoid the … what you call the Blue Hats … that were looking to make me an example. My commander … he is still alive and hates me even more than I hate him I think though why I do not know.”
“Well, hopefully they’ll think you are dead after that landslide. It pretty much took any evidence of what happened with it.”
“Do you think?” At my nod he said, “I am tired of running. I would like to be still just for a while.”
I was pulled in two different directions. This person was the same Abel that he had been before I knew his story but at the same time I had Daniel to think about. I didn’t know what to do.
Abel must have sensed my problem. “I will leave, but I have one favor. Will you look after the perro … the dog? I am not sure that I can look after her any longer and she seems to like your Daniel. Maybe your men …”
I’d had enough. “OK, here it is and if you take advantage of it I can guarantee I will hurt you.” He startled at my angry tone. “There aren’t any ‘my men folk’ or whatever you are trying to say. For that matter there aren’t any women folk either. There is only Daniel and me. The Blue Hats killed our parents. We … Daniel, and I and our cousin Jeff who’d be about your age I guess … we were sent to a re-education camp but some Chinese came along and there was a fight and the whole camp pretty much ran for it. My family … the three of us left … came here, to this place my father had built. Then after a while Jeff left to go to town and try and see what was going on … he never came back. I don’t know what happened to him but I figure he’s never coming back.”
The look on Abel’s face was priceless. “And you can get that surprised look off of your face. Just because I am a girl doesn’t mean I am helpless. I bet your grandmother and mother could have told you a thing or two about that.” I calmed down, afraid that if I didn’t I’d wake up Daniel and scare him.
I stood up and Abel stood up too. “Oh sit down before you fall down. I think better when I’m moving but don’t think I’m going to make it easy on you.”
He sat and just stared at me like I was something he’d never seen before. “OK, ground rules. You can’t draw them Blue Hats here. I don’t know what you were doing before to get them so bent out of shape … probably something I’ll wish I had done … but no more. I’ve dreamed of getting back at the Blue Hats for a long time but I’ve also had Daniel to look after. Daniel comes first … always … got it?”
At his nod I continued. “And another thing, you have to help share in the work. I don’t know what the girls were like where you came from but I’m not about to turn into your maid. I’ll keep cooking and stuff like that but I wouldn’t mind some help with the laundry, the chickens, and getting the firewood cut up. And you can help clean the bathroom too.”
He just continued to stare at me like he was wondering if he was hallucinating.
“And about me being a girl … don’t go pulling any tricky stuff … with me or with Daniel.” He was confused for a moment then looked like he got a little angry himself.
“I would never do something so dishonorable … so evil …”
“Yeah, yeah … and Benji Clayton the preacher’s son didn’t try to spy on the girls’ shower at Bible camp every chance he got. I don’t care who your daddy or … or abuelo … was or how they acted … I’m just worried about how you are going to act. So no … no peaking or anything like that. We only have one bathroom and sometimes Daniel forgets to knock but he gets freaked out if he thinks the door is locked so … so …”
“If the door is closed I will knock, or call out. I had girl cousins that were like sisters to me … they screamed very loudly … and could make life mismo malo if you did not act as you ought,” he said so seriously I had to look to see if he was joking. He was not. Good for his girl cousins.
“I’ll … I’ll probably think of other things later but for now that will do … just so long as we’re clear.”
He nodded but then said, “Chica, are you sure? You do not know me. I could be a liar.”
“If you are, you are a good one … even Dog likes you. Daniel thinks you are OK and he seems to be able to sniff people out that aren’t on the up and up.”
“About your Daniel …”
I had been waiting for him to say something and was ready to tear into him but what he said surprised me, “I had a cousin, she was like him … different, gentle. Rosa. She hated going to work in the kitchens … all the strangers, they upset her. Autistico, but worse than your Daniel I think.”
“Daniel … he’s my little brother and I will never let anyone say anything bad about him but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that he has … issues. Yes, he’s autistic but we always hoped that one of these days he’d learn to cope with everything and then maybe lead … I don’t know, they used to call it a ‘normal life’ but I don’t know if that exists for anybody anymore.”
He had a very expressive sigh. “Si … but the rot … it cannot last forever. We just need to outlast it. I still look here at you … at this place … I still do not understand.”
I grinned despite myself. “It was my Dad. People used to call him paranoid but he’d say ‘Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get me.’”
It took Abel a minute to translate what I’d said in his head then he nodded. “Si … si … there are many bad things in life. We would all have died very quick if Abuelo and Abuelita had not stored much food on the farm for our whole family.”
“Exactly. The Blue Hats took everything from our house … everything … furniture, clothes, everything … except for what Dad had told us to move here. We were going to move into the cave within a couple of days but … but …”
I hadn’t cried over it in a long time and I wasn’t about to cry about it then either but I couldn’t talk about it either. Not to him. Not yet.
“S’OK Day-cee. I still … it hurts … to think of my brother … and my cousin … both who died but who did not need to.”
“I don’t cry much. I had to get over that early on or I would have flooded this cave out completely. Look … this is just … I haven’t had anyone but Daniel to talk to in a long time. I’m not sure I should be telling you all this stuff now … but I can’t seem … my mouth is getting unhinged at finally …,” I stopped and sighed not quite able, nor willing, to put how I was feeling into words.
“We will both have to figure out how to talk again I think.”
I asked a question that just occurred to me, “How come you speak English so well? All I hear the Blue Hats … and people on the radio … talking is gibberish.”
When he didn’t understand what I meant by gibberish I said, “Languages that I can’t understand.”
“Ah,” he said after figuring out what I meant. “I took English in my escuela … in my school. Then I learned more … better … when I came to America and had to talk for my officers to make other people understand what they wanted. I took books and read them when no one was looking. And the old woman … she never seemed to stop talking but it wasn’t always to me.” He tapped his forehead with his finger.
“I know a little Spanish. I took it as an elective in middle school but everyone always laughed when I tried to speak it.”
“Cruelty.” I looked again thinking he might be making fun of me but I couldn’t tell if he was or not.
“No, I really do sound pretty bad. I never could make my r’s trill or use the tilda over the right N.”
“Ah,” he said again. Then after a moment he asked, “Do you wish to learn?”
“Maybe … probably … but only if you promise not to laugh at how bad I am.”
“If you promise not to laugh when I do not understand the words you use. You put them together strangely sometimes.”
It was a deal … on everything, not just on the not laughing stuff … but since Daniel chose that moment to walk in we left what we had really been talking about unsaid.
I fixed both Daniel and Dog breakfast and that kept me busy but still listening to Abel answer all the questions that came his way, occasionally translating a phrase or word into something Abel could understand. Daniel was fascinated with Abel and how he suddenly just started talking. “Dacey can make anybody do anything. She just wears you down.”
I looked over at them, giving them both the evil eye, but all it did was make them both laugh. Abel wasn’t laughing for long however. He’d started hurting so bad he couldn’t hide it from me. I brought him a bottle of ibuprofen and asked him if he was allergic to anything.
“No, I’m strong.”
“Strong doesn’t have anything to do with it.”
“Hmm? Ah … no … no mi salud … it is very good. No alergias … none.”
“Fine, then take a couple of these and go lay down. Wait … not in … look, if you are going to stay here you can’t sleep on the sofa. That’s stupid.”
I led him back to my room, “You can sleep here. I’ve been sleeping with Daniel for such a long time it doesn’t matter anyway.”
“I cannot take your room Day-cee.”
“It’s a bed and a dresser, no big deal. I just hope your feet don’t hang off the end. You’re taller than Jeff is … was …,” I stopped and just shrugged.
We had a stare down contest which I won … maybe only because he was so tired and hurting.
“Daniel, help me change the sheets real quick and …”
“No … they are fine. I’ve been sleeping on the ground for so long anything is a pleasure.”
I wasn’t going to argue with him. I hated changing sheets. It’s the only time being short bothered me. “Fine, just don’t say I didn’t offer. Daniel, leave him to sleep. I expect Dog needs to go out pretty bad but we’re going to have to watch her to make sure she doesn’t take a liking to the chickens and she’ll be wet when she comes back in so you’ll have to dry her up. I don’t mind Dog staying inside but I’ll be doggone if I’m going to live with a wet smelly dog. Got it?”
“Got it Dacey. Come on Dog. Dacey says you can go outside but you can’t play with the chickens. That would be bad.”
I turned to make sure that Abel didn’t mind Daniel taking his dog out but he was already asleep which I figured was the best thing for him. I turned the solar lamp off but left it beside the bed for when he woke up and then followed Daniel outside. It was so cold that none of us wanted to be out for long. I checked on the chickens again and they got insulted so I left them alone.
Daniel was tired again but he was way past being willing to take a nap “like a baby.” Instead I told him that Dog looked like she needed a nap but wouldn’t if she thought he wanted to play so maybe he could trick her by lying down with her. He was out like a light in less than a minute. I wanted to curl up and go to sleep too but there was no time for it. I had a lot to think about.