“I can’t…I told you,” Carlos said, yanking his wrist out of the larger kid’s clammy grasp. It wasn’t that Carlos was small for his age—quite the opposite, in fact. He was already five-foot-ten and, thanks to the recently wrapped-up football season, nearly 150 pounds, and he was still a few months shy of sixteen. No, the problem was that Julian was just a little bit taller, a whole lot thicker, and really desperate.
Julian raised his hands, running his fingers through his greasy, dirty-blond hair. There was no doubt in Carlos’s mind that the kid needed a shower, and based on his pallid coloring and the grayish-purple, bruise-like circles under his eyes, to lay off the Vicodin. Carlos felt the slightest twinge of guilt for being the one who’d supplied Julian with the pills in the first place. Which, as Carlos’s older brother had drilled into his head, was exactly why the Hernandez boys only dealt the pills; they never sampled them themselves.
“What am I supposed to do?” Julian practically shouted. He took a lurching step forward, hands outstretched like he might grab the front of Carlos’s down jacket.
Carlos side-stepped, easily evading the clumsy maneuver. He spun around in time to see Julian skitter on a patch of ice and crash into the chain-link fence marking the perimeter of Toppenish High School’s snow-covered outfield. Glancing around warily, Carlos backed away, hands in his coat pockets. He hated dealing with this crap at school.
“Next week, man. I should be getting some new stuff this weekend.”
Julian’s fingers curved into rigid, claw-like hooks clutching at the fence to hold himself upright. Breathing hard, he turned his head so his flushed cheek was squished against the frost-coated metal. A thin crimson trail streaked from just under his right eye down to his chin like a single, bloody tear. It added an extra creep factor to the haunting, almost feverish glint in Julian’s eyes.
The final bell releasing them from school for the day had rung a good fifteen minutes ago, and there was no way Carlos’s sister, Vanessa, wouldn’t guess why he’d been late. She would chew him out the whole ride home for being dumb enough to follow in Jesse’s dealing footsteps, then track down their older brother and rip him a new one, too. Carlos started jogging backward toward the student parking lot, where his sister would be waiting for him.
“It’s just a few days, Julian,” he shouted, tugging his black beanie further over his ears. “You’ll survive.”
Turning mid-stride, he broke into a run. Each exhale produced a white puff that seemed almost solid enough to grab. He didn’t stop until he reached his sister’s decades-old, dark green Honda Civic, one of the few cars still sitting in the lot. The temperature was in the low teens, cold even for early December in Toppenish, one of a string of small towns in Central Washington’s Yakima Valley, and nobody was eager to linger in a parked car.
Hand tucked inside his sleeve, Carlos popped the passenger door open and ducked inside. He held his hands up to the vents, grateful for the warmth. “Sorry Nessa, I—” When Carlos looked at his sister, the rest of the sentence died on his tongue.
Vanessa was staring vacantly out the windshield, the skin around her eyes red and puffy, and tears were streaming down her splotchy cheeks.
“Shit…” Carlos reached across the center console and draped his arm over his sister’s shoulders, pulling her into the closest approximation to a hug that was possible in the interior of the small car. It was awkward and uncomfortable, but that didn’t matter. Vanessa almost never cried. She was barely a year older than Carlos, but he’d only seen her cry a handful of times.
“What is it?” he asked, his voice tight with worry.
Vanessa exhaled a gut-wrenching sob and clutched Carlos’s coat. “It’s…it’s Benny.” The baby of their family, Benny was barely two and suffered from a congenital heart condition—the same one that had killed their dad just before Benny had been born.
Benny had come down with a cough and a slight fever the previous afternoon, but their mom had been certain it was just the flu. And she was a nurse; she knew what she was talking about. Of course, influenza could be dangerous to a kid like Benny, which was why their mom had taken Benny to the hospital with her when she’d left for the swing shift the previous night. Just to make sure.
Benny would be fine. He would. He…
Carlos squeezed his eyes shut, holding back tears. There was no use in freaking out before he knew how bad it was. He had to swallow several times before he found his voice. “Is he okay?”
Shaking her head against his shoulder, Vanessa made a low keening sound that was almost too faint to hear.
Carlos felt a single tear escape and inch down his cheek.
“He—he…mom called in the middle of seventh period, but I didn’t answer.” Vanessa pulled away just enough to meet Carlos’s eyes. Hers, a rich chocolate-brown that usually sparkled with laughter—or anger or annoyance—were endless pools of despair. “You know how Mr. Martin is…I couldn’t check my phone. I didn’t know until—” Her chin quivered, and the effort it was taking her to hold back another wave of grief was evident in the hard set of her jaw and the tightness around her blood-shot eyes. “I didn’t know until after…when I listened to mom’s message that—that—” She took a halting breath. “…that Benny’s on life support.”
Her words hit Carlos like a punch to the stomach.
Vanessa closed her eyes, shutting out the world. “They don’t think he’s going to make it.” Her voice was high-pitched and small. Carlos knew she wouldn’t be able to hold it together for long…if what she was currently doing could even be called holding it together. And she wasn’t alone. He was on the brink of breaking down, feeling like someone was shredding his heart while it was still in his chest, but he was determined to maintain the appearance of being strong—at least until he was alone.
“Come on,” Carlos said as he released his sister and pulled on the door handle. “Switch with me. I’ll drive to the hospital.”
Vanessa wiped her cheeks with both hands. Not that it did any good; the tears were still pouring out, if a bit more slowly. “But you don’t have your license yet.”
He shot her a look that clearly said, “And…?”
Without any further argument, Vanessa exited the car and switched seats with Carlos. As he was releasing the emergency brake, she touched her fingertips to the sleeve covering his forearm. “Hold on. Mom said this flu thing’s gotten out of control…said it’s becoming a huge outbreak. We’re not supposed to go to the hospital—it’s bad there. Too many people…” Vanessa shrugged, at a loss for what to do.
Carlos gritted his teeth and narrowed his eyes. “What are they gonna do? Keep us out?” Snorting, he pushed in the clutch and shifted into first gear. He might not have had as much experience driving as Vanessa, but he wasn’t a complete amateur. “What about Jesse? Does he know?”
However much Vanessa was bothered by Jesse’s chosen “career” and his choice to involve Carlos in what he called “the family business,” Carlos knew she still loved Jesse and would want him around during such a hard time. Since their dad’s death, Jesse had become the sheltering arms of the family. Helping their mom provide for them was the main reason he’d expanded his illicit business in the first place.
Chewing on her lower lip, Vanessa shook her head. “I called and texted him like a million times, but”—she shrugged—“nothing.” She paused for a moment. “He’s supposed to be back today, right?”
Carlos nodded as he cautiously navigated his way out of the parking lot and onto the icy street. Jesse had gone down to Cali to meet up with a potential new supplier, and he’d been gone for a little over a week. “He said he’d be back this afternoon at the latest.” He glanced at Vanessa, offering a tight-lipped smile. It was a pathetic attempt at reassuring her, but he had to try. “Did you try the house? If he’s not home yet, he should be soon.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Carlos watched Vanessa touch the screen of her phone and, hands shaking, raise it to her ear. Nobody answered.