by Debbie Lewis
The voice of the newscaster fades. Gale force wind forces a torrent of rain against the picture window distorting Carlos’ view of the active trees and cars that seem to float in the deluge. A scent of cinnamon wrapped in musk wafts into the room as if carried by the wind. It barely exists, but still almost chokes him. He clicks the television off. Looking neither up, down nor to either side, he unfolds his lanky body carefully as he stands. Anticipatory dread dries out his mouth at the thought of finding Carlotta’s luminous, bronzed face in the vicinity, eyes, large, liquid and vulnerable.
Vulnerability interchanging with warmth and irrationality. Sure as he stands, nerves on alert, in his airy, contemporary white living room—Carlotta’s handiwork in tranquil times—Carlos knows the truth. The wild woman reported to have escaped from the Immigration officials is his ex-wife. Not so wild, as calculating. And mad. Not angry, certifiably unbalanced. And always smelling of cinnamon musk.
His heart speeds as he rapidly speed dials a number, by touch, on the cell phone clipped to his belt. The rings sound tinny and far off, despite the headset that rests on his ear. A man answers. Carlos pushes specific keys in a prearranged order, code, and then severs the call.
Clicks on the uncarpeted stairs reward his anticipation. Carlotta loves spiky heels. The higher, the better to negate her short stature. Fear and guilt vie in him, as gratitude rises that their six-year-old daughter spends the day with his sister, Isabelle. Several tree branches click against the window in concert with Carlotta’s descent. The storm likely played a role in her escape—that and her ability to sway men to do things their sensible selves counseled against.
Carlos listens to the swish of fabric as Carlotta sashays into the room. He envisions her usual tight silk dress in a vibrant hue. Legs short, but shapely, smooth and in a bronze tone Anglos coveted. Spicy musk surrounds him as if a tangible thing. He doesn’t turn at her heavily accented voice, knowing what he’ll see. Fugitive or not, she would manage tasteful sensuality.
“So, Carly, you not change much?” Carlotta asks in a soft, melodic accent. Her voice hardens as she adds, “Since you have . . . hmmmm, made it possible for me to go away.”
He sits again, his back still to the stairs, and speaks carefully, without accent since he had been born in America. He’s careful to inflect no tone, no meaning to the word. “Carlotta.”
Carlotta had only arrived in the U.S.—illegally—one year prior to the birth of Christina, their daughter. This, along with him getting her committed to a mental institution, supplying information on her quasi-criminal activities here, and her criminal status in their homeland, made it easier to have her deported when he decided she had to go. He timed reporting her status with an edict from the director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, in an agreement with Cuba, to deport more than 2,700 Cuban refugees held in U.S. prisons and mental hospitals.
Carlos had been a mental mess for the four weeks it took authorities to actually begin the process, then had almost taken Christina and left the country when the U.S. decided to deport them in groups of only a hundred at a time. He could finally breathe when he received word that Carlotta made it to the list of the second hundred to go, but hadn’t anticipated Cuba being so lax in dispensing justice, allowing her “house arrest” and setting up her return within a month.
Carlos wonders if Immigration realized who they had allowed to slip away in their apprehension of the refugees on the boat found listing off of Miami’s shores. If they had any idea that the demure, cooperative little woman—as she surely originally presented herself —is a fiery, vindictive woman capable of doing whatever achieves her will.
He finally stands and turns to face her. Her wide smile activates deep dimples. Voluptuous lips glisten with a coral color that complements her skin. The expected silk sheath, in a vivid green, hugs her ample hips and her trademark belt cinches her small waist. He focuses on her crooked front tooth, avoiding her eyes that are sure to be malicious or alluring, or both.
“Are you not glad to see that I am well?” A wisp of amusement layers Carlotta’s question. She speaks again, as he considers his response. “Glad that I have returned to be the mother Christina needs?”
“Carlotta, there was nothing…” He falls silent in response to her rapid approach toward him.
The clicks of her heels remind him of a fast galloping horse. He braces himself for pain. Her hand on his shoulder, talons digging into his flesh protected only by a cotton T-shirt, reminds him of old times. Musky cinnamon up close and personal. He closes his eyes as if that might act as a shield against the scent. How could she have the same perfume after being deported? Sent away with no belongings except those on her back?
“Why you not ask how I live?” she asks, eerily echoing his thoughts.
He opens his eyes. “Carlotta, there was nothing--“
She puts her other hand over his mouth, the pressure just slightly more than necessary. Her talons press deeply into his brown skin, the color of ripe tobacco leaf.
“Shhh,” she says, still smiling. “Look at me, Carly.”
He complies, looking into eyes that glisten darkly. Eyes devoid of warmth.
“Do you not agree,” she continues, “that our Christina needs a mother?”
She points, with an expansive gesture, toward the chair he recently vacated. He sits. She caresses his nearest shoulder, then grips it again and speaks in a less lyrical voice.
“Well, I am her mother. Not that cow, Isabelle.” She sashays a few feet away, then back and waves a coral colored fingernail in his face. “I will be there for her when she comes into womanhood. Su Madre.” She runs fingers through his jet-black hair, short, spiky and shiny as she likes it. Her fingernails scrape his scalp.
He looks down as she gathers the front of his T-shirt into a tight bunch.
“I will be la mujer who teaches Christina how to handle you hombres.” Carlotta abruptly releases his shirt and exclaims, “¿Qué el infierno?” Her body becomes rigid, a look of angry surprise on her face. She falls to the floor twitching from a dart fired from across the room.
A man, similar in looks to Carlos, except heftier and with black hair to his collar, comes fully into the room. He pulls a needle from his jacket, bends down next to Carlotta and empties the contents into her arm. Only then, does he look at Carlos. He speaks in a stern voice.
“Isabelle warned you. She told you this puta would not go on to another life without Christina.”
Carlos pulls a shaky hand over his face, and then holds it out toward his brother-in-law, Esteban. “Enough. Just give me a moment to think.” He paces away from Carlotta’s prone body.
Estaban’s voice roars from him. “Think!? ¡Mi Dios! You have to think about this monster who strips you of your manhood? And takes pleasure from it. Is that what you want for su hija?”
Carlos paces a few steps further away, regretting taking his sister into his confidence, wishing his sister didn’t feel obligated to share everything with her husband; but understanding and envying their partnership. He’s also grateful that Esteban did not further impugn his manhood. He turns back to his brother-in-law, his voice weary. “What would you have me do? The sure thing did not work.”
Esteban speaks in a quiet, more empathetic tone. “The sure thing has not been tried. Obviously, the authorities are not the answer. And she is not going away.” He pauses. “She enjoys torturing you. That is her version of love. Do you wish Christina to learn it?”
Carlos’s voice rises from the pain in his chest. A pain manifested from the torment of the last six years. “Of course not!”
Esteban remains relentless and blunt. “She’s alive. Do you wish her to remain so?”
“I must be able to look my daughter in the face.”
“Yes, you must.”
Carlos crumples into the closest armchair. Yes, I must, he thinks. “I don’t want to know what you do.” He looks out of the picture window. “She must, however, not trouble Christina again. “ He pauses.
Esteban waits, arms folded loosely across his chest. Carlos finally speaks again.
“Strangers must take her away, so I can look Christina in the eye to tell her this story. You and Isabelle must stay on agreement with me, so listen." Carlos recites the story dispassionately. “Her mother was deported because we could not stop it, but we hoped to one day get her mother back. Her Madre tried to get back to her, but some bad men lied to her Madre about returning to her old life and no one has seen her since. We...we fear that she did not survive.” He stands. “Do what you must do. I am leaving. I need to think. Have Izzy bring Christina home, and then call me and I will return.”
Esteban clasps a hand on Carlos’ nearest shoulder. “Now you get your life back. “
Carlos covers the comforting hand and looks him directly in his eye. “Promise me, you will not be involved in the final act, but a reliable witness can say that it is done well.” He walks from the room and the house.
When Isabelle calls Carlos, he sits at a diner around the corner from his home. “I will be there in a few minutes.” He strides purposely toward his single-parent home, wanting badly to hold his precious daughter.
He slowly climbs the stairs to Christina’s bedroom. His loafers make no clicks on the stairs. The sound of his daughter singing a nursery rhyme with his sister makes him smile. He knocks lightly, but goes in before either can answer. Christina runs to hug her daddy. He holds her close, and then out so he can look at her. A little Carlotta.
Please, God, he thinks, let none of Carlotta’s vileness exist in this child. Tears sting his eyes, but he makes sure they do not fall. He sits on Christina’s bed and pulls her onto his lap. She sits ramrod straight, dainty hands folded in her lap.
He looks over at Isabelle who sits at the head of the bed. “Hola, Izzy." He asks his daughter, "Did you have fun?”
Christina nods. It makes her wild mass of black curls jump around her head as if a separate animal. “Of course, silly Daddy.”
Isabelle laughs and stands. “Of course, silly brother.” She bends and kisses him on the cheek, then kisses Christina on the head. “Goodnight, mi amors.” She holds Carlos’s glance and mouths, Do not worry.
Carlos continues to sit on the bed and listen to Christina’s six-year-old prattle about the events of the day with Aunt Izzy. He strokes her hair. She looks up at him after her recitation. He stares tenderly into her large, dark eyes.
“Honey, you understand that your Madre may never be back? We may never find her?”
The luminous eyes regard him solemnly for a moment. “Silly daddy, of course she’ll be back. I saw her today.”
Carlos turns her thin shoulders, more roughly than intended, so that she faces him. “What do you mean, today?”
“Papá!” Christina pulls from his vise grip.
“I am sorry, mi dulce, but where did you see her?”
“When Aunt Izzy and I were out. She did this.” Christina pantomimes silence by holding a finger to her lips, then grins. “So, she wants it to be a surprise.”
Tremors move silently up his legs. He knows he dare not stand. He tries to pull his cell phone out without visibly shaking.
How could this be? he wonders. No calls were to be made in regard to the deed, but surely... Could something have gone wrong? He receives voice mail at both Isabelle’s and Esteban’s numbers.
He ends the calls without leaving messages , and then releases a tremulous breath, knowing one sure thing. There is nothing to do but wait.
to be continued*
*Special thanks to Stephen King