Saturday, September 26, 2015




The room was plain. Four white walls. Two dark and heavy doors. One door opened into the crisp fall air, while the other led to a white-walled hallway where footsteps echoed throughout the day. The furniture had been appropriately spaced, theoretically to give each family comfortable leg room. None of them had the luxury of privacy, not even in this small enclosed area. It was the one place where juvenile delinquents could visit whatever link remained to the outside world. For him, it was his brother and mother. His mother refused to step through that door. Only his brother visited.
For the umpteenth time Cristobal scanned the foyer by the visitor entrance, then glanced over his shoulder at the door behind him. He wiped his sweaty palms on his orange jumpsuit. The other orange blobs that surrounded him talked and laughed. Only the corner table had been unoccupied when he arrived fifteen minutes earlier. Isolation sucked, but he had no choice. His eyes drifted from the noise to the Bible that lay open in front of him. He closed the Bible and settled his hand atop it. How would his brother react if he saw the thing? Maybe he shouldn’t have the Bible out. Then where did it belong? Far away or close to his heart? He removed the Bible from the table and paused as his chest tightened. It was the right decision. His beliefs did not falter, but would his brother readily accept them? With a deep breath, he tucked the Bible safely under his leg.
Cristobal rubbed at his chest, but nothing helped. This conversation needed to wait for another day. He cracked his neck, wiped his hands on the jumpsuit again and stood. Turning toward the door behind him, he reached for the Bible as the visitor door opened and closed. Two voices in the foyer echoed over the din as if someone was getting checked in. Slowly Cristobal straightened. Please, don’t let it be his brother. Just one more day. Sweet silence in the foyer returned.
“Mi hermano.”
Dammit! Guess it is now or never. Cristobal turned around and smiled at his brother. They clasped hands and hugged. “Gervasio, it’s good to see you. Look at you. Where did this muscle come from? You seem stronger.”
“Sí, yo soy. I make gym at home, but you, you waste away. What I tell madre?” Gervasio grabbed a chair and sat.
Thankfully his brother hadn’t picked the chair with the Bible. Cristobal sat and with a quick glance insured his leg covered the precious item. “I’m fine. How is madre?”
“She good. Plan big party when you get released.”
Cristobal chuckled. His mother, what a wonderful supportive woman. “That is still four months away.”
“Sí. Feliz Navidad madre.” Gervasio clapped his hands together and laughed.
Would his mother celebrate his new devout view on life? She had always been a God-fearing woman. Cristobal’s smile faded. Only his brother was left. He couldn’t remember a time where Gervasio had ever gone to church or thanked God. What would he think when the Bible appeared in front of him? His spine tingled and a shudder grappled his body. Cristobal gripped his legs and barely contained himself.
Gervasio raised a brow. “What is this look?”
“What look?”
“No soy estúpido. Mi hermano, habla conmigo. ¿Cual es el problema?” I’m not stupid. My brother, talk to me. What is the problem?
Cristobal sighed. To talk freely with his brother would be an experience, one he had only had once. All their life he had kept many things from his brother. The first thing he ever learned from Gervasio was how to avoid psychotic behavior. The one time he was completely open with his brother had been a horrible mistake. His brother exploded and nearly killed him. And there he sat prepared to face the demon for the second time in his life. Cristobal grasped the spine of the Bible. His brother and mother were all he had in this world. If he revealed the truth, how much of his family would be left?
“It cannot be big deal. You sixteen, you live here and do nothing, but mop and read.”
Cristobal’s jaw slackened. He never mentioned reading to his brother before. How had he known?
“Ah, yes.” Gervasio wagged his finger. “Problem with reading. Vamos. Dime.” Come now. Tell me.
If Cristobal placed the Bible on the table, would his brother accept it?
“You must read books. Only way you look so place. No hay sol en la biblioteca.” There is no sun in the library.
“Sí. Leí libros.” Yes. I read books.
Gervasio waved his hand as if he swatted a fly. “No te preocupes.” Do not worry. He clasped his hands together and leaned forward on the table. “Books make you smart. Madre be happy you continue education. Y el conocimiento es útil para nosotros.” And knowledge is useful to us.
Us? The truth had finally been revealed. For a moment, Gervasio was a loving brother. Not the leader of The Grim Reapers. In one statement that all disappeared. Cristobal studied his brother’s features. He held onto the soft color of his brother’s brown eyes and the black curls around the edges of Gervasio’s face. Cristobal locked the memory in place. He removed the Bible from under his leg and placed it on top of the table.
Gervasio leaped out of the chair and hissed as if the mere sight of the object burned. “¿Qué es esto?”
What’s this? That is an interesting question. Cristobal covered his mouth and stifled a chuckle. His brother hadn’t asked to be literal, but a literal answer was undeniable and pointless. “It is the truth of my world.”
“¡Usted miente!” You lie!
“Es la verdad. I have accepted Jesus Christ into my heart. I won’t go back to my old life.” It’s the truth.
Gervasio slammed his fist on the table and growled. “¡No! Es imposible.”
The air thickened around them and a whole lot of eyes turned their way. He refused to be bullied. Cristobal pushed forward even if it meant losing his brother. “I have made my choice. Usted no me puede obligar a cambiar de opinión.” You cannot force me to change my mind.
Gervasio leaned closer and shoved his finger in his brother’s face. “Hay sólo dos maneras de salir. Si usted no cambia, no voy a detenerlo.” There is only two ways out. If you do not change, I will not stop it.
“Que así sea.” So be it.
Gervasio snarled and pushed up off the table. He turned and started to walk away.
“Mi hermano — ”
Gervasio spun back around and slammed his fist on the table again. “¡No me llames así! No tengo ningún hermano. Estás muerto para mí.” Do not call me that! I have no brother. You’re dead to me.
Cristobal’s jaw dropped. Of all the scenarios he had pictured, this was not one of them. He swallowed the saliva in his throat. He would not cry at the loss. Once again his chest constricted. He rubbed at the ache in his heart.
“Who gave you that thing?”
“It’s not important.”
Gervasio crossed his arms. His jaw hardened, eyes narrowed into small slits, and lips tightened emphasizing the scar that ran vertically on the right side of his face. It was almost as if Diablo himself had joined them. “The preacher man. He has daughter, does he not?”
Cristobal interlinked his arms and kept his mouth shut. This tactic had been pulled one too many times and he had witnessed all of them. He refused to let it work on him.
“Yes, he does. It on your face.” A wide-sadistic grin spread across Gervasio’s lips. He walked away and cackled like a group of hyenas.
Cristobal dropped his arms and stared after his brother. What had he just done?

Chapter One

Bella braided her long dark locks for the second time. She scanned the hallway. Several other students had arrived early for the first day of school at Jackson Heights, one of the few high schools in Rescate County, New Mexico. Had they arrived early on purpose? She didn’t know any of them so need to ask. She kicked up her chin and studied her reflection in the small mirror hung in her locker. What would it be like if she had lighter skin like her father? Not her mother’s mocha color. What if she cut her hair? Currently it hung down to her waist. What if she had bright, sparkly blue eyes instead of a dull hazel? Maybe then she would be pretty. That kind of attention might be nice. Who was she kidding? She could barely deal with negative attention, let alone positive attention. If she had her way, she wouldn’t get any attention. She was half Brazilian and half American-Chinese. An unusual combination, but who was she to deny the truth? Of course, most people poked fun at the way she dressed, not the color of her skin.
Bella glanced at the hand of the silver watch on her right wrist. School wouldn’t start for another twenty minutes, but she had a meeting to go to. The principal called the house a couple days ago and asked her to see him before first bell. He hadn’t told her why on the phone, but there could only be one reason – the tutor group. She pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed. This was going to be bad, but she would do what needed to be done. Deep breath. She brushed down the full length denim skirt and tugged the bottom of the white short-sleeve blouse down, then grabbed a book and notebook for her first class. There was no reason to come back. With one more deep breath, she closed her locker and walked down the hall. She rounded the corner to the administrative office and paused. What the hell?
Sarresh Zirlan stepped out of the administrative office and stopped.
Great, just who she needed to cross. They hadn’t spoken in over a year, not since their fight. They avoided each other over the summer and in school. The same rules applied even if it was a new school year. She just had to ignore her former best-friend and everything would be okay. Bella swallowed to wet her throat and walked in the direction of the administrative door.
“If I called you virgin-walking right now, would you be offended?”
Bella pulled her things closer to her body. She shouldn’t engage, but she couldn’t play nice either. “Nice to see you too, Z. How is everything at home? You must be doing just fine. After all it looks like you’ve gained —”
“Still a bitch.”
“Said the slut.”
“At least I know your opinion of me hasn’t changed.”
She was joking, right? She had a lot of nerve. Bella narrowed her eyes. “You sleep around with a bunch of guys and expect me to respect that? And it doesn’t look like that has changed since obviously one of them has —”
“I must’ve been insane to be friends with you. Good thing I fixed that.” Sarresh grinned as she had the last word and walked away.
Bella shook her head. Why had she started? Every argument they had ever gotten into always ended one way – Sarresh on top. She hadn’t planned to fight with the girl and managed to do so. What was wrong with her? Why couldn’t she have just kept her mouth shut and gone forward. No. She had to say something. A small sigh escaped past her lips. She could chastise herself all she wanted, but it mattered little. The actions taken couldn’t be changed. Instead she simply had to move on with the rest of her day, but what a way to begin the school year. What else could go wrong? Bella walked into the administrative office. “Morning Mrs. Brown.”
Mrs. Brown smiled and stood. She was a total of four foot five, the extra inches provided by the five inch heels the woman refused to live without. “Good Morning, Miss Naughton. How was your summer?”
Bella smiled. The purple suit Mrs. Brown wore was a bad idea. Her natural plumpness made her look like a plum. Good thing Bella was used to her outlandish clothes. At least she could say she never laughed. “It was good. Yours?”
“It was wonderful. Mr. Brown and I went on a cruise to the Bahamas. It was so warm and beautiful, we never wanted to leave.”
Sounded peaceful. “I bet it was hard to come back.”
“Oh posh. I’m not ready to retire yet. I still have a few good years on these tires. Enough about me. What did you do this summer? Anything exciting?”
This had been their routine for the past couple of years. Anytime a vacation period came up they always shared. While Mrs. Brown’s were always exciting, hers were typically boring. She never really did anything or it just wasn’t all that news-worthy. This time was no different. “I got promoted to the lead vocalist in our church choir.”
“How wonderful!”
Bella shrugged. “I guess.”
“You should be proud of yourself. That is quite an accomplishment.”
“Sure.” Her parents had been proud, but not her. She liked to sing, but it was better in the background. People were less likely to know if she screwed up. Now it was different. What if she forgot the words? Or got the melody wrong? She would be up front and center, not somewhere she planned to be, ever. But it was best to convince everyone she was happy about it. The phone on Mrs. Brown’s desk rang.
“He’s ready for you.”
Good, a distraction from the mess in her already cluttered mind. Bella walked into the principal’s office.
“Close the door behind you, Miss Naughton.”
Bella shut the door, headed to the chair and sat.
“Thank you for coming in, Miss Naughton.” The principal clasped his hands together and circled his thumbs around one another.
“Sure.” What was going on? Was he nervous? Oh no. This was definitely not good. Something was going to change. Why couldn’t he have just told her over the phone? Bella frowned. “Why am I here?”
“I would like to discuss a couple of things with you. One, we have a few transfer students and I want you to be a student buddy to one of them.”
Whew! Bella slumped in the chair and released a breath. She could handle a transfer student. If it was Vick, the assignment would be a breeze. They had practically grown up together. “Sure. I can do that.”
“Good. I’ll be assigning you to Jeremiah Detrone. Come by tomorrow after your last class.”
“Ah, sure. Yeah. Okay.” A new person? Okay, no big deal. All she had to do was show him around until he got the hang of things. She could manage that.
“Second, I need to discuss the Head Tutor position with you.”
Bella straightened in the chair. “What about it?”
“As you know we normally elect a senior, except none of them qualified for the position this year. With the full support of the staff, I have decided to appoint you.”
What? Bella blinked. “I’m sorry. What was that?”
“I’m appointing you as Head Tutor.”
This was not happening. Bella rested a hand on her chest as her breathing became labored and her throat closed up. Sweat beaded on her forehead. Her eyes darted from one side of the room to the other. Had the room shrunk? She stood and her things landed on the floor. She walked from one side of the room to the other and returned to the chair. She gripped the back of the chair, inhaled two ragged breaths, and stared at the principal. “You can’t be serious? I’m not qualified. I don’t lead.”
“You meet all the requirements. Previously in the group and grades.” The principal ticked the two things off as if they hardly mattered.
“I haven’t lead at anything. I’m not a leader.”
“Didn’t I overhear you tell Mrs. Brown you got the lead vocalist position at church?”
“That’s different. I don’t lead. I don’t make any decisions. I just sing. Principal Owen, there has to be somebody else. Anybody else.”
“I’m sorry, but there isn’t.”
Bella pushed off the chair, paced from one side of the room to the other and chewed on the inside of her cheek. There had to be someone else who could lead. And if he was right and there really wasn’t anyone else, what the hell would she do? Would the group fall apart if she refused? Could she refuse? She pulled the length of her braid over her shoulder and played with the ends. Maybe there was someone else. She straightened and turned toward the principal. “What about Regina McKamey or Sean Johnson?”
“I’m afraid not.”
Bella tossed her braid back over her shoulder, walked to the chair and dropped down. She buried her head in her hands and rubbed her face. There had to be another option. Wait. She popped up out of her seat. “What about Victor Hilliard? He’s got the grades and he’s a senior.”
“And a transfer student. You know the rules.”
“Can’t you make an exception?”
“I am. I’m giving the position to a junior.”
Bella sat again. Life in the background had ended. She closed her eyes and wiped at the tears that threatened to spill over. “What happens if I don’t take the position?”
“The group will have to be disbanded.” The principal stood and walked around to the front of his desk. He leaned back and crossed his arms. “Have you considered you might enjoy it?”
He had her. She refused to be small enough to let the group end. Not on her watch. She just had to make this work in her favor. Bella nodded. “Okay. I accept, but on one condition.”

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