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Wind littered the cemetery with eucalyptus leaves and broken branches. I waited away from the others in the old section, lost in a field of granite headstones and marble angels.
My homies stood, uninvited, at Ana's open grave. The security guard with the yellow beard had asked them to leave. When they wouldn't he asked Ana's mother if she wanted him to call the sheriff. She didn't want the sheriff at Ana's funeral.
It had to be confusing to Ana's mother and sisters, sitting so rigid on folding chairs under the green plastic awning, wondering why these gangbangers had come to Ana's funeral. I prayed no one told them the truth: that we were Ana's other family.
A sudden gust of wind whipped the ribbons from Maggie's hand, and black satin strips fluttered around the mourners like dancing snakes.
My homies pushed around the casket, dropping pink and purple flowers onto the white lacquered surface as the machinery cranked and lowered Ana into the grave. Suddenly I saw us all lined up, pushing and crowding, trying to be the next one to climb into the casket with Ana. We were zombies, the walking dead, and maybe that was how we could do the things we did. Some part of us knew we were dead already. I hadn't shot anyone -- yet -- but I knew I could. Kill. I wanted to find the guy the killed Ana and blast him.
When I started to leave, a gentle breeze touched the back of my neck and made me look up. I don't know what I expected to see. Machula with Ana in his boat, sailing across the clouds? I watched for a long time. Somehow I knew that Ana wasn't in the grave anymore, and I thought if I looked hard enough I might see her in the sky.
That afternoon we gathered down at the riverbed. I put on my black sweatshirt then and sat on a block of crumbling cement that had once been part of a flood-control channel. I didn't want to be there with everyone drinking and getting stoned, but Kikicho had talked me into coming because it was supposed to be for Ana. Kikicho sat next to me, his canes resting on the black mud and grass in front of us. I liked the way he stroked my back, soft and gentle, as if I were delicate and might break.
Pocho had stolen a white curly-haired puppy with brown spots like freckles across its face, and a long fuzzy tail. He yelled at the little dog, making it cower, tail between its legs, its fat belly shivering. Pocho laughed like it was really funny to see the puppy cringe. He was showing off for Serena. She was a fool to be impressed, but she was laughing like she was seeing a circus of clowns, her red lips waiting for Pocho's kiss now that Ana was gone. She had taken off her sweatshirt and unbuttoned her shirt, saying it was too hot, but we all knew what she was doing.
"Stop it, Pocho!" I yelled finally. "Leave that little dog alone."
"Don't watch him," Kikicho whispered, his breath warm and soft on my cheek.
"Don't tell me what to do," I said.
"I'm not telling you," he said, and took my hand.
"It sounded like it," I said.
"I just don't want Pocho to get you more upset," he said. "You don't need it today."
"I'm sorry," I said after a pause.
"Por que siempre estamos peleando?" he said softly, and kissed my hand. "Que problema hay?"
"We're not always fighting," I said, and then I smiled big and sweet the way my mother does at men to melt their anger.
Kikicho smiled back at me. "Come on, I'll make you that teardrop for Ana."
"Okay," I said.
He drew a tear under my right eye with an ink pen, then took a needle and began sticking it into my skin where he had drawn the teardrop to make a tattoo.
"You think she's close enough to see?" I asked. "Ana, I mean."
"Yeah," he said. "Yeah, I do."
I kept my eyes open the whole time, watching my reflection in the black pupils of his deep brown eyes as he pricked my skin with the needle. When he finished, he kissed the teardrop. A smear of blood and ink stained his full lips. Then he kissed me so gently I wasn't sure our lips had touched until he kissed me again. He wasn't rough like other boys. Sometimes I wondered how he could like me when there were so many girls who did themselves up so fine to please the boys and let the boys own them.
"Why don't you get yourself a real girlfriend?" I said.
"You're my lady," he said.
"I don't give you what you want," I answered.
"How do you know what I want?" he said.
"I know," I said.
He shook his head.
"What?" I said.
"It feels like you want to start an argument with me."
"No, I don't," I said, but my words came out angry and I knew he was right.
Then a squeal made me jump up. The puppy had started to pee, and Pocho, impatient to hold it, had yanked the dog into his arms before it had finished, and the dog had dribbled on his Pendleton. He cursed the dog and threw it down. The dog whimpered as if it understood the words. Pocho threw his beer can. Beer foam exploded over the dog and made it yelp and turn in tight circles.
Kikicho held my arm. He knew what I was thinking. I jerked away and ran to the shivering dog. I picked it up, kissing its ear, and wiped its wet fur with my sweatshirt.
"Pocho, you're a fool," I said. "Dogs don't give you anything but love, and you treat it like this?"
"You don't even know what love is," Pocho said.
I wrapped the puppy in my sweatshirt and started walking away with it.
"Where you going?" Pocho yelled. "That's my dog." When I didn't stop, he ran after me and grabbed my arm, his black eyes dangerous and angry.
I pulled away from him. He grabbed my arm again and looked at me with hard, dull eyes.
"The others may be afraid of you, but not me," I said.
He tried to take the dog, but I wouldn't let him. "I know you, Pocho," I said in a fierce whisper through my teeth. I could hear Kikicho's canes rattling and thumping the soft ground, coming closer. Pocho's grabbing me was an insult too close to the bone. To save face, Kikicho had to fight him, but I knew he couldn't, not standing with two canes.
"The little dog doesn't want you anymore," I said, making each word slow and deliberate. I knew how to hurt Pocho. "Doesn't want you no more."
He pushed me away, and I started running, the puppy bobbing in my arms.
"Kata, come back!" Kikicho yelled.
"I got to get home to my mother," I said without looking back as I ran up the slope toward the freeway.
"Don't go by yourself," he yelled. "The guys that got Ana are probably out looking for you."
"I'll be careful," I said.
"It's not safe," he yelled back, anger breaking his words.
I was disgracing him by not going back, but I couldn't stand being there with all of them, drinking and smoking, the music pounding loud on the boom box and Ana in her grave.
When I reached the top of the slope, I turned back and stepped onto a cement wall that had once been used to guide floodwaters. "How can all of you act like this is a normal afternoon?" I shouted down at them. "Ana's not coming back."
Pocho grabbed Serena's malt liquor and threw it at me.
"We all loved Ana," he yelled.
"Then why are you flirting with Serena like a matador courting a bull?" I said, and turned away.
The sun fell behind eucalyptus trees, pines, and oleanders, once a freeway beautification project to hide the flood-control channels, now a home to winos and the homeless. I hadn't gone far when I heard leaves crackling behind me.
I stopped and listened.
"Who's there?" I said softly, thinking Pocho might have followed me.
The wind rushed through the oleander branches, blowing the pink blossoms forward as if someone were making a path through the thick foliage towards me, but I couldn't see anyone in the moving shadows. Maybe it had only been the wind, or a cat, or someone's dog that had startled me.
I started walking again, the puppy whimpering in my arms, the wind howling around me, blowing dust into my eyes. That's when I heard someone's footsteps heavy behind me, like the hounds of hell padding after me to take me back where I belonged.
"Who's there?" I shouted.
When no one answered, I took off in a dead run, the puppy bumping against me. Whoever it was raced behind me, twigs breaking underfoot.
I turned toward the freeway underpass. A fire burned across my chest as I ran through the urine-soaked cement walkway and jumped across two homeless men lolling against the wall with a bottle of tequila.
Footsteps slapped behind me.
I burst out into an open field on the other side of the freeway, set the puppy down, and felt on the ground until my hands found a big rock. I hid behind a bottlebrush tree, my back tense and rigid, my hand ready to throw the rock.
Fear surged through my body, suffocating me with the certainty that there was someone near, watching me.
I waited a long time.
But nothing stirred. Had I only imagined the footsteps? I decided the only way to find out if someone was stalking me was to make myself visible. I held my breath and stepped from behind the bottlebrush tree.
"Come out and fight!" I yelled.
A breeze ruffled through my hair like a stranger's fingers. If someone was still there, hidden behind the oleander bushes, he chose not to show himself.
Finally I picked up the dog and walked to the street. I kept casting glances over my shoulder, expecting to see someone suddenly spring from a bush and grab me.
I stopped at Thrifty and went to the rows of vitamins in the back near the pharmacy. I wanted something for Mom, something to help her keep her promise, but I didn't know what to get her. When no one was looking, I stuffed brown bottles of vitamins C and A and multiples in the back pockets of my bagged-out jeans and pulled my sweatshirt low to cover the bulges. Usually Ana came with me, and I stole perfume and makeup while she kept the salesclerk busy with talk about condoms, tampons, and douches. Then on the way home we'd laugh at all the questions Ana had asked and try to think of new questions that were even more embarrassing for her to ask the next time. A rush of loneliness for Ana came over me. I held the puppy to my face, its wet tongue licking my nose, to keep the tears from coming. I wondered who could make me laugh again.
I grabbed a can of dog food, stuffed it in my waistband, and walked up to the cash register, my face a stone, the vitamins rattling in my pockets. I picked up a pack of Tic Tacs and shook them like maracas to cover the sound of the pills clicking in the bottles in my pockets. Then I gave the cashier a dollar.
The cashier didn't look at my face. Her eyes wandered through the store over boxes of chocolate-covered cherries and cans of tuna as if she were taking inventory.
I stopped shaking the Tic Tacs and tried to figure out what she was seeing. Then the store manager walked over to us with quick steps that made me nervous. My legs tensed, ready to dodge him and run out the door.
"Dogs aren't allowed in the store," he said, his voice like tumbling gravel.
"What?" the cashier said. She looked around her counter as if she were trying to find the dog, then looked up and saw the puppy resting in my arms.
"Sorry," I said, and shook the Tic Tacs. "I'll leave the dog home next time."
When the manager walked away, the cashier handed me the change. I took the coins, and when she looked away again I grabbed three rolls of Life Savers and walked outside.
A block later I stopped and stared in the window of a botanica crowded with articulos religiosos, bright-colored flowers and herbs, and statues of Jesus, saints, and fierce-looking deities I didn't know. A handmade sign advertised the prices of ducks, chickens, and female goats for sacrifices to the Santeria god of the seas.
Two women dressed in white, wearing beaded bracelets, went through the front door. Brass bells on woven strings bounced against the glass, and heavy rosewood-smelling incense rushed over me in a thick pink cloud.
The door stayed open, as if inviting me inside. I stepped closer. Brass charms, candles inscribed with prayers, and packets of roots, leaves, and herbal remedies line the walls behind the counter.
An old bent woman biting a thick cigar gave me a strange look and walked over to the entrance, the hem of her long yellow dress sweeping across the floor.
"Ah, you are a bad one, you are," she said, the cigar wagging at the corner of her mouth as she spoke. "You got no future. No future on your face. None at all." She smiled and blew smoke into my face.
I breathed in the acrid smoke.
"You need a cure, I think. I could give you what you need. But you got to pay the price, eh?"
She slammed the door.
I stood looking at my reflection, wondering what she had seen on my face. That I was a murderer? Had forced my best friend onto the street and to her death? I felt suddenly hot even with the devil winds spinning down the street.
From the Paperback edition.