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Carol was awakened by the prickle of the morning sun on the back of her neck and a persistent itch against her left cheek. Opening her eyes with a groggy yawn, she was startled to see grass spreading all around. She lifted her head and realized she was lying in her backyard. Her arms were stretched out before her, and there between her hands sprawled a dead rabbit.
"What the ...?" Carol muttered, pulling her hands away with a start and sitting up. She noticed that her nightgown was ripped in several places. Scrambling to her feet, Carol ignored her confusion and rushed to the house. She slipped through the back door, down the hall, and into her bedroom. Her mind whirling with possibilities, she changed into her school uniform, hiding the torn gown beneath her mattress.
In the bathroom, she checked her face in the mirror for any signs of panic or fear. There were none. The last six months had taught her to hide those emotions well. Her dark eyes peered coolly from her reflection as she smoothed her hair. Nothing wrong with me, nope. She smirked at herself.
Crossing the hallway to her twin brother's room, she flipped on the light and announced, "Time to get up, Johnny."
A sleepy voice murmured from beneath a pillow, "Is Dad up?"
"I don't know. Haven't checked. But it's 7:15, and you need to hurry up."
"Alright, I'm going."
Her twin untangled himself from the sheets, which were twisted and untucked after a typical night of tossing and turning. With the awkwardness common to all twelve-year-old boys, he bumped and lurched his way to the bathroom.
Her stomach knotting for a moment, Carol walked through the kitchen to her dad's study. As she had predicted, he was curled up like a child on the sofa that faced his desk. His multiple diplomas and awards hung on the wall, crooked and forgotten. On the floor beside him was a nearly empty bottle of liquor.
I'm not going to cry. Not going to. She laid a tentative palm against his shoulder. "Pops? You going to work today?"
"Hmm? No, no." He squinted at her, his hazel eyes bloodshot and sunken. "Go on to school, Carolina. I'm fine. There's money on the desk."
Wanting to hug him and tell him she knew he wasn't fine, that she wasn't fine either, that her heart and Johnny's heart were just as broken as his, Carol instead swallowed hard, grabbed five dollars from the desk, and quietly shut the door.
She and Johnny walked the half-mile to Veterans Middle School in silence, till he looked at her oddly. "Did you dye your hair or something?"
"No, Moron, I didn't. Why?"
"I don't know. You look, you know, different."
"You're hallucinating. I look the same as ever. Get over it."
Her brother glared at her in irritation. "Yeah, well, whatever." They'd reached the parking lot, and Johnny hurried ahead, melting into the wave of students getting off a bus.
Why can't we talk anymore? We're always angry and rude now. Why can't we just move on?
But Carol knew that families didn't just move on from loss with such ease. Ms. González, her counselor, had talked about the grieving process often enough that Carol had memorized all the catch phrases: it's best not to hide the pain; you need to talk to someone about your loss; it takes time to reinvest yourself in life ...
Yet the problem wasn't the loss itself. What was tearing her family apart was not knowing what had happened. There was no closure, like Ms. González said there needed to be. How can I grieve when I don't know her fate?
Six months ago, Carol and Johnny's mother had disappeared. And no one knew how, why, or whether she was even alive.
The tragedy was made even worse by the fact that their father was coming apart at the seams, believing that he had done something to make her want to leave. Johnny was certain she was dead. And Carol ...
She isn't dead. She didn't run off. Someone took her. I don't know how I know it, but I do. Someone took her and they're hurting her and there's nothing I can do to stop it.
On top of everything, Carol was certain she was going crazy. Waking up with a dead rabbit in her hands was clear evidence of her imbalance. Popping into the library, she logged on to a terminal and searched for sleepwalking. A quick review of the results showed that it could be caused by stress, both physical and psychological. There was without doubt a high level of stress in her life: losing her mother, watching her father — the man she most admired in all the world — spiral into depression, feeling her twin draw further and further away from her ...
But the rabbit? She had no clue.
Despite her exhaustion, she went through the motions in her classes, but the image of the dead hare kept popping into her head. From time to time she seemed to scent the sharp odor of fresh blood. The most frightening thing was that the smell made her mouth water.
Running. Under the stars. Ghostly trace of rabbit through sandy soil. Crouching, extending claws. Pouncing as a form darts into the moonlight. Sinking teeth deep into soft flesh ...
Carol jerked her head up, glancing around at her giggling classmates. She had fallen asleep. Her math teacher, Mrs. Ramos, looked at her with concern and disapproval. "Carolina, you can't be falling asleep in class. Do you need to go splash some water on your face, m'ija? Take the pass and go wake yourself up, okay?"
Wooden pass in hand, Carol headed to the restroom. She rubbed water on her face, digging her knuckles into her sleepy eyes, and then looked at herself in the mirror.
Her eyes flashed an inhuman yellow, and she gave a little scream.
"Carol?" Pushing through the door came Nikki Jones, Carol's best friend. Heart racing, Carol glanced back at the mirror and saw her normal eyes, wide with fear and bloodshot.
"Uh, hey, Nikki."
"You okay? I saw you through the window on the door, so I came to say hi. But then I thought I heard you scream."
"Nah, I was just ... just yawning. I didn't get too much sleep."
"I texted you last night."
Carol sighed. "They cut off my cell. My dad didn't pay the bill."
"Ah, that sucks. Hey, I gotta get back to class, but you're going to go with me in June, right? To my church's summer camp?"
Though a part of her didn't want to go, Carol had decided that she needed to get away from her house, get her mind on something different. She felt horrible about her dad's depression, so she still hadn't asked him. "I'll talk to my dad about it tonight, okay? Tell you tomorrow for sure."
The rest of the school day was pretty uneventful. There were just a few weeks left before summer vacation, and students and teachers both had their minds on the near future. She and Johnny walked back to the house in silence, Carol's eyes flitting toward quick movements in the long grass and scrub. Jackrabbits. She thought they were cute, hated it when feral dogs or cats killed one. Why in heaven's name would she pick up a dead one, even when sleepwalking? Or was it dead when she grabbed it? But that was crazy. Carol couldn't catch and kill a wild hare ... wouldn't even if she could.
The silence went on as the twins did their homework, and it continued uninterrupted while they sat at the dining table, eating the hamburgers their dad had brought when he came home. It was unbearable, that silence. Carol wanted to scream, to rage against it before it filled all of them with emptiness. Her father had always been the one to shatter that ugly absence, with a laugh or a song. She needed him to be her protector, like he had always been. But Oscar Garza had surrendered to silence.
Something was on his mind, Carol could see. It looked like he was trying to figure out how to give them news they wouldn't like. It was almost exactly the same look he'd had on face when he informed them of their mom's disappearance.
After a minute or so, he began to speak, soft and low, in his serious professorial voice. "Kids, I know how hard the last few months have been on you. And I know I haven't really been there for you like I ought to be. It's just," his voice cracked a little, "it's just that I love your mother very, very much, and my soul can't deal with her absence, with this betrayal."
"Mom didn't betray us," Carol interrupted. "You don't know that she did."
He nodded, staring with an absent gaze at a spot on the wall behind her, and continued on as if she hadn't spoken. "I need more time to get through this. And I'm neglecting you, I know it. So today I spoke with your tía Andrea ..."
"No way," breathed Johnny.
Dr. Garza ignored his son and continued. "I spoke with your tía, and she's agreed to look after you this summer while I get some professional help."
Johnny Garza couldn't believe what he was hearing. Aunt Andrea. In Monterrey. Mexico. For three long months.
Carol made a small, strangled sound. Johnny turned to look at her in surprise. For the first time since their mother's disappearance, his twin sister had begun to cry.
"Way to go, Dad," he snapped, lurching to his feet. "That's some amazing parenting right there."
He stomped off to his room, slamming the door and throwing himself on the bed. Anger and loss boiled inside him. He grabbed tablet and earphones, choosing the darkest dubstep songs he could find and blasting beats into his mind until exhaustion overwhelmed him and he slipped into sleep.
Johnny moved through a watery barrier and found himself in a dark place. From all around came the sound of dripping water. He felt a sense of dread, of something evil lurking in the dark. His eyes became adjusted to the dimness, and he made out a form. It was his mother, her arms outstretched, a look of desperation and pain on her face. "Johnny," she moaned. "Johnny, come find me. Find me before he hurts me again."
That was when he woke up, startled by the wrongness of the vision. His mother had never called him Johnny in his nearly thirteen years of life. For her, he was always Juan Ángel, and if she called out to him, it was in Spanish: ven, m'ijo; ven acá. Come, son. Come here.
But this was the third time he'd had such a dream since his father's announcement: the darkness, his mother's voice, the certainty that she was alive but in danger. It meant something. As crazy as it sounded, Johnny believed she was reaching out to him. He just had no idea how to even begin searching for her.
He revealed none of this, of course, to his handful of friends when he arrived at school. But as they sat together in the cafeteria that morning, he at last shared the bad news about his summer vacation
"Mexico?" exclaimed Jaime Villanueva, slurping down his orange juice. "You serious? We'll be lucky to see you again next year with all the cartel violence and stuff."
"Yeah, that's pretty lame, dude," his best friend Robert Blanco muttered. "Was going to invite you to swim in our pool, but ... yeah."
Cody Smith — son of the mayor and Johnny's rival since kindergarten — took great pleasure in the news.
"Dude, you don't even speak Spanish!"
"Yeah, I do, Cody. Just not around you poor monolinguals."
"Whoa! Johnny Garza just used a big word ... somebody mark it down on their calendar."
"You're an idiot, Cody."
In a town like Donna, Texas, news gets around fast. The following day, he was bombarded by questions by people he didn't even know. With every new question or probing remark, Johnny felt a strange pressure building inside him, like nausea or fear or anger. Everything — from Cody Smith's smugness to the teachers' sympathetic looks — began to rub him raw.
"Aren't you worried about getting kidnapped?" a random cheerleader asked.
"No. Aren't you worried about how tight your freaking ponytail is?" Johnny snapped in return.
"I hear the police have no leads yet," some smug eighth-grader commented out of nowhere. "That must be tough."
"Not as tough as walking around with a face as ugly as yours, you freak," Johnny growled.
"My mom says your dad's seeing Dr. Flores, the shrink. She's a receptionist with the dentist next door to him." This was from Lorenzo, a kid who was always asking to borrow money from everyone. "I see a shrink, too, you know."
"Really? You don't say. Wow. Never saw that one coming."
After a few days of this, people stopped approaching him at all. He could see he was alienating his few true allies at Veterans Middle School, but a part of him just didn't care anymore. All he could think of was his mother, alone in the dark, and how helpless he was to do anything about it.
He found himself in the dark again. He could sense his mother nearby, crouching and afraid. There was silence, thick and black, and then he heard a voice thrumming in the very rock around him: I will break her, boy, grind her into dust. Do you have the will to stop me, you mewling knave? I am waiting.
Leaping to wakefulness, Johnny tumbled from his bed, chest heaving, shirt soaked in sweat. Overcome with powerless rage, he slammed his fists against the floor. "What is happening to me?" he rasped into the deepness of the night. He could not get that horrible voice out of his mind. It seemed to rattle his very bones as he lay sleepless. It squeezed at his heart as he tried to scrub the dream away in the shower. It followed him all the way to school, mocking him.
I am waiting.
Later that morning, as he was slouching his dazed way down the hall, he accidentally bumped into Miguel 'Mickey Mouse' Maldonado, a thug who'd spent the last three years in eighth grade. Everyone knew that Mickey Mouse was brother to a member of a local gang that styled itself 'Southside M13.' Not the kind of guy to get physical with.
"Sorry, dude," Johnny muttered.
"Sorry nothing, güey. ¿Qué te crees?"
"No me creo nada. I'm just a guy, walking down the hall. Was an accident."
Maldonado stepped closer to Johnny. "Conque hablas español, bolillo."
"I'm not white, man. Güero, sí. But not Anglo. Not all the way."
"I'm asking you? No, ese. I already know who you are, anyways. You're the vato who his mom like ran off with some sancho, and now your dad, se está volviendo loco."
The pressure in Johnny's chest threatened to explode at any second. "My dad," he said between clenched teeth, "is not going crazy, imbécil."
A girl with pencil-thin eyebrows and black lipstick shook her head. "Oh, man, you just screwed up."
Mickey Mouse's eyes had narrowed to slits. Somehow, Johnny sensed the movement before it even began: the right fist swinging up from below, faster than Johnny should have been able to avoid. But he did, moving his chin back so that Maldonado's blow took the wannabe gangster off balance. Instinctively, Johnny's own right hand shot out and grabbed the older boy by the throat. At the same time, he used his own weight to pin Maldonado against the lockers with a ringing thud.
"You want some of this, wankster?" Johnny growled, his vision going red with fury. It was as if someone else had taken over his mind and body. He couldn't even think clearly about what he was doing. "I will take your flunky, useless carcass out and feed it to the coyotes if you EVER speak about my family again."
Pushing himself violently away, Johnny left the older boy sputtering and rubbing his neck. The entire hallway had gone silent, and other students just stared at him with their mouths open as he headed to class. A security guard, who like always had just been standing by and watching, clapped him on the shoulder. "Way to go, Garza. But now you'd better watch your back. That guy's an animal."
Johnny didn't reply. His breathing slowed, and he thrust his black bangs out of his face with a trembling hand. As he entered class, his mind slowly unfroze. An animal? Well, maybe I am one, too.
It turned out, however, that there was no need for Johnny to watch his back. 3:15pm he was called to the office and told to take his backpack with him. In the reception area sat his father, Carol standing in front of him with an angry look on her face. When he saw Johnny, Dr. Garza stood up and gestured.
"Come on, John: your cousin Stefani is waiting to accompany you two to Monterrey." He set his hand on his shoulder and began guiding him toward the exit. "I know there's a week of school left, but I went ahead and withdrew you. They didn't want to, but I had them classify you as migrants."
"Migrants?" Part of Johnny didn't even care anymore. Something had his mother. It was waiting. He wasn't going to find it in school.
"Just a formality. You know, use the system to our advantage."
"Ours or yours?" Carol's eyes were blazing.
Their father said nothing more as they walked to their SUV and climbed inside. The afternoon May sun glowered with hostile heat; the air slowly baked the landscape, and the vinyl seats defied the power of the air-conditioning to quench their searing touch.
Okay. You're waiting, whatever you are. Well, I'm coming. I don't know how, I don't know where. But I'm on my way, you monster. And I'm getting my mother back.
Excerpted from "The Smoking Mirror"
Copyright © 2015 David Bowles.
Excerpted by permission of IFWG Publishing International.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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