When I was little, I asked my mom, “What’s the difference between a lie and a secret?”
“A secret is a truth you hide,” she said. “A lie is like a weapon.”
A lie can cut.
A lie can bleed.
A lie can play tricks with your mind.
But as it turns out, a secret is just a lie in disguise. It eats at the truth like a termite eats at the wood that keeps your house up. When you finally see what that secret’s done, it’s too late to repair the damage. That’s why I’m living with Papi now in the back of this rusty, old van. Turns out that Mami had secrets of her own. She was the queen of disguises.
“Roll ’em up,” Papi says as he pulls the van onto the freeway on-ramp.
I tug at the old-school handle on the door as the window squeals in protest. The pots and pans rattle in the back of the van—in the seats that double as a kitchen. I turn up the volume on my hand-me-down phone, igniting my earbuds with rhythm.
The tink tink tink of timbales wages war with the sound of tires on asphalt. Celia Cruz, with her larger-than-life throaty voice, drowns out the highway rumble. Mami always said that Celia sang big so life wouldn’t make her small. I wonder what Celia would do if her mom left her the way Mami left me.
“Okay, Salva?” Papi says.
I nod and give Papi a sort of smile. The kind you give to strangers when you pass them on the sidewalk and are trying to be polite. ’Cause that’s what Papi feels like—a stranger. A memory from a time before. I can barely even remember what it felt like to be a family.
Papi left when I was two years old. Just barely out of diapers. And even though I saw him on weekends for a while, the days in between were like a whiteout. They blotted out the little things, like the warmth of two parents beside you. Or a flash of light through the windowpane when Papi came home from the workday.
But then he got that job as a journalist for the Times, and the visits came less and less often. I’d go sometimes a year without seeing him, except for when he’d video call. He was always traveling to someplace new, someplace more exciting. And that was okay because I still had Mami. And she was my safe place. My home.
But that was before Mami left. I push all those thoughts away.
“What’s that?” asks Papi, gesturing to the photograph sitting in my lap.
“Just a picture,” I say. “I took it from Mami’s room before we left." I glance at the Polaroid memory of Mami at one of Celia’s concerts. Celia burns like a flame on the stage while Mami smiles, happy, her long brown hair spilling over her shoulders to her belt like a waterfall. Mami said Celia was a Cuban exile, uprooted and then replanted. Just like Mami when she moved from México.
Just like I am now. I’m stuck with the choices others made—the ones who are supposed to know better. Uprooted is all I am. With nowhere new to replant and grow.
I look out the window, watching as the city gives way to stretches of grass. The farther we go, the farther away I get from that feeling of home. The same old questions roll through my mind. Did something bad happen to Mami? Is that why she didn’t come home? Or did I do something to make her want to leave me?
I wipe my nose with the corner of my sleeve, sniffling quietly. But Papi hears me anyway. His heavy hand brushes my cheek.
“It’s going to be okay, you know.”
I keep my eyes trained out the window. The skin of his thumb is like sandpaper as it wipes my tears away. I stare at the pink-brushed clouds as the last of the city fades away.
“Yeah,” I say.
But I know it’s a lie. Even Papi can’t see the future.
When we finally pull off the freeway, the sky has turned to ash. I can already see a hint of stars beyond the darkened hilltops. Papi flicks his indicator on, turning onto a single car roadway. The van coughs exhaust like it’s hungry for rest. Up ahead, there’s nothing but darkness.
“Azúcar!” Celia says.
I turn down the volume on my phone. The music’s too loud now that we’ve left the rumble of the freeway behind. Papi grins at the blur of inky redwoods along the road. “It’s beautiful here, ain’t it, mija?”
All I see is what’s left behind.
“We should go for a hike tomorrow. There’s lots of trails up here,” says Papi. “I hear there’s even a lake or two up there in the mountains. We could pack a lunch, maybe do some fishing?”
My eyebrows reach for the ceiling. I toss a look at the scattering of books and clothes on the table behind me.
“Well.” Papi shrugs. “We’d have to buy a rod. And some of -that . . . whaddaya call it? Bait?”
When he says the word bait, it comes out like baith in his syrupy Mexican accent.
“Okay,” I say.
“Okay? Yeah?” Papi smiles, relief in his eyes. “This is going to be good. You’ll see. We finally get to spend some time together.”
I turn my gaze back to the window, hiding the feelings creeping up my face. That mixture of fear, confusion, and sadness I always feel around Papi.
“Yeah,” I say.
“Ándale. That’s the spirit. We’re going to have lots of fun. It’ll be just like old times!”
I wonder which “old times” he means. The ones before, when we all lived together and he and Mami were married? Or the ones when Papi moved away, and Mami was always working?
“Papi?” I ask.
I swallow the tidal wave of questions. “Never mind.” I turn my gaze back toward the shadowy, tree-lined road.
Papi’s sigh is grim. “It’s not about you, mija, you know.”
“Your mom. She loves you. We’ll get to the bottom of this, I promise.”
“Yeah,” I say. But that’s a lie, too. Papi can’t make that kind of promise. I shiver as Papi rolls down the window, letting in a stream of cold air.
The smell of pine and firewood reaches my nostrils like a -home--cooked meal. Like comfort. Like a fairy-tale cabin. Like stories around a campfire. I wonder what it’s like to be one of those kids who goes camping on family vacations.
“There it is,” Papi says.
We slow as the van turns onto a gravel roadway. The high beams ignite a wooden sign with weathered yellow lettering. “Lonely Pine RV Resort and Campground.” My stomach does a backflip. We roll to a stop as a man pops out of the small wooden booth at the gate.
“Evenin’. Y’all stayin’ for the night?”
“That’s right,” Papi says.
“Got a reservation?”
Papi riffles through the glove compartment and pulls out a crinkled piece of paper. He hands it to the man who studies it before taping something to the window.
"Lot 54. Up by the pool.”
I sit up straighter in my seat.
“There’s a pool?” I say as the bar moves up, letting us through the gate.
Papi gives me that too-white smile that reminds me of a box of chicletas. “Thought you might like that. Maybe we can take a swim after breakfast tomorrow.”
“What about work?” I ask.
Papi shrugs. “Not like it’s going anywhere. We can hike first, then cool off with a swim. These woods are awfully pretty.”
We slowly weave through the campground, our eyes peeled for Lot 54. A woman in an oversize sweatshirt waves at us from her chair by a tangerine campfire. We pass a building marked General Store and crawl up a long hill. A shimmer of light reveals the pool and the bathrooms right behind it.
“Lot 54,” Papi says. He pulls in between two trees. I wait for the engine to stop before pulling on my jacket and opening the door.
I shiver as the cool air hits my legs and crawls all the way up my spine. It’s nothing like the desert air of home. Nothing like the heat of the city. When I look around, it’s hard to believe we’re still in California. It’s like we traveled to a whole new world. And I guess, in a way, we did.
“Home sweet home!” Papi says.
Home is a relative word. I tuck away Mami’s photo as I close the door behind me.
Copyright © 2024 by Mónica Mancillas. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.