I rolled my eyes. My mother slid a plate over to me, and I ate quietly next to her and Joseph and Noah, who were talking about going to the zoo this weekend. Their bright moods were palpable in the kitchen that morning, and I felt love and guilt swell in my chest. The love was obvious. The guilt was for what I’d put them through. What I might still put them through, if I didn’t figure out my problem. But I pushed that thought away, kissed my mother on the cheek, and made my way to the front door.
“Ready?” Noah asked.
I nodded, even though I wasn’t.
“Where are we really going?” I asked as Noah drove, knowing full well that it couldn’t be school. It wasn’t safe there for me. Because I wasn’t safe around anyone else.
“1821 Calle Ocho,” Noah said. “You wanted to go back to the botanica, didn’t you?”
“Daniel’s going to notice we’re not in school.”
Noah shrugged. “I’ll tell him you needed a day off. He won’t say anything.”
I hoped Noah was right.
Little Havana had somehow become our familiar haunt, but nothing about it was familiar today. Crowds of people surged through the streets, waving flags in time to the drum-beat of the music blaring from an unidentified source. Calle Ocho was closed to traffic, so we had to walk.
“What is this?”
Noah’s sunglasses were on, and he scanned the colorfully dressed multitudes. “A festival,” he said.
I glared at him.
“Come on, we’ll try to push through.”
We did try, but it was slow going. The sun beat down on us as we cut a precarious path through the people. Mothers holding the hands of children with painted faces, men shouting over the music to one another. The sidewalks were crowded with tables, so customers could watch the festivities as they ate. A group of guys leaned against the wall of the cigar shop, smoking and laughing, and the domino park was filled with onlookers. I scanned the storefronts for the odd assortment of electronics and Santeria statutes in the window but didn’t see it.
“Stop,” Noah called out over the music. He was four or five feet behind me.
“What?” I walked back to where he stood, and on the way, bumped into someone, hard. Someone in a navy baseball cap. I froze.
He turned around and looked up from under the brim. “Perdon,” he said, before walking away.
I took a deep breath. Just a man in a hat. I was too jumpy. I made my way over to where Noah stood.
Noah took off his sunglasses as he faced the storefront. His face was expressionless, completely impassive. “Look at the address.”
My eyes roamed over the stenciled numbers above the glass door of the toy store. “1823,” I said, then took a few steps in the other direction, to the next one. My voice caught in my throat as I read the address. “1819.” Where was 1821?
Noah’s face was stone, but his eyes betrayed him. He was shaken.
“Maybe it’s on the other side of the street,” I said, not believing it myself. Noah said nothing. My eyes roamed the length of the building, inspecting it. I made my way back to the toy store and pressed my nose up to the cloudy glass, peering in. Large stuffed animals sat in a duck-duck-goose arrangement on the floor, and marionette puppets were frozen mid-dance in the window, congregating around a ventriloquist dummy. I stepped back. The shop had the same narrow shape as the botanica, but then, so did the stores on either side of it.
“Maybe we should ask someone,” I said, growing desperate. My heart raced as my eyes scanned the shops, looking for anyone to ask.
Noah stood facing the storefront. “I don’t think it would matter,” he said, his voice hollow. “I think we’re on our own.”
MY SENSE OF DREAD INCREASED EXPONENTIALLY as we drove down the dark, palm-tree lined driveway to the zoo.
“This is a bad idea,” I said to Noah. We had talked about it on the ride back from Little Havana, after I called my mother and told her we were going to hang out at Noah’s after school—which we didn’t go to—for a change of scenery. Since there was no way to track down Mr. Lukumi, if that was even his real name, and no one else we could go to for help unless we both wanted to be committed, we had to figure out what to do next. I was, of course, the top priority; I had to figure out what prompted my reactions if I was going to have any hope at all of learning to control them. We agreed that this was the best way, the easiest way to experiment. But I was still afraid.
“Just trust me. I’m right about this.”
“Pride goes before the fall,” I said, a small smile on my lips. Then, “Why can’t we test you first, again?”
“I want to see if I can counteract you. I think that’s important. Maybe it’s why we found each other. You know?”
“Not really,” I said to the window. My hair clung in sweaty tendrils to the back of my neck. I twisted it into a knot to get it off my skin.
“Now you’re just being contrary.”
“Says the person with the useful … thing.” It felt weird to name it, name what we could do. Inappropriate. It didn’t do the reality justice.
“I think there’s more you can do, Mara.”
“Maybe,” I said, but doubting it. “I wish I had your thing, though.”
“I wish you did, too.” Then after a pause, “Healing’s for girls.”
“You’re awful,” I said, and shook my head. An obnoxious grin curved Noah’s mouth. “It’s not funny,” I said, but smiled anyway. I was still anxious, but it was incredible how much better I felt with Noah there, with him knowing. Like I could deal with this. Like we could deal with it together.
Noah parked at the curb of the zoo. I didn’t know how he managed to get us after-hours access, and didn’t ask. An outcropping of sculpted rocks greeted us as we walked in, towering over a manufactured pond. Sleeping pelicans dotted the water, their heads tucked under wings. On the opposite side, flamingoes, pale pink in the halogen auxiliary lights, stood in clumps on the opposite side of the walk. The birds were silent sentries, failing to notice or comment on our presence.
We wound deeper into the park, hand in hand as a hot breeze ruffled the foliage and our hair. Past the gazelles and antelopes, which stirred as we approached. Hooves stamped the ground, and a low nickering swept through the herd. We increased our pace.
Something rustled in the branches above us but I couldn’t see anything in the dark. I read the exhibit sign: white gibbons to the right, chimpanzees to the left. As soon as I finished reading, a shrill scream pierced the air and something crashed through the brush toward us. My feet and my heart froze.