“Sweet Sue,” Maz hissed, and I barely resisted an urge to jump into the bonfire. ‘Cause I knew that hiss from his habit of scrolling through smut in my presence, never mind my pleas, and I knew exactly what (or who) had prompted this particular sexhalation.
She was a thimbleful of darkness lurking under a mesquite tree at the party. All’a five-feet tall and maybe 90 pounds if you threw her in a pool—which would’ve, incidentally, accounted for the lemon-suck look on her face. A minute earlier, I’d glanced up from the bonfire, its flames weirded by the plastic bottles that Marcos, our host, had tossed in to melt, and I’d seen the green-tinsel in her black hair, those Hello Kitty combat boots, and I’d known, absolutely known, Maz would zero in on the girl. She was a stranger, and she had a style most of the girls on Five Mile Line didn’t bother with: sort of “pop-punk princess caught in heroin-related downward spiral,” if I had to put a name to it.
Now she sat on the Hinojosa family’s picnic table, her legs crossed twice in that weird way some girls have of wrapping around themselves, one boot planted on the picnic bench. She was either trouble or in trouble, I guessed from the torn knees of her skin-tight jeans. Even with the bonfire and several shadows swirling between us, I saw black splotches on her denim and black bruises peeking from the holes. Girl looked she’d had a tangle in the brush, as mi abuela would’ve said.
“Who’s that buenona?” Maz lowered his plastic cup to get an unobstructed view of the scowler.
No way she could’ve heard us over the Mexican electronica blaring from someone’s trunk speakers, or the laughter and conversations spiking the lot behind the Hinojosa house. Still, she lowered her cigarette and turned in our direction, exhaling like she wished secondhand smoke killed faster. Despite skin sun-baked brown, her eyes were blue, and eerie as cat-shine.
“Never seen her before,” I said. Redundantly, because Maz and I went near-everywhere together—sometimes he followed me into the bathroom; dude had no sense of boundaries—so of course if he didn’t recognize the girl, neither would I.
She flicked her cigarette in our direction, then unwound herself and kinda vaulted from the table into the yucca-and-cactus scrub, where one day Six Mile Line and Seven might be. Despite the October chill, the back of her black shirt flaunted three horizontal slashes, exposing her bony shoulders and lack of bra. Maz started to follow her, but I snagged the sleeve of his leather jacket.
“Wait a minute, you don’t even know her,” I said.
“That’s the point, Beto. To get to know her,” he said with a leering grin.
He drained his Coke and ditched the cup in the fire, yanking me along as he pursued the mystery girl. “At least let me check her out,” I said as we approached the picnic bench.
“Dude! She’s too little to cause any desmadre!”
“Dude! You know how little a black widow is?”
That stopped him long enough for me to scan the feathery shadows beneath the mesquite tree. I spotted and retrieved her discarded cigarette. “Cover me,” I said.
“You watch too much Law and Order,” Maz complained, but he stood between me and the rest of the party while I blew dirt off the hand-rolled cig. There was a slight tackiness on the paper, like mystery girl had been eating honey, or wearing beeswax lip balm.
“Fun fact,” Maz said, “if she’s got a disease, you’ll get it before I do.”
Too frickin true. But he was my buddy and I was gonna watch out for him whether he liked it or not. So I took a drag and closed my eyes to concentrate. I waited for the essence to materialize on my palate, like a fingerprint on the inside of a latex glove—Maz was right; I did watch too many cop shows. But then, past the droughty dirt, past the weird honeyish residue, I sensed her flavor coming through.
Scaly and redder than rust, strychnine bitter in the grooves. A little fizzy and a lot stronger than anything I’d ever tasted before. Sour spit flooded my mouth, same as right before I barf. I spat the cig onto the ground.
Maz turned while I was smearing my lips on the sleeve of my sweatshirt. Tongue too, actually. I shook my head and he groaned.
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, man. Go pick on someone your own size.”
He tsked and kicked the dirt, more disappointed than pissed. After all, I had a near-perfect track record with this super-taster thing.
“Can’t we at least ask Marcos, find out who she is?” Maz pleaded. “What she’s doing here? If she’ll do it with me?”
“You gotta death wish, you know that?” But I relented. So long as we were chatting up other people, he wouldn’t be chasing that blue-eyed black widow.
Marcos Hinojosa stood scorchingly close to the fire, tossing in plastic bottles and jabbering about their chemical composition based on the color of the resulting flames. Marcos was smart—in the running to be this year’s valedictorian—but you didn’t need a PhD to see the guy was a pyromaniac. Shiny scars like hieroglyphics spelled it out on his forearms, and though his eyes were wide as he lectured his guests on polycarbonates versus acrylics, Maz and I couldn’t get his attention.
His half-sister Letty came over. “Puede decir tonterías hasta medianoche.” She rolled her eyes, but she smiled indulgently, too. “You guys need something?”
When Maz asked after “that chick, with the green in her hair?” Letty’s smile burned off. I almost expected to see a puff of smoke rising from her clay-colored lipstick.
“She came with Angela,” Letty said, arms crossing over her chest. “Angela said she’s her cousin, from out of town. Been in so much trouble her parents sent her here to cool off.”
I snorted. Five Mile Line might seem safe to people from the city—nothing but goats and dirt roads—but if you wanted trouble you’d find it, and then you’d have all that scrub to hide out in.
“What kind of trouble?” Maz got a gleam in his eyes, dangerous as the one Marcos got when staring into a fire.
“Angela didn’t say, and I didn’t ask,” Letty said, raising an eyebrow. “Because, rude! But if you don’t care about, I don’t know, common courtesy? You can ask her yourself. She and las cuatas are heading over to Franny’s to use the telescope.”
I wanted to apologize, but I wasn’t quite sure what for, and before I figured it out, Maz had hauled me away.
“Hey, Angela!” Maz called.
The girls stopped alongside the fence that corralled Franny’s goats and chickens. The twins turned in unison, moonlight catching on the rims of their eyeglasses. One of them smiled; the other frowned. Diana had been crushing on Maz since freshman year; Iliana had not.
Angela said, “Hey.” But her arms crossed over her chest said something else, and it wasn’t ‘cause the skimpy cardigan over her Beatles t-shirt left her cold. Letty had made that same warding off gesture, although perhaps unconsciously.
“Where’s your cousin?” Maz said.
“Around, I’m sure,” Angela said, pink lips pinching.
“Franny says we should be able to see two of Jupiter’s moons pass in front of the planet. Wanna come?” Diana smiled at Maz again, but this time she included me for a split-second, too.
“Sure,” Maz said, still focused on Angela. “And while we walk, you can tell me about your cousin.”
Iliana hooked her arm under Diana’s. “Actually, we’ve already heard this story,” she said, pulling her twin ahead. “We’ll see you there.”
“Nothing to tell,” Angela said, but she sounded miffed. “She’s from out of town. Been in so much trouble her parents sent her here to cool off.”
It was the same thing Letty had said, verbatim, but Maz didn’t notice that or my sidelong glance. “What’s her name?” he asked.
Angela looked past the electrified fence that didn’t work anymore. “Ada,” she said. Spanish pronunciation: “ah” for each A, soft D. She started walking again.
“What side of the family?” Maz said.
She snorted. “Why? You trying to figure out if you’re distant enough for dating?”
Angela and Maz were third cousins once removed or something. I steered the topic away from dating. “What’s she in trouble for?”
Angela shrugged. “Fighting, I guess.”
Which sounded ‘bout right, considering her bloody jeans and bruises. But something in Angela’s tone… I brushed my elbow against Maz and shook my head at him, a flicker in my eyes more than a motion of my head. Despite the dark, he saw it and nodded back.
“Y’cold?” Maz asked Angela. Before she even answered, he was shaking out of his leather jacket.
She stopped walking and her crossed arms loosened. So did her crimped mouth. She seemed baffled when Maz held his coat open for her, but she let him slip it on, brush it down over her hips. I sputtered, then faked a coughing fit.
“Are you all right?” Angela said.
“Swallowed…wrong,” I said between hacks.
“He’ll be fine,” Maz said. “Just needs a drink of water. We’ll catch up with you in a few.” He pounded my back harder than necessary, el culo, but as he steered me toward the Hinjosas’, he slipped a small tube into my hand.
I knew I shouldn’t have been encouraging Maz’s pickpocketing. When I saw what he’d lifted, I thought “a cada cerdo…” and groaned at my just deserts. “Seriously, dude?”
I don’t always have to put an item in my mouth to read the owner’s imprint, thank gus. If no one else has handled the thing, I can hold it against my lips for a few beats, then lick my lips. A kiss, Maz once joked. But both Maz and I had gotten our paws all over the plastic tube, so this time a simple touch wouldn’t work with my… I don’t know what to call it, talent? Magic? Abuela would’ve been able to name it, nail it down. That had been her form of magic.
“You so owe me for this,” I growled, uncapping the tube.
Maz had his back to me, keeping watch while I leaned against the stucco wall encircling the Hinojosas’ property. “You’re cockblocking me,” he retorted. “You owe me!”
“It’s not worth it. That girl is three miles of bad road. On the highway to hell.”
He scoffed. “Yeah, she’s so terrifying, she wears Hello Kitty.”
“Hello Blood’s more like it.”
“Shut up and put on yer face, ‘Betty’.”
I kicked his leg, but I twisted the plastic tube so “Pouty Pink” rose into view. The lipstick looked way pinker in the tube than it had on Angela’s mouth. I hoped it’d be the same for my poor pucker.
Lowering my head, I smeared the lipstick on. Went on a little heavier than I meant it to, but it was different than Chapstick. The color ran over my mouth, thin as icing. But, to my relief, it didn’t drip and it stayed within my lip line when I rubbed my lips together. I licked my lips and wrinkled my nose at the plastic-y taste. I hadn’t kissed a lot of people—my talent/curse/whatever made it a pretty intense experience—and even fewer of ’em had worn lipstick, but it tasted worse than I remembered. I wondered if it was the brand, or if it was engineered to taste better when it was kissed off.
Marcos probably could’ve told me, would’ve pitched the tube into the bonfire and identified its chemical signature, but it was a different signature I waited for. I closed my eyes to focus on the profile coming through. Turned out, I didn’t need to concentrate. I gasped, stunned by the strength of the profile, even stronger than the last one.
Red again. Bitter. Less scaly, more faceted. And moving. Rushing as if from a burst dam and spiraling ‘round a black rock, a secret. Then, caught within that angry vortex, a warmer, weaker taste. Green wood, splintered and seeping sap. I tasted cord. No, a chord. I remembered that Angela played the guitar, mostly folk music and Beatles medleys. The chord briefly thrummed over my taste buds before drowning under Ada’s overpowering current.
“Angela’s in trouble,” I said, opening my eyes. I spit, trying to rid my mouth of Ada’s poison. “Her cousin has a secret, and it’s pulling them both down.”
Maz didn’t hesitate, like he never hesitated when his baby sisters demanded he play tea party with them, or when Abuela died and I asked him to keep me company at the wake. He just grabbed my arm and started jogging toward Franny’s.
“Dang, Beto! We gotta make you work that Maybelline magic more often.”
When I followed him into Franny’s goat pasture, I was still scraping my mouth clean with the inside of my collar. In red-flashlight glow, a group of people ringed the high-powered telescope. The floppy-eared goats formed a second circle, nosing into pockets and nipping at shirt tails. The chickens were cooped for the night. Maz called to Angela, who was waiting her turn behind las cuatas. She made a face when she saw us, but she came over.
“If you’re looking for Ada, I don’t know where she is,” she said, sounding angry already. Then she squinted at me in the dark. “Are you having an allergic reaction? Your mouth’s all red.”
The redness had to be from scrubbing my mouth, but now that she mentioned it, I did feel a kind of… carbonated burn at the back of my throat. Goat panic saved me from answering, though. Bleating, the herd ran for the dubious safety of the shadows behind the chicken coop. I turned to see what had freaked them out, half expecting a coyote, but it was only Ada. There must’ve been a boulder on the other side of the fence, because she leaped it without touching the nearest post for balance. Pretty cocky, even if she knew the fence hadn’t been powered for months.
“Hey,” Maz said. “We were just talking ’bout you, Ada.”
The green tinsel in her hair fluttered as she stalked over to us, made me think of those oscillating fiber-optic Christmas trees. “That’s not as funny as you think it is,” she told Angela.
Angela crossed her arms. “I don’t find anything about this situation funny, Hada.”
Only then did I hear the nearly silent H. “Hada?” I said.
“I can’t stand to have my name garbled,” Ada/Hada said. “My true name is beyond human tongue. Although perhaps not yours…” She turned to needle-eye me. This close, I saw fine white scars on her face. They streaked out from her weird blue eyes, sketching starbursts in the moonlight.
Maz tried a joke. “Never seen a fairy wearing Hello Kitty before.”
“I like the mouthless cat,” Hada said. “Her eyes say it all.”
I glanced down at those cartoon eyes: black, empty pits. Maybe Hada was more duende than hada. An imp, not a fairy.
Brushing my chills aside, I asked, “How do you and Angela really know each other?”
Angela was dog-sitting Smith and Wesson down at the junkyard while the owner, Rick Rivas, went up to Kingsville to collect a special wreck of a car. She’d fed the dogs and was running them fresh water when she heard crying.
“I was not crying,” Hada snapped. “I was calling for help.”
As the girls talked, we left Franny’s pasture. The thumping car speakers had dialed down to a Spanish spoken-word mix, and the pachangistas were moving on to the next party. Still, we drifted from the path into the chaparral so we’d be out of earshot.
“I ran ‘round back,” Angela continued. “At first, I wasn’t sure what I was seeing. Rick had propped this rusty old cattle grid against the car crusher, and now it was on the ground with Hada underneath. But the metal was so rusty, half the bars had fallen out, so I didn’t understand why she couldn’t get up.”
“It was iron,” Hada said. “And the salvage yard wasn’t there the last time I came to visit my mother’s people, otherwise I would avoided it.” She walked ahead of us, easily skirting prickly pear cactus. Scorpions and tarantulas and even a couple of coatis fled in dusty wakes on either side of us. If we’d been on water, she’d’ve been the naked lady carved into the front of our boat.
“But when I got closer, I saw how bad she was hurt.” Angela’s voice faded a little, as if upset by the memory. Thinking of figureheads, I’d been trying to imagine Hada naked, but now I really looked at her. The darker patches visible through her slashed shirt weren’t shadows. They were bruises. I felt seasick. The soda burn that had spread through my mouth and down my throat didn’t help.
“I’m obliged now,” Hada said, like that explained everything.
From the pinch of Angela’s Pouty Pink mouth, I guessed it wasn’t good even before she added, “I have to make two wishes.”
“Ain’t it supposed to be three?” Maz said.
“This ain’t Aladdin,” I said, smacking his shoulder.
“That’s not it,” Angela said. “I already made one. I wished she’d go away.”
Hada turned around, blue eyes doing that cat-shine thing. “And I did.”
“For two hours. You know that’s not what I meant!”
“Equal torture to me, this arrangement.” Hada’s hair lifted along with her voice. The green bits weren’t tinsel at all, they were natural. Her kind of natural, anyway. “I’m not a fairy godmother. The wishes are merely to purge the human stain left by your touch.”
“Stain? I saved your ass!” Angela said. First time I ever heard her curse.
“Whoa, now,” Maz said, hand on her arm. “How is this a tragedy? Just make your wishes, Angie. A new car or a million dollars or—”
“It’s not that easy,” I said. “Didn’t you read ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ last year in Olsen’s Lit class?”
Maz wasn’t much of a student, but with that title, it didn’t take him long to remember the Cliff’s Notes version. “Oh. Crap. Okay then…how ‘bout you wish you’d never met Hada?”
Hada stomped one Hello Kitty boot, sending an invisible shock wave that fried all the yucca blossoms for a good ten feet. Maz jumped in front of Angela protectively.
“If we had never met, I would be dead,” Hada said. “Trapped under that iron grate until it leached the life out of me!”
“Right, sorry,” Maz said. “So what if Angela wished you’d never run into the junkyard?”
“Time paradox,” Hada said, less angry, more resigned.
“Really, Maz,” Angela said. “You think I’m stupid? We’ve already been through this.”
“Well what’s with all the rules?” Maz said. “Isn’t she supposed to be magic?”
“All magic has rules,” I muttered. That got me some looks: understanding from Maz, curious from Angela, speculative from Hada. Rather than try and answer any of those, I asked Hada, “Can she wish being touched by humans didn’t ‘stain’ you?”
She blinked at me. Not up and down, but left and right, with nictitating membranes. I couldn’t suppress a shudder, but she didn’t seem offended. She actually smiled. “I can’t change my nature, no.”
“Can you change human nature?” Maz asked, unthinking.
“Would you like me to try on you?” Hada said, giving him a blue glare.
Even in the dark, I saw Maz go pale. Angela clutched his sleeve from behind.
“Something smaller then,” I said, drawing Hada’s attention back to me. “What if Angela wished for you to bring her…a snack?”
Maz’s voice was hoarse, but he couldn’t help himself. “I could go for tamales.”
“Such a puny task would do nothing to settle her claim,” Hada said, ignoring Maz (much to my relief). “And the longer she delays, the larger her stain grows inside me, until I die.”
“It’s too much pressure,” Angela wailed. “I ask for world peace, and the human race could be wiped out. I ask for good will to all men, and they gang up on the women. I want my mom and dad to get back together, and…I don’t know, but I can’t take the risk!”
“You can’t take the risk?” Hada said, hair flying. “I’m the one who’s dying!”
“Hey, cool it,” Maz snapped. “Yelling at her ain’t gonna make things any easier.”
I groaned and covered my eyes. But Maz had punched the captain of the football team at last year’s Homecoming Dance. You couldn’t really expect him to toe the line with a ninety-pound fairy. He turned to Angela and whispered, “Don’t worry, we’ll figure this out. Beto knows about this stuff.”
“He does?” She wiped her cheeks and peeked over her shoulder at me. “How?”
“Yesss,” Hada said, sounding like Alka-Seltzer. “How?”
“Never mind that.” My cheeks felt pinker than my lipstick. Worse than their scrutiny was the burning, like the crackling fuse in my throat had burned up to my sinuses and down into my belly. “Can Angela transfer her wishes? Wish them over to me?”
“Why you?” Maz said.
Hada did her sideways blink again. I wondered if it sharpened her gaze, because I felt X-rayed. “Yessss, that will work, and reduce my obligation, besides.”
“Then why didn’t you say so in the first place?” Maz hollered.
She didn’t respond to his tone, too busy studying me. “I have never done this before. Have you?”
“Yeah, why you?” Maz asked again, suspicious.
“Because,” I said. “I’m infected, too.”
I might’ve felt bad at how fast Angela wished her burden onto me, but between the relief of an out and the shock of my diagnosis, she was a wreck. And I had offered. Afterward, she stuck around long enough for me to explain to Maz how I must’ve contracted Hada’s stain from her cigarette.
“You should be dead already,” Hada mused, listening in on our huddle.
“Shut up!” he said. Whatever about Hada he’d taken a shine to, it had definitely worn off.
“Calm down,” I said. “Yelling at her is like Marcos yelling at fire for burning him.”
But then Maz yelled at me, too. “And you, pendejo! Putting things in your mouth like you’re CSI. I never asked you to babysit me. Don’t do a thing—anything!—until I get back.”
I nodded, too surprised to actually promise, and he walked Angela, still sobbing, to her car.
“There’s a rock over there,” Hada said. “We can sit while you consider your wish.”
I followed her gesture but didn’t see more than a faint glimmer in that direction. With those cat-shine eyes, she must’ve seen better in the dark than I could.
“Do we have time for that?” I asked, voice going raspy at the end. “Pausing for reflection?”
She walked toward the invisible-to-me rock. “I do,” she called over her crunching steps. “Although I can’t vouch for you.”
Goosed, I hurried after her. A thicket of huisache emerged from the darkness on our right. We passed the twisted shrubs and a critter yelped. I jumped, then felt ridiculous when a small owl fluttered off.
I tried to laugh. “You always have this effect on animals?”
“No.” Just that single syllable, sharp as the yucca leaves I was dodging. For a minute, I thought that was all I’d get, but once the huisache was behind us, she said, “They sense the corruption inside us, my essence battling Angela’s, yours battling mine. It disturbs them.”
It disturbed me, too. I didn’t feel like I was dying, just maybe coming down with strep. But Hada seemed pretty sure, so I figured, better to focus on a useful wish. “Why did Angela’s first wish, about you going away for two hours count, but a taco run wouldn’t?”
“Your friend requested tamales.” Hada leaped onto the rock, twirled and looked down at me. I realized, despite the briskness of her tone, she’d made a joke. “Normally, it wouldn’t have counted. But I was eager to complete the three tasks, so I resorted to a mode requiring special effort. Such travel is significantly complicated by each item one brings along. I had no desire to risk mingling my parts with your savory foods.”
I was still mulling over her attempt at humor—was she nervous?—so it took me a minute to respond. “Seriously? Teleportation?”
“I do not know that word.”
Okay. Hello Kitty, yes; Star Trek, no.
“Can I ask you a personal question?” I sat down carefully, not wanting to touch her and perhaps corrupt our essences even more.
“Can I refuse to answer the question if I so choose?” Hada said, squatting beside me.
“Yeah, course.” I wasn’t Maz. I wasn’t going to badger her.
She hissed. Not so Alka-Selztery this time. “Spoken as blithely as only a human can manage. You are clearly ignorant of my kind. But not as ignorant as your friends…” She blinked sideways, perhaps bringing me into sharper view. I pretended to study an ant hill to our left.
“How’d you get those scars around your eyes?” I said.
“My mother is not always…reasonable. That is why I haven’t visited in so long, why I did not anticipate the salvage yard.”
I felt her gaze slide away. I chanced a sidelong glance. The green in her hair had dwindled. Now, you might think it was only moonlight playing off her black strands. “Sounds awkward.”
She turned and rested one cheek on her knee. “You have said it.” The off-kilter idiom hung between us while she studied me again. “Your voice has an odd resonance. I find it appealing.”
My face went Pouty Pink. “Probably the stain,” I croaked. “My throat’s been burning ever since I smoked your cig.”
The way she said it, I remembered the word could be, though seldom was, a complete sentence. Certainly Maz never heard it that way.
I tried my own one-word sentence. But I was too cowardly to make it anything but a question. “Explain?”
“You have an inflection that your friends do not seem aware of. Like an accent. Slight, but it is there.”
“Maybe it’s related to my super tasting?” I paused to clear my throat. “The way I can taste essences?”
She didn’t answer, only said, “I have been wondering about your tongue.”
My blush zipped right past Pouty Pink to Fire Engine Red. I don’t think she noticed, though, because she lifted her head to growl at the dark. I followed her gaze: Maz running toward us. When he saw us just sitting there, he relaxed into a jog.
“Why don’t you like him?” I said.
She stood up. “I don’t want him to touch me.”
“He’s not going to touch you, especially now.” Less because she was dangerous, more because she’d made Angela cry and me sick.
“His smell is all over you,” she said, peering down at me with her arms crossed.
I shrugged. “We’re best friends.”
“When I found you with Angela, his smell was on her, too. And they are not ‘best friends’.”
“He lent her his jacket. He likes people.” I skipped the part about picking Angela’s pocket. Considering the starburst scars around Hada’s eyes, I figured she hadn’t gotten much touchy-feely time as a kid. “Maz is definitely handsy, and totally clueless about personal space,” I said. “But that’s not the real problem, is it? You’re jealous.”
She leaped off the rock. “You hold yourself in high esteem.”
I rolled my eyes. “Not of me, of him. It’s okay. Sometimes I am too. I wish I could be so easy around people. But the thing is, if you’re Maz’s friend, he’s that way around you, and it feels good.”
She nodded, tracking Maz’s progress. I began to suspect that Maz had noticed Hada because she’d noticed him first.
“Hang around the guy long enough,” I said, “and it rubs off. In a good way.”
She shook her head. “Not so good, I think. It was your desire to protect Maz that made you use your magic, and that made you sick.”
Her eyes widened. I turned to check on Maz. He was running again, and that amped up my pulse, but no one was chasing him. He was just barreling straight for me.
Hada blurred a few feet from the impending collision. “What is he doing?”
“I don’t know.” I barely slid off the rock before Maz slammed into me, hands gripping my shoulders, mouth zeroing in on mine. “Maz! What the hell!” I stuck my hand between us before he could lay one on me.
“This is all my fault,” he panted. “If you hadn’t been protecting me, you never would’ve smoked that cigarette and gotten sick. Well, I’m not going to let you die alone. If you’re sick, I’m sick, so just shut up and kiss me, man.”
“Maz!” I squirmed and dodged his mouth again, felt his lips smear down my cheek. “Cut it out!”
“This is foolish,” Hada warned him. “Beto is different, he can withstand the sickness, at least for a time. You cannot.”
“Like you care!” Beto spat. “Once he makes his wish, you’re out of here, right? No, I was thinking all the way there and back, how I could make you stay and help him. I thought I’d grab you so you’d owe me wishes but—”
“I’m too fast,” she finished for him. “Angela never would have touched me if I hadn’t been trapped already.”
“I can’t make you stay,” Maz told her. “But I will,” he said to me. “I’ll stay. You won’t have to do this alone.”
“Likely, he will,” Hada said, edging closer. “You’re human, Maz. If you take this poison into your body, you will die long before Beto.”
“I’m human? Then what’s Beto?” Maz sputtered. “I don’t believe it, it’s—”
Hada blurted something. I can’t spell it. I don’t think English or Spanish have all the letters I’d need. I don’t think it was all verbal. The strange syllables wiped my brain clean, left nothing but a burgundy rinse of bubbling fractals. When she was done, the air felt empty, a deafening call seeking my response. Compelled, I opened my mouth to repeat it, however muddled and pathetic my human pronunciation would be. I stared into Hada’s blue eyes, opened my mouth and…
…said something completely different. Rather than that burgundy, bubbling fractal, out popped a black-and-white multifoliate, like the orthoceras fossils in my Earth Sciences class. The jagged petals seemed to radiate from the same invisible spots that made me a supertaster. Behind my breastbone, a chink opened and emptied out, and the slick light from inside coated my burning throat. My jaw hung open a full minute before I realized I was done.
“See?” Hada said with a nascent smile.
Maz had stopped trying to kiss me, but he was still clutching my shoulders. Now he released one long enough to slug me in the chest. “What was that?”
“I said my name,” Hada explained. “My real name. And Beto said his. It’s a ritual my kind have.”
“Get out,” Maz whispered in disbelief. He looked at me. “Dude. I’ve never heard you do that before.”
“You sounded like Marcos going off on one of his pyro rants,” he continued.
“I know.” Amazing as the vocalization had been, the coolness it jetted out my throat had quickly evaporated. I expected to pee lava any second now. Legs jittering, I said, “But what’s that got to do with anything?”
“Now that you know my name,” Hada said calmly, “you have power over me. You can command me to stay until we’ve solved your problem.”
“I don’t want to command you,” I said, even as Maz shook me in frustration. “Can’t you just promise you’ll stay?”
“Would he believe me?” she said, indicating Maz.
“No!” Maz said. “But you know his name—his other name—too now. Does that mean you have control over him?”
“It is not reciprocal. He is more human than not. How long ago his family blended? It is a mystery.”
Even if I’d wanted to exert power over Hada, I didn’t quite believe I could open my mouth and unfurl those burgundy fractals—the crystallization of her essence, it turned out. But speaking in tongues did distract me from the fever burning down my arms and legs, so I tried.
A shade too red, as if inflected by the taste I’d gotten off Angela, and the bubbles were erratic, most too large and others hardly a spark. But that sensation of a trapdoor opening near my heart was the same. So were the cool lozenges of light that soothed my throat. I sighed. Unfortunately the sigh broke my invocation, and the relief evaporated the second I stopped.
Hada’s fledgling smile spread wings. “An excellent start.”
“I wish I could say it better.”
It was out before I knew what I was saying. I went cold all over. It was actually a relief from the invisible flames scouring my veins.
“That doesn’t count!” Maz yelled, shielding me with his whole body.
Hada tilted her head, smile steady. “A figure of speech?”
Thank gus, she wasn’t going to hold me to it. And yet, the burning had invaded my toes. My eyeballs felt hotter than soup. I needed the fire to stop. “That wouldn’t be changing my nature?” I asked over Maz’s shoulder.
“Your tongue is clever,” she said, smile stoking a different warmth in my body. “A touch is all you’d need.”
“Dude,” Maz said, putting some space between our crotches.
I gripped the edge of the rock behind me. “Would that be enough to complete your obligation?”
“I believe so. I’d have to start over again, nevertheless.”
“What do you mean ‘start over’?” I said.
“For me to grant this particular wish, we must touch,” she said. “My tongue will teach your tongue.”
“You mean you’ll kiss me?” I said. (Technically, I may have squeaked.)
“Wait a minute,” Maz said, turning to her, arms still spread to shield me.
She ignored him. “You are not pureblooded, so the corruption will be less. Also, by granting your final wish, I will vanquish the taint from my blood. I will be stronger, and that strength may pass to you.”
“Like antibodies.” I wheezed, feeling like the fire inside had eaten up all my oxygen.
“You’d do that?” Maz said. “Grant his wish, which gives him more power over you, AND get ‘obliged’ to him again?”
“Why do you sound surprised? Do you not want him to survive?”
“Of course I do! But why do you?”
“You were willing to die for him. I would like to have a friend half so loyal. Maybe this is how I gain one.”
I didn’t understand why she and Maz were getting so tall until Maz whirled around and caught me. Together we sagged to the ground.
“He doesn’t have much time.” Hada came nearer as Maz wrestled me to sit between his legs, my back to his chest like when we were little kids going down the slide. “I do not care for the taste of cosmetics, Beto. You will have to wipe your mouth better.”
I suspected she was just trying to keep me awake. But, since I wasn’t wasting energy on standing, I managed another swipe with my sleeve. Even as Hada knelt carefully between my sprawled legs, Maz said, “You sure you want to do this, Beto? Maybe it’s her fever messing with your head!”
“Because you were…attracted to her…sparkling personality,” I wheezed. My heart throbbed hard enough it got in the way. Partly because of the fever, yeah, but that wasn’t all. She’d taste different now, with less of Angela’s claim poisoning her. Less red, more burgundy. Not scaly, but faceted. Effervescent, even sweet? There had been that ghost of honey on her cigarette.
“You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to,” Maz said. “Just say the word and I’ll stop her.”
“How?” Hada and I said in unison.
Maz cursed and I laughed as Hada’s face filled my vision. Her hair waved, sparkling green again. She double-blinked, and this time it didn’t creep me out. I soaked in the sense of being x-rayed, exposed.
Close enough to touch me, though she didn’t, Hada asked, “Is this your wish?”
My bones damn-near melted. I’d heard consent was sexy, but this was ridiculous. It didn’t faze me that Maz was there, because Maz was always there—maybe not holding me like he was now, but in my space, in my face, in my waking and sleeping thoughts.
“Hell yeah,” I said hoarsely, wishing I could pull her in. “Kiss me.”
“God,” Maz muttered behind me. “Get a room.”
Hada smiled, eyes going full starburst. Context clues for the win, I guessed. I slung an arm heavy with heat over Maz’s leg as Hada leaned closer. “Like you wouldn’t be banging on the other side of the door,” I croaked.
“Damn straight,” Maz said, sounding hoarse, too. “Who else’s gonna help you make desmadre?”
Desmadre, or magic? (Or both?) Whatever it was, we were making it, the three of us. I squeezed his leg and kissed her mouth and in the burst of burgundy heat that followed, we all learned a new language.