Authors: Willa Strayhorn
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
For Latham, Zoe, and Harper
IT FELT AS IF WE’D
just been here, on this same dirt floor, within these same adobe walls, in this same spectral formation.
But it had been a full week since the subterranean ritual, and everything had changed since then. For the most glaring example, I needed only to look around the ceremonial kiva at the stricken faces before me. Only four of us remained in the ghostly underworld of our initiation. Where Kaya, our fifth, had sat beside me on a blanket last Saturday night, there was now just a depression in the dirt. Kaya, the girl who felt no pain.
Now she would feel nothing, ever again.
What would Jay say? He had warned me of the consequences, but I hadn’t listened. He had entrusted me with his magic, and I had let him down. Could he have been completely wrong about me? He’d told me that I had a powerful soul, but now I just felt muted and buried, crushed by the earth above me. Maybe I’d never been equipped to lead my friends to better lives. I’d wanted so badly to be healed that I’d let myself get carried away—and had doggedly carried others with me. And we definitely weren’t noble Indians of the Southwest communing with the benevolent spirits of our ancestors. We were just four kids from Santa Fe High crowded around a fading fire in the New Mexico desert that served as our city’s suburb. And now we’d lost one of our own. I’d lost her. Me. My fault. Not Jay. Not his mystical coyote. Me.
I was Kaya’s murderer.
Across from me and through the thickening smoke, Ellen looked berserk—more jittery and unmoored from reality than she’d ever been in her burnout days—and this despite the fact that most of the drugs had been flushed from her system. Except for the ones she took for her incurable disease. Or rather, for
incurable disease. If it was still my disease. Confusing, I know, but bear with me. A lot of crazy things happened that week.
Ellen’s bleached blond hair was tangled with sage and juniper from scrambling down the mountain the night before. The mud on her face had hardened, like the aging adobe slathered on every building in our city. I wrapped my Navajo blanket around her shoulders. She accepted the offering numbly, lost in her own anxious world. I almost wished she would lash out at me, as she used to when she was under the influence. Now, her distance felt unnatural.
Not that any of this was natural. Death seemed the most unnatural thing of all.
When Ellen adjusted her arms I saw the turquoise horse figurine she clung to. I looked down at the object I gripped in my own hand. It should have been a deer totem, but instead it was a shard of bone. Which, I didn’t realize until now, was drawing blood from my palm. And I was the one expected to save us?
“Lo,” Thomas said, his voice muffled by his zipped-up hoodie, “you’re bleeding again.” Was it my imagination, or had some of the solicitude left his voice? As a child Thomas had been through a war, practically a genocide, and yet even he was shell-shocked by recent events. You can only see someone bleed so many times in a week without getting caregiver fatigue.
“Here,” he said, offering me a fresh white towel from his backpack. I shook my head and tucked the sharp object back into my pocket. I didn’t want to soil something so pure.
“Serves Lo right,” Kit said, prodding the fire with a stick. He had revived his old resentment. The joyful, manic energy he’d been cultivating for the past week seemed to have taken a sinister turn. He ran his fingers through his stubby Mohawk, which barely moved under the gesture. He also hadn’t seen a shower for a couple of days. We’d all been too busy trying to survive. Trying, and failing, to keep each other whole.
“Leave her alone,” Thomas told Kit. But judging from his weak, exhausted voice, I could tell his heart wasn’t even in that small defense. Kit could probably shove me violently against the kiva’s sacred wall right now, and Thomas would scarcely budge. I deserved all that and more. Thomas knew me better than anyone else in the world at this point, well enough to know that he would be wise to be done with me. He’d been a foot soldier for a psychotic warlord, and I’d still never be good enough for him. We were both killers, but at least he could cite force and coercion as an excuse for his fatal mistakes.
Judging by the buttery light filtering through the hole above our heads, the desert sun was finally rising. Kaya should have been waking up right now to the dissonant hum of her alarm clock. Her mom should have been in her bedroom to take her temperature and check for any cuts and bruises that might have accrued in the night. But now Kaya was beyond injury.
My eyes climbed the ladder rungs that we’d descended to get into the ceremonial chamber the night before. We were buried together in this dark interior, but I could still see the peekaboo brilliance overhead. Another blue-sky day in New Mexico, big surprise. It was the Land of Enchant-ment, after all. I guess I couldn’t expect this climate to reflect the tragedies I created. Santa Fe boasted three hundred days of sunshine every year. I boasted one stupid decision to haunt me for the rest of my life. However long that might be. My days were numbered differently every day.
“Please just bring her back,” I murmured, but to whom, I wasn’t sure.
Then the opening darkened, and a pair of legs appeared on the ladder. For one ecstatic moment I thought they belonged to Kaya, but then I recognized the weathered hiking boots, the worn Levi’s.
The ring of desert sunshine formed a halo around his head as he seemed to drop effortlessly from the sky. When Jay touched down I immediately felt more grounded. Maybe he could miraculously undo the damage I’d inflicted.
Jay quietly assessed the kiva’s inhabitants. “Where is your fifth?” he said. Ellen began to cry.
“We were hoping you could tell us,” I said. I closed my eyes and tried to see Kaya’s face, but it was pushed aside by images of deranged coyotes and angry bulls, machine guns and burning men. . . .
I felt a hand on my shoulder. Jay studied me softly. He seemed to understand my guilt, my fear. Our overwhelming loss.
“You already know,” I said. He nodded.
“It’s over, Consuelo,” Jay said. “It’s time to reverse the ritual.” I crumpled to the ground. My selfish experiment had reached its ugly, bitter end. Jay reached out to touch my quaking back. I raised my head. “It’s not just Kaya who departed our circle last night,” he continued. “You have all let your centers weaken. It’s time for you to reclaim your souls. Only then can you see your friend again.”
See her again. Maybe we could resurrect her after all.
Jay’s coyote trotted up from some dark recess of the kiva and licked my bandaged forearm, around the puncture wounds that she’d made the night before. I petted her absentmindedly on the scruff of her neck. I knew she wouldn’t try to hurt me.
Thomas, Ellen, and Kit regarded me through the smoke, hungry for whatever wisdom I could deliver. It seemed they still saw me as the natural leader of our spiritual outfit, even though I’d failed them miserably. We were all suffering beneath our burdens, but right now the heavy, subterranean silence weighed on us the most. I had never felt more lost, more disconnected from people, from my own strength, from daylight itself. I took a deep breath and prepared to speak.
“I got you into this,” I said, pulling a precious object from my pocket and extending my wounded, lifeless hand toward the flames. “And now I’m going to get you out.”
“HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN
experiencing symptoms, Consuelo?”
When Dr. Osborn finally removed his flashlight from my retinas, the exam room filled with white dots. I squirmed on the paper sheet that lay between my undergarments and the exam table, really wishing that I hadn’t chosen to wear my fluorescent orange underwear under my jeans to the hospital that morning. But I hadn’t expected this neurology exam to be so comprehensive. So full-body. After all, I wasn’t really sick. I just had weird headaches now and then. And shaky hands. And blurred vision. And sometimes shooting pain down my right arm that was so violent I had to stop whatever I was doing and envision rainbows and puppies to keep from throwing up. Okay, so maybe that did sound sort of bad.
“I’m not sure,” I said. “Maybe a couple of months now?”
The doctor grunted. This wasn’t Dr. Sue, my usual pediatrician who still insisted on sneaking me a lollipop after appointments and who spent most of our time together pumping me for gossip from Santa Fe High School. This was a specialist—one totally lacking in bedside manner—and you had to take numerous turns and elevators through a labyrinthine hospital in order to reach his exalted offices. And somehow I didn’t think he’d care about my negligible love life.
“Do you remember the first time you felt something might be wrong?” said Dr. Osborn. He was now (sadistically?) banging his rubber mallet against my bare knee. I resisted the urge to kick him lightly on the shin and blame my reflexes.
The first time. . . . Jeez, that was hard to answer. I supposed it was over summer break. I was trying to swim laps when my legs started trembling in the pool. Or when my favorite trick hula-hoop suddenly began skittering to the floor because my hips couldn’t keep up with its rotations. Or when I stopped dancing solo around my bedroom altogether because my body no longer felt like my own.
The backs of my thighs began to sweat onto the filmy white paper. Why did the doctor sound so foreboding? So concerned? I thought this appointment was just a precaution before I got too busy with junior year. I’d be taking the SATs this fall and needed to be at the top of my game so I could get good grades, get a good boyfriend, get into a good college, get a good job, have a good life, et cetera, et cetera. I didn’t have time for serious illness. I didn’t even have time for a head cold.
“Lo?” Mom said. For a second I’d forgotten that my parents were there with me in the exam room. I wrapped my cheap, hospital-issue gown further around my back to ensure that my obscene underwear stayed hidden from all three adults. Mom sat in the armchair in the corner, twisting her hands together and looking at me expectantly. I’d spaced out for . . . some length of time—not an uncommon occurrence those days.
“Sorry,” I said, glancing at her and then at my dad, who stood frozen next to her chair. He tends to turn to marble whenever he’s worried about something or is over-thinking his fatherly thoughts. “I was just . . . trying to remember.”
Mom settled back in her seat but continued to fidget. Like mother, like daughter. I tucked my gown further beneath me and sat on my restless hands.
“I guess when I first felt different . . . ,” I mumbled at Dr. Osborn, getting distracted by seeing my own reflection in his giant silver belt buckle. Only in New Mexico would your neurologist be styled like a cowboy. “Well, it actually wasn’t long after . . . Aunt Karine died.” I looked at Mom; as I expected, hearing her sister’s name had made her wince. It was our unspoken rule that we never mentioned Aunt Karine within our triangular family unit. But Mom quickly collected herself and waved at me with subtle encouragement. She looked so young, so pretty, so capable in the pink scrubs from her overnight nursing shift. I know it pained her that she couldn’t heal me.
As I spoke, Dr. Osborn seemed to be preparing to listen to my heartbeat, but the cord of his stethoscope got tangled in his bolo tie.
I forged ahead while he fumbled.
“So maybe around the Fourth of July or so? I was making coffee in the kitchen and felt a sort of . . . spasm in my arm that made me drop my mug. And I’m not clumsy at all usually.” Dad raised an eyebrow. At least he still had his sense of humor. “Despite what
people think.” He winked at me.
Then I didn’t like the pensive way the doctor was looking in my direction, so I started to babble. “The mug pretty much shattered on the floor. Even now, like three months later, I’m still stepping on shards of porcelain every once in a while, in my bare feet. Did you know that, Mom? I’ve tried and tried to clean it up. I think the Dustbuster must be defective. Guys, can we get a new Dustbuster?” I clasped my hands in front of my heart as if I were asking for a pony for my birthday. “Pretty please?”
Mom nodded absentmindedly. The mug that I’d broken had been one of her favorites. I’d had it printed with a photo of the three of us and given it to her for Christmas one year. Dad had called it the Holy Caffeine Grail.
Dr. Osborn seemed to have given up on my heartbeat. His bolo tie had cast too stubborn a web.
“It’s not unusual,” he said, “for this disease to manifest first in loss of coordination.”
He said it like it was an established fact. I knew it ran in families, but. . . . He must have noted the sudden look of horror on my face because he quickly backtracked.
“I’m going to schedule you for a series of more-conclusive tests a week from Monday.” He made a note on my chart. I imagined it was a brainstorm about a new line of clinical wear that combined medical functionality with Southwestern fashion sensibilities. Lab jackets printed with Aztec designs. Fringed cowhide face masks. Hygienic paper shoes that could fit over cowboy boots and spurs.
Okay, then. Monday after next. A Monday would decide my fate. Couldn’t it at least be a Friday, so I wouldn’t have to go to school the next day? Or even a Sunday, so I could go to church beforehand and pray to the Virgin Mary like Mom was always doing? I’d never prayed before, but surely it wasn’t too late. God, if you’re out there, please grant me a Dustbuster and perfect health.
“Meanwhile, Consuelo—” the doctor said.
“It’s just Lo,” I interrupted, surprised by how irritated I sounded.
I should say something about my name: Consuelo McDonough. We’re Anglo, not Hispanic, but when my parents came to Santa Fe years ago on their low-budget honeymoon, my mother embraced Southwestern culture to an extreme. She’s sort of obsessed with the Spanish missionary history of the city and never strays far from the kneelers of our local Catholic churches that the conquistadors founded. When we moved here from California when I was in kindergarten, I found that my name helped me fit in immediately. Santa Fe is about 50 percent Hispanic, after all.
“Of course,” the doctor said, finally returning his rubber mallet and flashlight to his lab coat pockets as if he were a Wild West outlaw holstering his pistols. “Just Lo, then. I’ll make a note. Just Lo, until your next appointment, I need you to keep up with the vitamin and dietary regimen that I recommended, and don’t hesitate to be liberal with the pills I prescribed if you’re in pain. The steroids especially. Later we can talk rehab, support groups—”
Dad cleared his throat loudly. Bless him. He’s a fire ranger, and he was missing work to be with me. I used to think his job was romantic. Then I got older and realized that it’s not exactly a privilege to be sent into raging infernos by the Forest Service. It actually sounds pretty hellish. Dad is part of an elite crew of “hotshots” who hike toward the flames and then dig a line to break the progress of the fire. I sometimes wish he had an office job. Pencils rarely burst into flames.
“Right,” Dr. Osborn said. “There is plenty of time to discuss those matters. And of course it’s all contingent on next week’s paraclinical tests. Meanwhile, do you have any questions for me, Consuelo?” I didn’t correct him this time. I shook my head. I just wanted to get out of there.
“Then you’re free to get dressed. Mr. and Mrs. McDon-ough, may I speak to you in the hallway for a moment?”
My parents left with the doctor. In a daze, I began to reassemble my outfit. Faded black jeans. A vintage rock T-shirt that was always slipping off my shoulder. It wasn’t until my boots were laced up that I realized I’d forgotten to put on my socks.
I tried to imagine a drug I could take to feel at home in my body again, to feel less scatterbrained and off-kilter. It’d be called TranquiLo™. Side effects included drowsiness, loss of appetite. . . .
I ran into my parents in the hallway, and as soon as I saw their bleak faces, I knew I didn’t want to engage with them. I told them I was in a rush to make it to the end of fourth period, and then fled the hospital into the vivid New Mexico sunshine before anybody—or anything—could slow me down. I wouldn’t make history class, but I’d get to lunch before the bell, and I desperately wanted to see my friends, eat some potato chips in the courtyard, laugh about stupid teenage stuff, and forget the morning ever happened.
• • •
I made it to lunch period just in time to get faux-stern reprimands from my best friends, Alex and Juanita, who were sitting on the courtyard concrete in the midst of an epic hair-styling session. Alex had her legs wrapped around Juanita’s hips for better leverage and was putting the finishing touches on a long, silky braid.
“Lo! You’re, like, four hours late,” Alex said as she looped the finished braid around the back of Juanita’s head. “Pretty tardy, young lady, even for you. What gives?”
Alex and I had bonded freshman year over a fetal pig dissection in the world’s grossest biology lab, and my social life hadn’t been the same since. Alex is pretty and blond, and she brought me into her exclusive circle of rich Anglo kids and hot athletes who make up the picnic society around our school’s circular courtyard fountain, which we’d redundantly nicknamed “Agua de Water.” At lunch we also threw coins in the water, wishing for things like calorie-free guacamole and our favorite movie stars to fall in love with us via our Twitter accounts.
“Yeah, chica,” Juanita said, jumping up and swinging her arms around me after making sure her hair was in place. “Where’ve you been? Alex won’t stop going on about kissing Brett last night, and I need a buffer from her blah blah blahs.” Her hand made a motormouthed puppet. “Oops, sorry,” she said to Alex. “I guess mind-numbing boredom is the price to pay for your beautician services.”
Alex laughed and threatened to muss Juanita’s hair. “Damn right. Anyway, you’re just jealous that you missed the show last night because you had to help Ellen barf out her guts in the bathroom.”
“Oh no,” I said, snapping to attention. “Again?”
“Yup,” Juanita said. “This is
she decided to make a fool of herself with Jason’s karaoke machine. But we’ll talk about that later. It merits serious discussion. Meanwhile, Lo, for real, where’ve you been all morning? Chemistry felt ten hours long without you.”
“I didn’t tell you guys I had a doctor’s appointment?”
The truth was, my parents were the only ones who knew about my Mysterious Symptoms. I didn’t want anyone to think I was a weirdo. Or overreact and get worried when I might not even have anything wrong with me at all. I just wanted to be normal until I couldn’t be normal anymore. I wanted to be normal until my normalcy dried up like the river that ran through the center of town. And besides, I was probably fine. I was going to ask my parents if we could get a second opinion from a doctor whose belt buckle didn’t weigh as much as a car engine. Better yet, I’d get better before my next appointment. I was probably just eating too much sugar, or there was toxic mold in my bedroom, or my hormones were out of whack. . . .
TranquiLo. You’re at school now, in public.
I dug around in my backpack for my lunch, only to realize I’d forgotten to pack one.
“Oh my god,” Alex said, her blue eyes fixed on me in shock. I stopped in my tracks. For a second I thought she knew my secret, like she had gotten hold of my medical chart. Then she lowered her voice to a whisper. “Lo, did you go to the gyno this morning? Did your mom take you to get a prescription for birth control?”
I laughed, relieved. Alex knew perfectly well that birth control was the furthest thing from my mind, especially since I was a virgin and didn’t have a boyfriend, despite what my DayGlo underwear might suggest.
“Yeah, right. Just a routine checkup,” I said, feeling a little guilty about lying but deciding that the alternative—making my friends worry—was worse. “So tell me about Brett,” I said, changing the subject. “Dish, Alex. I hate that I missed Weekends on Wednesdays last night.” I might have changed the subject a bit too effectively, because for the next four minutes, Alex didn’t stop talking about the star soccer player’s “pillowy” lips and “rock-hard abs.” I took this to indicate that she’d been reading too many of her mother’s romance novels. (By which I mean the novels that her mom
, not ones she keeps on the shelf. Slightly overweight and incredibly awkward, Mrs. Karen Reynolds is known everywhere besides her church and the dentist’s office as Cate Mayweather, best-selling romance author.)
Before I could interrupt Alex’s monologue, Ellen Davis arrived on the Agua scene like a bucking bronco.
“Who’s seen my backpack?” she practically shrieked, stopping short our conversation, such as it was. I looked around for the bag in question, but someone was sitting on or near every backpack in the vicinity in a proprietary way.
I hadn’t hung out much with Ellen recently. We didn’t have any classes together that semester, and I’d been distracted by my symptoms since the start of school. Ellen used to be attached at the hip to me, Juanita, and Alex, but she’d started going off the deep end last spring. Though we hadn’t said it to her explicitly, we were all really worried about her. Her pill problem was the worst-kept secret in our crowd. So far her mom, a wealthy state delegate, and the nosy guidance counselors at school didn’t appear to have gotten wind of her addiction, but Ellen routinely came to class either high on something or in a stupor that no amount of caffeine from the cafeteria vending machines could shake.
And last spring Ellen had discovered heavy-duty pain-killers. Serious stuff, like Oxy and Percocet. So I was definitely worried about the road Ellen was on. But—and I hated to say it, because lord knows I’d had my own mood swings lately—she’d also been acting like a real bitch. After she wrecked her brand-new car last April driving to school on a handful of Xanax washed down with lite beer, we all rallied around her. Even though Mrs. Davis told us it was “only a fender bender” (false) and that they “had enough flowers already, mostly from the capitol building” (brag), we visited Ellen in the hospital anyway. But she was a nightmare patient, cursing us out right and left. She wouldn’t even accept Juanita’s get-well flower bouquet, saying that the smell of roses “made her want to vom.” It got so bad one day that we decided we wouldn’t come back to visit; we clearly weren’t helping her and were maybe only making things worse. Ellen had been drifting further and further from us ever since.
Now she seemed to be on something far worse than pills. She’d lost a bunch of weight, for one. Her jeans sagged off her hips, and she’d already been pretty thin to begin with (her mom basically stocked the fridge only with flavored seltzers and imitation eggs). For two, her skin, which had always been clear and sun-kissed, was now ghost-white and splotchy. Her bleached blond hair was all over the place, and she had a wild look in her eyes that scared me. She seemed to be staring right through us.
“No one has your backpack, crazy,” Alex said.
Ellen whirled around to face Alex. Her forehead had broken out in a sweat, and various stains showed on her baby blue tank top.
“Then where. The eff.
it?” Ellen said.
“Probably where you saw it last, chica,” said Juanita’s sometimes boyfriend Luis LeBlanc, who was approaching from a nearby picnic table. Ellen responded by grabbing Luis’s baseball cap and tossing it into the fountain like a Frisbee.
“Damn, girl,” he said. “Chill.” For a second it looked as if Ellen was going to retrieve the hat, but then I realized she was just leaning over the Agua wall to scoop up the coins at the bottom of the fountain. When she was satisfied with her handful of nickels and pennies, she held them aloft.
“Hey,” I said automatically, “those are someone’s wishes.”
“Yeah?” Ellen said. “Well, I wish you’d all just disappear.” She hurled a couple of pennies across the courtyard, pocketed the rest of the coins, and stormed back into the school. I was stunned. Luis muttered some profanity and made his way back to his table, shaking the water from his cap.
“What the hell was that?” I said.
“Meth,” whispered Alex.
At first I thought she was joking. Then I saw her exchange a grave look with Juanita that indicated she wasn’t.
“You’re serious?” I said. Sharp-as-a-tack Ellen, who starred in the fifth grade play, won the middle school science fair three years in a row, and had scored practically all the goals on our childhood soccer team, was on
? What was a sixteen-year-old girl, by all accounts clever and accomplished, doing on such a savage drug?
“Unfortunately,” said Juanita. “I got it on good authority. Granted, my brother can be kind of a dick, but he’s not a liar, and he knows a lot of people. Last night he told me that his friend Angelina accidentally walked in on her using in the bathroom of Stoops. Caught her in the act.”
“She’s sure?” I said.
Juanita nodded soberly. “No wiggle room.”
“I only just heard about it this morning,” said Alex. “But it seems so obvious now. You should have seen her last night at the party, Lo. She was totally tweaking.”
I could barely process this. “I know that she hasn’t been handling her alcohol lately—”
“No shit,” said Alex. “She can’t go out without getting totally obliterated.”
“And she’s been downing all those pills. But . . . Jesus. Meth? Really?”
“Really,” said Juanita. “Apparently that complete ass she’s been hooking up with—Mike what’s-his-face—gave her her first hit.” Boyfriends were supposed to introduce you to cool new bands and video games and car mechanics and stuff. Not meth.
“I feel like we need to do something,” said Alex.
we needed to do something. But clearly we were out of our league. Sure, we weren’t innocent to the fact that kids our age dabbled in drugs. But that mostly stopped at smoking pot and snorting Adderall occasionally. Crystal meth was way out of the range of substances that could optimistically be called “recreational.” People didn’t do meth in moderation. They did it until it destroyed them.
Just then, a shot of pain bullied its way through my head, making me feel like my skull was clenching up and trying to squeeze my brain out of my eye sockets. I reeled backward into the fountain wall and put my head between my knees.
“Lo?” Alex said, as if through water. Electrified water. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” I said. “It’s just. . . .” Tears came into my eyes, summoned both by pain and by my frustration that I was alone with this secret. “Period cramps,” I said. “They’re really bad this month.”
“Awww,” Juanita said, putting her arm around me.
“Um, I know I just got to school,” I said, “but do you guys mind covering for me? I think I have to ditch.”
“No problem,” Alex said.
“Then I guess this is where we part,” said Juanita, making a teardrop with her manicured fingernail. “Until later,
. I knew a woefully small number of words in Spanish, but I liked to use them in conversation because they always struck me as jauntier than English. I made a mental note to memorize all my body parts in Spanish. Then maybe I’d look upon them more cheerfully if they began to fail, one by one.
Shut up, Lo.
Quit with the self-pity.
Mucho gusto encantada
“Feel better, babe,” said Alex. “A heating pad and some ibuprofen always help me.”
“Thanks, guys,” I said, making my way toward the courtyard exit. “You’re the best.”
“I know!” said Alex. “Finally somebody gets it!”
“Don’t forget chocolate and mafia movies!” shouted Juanita at my back. “I swear on my heart that
trilogy healed my eczema!”
I smiled back at her through the pain.
• • •
From school I drove straight to the pharmacy. Fernando’s Pharmacy, in the boonies of Santa Fe, where I could be anonymous. I didn’t risk running into anyone from Santa Fe High there, and the pharmacist never batted an eye when I picked up my arsenal of drugs from behind as well as over the counter. While Alex and Juanita shelled out for new clothes and pedicures every week, I bought ibuprofen, fish oil, super B-complex vitamins, and protein bars with my parents’ credit card—all staples of my morose survival diet.
As I barreled down the freeway past outlier shopping malls, used-car lots, and Mexican buffets, I tried to get out of my own head. I thought about Ellen. I was furious at myself for being oblivious to her downward spiral. The meth explained so much about her recent behavior. But I couldn’t get over how . . .
And way too much for me to handle, especially when I wasn’t doing so well myself. But Ellen was tough and distinct and endearingly obscene. She was my friend. I couldn’t allow her to fall apart.
ARMED WITH OTC PAINKILLERS AND
a red basket’s worth of obscure supplements big enough for a horse to choke on, I started out for home.
The route back from the pharmacy ran along the perimeter of a semi-wooded park that Dad called the “Tinderbox.” For years he’d been trying to get the Forest Service to do a controlled burn of the sage and thick underbrush, to no avail. Now we were in the midst of one of the worst droughts our region had ever experienced, and it was way too late and too dangerous to think of burning anything on purpose. The last monsoon season hadn’t provided us with a thorough soak, and Dad worried that the arid aspens in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains would go up in flames. I envisioned a single match obliterating every tree from here to the Pacific Ocean.
But I didn’t see any fires that day as I drove and washed down my brain-boosting vitamins with a sports drink. Nor did I see smoke when I scanned the scraggly, desiccated treetops.
I did, however, see a large mammal dash in front of my car, leaving me only milliseconds to avoid hitting it by swerving into the opposite lane.
Orange pills flew all over the passenger-side floor, where they were swallowed by coffee cups and candy wrappers. “Cheese and toast,” I blurted, then almost laughed when I realized that I’d instinctively used my mother’s version of “profanity.”
TranquiLo. Focus. Collect yourself and your medicine.
I pulled over and looked in the rearview mirror. Standing just where my car had passed, so close that it could probably sniff my wall of bumper stickers (
one nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day.
IF YOU CAN READ THIS, I
VE LOST MY TRAILER.
horn broken, watch for finger.
), was a coyote.
I’m not scared of coyotes. Unless you’re an escaped housecat or an infant abandoned on a picnic blanket, you have no cause to fear them. Coyotes are everywhere in New Mexico, including downtown Santa Fe, where they frequently wander past tourists in the midst of dream-catcher-buying frenzies. Still, it’s not like I would ever try to hand-feed Milk-Bones to one. Being prolific doesn’t exactly make them docile. You just have to be sensible enough to stay out of their way.
I stepped out of my car. The coyote didn’t flee, nor did it freeze with fear. It just gazed at me steadily, reflectively, somehow demanding my full attention in return. Its eyes seemed to issue a gentle challenge:
Let me see who you are and what you’re about. Let’s get in each other’s faces and make sure we’re both fully alive.
Was I losing my mind? Hallucinating? My nerves were already frazzled by . . . the obvious. And the not so obvious. You start the morning with a visit to the neurologist and you never know what’s going to happen. I felt raw, unmoored, as if I could burst into tears at any moment. And I had never been a crier.
I inched around the car, my legs shaky from the near-accident and not, I told myself, from the Maybe Sclerosis. I crept toward the coyote and was about to say something pretty nutty considering the context, something along the lines of “Here, pup. Do you need a friend?” when another unexpected body appeared through the trees, this one human. I felt an electric shock plunge down my right leg like a live wire and exit via my boot. I hated it when that happened.
The man jogged casually toward me, indicating with a wave that everything was okay—stellar even. Though I’m understandably wary whenever strange men appear out of nowhere and make a beeline for me, his smile immediately put me at ease—as much as I ever felt at ease in my own skin those days. The expression on his face was . . . transcendent.
His silky dark hair hinted at Native American blood, but I couldn’t determine his ancestry for sure. He wore his hair almost to his shoulders, with one funky ponytail on top of his head that resembled the crested plumage of a bird. He looked like a refugee from a local college—the kind of school that taught classes like “Personal Communication in a Machine Age” or “Feminist Puppetry in Elementary Education.” Whether he’d be an older student or a young professor, I couldn’t be sure exactly.
“I see you found Dakota,” he said in a throaty, harmonious voice that either indicated depth of life experience or decades of smoking. I suspected it was the former. “Or she found you.”
“This coyote belongs to you?” I said, feeling shy all of a sudden.
“Well, not exactly. This coyote belongs to me as much as she belongs to you, and as much as you belong to that thirsty tree over there. Today Dakota just happens to be walking in my world. Better than me walking in her world, I suppose. Otherwise I’d be biting the heads off chickens.” He chuckled.
Biting the heads off chickens? Who was this guy, a voodoo priest? After a long pause, he must have registered the confusion in my face. “She likes to join me on my . . . outings,” he went on. “We enjoy each other’s company, is all. We’re connected.”
I’d never been allowed to have a
pet because Mom was allergic to dander. But I sort of knew what this guy was getting at—every morning I brightened when I saw the lizard I called Seymour strut across my bedroom window screen in search of flies. And then there was our backyard population of chickens, a bonanza of feathery heads I was in charge of naming and feeding. Few sunrise pleasures could compete with letting Pollo Hermano eat grain from my hand.
I couldn’t put my finger on why, but I felt calm around this guy. I used to think I could read energy fields, the colors and auras that surrounded people. It was probably something that my old friend Kaya had suggested once, or maybe it was something I read about in a book a long time ago, but every now and then I still thought I saw lights around certain people. Or, if the person was really special, I heard music. And this man radiated a sort of soundtrack. Like, a violin concerto wrapped in a sixties rock show.
“I’m Jay,” he said, pausing the music but not the spell he’d cast on me.
“I’m Consuelo,” I said, suddenly dizzy. “Lo.” I stepped back and braced myself against the hood of my station wagon so I wouldn’t faint. Jay looked concerned but didn’t move.
“I don’t know if you saw,” I said, “but I almost hit . . . Dakota on the road just now. It was a really close call, actually. Kind of rattled me.” I felt like I was snitching on his animal buddy, but I needed Jay to know how close Dakota had come to dying. So he could maybe protect her in the future.
“Sorry about that,” Jay said, throwing me another charismatic smile. “Dakota isn’t great at formal introductions. She must have been pretty desperate to meet you.”
I liked the notion of a creature being so eager to make my acquaintance that she would hurl herself in front of my car. As long as there were no casualties, of course.
Dakota trotted up to us and presented her head to my hand. I hesitated. Dad always taught me that if a wild animal acts too friendly or fearless toward humans, it might have rabies.
“She seems to like you,” Jay said. “She wants to smell you and size you up.”
“As long as she doesn’t want to know what I taste like,” I said. I imagined that, right now, licking me would be like licking a tablet of Advil.
I felt the hot breath exhaling from the coyote’s nostrils, giving the tips of my fingers individual steam baths. Jay smiled down at her as a new mother might smile down at her newborn. I lightly ruffled the bristly hair between Dakota’s black-striped ears. I relaxed again.
“Why did the coyote cross the road?” Jay said, chuckling to himself as if he were about to unleash the king of corny dad jokes.
“I don’t know,” I said. “To get flattened by a used station wagon with a million ironic bumper stickers?”
Jay smiled. “To make a new friend. You should feel special. I had to woo old Dakota for weeks before she’d approach me, and she was just living in the cave next door.”
“You live in a cave?” I said.
“Not the last time I checked. Wait, are you Batman?” I was joking, but Jay would actually make a pretty good superhero. He seemed intensely moral, and he had an awesome sidekick. Why not?
“Not that I’m aware of,” Jay said, “but I
been inhaling a lot of bat guano lately. Of course, if that’s how superheroes got made, comic books would be a lot less popular.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Like Superman stepped in a radioactive cow pie and that’s how he got his X-ray vision. I think most teenage boys would pass.”
“How about you?” Jay said.
“What’s your superpower, Consuelo?”
Well, let’s see. I could dance alone in my room “Maniac”-style to the same song a hundred times in a row. Or at least I could last spring. I wondered if that still counted.
Suddenly, Dakota gave a sustained cry, shrill as chalkboard fingernails. I jerked my hand away. She barked gruffly and backed away from me.
“What happened?” I said, trembling with self-doubt. I thought Dakota liked me. “Did I do something wrong?”
Dakota growled and lowered herself into a menacing crouch. Was she getting ready to attack? Jay shook his head casually, as if to indicate,
What can you do? Coyotes will be coyotes.
Then he looked down at me, and his face went grim.
“What happened to your blood, dear?” he said.
“What . . . what do you mean?” I said. Could he actually see that I was suffering?
“You’re unwell,” he said. “You’re . . . afflicted. Is it your blood, sweetheart?”
“My blood? Of course not,” I said. But for some reason I felt Jay wasn’t going to let me beat around the bush. The morning’s doctor appointment came flooding back to me. For the first time, to the first person outside my family, I needed to confess what was going on with me. I felt that perhaps the secret of my Might-be-Sickness would be safe with him.
“It’s my brain,” I said.
It was actually a relief to unload.
“Yes,” Jay said, considering me, all of me, every neuron. “I see that now. I can see how your energy is tainted.” Dakota whimpered and looked inquisitively at Jay, as if she thought I was contagious and meant to suggest that they should both remove themselves from my presence, on the double. Then Jay laid his hand on my shoulder. I didn’t shy away as I usually did when strangers touched me. “You’re in pain,” he said.
I nodded. My pain had never felt so immeasurable.
“Pain is a funny thing,” Jay said. “It can control your entire environment. It can turn the sun to the moon. It can make the blue sky black.”
“I know what you mean,” I said. Even though it sounded melodramatic, lately it was like my entire world was filtered through pain goggles. The world just looked different to me now. Somehow . . . faded. Like all the colors had been put through the wash too many times.
A bolt of nerve lightning shot down my leg, and I grimaced.
“I’m sorry that you’re suffering,” Jay said with deep compassion.
I felt validated that Jay had grasped what I was going through in a heartbeat, there with the hot canine breath on my hand. He saw my pain, but he didn’t try to identify it to show me how smart he was or to make me feel uncomfortable. He simply acknowledged it while reserving all judgment. I somehow felt secure there in the little triangle we made of strange Tinderbox hippie and moody coyote. I felt that I could stand there forever and be healed.
“You know, dear,” Jay said, “your essential well-being is much deeper than the burden your body carries. You do not have to be tyrannized by your disease.”
I smiled. That sounded reassuring. But I wasn’t sure it was true.
“Do you believe in souls?” he said.
I looked intently into his eyes and saw something radiant there. Something almost . . . nuclear. Which wouldn’t exactly be surprising considering the proximity of Los Alamos. Who knows what’s in our water supply? “Unknown environmental insults” are another possible cause of MS.
“Of course,” I said. I’d always assumed that souls were the deepest, most profound part of us, the core part that couldn’t be undone or dissolved. My soul was what fueled my need to hula-hoop for hours or to hug my parents or to leave a nice note in someone’s locker. A soul wasn’t necessarily divine, though at times I’d felt it stir when Mom dragged me to St. Francis for Sunday Mass. It responded to the candles and the stained glass and the low hum of love that filled the cathedral. But that all sounded too cheesy to discuss with my friends.
“Good,” Jay said. “Then you’ll believe me when I tell you that yours is in jeopardy.”
“What?” That was a bold statement. “How do you figure?”
Jay smiled in his saintly way.
“Something is ailing you,” he said. “Something is targeting your body, and you’re letting it penetrate your soul, little by little. You need to stop it in its destructive path before it’s too late. Build a line of defense around your soul so it will stay intact, no matter what threatens it.”
But I might be diagnosed with a disease that was attacking my body on multiple fronts. How could I be expected not to think about that, worry about that, obsess about that? How could I prevent it from getting to me? But, in a way, what he said felt . . . true.
“It’s changing me,” I said, on the verge of breaking down and burying my face in the coyote’s fur. “I feel it. I experience things . . . differently now. There’s, like, a dark shine on everything. And I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to stop it. I don’t know how to get better.”
“Your soul knows how to get better, if you would only listen to it.”
I wondered what that involved. Tarot card readings and séances, like Kaya and I used to do during our “mystical” phase? Bible study? Stream-of-consciousness journaling? I was at a total loss. And then the pain picked that exact moment to return with a vengeance. I cradled my arm in front of my chest as if it were a baby. A baby that was being poked with a thousand sharp needles.
“I . . . don’t know how,” I said, and began crying, stupidly. Maybe that could be my superpower: filling up infinite empty bottles with tears. This was all too much. The pain, the coyote, this mysterious man, the way the near-accident had made me put the brakes not just on my car but on my whole life.