But I was crazy. Medicated. In therapy. And believing that was what had led me here to a hole in the wall with a medicine man made more sense than the impossible idea that there was something very, very wrong with me. Something worse than crazy. Mr. Lukumi dropped his gaze and my conviction began to slip away. He was acting like he knew. But what did he know? How did he know? And then I realized that it didn’t matter. Whatever insight he had, I was desperate for it.
“Please,” I said. “I’m—” I remembered the tiny bottle clenched in my sweaty fist. “I’m confused. I need help.”
Mr. Lukumi looked at my fist. “That won’t help you,” he said, but his tone was softer.
Noah’s expression was still wary, but his voice was calm. “We’ll pay,” he said, digging into his pocket. He had no idea what was going on, but he was going along with it. With me. Reckless Noah, game for anything. I loved him.
I loved him.
Before I could even dwell on the thought, Mr. Lukumi shook his head and motioned us toward the door again, but Noah withdrew a fat wad of bills from his pocket. As he counted them out, my eyes went wide.
“Five thousand to help us,” he said, and pressed them into Mr. Lukumi’s hand.
I wasn’t the only one shocked by the money. The priest hesitated for a moment before his fingers curled over the cash. His eyes appraised Noah.
“You do need help,” he said to him, shaking his head before closing the door behind us. Then his eyes found mine. “Wait here.” Mr. Lukumi headed to a back door I hadn’t even noticed. How deep did this place go?
He finally disappeared, and the sound of squawking and clucking met my ears.
“Chickens?” I asked. “What are those—”
A nonhuman scream cut off my question.
“Did he just—” My hands curled into fists. No. No way.
Noah tilted his head. “What are you getting so upset about?”
“Are you joking?”
“The medianoche we just ate had pork in it.”
But that’s different. “I didn’t have to hear it,” I said out loud.
“No one likes a hypocrite, Mara,” he said, a sad shadow of a smile turning up one corner of his mouth.
“And anyway, you’re running this show. I’m just the financier.”
I tried not to think about what might or might not be happening in the back room as the sandwich turned sour in my stomach. “Speaking of finances,” I said, swallowing carefully before I continued, “what the hell were you doing with five thousand dollars on you?”
“Eight, actually. I had grand plans for today. Hookers and blow aren’t cheap, but I suppose animal sacrifice will have to do. Happy birthday.”
“Thanks,” I deadpanned. I was starting to feel more normal. Relaxed, even. “But seriously, why the money?”
Noah’s eyes were focused on the back door. “I thought we’d stop in the art district to meet a painter I know. I was going to buy something from him.”
“With that much money? In cash?”
“He has cash vices, shall we say.”
“And you’d enable them?”
Noah shrugged a shoulder. “He’s supremely talented,”
I looked at him with disapproval.
“What?” Noah asked. “Nobody’s perfect.”
Since Noah’s money was now being used to support animal sacrifice as opposed to someone’s cocaine habit, I dropped the subject. My eyes roamed the room.
“What’s the deal with all the random stuff here?” I asked. “The rusty horseshoes? The honey?”
“It’s for Santeria offerings,” Noah said. “It’s a popular religion here. Mr. Lukumi is one of the high priests.”
Just then, the back door opened and the high priest himself appeared, carrying a small glass in his hands. With a picture of a rooster on it. Terrible.
He pointed at the ugly brown and yellow flowered armchair in the corner of the room. “Sit,” he said as he ushered me toward it. His voice was dispassionate. I obeyed.
He handed me the glass. It was warm. “Drink this,” he said.
My bizarre day—my bizarre life—was getting weirder and weirder. “What’s in it?” I asked, eyeing the mixture. It looked like tomato juice. I’d pretend it was tomato juice.
“You are confused, yes? You need to remember, yes? Drink it. It will help you,” Mr. Lukumi said.
I flicked my eyes to Noah and he held his hands up defensively. “Don’t look at me,” he said, then turned to Mr. Lukumi, “But if anything happens to her afterward,” he said carefully, “I will end you.”
Mr. Lukumi was unruffled by the threat. “She will sleep. She will remember. That is all. Now drink.”
I took the glass from him but my nostrils flared as I brought it to my mouth. The salt-rust smell turned my stomach, and I hesitated.
This whole thing was probably fake. The blood, the botanica. Mr. Lukumi was humoring us for the money. The hypnotist would probably do the same. It wouldn’t help.
But neither did the pills. And the alternative was waiting. Waiting and talking to Dr. Maillard, while my nightmares got worse and my hallucinations became harder to hide, until I’d eventually be pulled out of school—dashing any hope of graduating on time, of going to a good college, of having a normal life.
What the hell. I tilted the glass and winced when my lips reached the warm liquid. My taste buds rebelled at the bitterness, the metallic iron flavor. It was all I could do not to spit. After a few painful gulps, I wrenched the cup from my lips but Mr. Lukumi shook his head.
“All of it,” he said.
I looked at Noah. He shrugged.
I turned back to the glass. This was my choice. I wanted this. I needed to finish it.
I closed my eyes, tossed my head back and brought the glass to my mouth. It clicked against my teeth and I swallowed the thin liquid. I chugged it when my throat protested, screamed at me to stop. The warmth dribbled over both sides of my chin and soon, the glass was empty. I sat upright again and held the cup in my lap. I did it. I smiled, triumphant.
“You look like the Joker,” Noah said.
That was the last thing I heard before I blacked out.
WHEN I AWOKE, I FACED A WALL OF books. My eyes felt puffy and swollen with sleep and I rubbed them with my fists like a little girl. Lamplight from an alcove stretched across the room, reaching for my exposed legs at the foot of the bed.