“Shut that screen door, Merci! You’re letting in mosquitoes!”
Mami’s sharp voice makes me jump as Tuerto dashes between my legs. He doesn’t even stop for a chin scratch in his race to escape the heat.
It’s early, but Mami’s already in her scrubs for work, though she’s still padding in bedroom slippers and a sloppy ponytail. Her eyebrows aren’t drawn in yet, either.
“Sorry. I was just letting him in before he got too loud,” I say, swatting at the half dozen bloodsuckers that are now darting around the kitchen.
The sun was barely up when I heard the meows. They echoed through our backyards, sounding like one of those spirits that Abuela warns about—a tátara-something‑or‑other buried back in Cuba who gets testy if they think they’ve been forgotten by their descendants.
Anyway, when I flipped on the light, I found Tuerto glaring at me from outside, his front claws clinging high and wide against the screen like he was the victim of a stickup.
“Did that cat shred the mesh again?” Mami asks, exasperated. “Your father just fixed it last week.”
“No.” I move my body to hide the new tear near the seam. She’s not above making me pay for the repair. But can I help it if our cat is a genius? He’s learned to yowl and shake the door to let us know he wants to come in. I’ve taken videos of him doing that trick because, one, my friend Wilson and I like trading funny cat videos when we’re bored, and two, while it may be lousy door manners, we’ve seen pets on Those Awesome Animals on TV win the $5,000 prize for less. Maybe we’ll get lucky.
“And anyway, you can’t blame Tuerto for wanting to come in from the heat, can you? He’s wearing a fur coat, you know, and it’s his nature to survive.” I motion at the thermometer we keep hanging on the patio. The needle is pointing at the red numbers. “It’s already ninety degrees!”
It’s the best defense I can think of, though I hope she doesn’t point out other less flattering parts of Tuerto’s nature, namely that he’s a heartless murderer. He kills everything: birds, mice, voles, lizards—even baby possums—and leaves them as grisly presents. I think back to the first time Tuerto left us a dead sparrow in Lolo’s garden. I was so angry at Tuerto for killing that pretty bird. “We feed Tuerto!” I cried. “He doesn’t need to kill things.” But Lolo just cradled the little body in his palm and helped me bury it so its spirit could live in the flowers. “There’s no stopping Mother Nature in the end, preciosa,” he told me, though we tied a silver warning bell to Tuerto’s collar after that.
Mami sighs and yanks the chain for the ceiling fan, trying to circulate the air-conditioning that never quite keeps up with Florida in July.
“I suppose you’re right about the heat,” she mutters. Then she reaches under the chipped saltshaker on the kitchen table and hands over today’s List of Doom.
I try not to look bitter as I review my list of chores. I should be with Papi and Simón this morning, way out past the cane fields in the Glades. If they finish that job early, they’re planning to fish on Lake Okeechobee for a little while.
Mami, however, had other ideas for my time and ruined the fun. She says chores build character.
Which is porquería.
“You have to clean your room today,” she tells me, as if I can’t read her list myself. “It’s a mess. Tuerto is nesting in sweaty underwear.”
“It’s mostly Roli’s,” I say. “Go see for yourself—if you dare.” It requires the moves of a ninja just to get past our door with Roli’s boxes from college all over the room. He hasn’t unpacked from when he came home in May.
Naturally, she ignores this. “Let him sleep,” she says.
Roli worked the graveyard shift at Walgreens again last night, so he’s out cold, snoring como si nada on the other side of the curtain that divides our room.
Mami loads the percolator with El Pico and lights the flame. “You have your summer reading, too. Don’t forget. There’s only a couple of weeks left before school starts.”
From the corner of my eye, I see the incriminating stack of library books sitting on the shelf near the back door exactly where I left them three weeks ago. I read the business book (my free choice) in two days, but I haven’t even started the other two, mostly on principle. Why should I do homework for a teacher I haven’t even met? But the not‑so‑secret faculty motto at Seaward Pines Academy is apparently Work ’em till their eyes bleed.
“It’s kind of hard to read if I have all these other chores, too,” I say. “Besides, is summer reading even legal to assign during an official vacation period?”
I grab my phone from the charging station and type the word vacation into the dictionary. “It says right here: ‘Vacation: An extended period of leisure and recreation.’ ” I give her a knowing look. “We’d never get away with this kind of infringement on an employee’s personal time in the business world.” I should know since I am currently writing the Sol Painting, Inc., employee handbook for Papi. “In fact, I’m pretty sure my rights are being violated. I may have a case here.”
“Only if you mean a case of poor planning,” Mami says. “We’ve been over this, Merci. Reading is
I give her a look. “Not with those
“How would you know if you haven’t started them?” She peers out the kitchen window toward Abuela’s house, where the lights are on. There’s a small flash of worry in her face.
“What?” I say, walking over. The summer has been tough on my grandparents, especially Lolo. The heat seems to have melted his mind like butter in a pan—and that has everyone around here on edge. His new medicines were supposed to help with that, but if anything, he seems worse.
“Nada,” she tells me, although I’m not sure whether to believe her. “It just looks like they’re up already. Check in with Abuela before you get started. She might need you to watch Lolo while she showers this morning.”
I try not to make a face at her. I hate when she calls it “watching Lolo.” It’s not like he’s a baby, or worse, like the twins, who are every babysitter’s nightmare. Lolo has always liked to walk the neighborhood, though every once in a while now, he forgets where he is, which makes Abuela jumpy. What is that like? I wonder. To suddenly not know your own block or recognize our houses or, on some days, even know your own name?
Anyway, I try not to think about that too much. And I don’t mind taking walks with Lolo, either, even if we’re moving slower these days. He’s quiet, but I can still tell Lolo anything I want and be 100 percent sure that he won’t tell anybody else.
Copyright © 2022 by Meg Medina. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.