A couple of years back, HarperTeen published a young adult book I wrote, called TEMPTATION. It got some nice reviews, but it also got a lot of terrible ones. Teen girls weren’t impressed with Travis, the ghost cowboy character, because he was sort of boring and just too decent to make much of a heartthrob in the universe that swoons for bad boys like Edward Cullen. The book sold poorly, so poorly that HarperTeen decided not to release the next two books in the series, and gave the fully-edited sequel, PERDITION, back to me to do with whatever I pleased. Because so many people keep asking for it, I am going to release it this week through VEE BOOKS, the publishing division of Valdes Entertainment Enterprises, my company. Mike is putting the finishing touches on the cover, trying to match it with the crappy one HarperTeen gave TEMPTATION (Uhm, did anyone else notice they put a white girl’s photo where my Mexican American character Shane’s picture should have been? Or that they refused to give Travis his requisite cowboy hat? These were both “marketing” decisions made by the publisher, which rather indicates, to me at least, why publishing is struggling to survive in a quickly-changing America, but whatever.)
Anyway, what many people do not know is that TEMPTATION is a much watered-down and much-changed version of the original book I wrote. The first version of this same story was called THE TEMPTATION OF DEMETRIO VIGIL. The ghost boy character was not a goody-two-shoes rodeo kid; rather, he was a streetwise vato who had been gunned down when he tried to leave his gang. Shane, meanwhile, was still a prep school girl who played classical violin; both kids were Latino. Nonetheless, I got some negative feedback about Demetrio — his name was too hard to say; he was too scary; his grammar was crap; no girl could fall for a Mexican gang member, etc. So we changed him to Travis. Shane’s original last name was Ochoa, but we changed it to Clark hoping for a more widespread audience. I’d imbued the novel with Spanish bullfighting references, and Catholic/Pueblo synchretism. I was told this was all too obscure and ethnic. So I changed it in order to feed my kid.
My mother recently took me aside and told me that she thought changing Demetrio to Travis was what killed the book sales. “It was so much better the way you first had it,” she told me. My mom is an editor, and she holds a master’s in creative writing. “I wanted to say so at the time, but you needed the money and I didn’t want to get in the way.”
The blessing of having HarperTeen cancel the series is that I am now not only free to release the sequels to TEMPTATION on my own (and make substantially more money that way), but I am also free to release the ORIGINAL version of the book, for comparison’s sake. I am very, very curious to know what my loyal readers, as well as those who read and hated TEMPTATION, think of the original. I have a suspicion the original was better, but I’m often blind to the quality of my own writing in the same way all parents think their own kids are adorable, even when they’re fugly.
I’ve been talking to Mike about all of this — about how I’d originally set the book in the tiny ghost town of Golden, New Mexico, and how my HarperTeen editor asked me to change it to Chaco Canyon because that aligned more with her own New Age philosophies. I did as she asked, but felt a curse come over the book when I did. This past weekend, Mike and I drove out to Golden to snap some photos for the cover of the book, and I was overjoyed to see that the ancient cemetery that I’d had Demetrio buried in in the original book was finally open. It had been closed for years, but renovations are done and we were able wander around. It’s a tiny old cemetery, next to the tiny Catholic church that the Spaniards built on a hill there hundreds of years ago. To my incredible surprise, one of the 15 graves in the place bore a familiar name. DEMETRIO. I had not known this when I wrote the book. I took it to be a sign. Furthermore, as we drove there, we saw a terrible rollover accident on the exact spot where I had Shane have HER rollover — and this is a spot in the literal middle of nowhere. Two cop cars were there as we drove past. Finally, as we came home we stopped in a nearby town at the first restaurant we could find, famished, and I got goosebumps when I saw the name of the singer performing in the bar that night, displayed on the marquee; his name was Shane. What are the odds? When I was writing the original version of the book, lots of synchronicities like this happened to me; as I changed it, they went away. I was out of the flow of the universe when I wrote it as Travis, and the lackluster sales I believe reflected that. It’s time to breathe life back into the original manuscript, the one I was possessed to write.
Anyway, I know this post is long, but I beg your patience as I make it even a little longer by posting here a piece of the original Demetrio book. It’s the opening of the story. If you’ve read TEMPTATION it will be somewhat familiar. This is how I originally saw it. I loved Demetrio, the good, intelligent, gangbanger ghost. I hope you do, too.
The Temptation of Demetrio Vigil
By Alisa Valdes
FIRST THIRD: tercio de capa
Whereby the bull’s ferocity is tested by the matador.
The storm came out of nowhere.
One minute I drove along Highway 14, in the bright winter sunshine of New Mexico; the next, I struggled to keep the car on the road, enveloped in a sudden windy blackness that rubbed out the frozen sky.
Hail pounded the metal roof and nearly cracked the windshield. Violent gusts buffeted the car along the slippery road. There were no other cars. I vowed in that moment to always check the weather forecast before my weekly trip to my dad’s – presuming I survived.
The din of hail scared Buddy. He cowered on the passenger seat, as though he expecting to be hit. Then again, Buddy is a Chihuahua. The songs of baby birds on sunny days frighten Buddy. Trembling and anticipating doom are the Chihuahua’s homeostatic state. I teased him nervously.
“What are you, a cat or a dog?”
Buddy licked his chops, to be polite, but his eyebrows (such as they were) registered grave concern.
I should have pulled over, but my dad is very strict about being on time for dinner. He is strict about most things, and you don’t want to make him mad. His new wife always worked hard to make a nice meal for us on Friday nights, and I didn’t want to offend her. So I kept driving, cautiously, past the tiny hillside town of Golden, nothing more than a few houses, and a little adobe church. I hoped that the storm would go away as quickly as it had come, but it didn’t. Ten minutes in, the road was icier, the sky darker, the wind angrier.
I was worried, sure. I acted brave to try to comfort Buddy. I told myself everything would be okay. I knew the way well. I’d driven the route a million times, back and forth from my mom’s in Albuquerque to my dad’s in Santa Fe. But sometimes knowing the route isn’t good enough. Sometimes things just happen.
I felt the tires spin out of control, just as I spied an injured coyote in the middle of the road. It was maybe twenty feet ahead, dark gray, soaked and scrawny, about the size of a medium dog but with bigger ears and a longer snout. It limped pitifully in circles in the center of the road as though confused. I felt terribly sorry for it, and slammed on the brakes; this only made the car slide harder, sideways toward the creature.
“No!” I cried out, in a panic.
The animal swiveled its head to look at me, as though it had heard me. In the split second before we were destined to collide, it made the oddest expression. I could have sworn it actually smiled at me, with cruel yellow eyes. It creeps me out to remember it now, because that coyote-smile was the single scariest thing I had ever seen.
My father, an outdoorsman, would later tell me I should have just run over the coyote. Later, he’d accuse me of being a bleeding heart animal-lover. It was probably true – I did love animals. I always had. I did what I could to avoid killing the coyote. I yanked the wheel to the right, stomped again and again on the brake pedal, and then it just happened: The BMW my dad had given me for my sixteenth birthday lost grip with the road, spun, and toppled end over end in a sickening crunch of metal and glass.
It was all so fast. I remember it as a horrible, noisy blur. End over end, tumbling off the road, down the small rise. I screamed and tried to reach for Buddy, to hold him in his seat the way my mom used to put her arm out for me when I was little, but I couldn’t find him. He was tumbling loose in the car with my phone, wallet and old paper coffee cups, round and round like clothes in a dryer.
When the car finally stopped rolling, it was on its side, making strange burbling sounds and ticks, almost like a moan. The car was dead, or dying. The cold wind wasted no time in ripping through its hull with frenzied glee. What fun, what fun! it seemed to cry. The sound of the wind was like ghosts laughing.
I dangled, a sock puppet, disoriented. My shoulder burned. Something pierced my chest sharply with each inhale. My hands bled, and my left foot felt like something had taken a large bite out of it. I looked around again for Buddy but he wasn’t in the car. The world was blurry because I’d lost my eyeglasses somewhere in the tumult, and blood dripped into my eyes. I wiped what I could away, and squinted, but couldn’t see my little dog anywhere. I called his name. No response but the wind. What fun this is! What fun!
I suddenly remembered all those movies where the crashed car bursts into flames moments after impact. I found the button to release the seatbelt, and wriggled myself free. Gravity dumped me onto the passenger door. My shoulder and back screamed with pain.
Gulping for air, I wormed through the jagged hole where the windshield used to be, shaving off bits of clothing and skin as I went. I intended to run from the car, but my wounds limited me to a stiff, slow crawl.
I blinked against the blowing snow, dragged myself along, a rasping pant rising from my throat. My hands and knees pressed through the snow to the frozen sand and dead weeds beneath. I hoped there were no cacti under there, hiding. A hot agony stung my back and shoulder with every motion. Each breath was a nauseating knife in my gut. I was dizzy. I had to get to my feet. I needed to find help.
I rose to my feet, slowly and with a pounding sensation in my head. Resting my hands on my thighs, I squinted hard and craned my neck, with some difficulty, looking for Buddy. Stupid Chihuahua. Where did he go?
“Buddy!” I called, my voice small and gruff. He didn’t come.
I looked toward the road, but there was no sign of my dog, or of the injured coyote. I staggered from the car like a zombie, amazed I’d come out of the mangled wreckage alive.
As I scanned a nearby field, I saw a small dark lump in the snow, maybe twenty feet from the car, on the other side of a barbed wire fence. It was the size of a roasting hen, like Buddy. I limped faster toward to the fence, and squeezed my way through the wires, impervious now to the new waves of pain.
Sure enough, it was him.
I’d found my sweet little dog, covered in blood but still alive, stuck on his side, licking his chops the way dogs do when they’re hurt, his innocent black eyes searching mine for an answer. Had he been bad? He seemed to ask. Was I angry at him? He’d be good now, his eyes told me, he promised.
“Oh, my poor baby,” I cried. “No, no, you’re a good boy. What a good doggie you are!”
The effort of wagging his tiny tail to please me exhausted Buddy’s reserves. His eyes rolled back into his head. He quivered. He seemed to be in a mild seizure. It was the worst thing I had ever seen.
In a complete panic, I remembered my smart phone. I’d had it charging in the center console of the car, and now I had no idea where it was. It could be anywhere. I stood and looked for it, but my eyes were useless. There was nothing. Not the blur of a house, not a car, not a cow. Nothing. We were on one of those desolate stretches of highway where it is only earth and sky.
“Help me!” I cried, as loud as I could, my voice cracking. I tasted the bitter metal of blood, spit it out. “Hello! Help us!”
I stood at Buddy’s side and waited. No sound came back. Not even an echo. My words were absorbed completely by the snow.
I knelt again, shivering and suffering, but focused on Buddy. My mother, an attorney and city councilor with her eye on the mayor’s seat, had long accused me of being too compassionate for my own good. The hail stung my cheeks as I scooped Buddy’s limp body into my arms. I worried I’d hurt him more by moving him, but I couldn’t just leave him to freeze. I returned to the fence, struggled through the wires with my dog cradled protectively in my arms.
I lurched toward the road and wandered along its shoulder, my pain numbing to a low, hollow throb all over. I tasted more blood. The ankle gave way when I put weight on it. I grew dizzier, faint. The hail blurred my already dismal vision, pelted my open mouth as I wheezed. If only a car would come, just one car. But none came.
After a minute or two of helpless waffling, I realized that to survive I’d have to get myself back to Golden, and pray that someone was home.
I limped back to the car, which had not exploded, to see if I could find my coat, phone, glasses. I found my eyeglasses, a little twisted but still in tact, in the snow and picked them up, wiped them on my sweatshirt, and shoved them back onto my face.
My parka tangled with the steering wheel. I tugged it loose with great effort and excruciating pain, draped it over my shoulders, Buddy in my arms beneath. The dog’s breaths were shallow and inconsistent. I tried to be brave, braced myself for the painful journey. I assured Buddy everything was going to be okay, but my voice broke with fear.
As I turned toward the road, a dark gray blur loped across the highway and disappeared. Yellow eyes. I rubbed snow from my glasses, and tried to get a better look at it. I saw nothing, but heard a howl. It wasn’t the sorrowful wail of an injured animal. It was something much, much worse. When you grow up in the foothills, on the outskirts of Albuquerque, as I have, with cats you cannot bear to keep imprisoned inside, you learn what coyote calls mean. I had lost three cats to the desert predators in my lifetime. I recognized this sound.
It was the manic, wild yipping that called the rest of the pack to feast; it signaled an impending kill.
I hunched against the wind, staggered along in the snow, and tried to escape being coyote dinner. I listened to the echo of the celebratory wail of death, coming from all directions around me, and felt the hairs at the base of my head rise up.
I had to keep moving, to escape the animals watching me from the bushes. They were small, but they were strong, and in the winter, starving. They would take what they could find. I knew the hot red scent of my freshly-spilled blood was carried to them on the wind, and that they, desert sharks, would soon begin to circle.
I focused my attention on the road again, only to find my path blocked about ten feet away, by a young gangster-looking guy. My dad, who grew up in the South Valley but likes to brag that he “escaped,” called this kind of guy a vato, or a cholo. My friends and I called them homies or Gs. I didn’t think anything could have made me feel more afraid than I already was, until I spotted the unlikely gangsta in my way.
He stood perfectly still, arms crossed, staring at me. The defiant set of his jaw seemed to dare me to pass him. He wore baggy dark jeans, unlaced beige work boots, a puffy black ski jacket and a black ski cap with a skull and crossbones on the front. He was probably somewhere around my age, maybe a little older, with what might otherwise have been a sweet baby face – a pretty face, for a boy, with long lashes and full lips – if not for the gang tattoos all the way around his neck, and the hard, streetwise look in his eyes.
The sight of him was so unexpected, my pain so great, and my assumption that he was a criminal so strong, that I screamed, in a voice muddled with cold and blood: “Please don’t hurt me! I don’t have any money! It’s all back there, in the car! I don’t have anything you’d want!”
His tough expression melted into a look of cool concern. He uncrossed his arms and started toward me.
“Hey, don’t be screamin’ like that, girl. Calm down. I’m here to help you.”
“Stop!” I held my free hand up, trembling. “Don’t come any closer. I, I know karate.”
He laughed – not in a cruel way, but with pity. He stopped coming toward me, pulled his jacket’s collar up higher on his neck, and watched the sky for a moment before gazing at me again with strong, steady brown eyes.
“Karate?” He shook his head as though he felt sorry for me. “Won’t do you much good with them massive injuries.”
“I’m fine.” I was so weak I could barely stand. “Just leave me alone.”
“You’re hurt, bad.”
He had a certain way of leaning into his hip, and of pursing his closed lips, and holding his head back and to one side, that sent a chill to my marrow. He looked dangerous. My knees wobbled, and nearly gave out.
“I am hurt.” I began to cry, in fear and pain, like an insane person. “But I don’t want to die. Please don’t kill me.”
“Pssh.” He bucked his head slightly with a concerned look in his eyes. “I ain’t gon’ let you die. I’m here to help you, I said. I’ll stand right here ‘til you ain’t scared no more. Deal?”
His deep voice crested and fell with a rural New Mexican rhythm. He was tall and well-built, with smooth brown skin and large, dark eyes that turned down a little at the outer edge. His cheeks and nose were red with cold.
“Trust me,” he said. “If you can.”
One hand was in his pocket; I worried he had a gun. In other, which bore no glove, he carried a metal toolbox. I did a double take. What was that for? Dismembering girls?
“Please don’t hurt me.” I was so cold, so very, very tired. Energy drained out of me. A stiff numbness began to set in.
“Shh. I seen the accident. Don’t be talking so much. Conserve your energy.”
He came to my side.
“There was a coyote.” I pointed to the road nervously. “It made me crash, and now I think it wants to bring its friends to eat me for dinner.”
A look of worry came over him. He scanned the road past his shoulder suspiciously, pushed his lips tightly together, then turned back to me. “You’re wasting time and energy talking. Let me help you. There’s not much time. The cold will get you if you don’t let me help you.” He moved closer, and reached to open my jacket. I stumbled back, pain and nausea undulating through me. I began to fall, and threw up a little.
“Listen to me.” He held me up, kept me from falling. His eyes connected intensely with mine. “This is important. You gotta trust me. We don’t have time for fear right now.”
“What are you trying to do?” I wobbled on feet I could no longer feel. Again, he caught me by the arm. His grip was hard, nonnegotiable.
“The dog. That’s all. Your dog needs help.”
He opened my coat gently, and took Buddy from me. The dog was limp, unconscious, tongue lolling out. My jacket was soaked with blood. I was freezing, the dog’s small heat gone from me now.
I whined. “Please be careful. He’s really hurt.”
“He’s okay. No worries.”
He folded his legs beneath him, and sat on the ground, in the snow with Buddy in his lap. He opened the tool kit and, horrifyingly, pulled out a syringe.
“What are you doing?”
“Helping him, mamita, what’s it look like?”
“You can’t just give him a, a, a shot!” I began to hyperventilate, and a sputtering cough gripped me. “You’re not a doctor! Give him back. What are you doing with a syringe?”
“Relax, dang,” he said. “I take care of animals all the time. It’s a pain-killer. Back up off me, girl. Everything gon’ be fine. I promise.”
I watched, helplessly, as he injected Buddy between the shoulder blades.
“Omigod omigod omigod omigod.” I chattered.
He ignored me, ran his hands over Buddy’s legs and body, with his eyes closed and his forehead creased deeply. He’d stop in a spot, hold his hands there for a moment, and then move to the next; wherever he’d been, the wounds seemed to spontaneously stop bleeding. I realized then that I might have hit my head. I was probably hallucinating this whole thing.
I fell silent for a moment, then whispered, “How did you do that?”
“Do what, mamita?” He looked bored.
Buddy opened his eyes then, saw me, and moved his tail weakly.
“That! How did you do that?”
“It’s what country boys do. I got skills.”
He took his coat off, laid it on the ground at his side, and placed Buddy on it – bundling him cozily.
“He was practically dead.” My body trembled violently. “What you did, that’s not normal.”
“Nah, man. Your dog was just stunned is all. He was feeding off your fear, too. He just needed reassurance.” He stood and moved toward me. “Your turn, mamita.”
“No, no, I’m okay.” I recoiled from him. “I’m, I’m, I’m going to walk to Golden for help.”
“You can barely walk. And Golden is pretty far.”
My legs buckled. My head spun. I began to cry, a pathetic moaning weep. He backed up an inch or two, as if to reassure me, and dug in his jeans pocket. This is it, I thought. He’s got a gun. But all he had was a cell phone; he held it toward me.
“Listen. I called 911. They said they’re on their way, but it might be a while. You’re kind of out in the middle of nowhere. Let me make your pain a little better.”
He came to my side faster than I could get away from him, and touched my shoulder. I winced and whimpered.
“Shh.” His eyes were so bright, so soothing. He smelled dry and warm, like sunshine.
He closed his eyes again with that intense look on his face, and I felt a soft heat radiating from them to my injured shoulder. Thirty seconds or so later, the pain was less than it had been.
“What, how, but -”
His eyes narrowed into a self-assured smile. “Feel better, mamita?”
“How did you do that?” I whispered.
“Do what, girl?” He looked deeply into my eyes, and smiled with a playful intelligence, evasive. “I didn’t do nothing. Just helped you relax is all. It’s like with a cow that’s calving. You just have to calm them down a little, and the pain goes away.”
The vato’s hands continued to move across my body, patching me up and stopping wherever there was pain. The warmth came, and then a bit of relief. He took off my glasses with incredible gentleness, and wiped the blood from my face. When he slid them on me again, he said I was pretty.
“This is impossible,” I said, ignoring the compliment. “What – what are you, some kind of, what do you call them? Those preachers…”
He laughed at me. “Nah. You crazy? You watch too much TV, girl. All you needed was a little TLC and human contact.” He stood up and dusted his hands together. “You was panicked is all. That makes it all seem worse than it is.”
“No, there’s more to it than that,” I insisted. “You’re lying.”
He shrugged at me like I had offended him, but exhibited powerful self-control. “I don’t lie, but I’ma let that slide. Think whatever you want. It don’t bother me. People get crazy thoughts in accidents, I guess. Stress.”
He returned to check on Buddy, who seemed to be almost completely recovered, happy, as Chihuahuas often are, to be nestled within the protection of a warm coat. The dog was busy licking darkened blood off his front paws, seemingly unaware that this tasty treat had come from his own body. Chihuahuas are cute, but no one ever accused them of being smart.
The hail and snow began to taper off. The guy turned away from me, moving with purpose, digging through the snow for sticks and twigs. He dried these on the legs of his jeans, and set them in a pile near Buddy. He dug for rocks next, and made a ring around the sticks. He pulled a lighter from his pocket, and tried to start a small fire. It wouldn’t catch.
“Too wet,” he said. He started looking around in frustration. “We need something paper, something dry.”
He spotted a couple of old black paper coffee cups from Einsteins Bagels that had spilled out of my BMW during the crash. I was a bit of a caffeine addict, and wasn’t always so good at keeping my car any cleaner than my room. I was a bit of a slob, actually. I was embarrassed, but he seemed to think they were just perfect. He went and scooped them up, tearing the paper with his hands, and lining the little pit with the scraps.
“I have a study group,” I babbled, trying to cover for my mess. “Some friends, physics and math mostly, the left-brain stuff I need extra help with, we meet in the mornings at the bagel place by my school. I kind of forget to throw the cups out sometimes.”
“No worries, mami,” he said, without looking up. “No judgment. The paper’s a little waxy on the inside, but it’ll do.”
“I’m really not a pig all the time.”
“Come, sit.” He patted the ground next to him. “Warm up.”
“I’m not even that cold anymore.”
This seemed to worry him. “Snow calmed down is all. You need to stay warm. Frostbite can make it seem like you ain’t cold no more when you’re colder than before. Here. I won’t bite you. C’mon.” He patted the snow next to him. “Stay close to me. We conserve body heat that way.”
I did as he asked, and he pulled me in close. He did not touch me in a romantic way, more like the way a nurse might adjust your pillows in the hospital. I noticed his exquisite hands now. They were large, the color of soft caramel candies, and strong, with clean, short nails. He had long, graceful fingers. His left hand had a dark blue tattoo on the back of it, in the space between the thumb and index finger. It looked like roman numerals, like the tattoos on his neck.
“What’s that for?” I asked.
“You really wanna know?” he raised a brow at me.
“Gang symbols,” he said, hugging me closer.
“You’re in a gang?” It was scary, but also sort of exciting, to hear this. I’d never known anyone in an actual gang before.
He laughed out loud. “Nah. Not no more, mami. I’m working on getting’ out right now.”
I sat uncomfortably with this information for a moment, not able to think of anything to say. Then I joked, stupidly, “Is that where you learned to build fires? Your gang? Like boy scouts? Do you get gang patches to put on your sash?”
He looked surprised and pleased by my obnoxious humor. “Nah. I learned fires and all that after, on, well,” he paused, “on the farm.”
“Well, wherever you learned all of this stuff, thank you,” I said weakly. “Whoever you are.”
He held me against his side with one strong arm and used the other to coax a water bottle out of his tool box. He popped the cap and handed it to me.
“Drink,” he said. “You lost some blood. You need it.”
I chugged the cold water. I wondered why it wasn’t frozen, but thought maybe it was warmer in the box where he’d had it. It tasted unusually sweet, and felt unbelievably good on my throat. When I was finished, I asked him, “You got a name?”
He leaned forward and rubbed his hands together over the fire, smiled up at me. His teeth were perfectly straight, and very white. They made my heart hurt. “Demetrio.”
“Demetrio,” he said, with a palpable exhaustion that probably came from having to explain his weird name all the time. “Demetrius in English. Demetrio in Spanish.”
“I’m Shane,” I told him. “It’s probably Shane no matter what. Maybe not in Mandarin. I’m not sure what it is in Mandarin. Maybe Hoochie Min.”
“Shane.” He smiled at me.
“It’s actually Shannon, but Shane stuck for some reason.”
“Cool. I like that. Shane. Good to meet you.”
“You too. You live around here or something?”
Demetrio jutted his chin to the south. “Down in Golden.”
“Kind of far from home, aren’t you?”
“I was out walking around when the storm came in. I was on my way home when I seen you crash.” His eyes strayed to the crushed corpse of my car. “Dope ride. Used to be.”
“Yeah.” I felt awkward, because I knew it was an amazing car, and I guessed that his type didn’t have access to amazing cars. So I said, “I hate cars,” even though it wasn’t really true.
Demetrio found this amusing. “Only people who ain’t never had to hitchhike or ride the bus say that. Or walk.” He raised a brow to indicate himself.
I eyed him doubtfully. “You always carry a bunch of first aid stuff when you just go ‘walking around’?”
“Cuz city people be driving like crazies up in here,” he said with a sparkle in his eye, shooting another glance at my ruined BMW.
“And there’s always some rabbit or gopher or something, all smashed up. I try to help out.”
“You go around rescuing road kill?” I asked, incredulous and impressed.
“And the occasional pretty girl.”
I didn’t feel pretty, not after this ordeal. I felt chewed-up, and spit-out. I touched my face, felt up into my matted, frozen, tangled brown hair. I felt my face grow red. “Thanks,” I said, adding, as I channeled my inner fifth-grader, “guess it takes one to know one.”
He cracked a grin, embarrassed, and looked away. I watched him for a moment. He was handsome, for a homie. I usually ignored his kind. It confused me to look at him now and feel something like attraction. I thought I must have hit my head, because it wasn’t smart or like me at all to have thoughts like this.
“You go to school out here?” I asked.
He shook his head and chuckled. “Nah, man. Not exactly.”
“What does that mean, ‘not exactly’? You a dropout?”
He laughed. “What? No! I ain’t no dropout.” He considered his words before speaking again. “I’m home schooled, I guess you could say.”
He seemed distracted by something in the distance, and peered west, over his shoulder, crinkling his brow. I heard a faint thwacking noise in the distance.
“Helicopter,” he said. “Good. They didn’t waste no time. They’ll be here soon.”
A moment later, the coyote howl came again.
“I think that’s the one that tried to kill me,” I whispered, half-joking.
His eyes probed mine, worried. “What do you mean?”
“I know it sounds crazy, but you had to be there.” I was talking too fast, nervously. “It looked at me and it was, it was almost like – like a human being or something. I sound crazy. I realize that. Hard to explain. You probably think I’m nuts.”
“Maybe a little,” he said, kindly. His eyes strayed to a spot in the distance, and narrowed thoughtfully. “But you been through a lot with this wreck and all. Snow plays tricks on the eyes sometimes.”
I followed his gaze down the road. A couple of homemade wooden crosses stood planted in the ground, with gaudy plastic flowers and tacky Christmas tinsel on them. They are all over this state, on every road, marking spots where people died in car accidents.
“You’re lucky,” he told me, jutting his chin toward to the crosses. “Could have been worse. See?”
“No doubt,” I said, with a shudder.
He shook himself a little, dabbed a fresh bit of blood from my forehead with a bit of tissue, and asked, “Where you go to school at, Shane?” It was like when grownups try to distract children with questions they couldn’t care less about. He was trying to keep me calm until help arrived. I was grateful for it, but the new blood made me realize I really was still hurt, but probably just numb from the cold.
“Coronado Preparatory Academy. I’m a junior.”
He lifted his eyebrows, mockingly impressed. “Pretty fancy school, girl.”
I shrugged. It was a fancy school, the fanciest in the state and probably one of the fanciest in the nation. It made my mother look good for me to go there, where she could rub elbows with the city’s elite and powerful at PTO meetings. I loved my school, too, but I didn’t want to seem arrogant in front of him.
“You rich or something?” he asked with a half-grin that bore traces of insecurity. “Fancy car, fancy school. Fancy dog.”
I shrugged, because it was a weird question. “I don’t know,” I said. “We do okay. But I do get a partial merit scholarship, in science. I like science, and I’m in the dance troupe.”
He looked delighted. “Even better. You’re a genius. A genius that gets her dance on.”
“I don’t know about that.” Tears welled in my eyes as I rubbed my sore ankle with my frozen hand. “I just hope my ankle will be okay by next weekend. We have the state contest for dance next Sunday, and I’d hate to miss it. I’m sort of helping choreograph and everything.”
“I think you’ll be okay,” he said. “State contest, huh?”
“Yeah, down at UNM. We’ve been working hard on it.”
“Sounds pretty cool. Is it like cheerleading?”
I balked, because I was not the cheerleading type. “What? No! We’re serious dancers. We do jazz, tap, ballet, modern, even hip-hop.” I felt foolish saying this last one to him because from the ironic look on his face when I spoke the words, he clearly didn’t seem to think I was the hip-hop type.
“Dang,” he shook his head, hanging it low and peering up at me, mildly flirtatiously, still impressed and unsure of himself the way guys with less money always get around girls like me. I’d been through this rigamarole a few times at the mall.
“I woulda never guessed you got your hip-hop on. Fancy school of yours, I’d think it was all about waltzes and afternoon tea.” He pantomimed sipping a cup of tea with his pinky out and lips pursed, then grinned to let me know he was kidding. I admired him for trying to keep me distracted from my pain and panic.
“It’s not all that fancy,” I said, even though my school, built of dark red bricks and dripping with ivy in warmer weather, was the type to call the pool a “natatorium” and the cafeteria – which had solid oak tables and white linen napkins – a “dining hall”. We also had two gymnasium centers, our own visual arts complex, art museum, world-class library, bookstore and nature retreat in the mountains. Etc.
He seemed to understand that I was uncomfortable talking about my school. He watched the moody purpling sky with a calm expression of concern.
“It’ll be dark soon,” he said somberly. “I ain’t supposed to be out after dark, but I can’t just leave you here alone.”
“Wow. You must have super strict parents.” I teased him, but he didn’t so much as crack a smile. In fact, he grew more serious, and frowned.
“Something like that.”
The distinctive sound of helicopter blades slicing through the air grew clearer.
“Good. They’re almost here. I, I have to go before they land. I’m sorry, Shane.”
“Why don’t you let them give you a ride back to town? You’re a good five miles away. It’s terrible out. You can’t be out walking around in this mess.”
“Nah, man. That’s cool,” he said, backing away nervously, all false bravado. “They need to get you to the city and make sure you’re good. I got this.”
Demetrio seemed to gather his courage, inched forward, and gingerly took my hand. His was warm, in spite of the snow and wind. As our hands touched, and as we looked at each other, I felt a pleasant thrill pulse through me, almost a mild snap of electricity. He looked at me reassuringly, peacefully. It confused me to see such an expression on a gang member’s face.
“Look, mamita. Don’t worry about me, okay? I can handle myself.”
“Okay,” I said, overcome with an urge to kiss him.
“I bet you look amazing all cleaned up,” he said. “I probably shouldn’t say this, but I’d like to see that sometime. You know, I don’t know if you’re down for that, but, you know.”
“Yeah, uhm,” I said absently. My hand went instinctively to my neck, where I usually wore the Tiffany necklace my boyfriend Logan had given me for Valentine’s Day last year. It had a pendant shaped like a heart, with pink diamond inlays. My neck was bare. The necklace must have fallen off during the accident.
Demetrio watched my hand, and seemed to understand my hesitation.
“But only if you want,” he said, casting his eyes downward and biting his lip for a moment. “I mean, you don’t have to see me again. No pressure or nothin’ like that.”
“Do you have a last name?” I tried to change the subject. My cheeks flamed with the awkwardness of the situation. I wanted to see him again. I liked being around him. But I knew it was inappropriate in every possible way. I wasn’t a sickeningly good girl or anything like that, but I did tend to color inside the lines most of the time.
Demetrio nervously peered west over his shoulder once more as the helicopter came into view, circling the area as the search light scanned the area for me.
“Vigil.” His eyes locked onto mine, and he grinned slightly. “But, what’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.”
I smiled to let him know I got the reference, and respected him for it.
“I like Dickens, too,” he said. “My favorite book’s ‘A Tale of Two Cities,’ about a guy who’s been in prison and gets out for a second chance. Returned to life, that’s the chapter.”
“I never read it,” I said. “But my last name’s Ochoa, in case you were wondering.”
Demetrio blinked his dark eyes, slowly, once, before focusing his gaze upon me again, tortured and impatient. I got the feeling he didn’t have many friends.
“Well, miss Shane Ochoa. You probably got you a man at Coronado Prep,” he said.
“Sort of. Yeah.” I cringed because I hated to make him feel rejected, and also because Logan and I had been arguing a lot lately, and spending less and less time together.
“Gotcha,” he said, backing up, his face fallen as though he thought he’d made a stupid mistake. He watched the helicopter, and pulled his cap down lower over his eyes, as though he were hiding from view. He touched his chest just above his heart, and used two fingers to point at me, blushing the way a tough guy does when he lets down his guard. He looked beautiful, and sad, and terribly alone in the storm.
“I’m sorry,” I said – and I was.
“Nah, we cool. Do me a favor,” he said, starting to back away from me. “If anyone asks, say you don’t know who called 911. Just some guy. Cool?”
My heart raced, and I felt scared and sorry for him. “Are you in some kind of trouble or something?”
He looked at me without speaking for a long moment, swallowed hard and said, in a calmer voice now, “Yeah. You could say that.” He backed up a little more.
“Did you kill someone?” I blurted. Sometimes I failed to think before I spoke. Actually, I often failed to think before I spoke. It came from rebellion; my mother was a politician who planned every word like a battle map.
He watched me, and gulped. I’d said it as a joke, but something in his eyes told me I had come very close to the truth about him. Too close. Not good.
“I gotta jet, Shane. Catch you later. Good luck with your dance thing. You’ll be alright. I promise.”
With a tortured look on his face, Demetrio Vigil pulled up his collar, turned his back, and stalked off into the gloomy emptiness, as quietly as he had come.