"¡Ay!" Her breath rushed out in one explosive huff. "Fine. Suit yourself. I have no time for this nonsense."
"But you're coming? All of you?" Carlito asked, grabbing my shoulders and turning me toward the opening in the rail.
"Yes, yes—I am going to help your parents. We'll be right behind you. You—" she pointed at Carlito, "take care of your sister."
My laugh came out so bitter and full of rage, it was a shock the gleaming brass railing didn't corrode in that instant. "You're kidding." I laughed again. "He's a baby."
"I'm thirteen," he retorted from where he waited, poised to jump, no second thought about it. Further proof that he had no business taking care of anyone.
Be careful, hermanito. Don't swim too far out.
Why don't we play with the dominoes, Carlito? We'll make a design and I'll let you knock them down.
No ... no llores, m'ijito—don't cry. It's just an ice cream cone. Here, I'll share mine with you. I'll always share.
I took care of him.
"Bueno, m'ija, you're the one acting like a baby and wasting valuable time." Abuelita pointed a long elegant finger, ghostly white in the dim light, at the rail. "He's not."
Because now he thought this was some big adventure. That it was exciting, like those stupid movies he'd spent his Saturdays watching in the dark, butter-scented confines of El Capitan. He was practically bouncing up and down, waiting for me. Waiting to begin. My eyes stinging, I pushed past him and started down the steps.
"Your shoes, Talia," Carlito whispered as he started down after me, his feet slender and bare and white above my head.
I paused on the final rung before the ladder descended into the water and reached down, slipping off one shoe, then the other. Holding the pair in one hand high above my head, I lowered myself the rest of the way, gasping as I began treading water. It wasn't cold—not really. I'd simply never gone swimming at night. Not in the ocean. Not fully clothed. Not like this-with this queer dread and its accompanying chill lapping at me more insistently than the waves.
It would be so easy to go limp—sink to the bottom.
But the lights ... they were there, getting closer, bit by bit. Even faster if I would truly swim. I was a strong swimmer. I could forget the shoes—it was stupid really. They were just shoes. My breath hitched in my chest, a serrated edge slicing from the base of my neck all the way down to my belly, cramping in hard knots. Who cared what they meant? Nothing really.
"What do you think lives in the water here? Do you think there might be sharks?"
"Shut up, Carlito."
"Maybe jellyfish. I bet there are jellyfish."
I didn't even know where we were and he was asking about sharks. Or jellyfish. Or—
I screamed as something brushed my leg, long and slow-a few feet in front of me, a dark form surfaced and I screamed again, one shoe dropping from nerveless fingers to land beside me with a quiet splash.
"Don't scare the sharks, hermana."
"Carlito—it's not funny. It's not a joke. Don't you understand? Don't you? Don't you?"
I kept saying it over and over, my shoulders burning from the strain, my lungs, my eyes, my legs, kicking and kicking—everything burning, water filling my nose, my ears, muffling the noises outside my head even as it made the sounds inside grow louder and louder-
Just let go ... It would be so easy ... Just let go ... You know you want to ...
"Stop—it's okay. You're here. You're safe."
I kicked some more, fighting the new pressure under my arms—shaking my head, long strands of hair whipping across my face and catching in my lashes and mouth.
"Stop, honey, you can stop, it's okay. It's okay."
I shook my head again, rubbed my face against my shoulder, felt the gritty rasp of wet sand scratching my skin as the disembodied voice floated above me.
"Do you understand me?"
Slowly, I blinked, eyes stinging as fresh saline from tears cleared away the salt from the ocean water.
"Si—" I shook my head again. "Yes. I understand." My voice emerged thin and brittle, rising on each word as I looked around, frantic, desperately trying to focus. "My little brother—"
"He's fine, sweetheart." Hands, warm and secure, like Tata Sucre, my long-ago nanny, draped a blanket over my shoulders, then turned me gently, focusing the beam from her flashlight on Carlito, hunched over on his hands and knees, gasping as a man draped a blanket over his body, back to looking slender and delicate—the terrified glance he shot my way returning him to the boy I had always looked out for.
"Ay, gracias a Dios—gracias madre santisima—gracias." Rough sand scraped the tender skin of palms and knees as I scrabbled across the short distance separating us. Fresh tears flooded my eyes as I felt his arms go around my neck, his thin chest heaving with sobs as our stealthy flight, the terrifying journey, and this final race toward our future finally caught up to him. Reflexively, I crossed myself once, then twice, feeling again for my chain, making certain it was still there, before stroking the seal smooth curve of his head, murmuring reassurances that everything was all right. We were all right. I would take care of him. Like always.
The voice beside me quietly said, "You were right, John." Then softer— "What's your name, honey?"
I went to clutch the edges of the blanket, pull it tighter around Carlito, startled at what I found in my hand.
"Natalia San Martín," I said softly, staring at the single black shoe, the leather soaked and dripping and ruined. "My name is Natalia San Martín. I'm ... from Havana."
It would be the last time I said that.
BETWEEN HERE AND GONE
Available January 12, 2016 from Diversion Books
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Between Here & GoneGeneral Fiction
Chosen as one of Publishers Weekly's Best Books of 2016 ** In 1959 Cuba, Natalia San Martín was nothing short of a princess: sheltered, pampered, and courted by her very own prince, a childhood friend turned lifelong love. All that changed on the fa...