There was a definite air of change around the house, and in the room where four girls now slept, the change showed in their every move. Araceli no longer was the simple quiet girl. She was more womanly, and had a quiet air of authority about her that had never been before. Maria may have been cold before, and headstrong, but now it seemed that no-one could get to her. She was part of the house, but she was lost to them as she battled within herself.
Carmen and Selena now slept in separate beds, and while they still were close, there was a definite change in their once seamless relationship. There was an air of secrecy about and neither girl could figure out what the other was hiding. Perhaps they didn’t want to know, but soon, their intertwinement faded, and each became her own person. With Mercedes gone, the lives of the girls were forever changed.
Carmen sensed that there was something afoot with Selena. She was the baby, and Carmen knew that there was a lot of affection from Papa to her. Carmen tried not to care, but now her thoughts swirled around and became darker, tinged with jealousy. She didn’t like to be left in the dark, and Selena was definitely keeping something from her. Not that it mattered. She had her own secret who worked at the Superstore in town.
Papa dreamt that his father’s curse had been passed down to him. He could feel the aches and pains deep inside. It was there when he awoke, and there while he slept. He took to visiting the bush doctor, and in his smoky, dirty realm of magic and prayer, Don Aurelio learned that there was not much he could do. The bush doctor recommended real doctors, maybe surgery, pills, and the dreaded hospitals. Don Aurelio, being an ambitious man, wanted to remain alive. So he took the advice. There was enough money left in the bank from the new harvest and sales to pay the bills.
Back and forth he would travel, winding up and down hills, through a neighboring village, and then scaling the big mountain with his car. He preferred to travel alone, driving to the bank, and then to the hospital. Each time he reached halfway through the last mountain before reaching town, he looked down, and saw the green river below, like a long winding ribbon it gently sliced through trees and more mountains. His breath would catch, as though he’d run up the mountain himself, and with each passing trip, his breath would be harder to catch. Time was slipping away, and the cancer was eating at him like the river was at the land.
Some days however, he had company.
He saw the change in his daughter Carmen as he saw many things changing at home. He knew she didn’t need to buy much, but perhaps it was his ailing health that wore down his defenses, his authority, and he told himself a little lie each time she begged to accompany him. She wants to be with you, in your hour of need…she is a good daughter…she could be the right touch of ambitious and clever…she could be… he didn’t see the young man who looked out with hungry eyes from the store. And he didn’t see the smile that lit up his daughter’s face as she practically ran inside.
Don Aurelio knew he was running, but he refused to accept his fate, and he hoped vainly that each trip would give him better news. Instead, his hopes were dashed time and again, and new medication was pumped into him. He began to wonder if he simply inherited the curse. Had he lived his life in vain, being so kind to others, and avoiding his father’s footsteps? Should he have lived recklessly, indulging in the cheaper pleasures of the bottle and loose women, if he’d known being a good person was all in vain? In his heart, he knew it was not him, but in his moments of struggle, he battled within. All the while, his heart grew weaker.
Sixteen-year-old Carmen knew from the moment she laid eyes on Martin Magana that she had met her future husband. She was always a cool, wily one, and she plotted her future as certainly as she plotted the next project at home. Carmen envisioned a homestead like the one she lived in, huge tracts of land, workers to do her bidding, and a lifetime of comforts. In Martin, she had found her match, but rather than run the other way, she embraced his ambition, and calculated how it would work to her advantage. They may have been children, but time spent watching and learning from elders served them right.
Martin knew there was money. Suddenly, there was money to be had, and his grand dreams of success flourished. Carmen nurtured his dreams as well, and he did not know just how much more she was capable of than him.
At home, Selena tried to concentrate on the task at hand. It was futile. She knew she had to go back to her hiding place, locate and simply touch the bag. She feigned a yawn, and headed to the big house by way of the kitchen, as though she was looking for a drink. Carmen had stayed behind today while Papa went to town with Mama and Araceli for a change. AnaMaria was in her world, and she didn’t notice that when Selena left, Carmen also stopped working. She looked out the window, and saw from the corner of her eye when Selena slipped back out. Carmen strained her neck and saw her heading to the bathroom. She got up.
Selena fought the urge to go searching for the bag, feeling that it was as safe as it was when she last saw it before heading to the workshop. Instead, she went to the outhouse. She didn’t head the swish of Carmen’s skirts until she came back out and saw her. As surprised as she was, she feigned indifference and smiled sweetly.
“What are you hiding?”
Selena grew wary. “Nothing.”
“You’ve been hiding something. I want to know what it is. Where is it?”
“It’s nothing. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Selena saw Carmen’s eyes narrow, and she thought to run. She weighed her options, and saw that she had a choice.
“Wait till Papa comes home and I will show you something.”
“I want to see it now,” Carmen insisted. She felt angry that Selena would hide something from her, and she wanted to be a part of the secret.
Selena wavered, but she knew Carmen would keep badgering her. She would just have to give the bag back to Papa.
The two girls ran back to the big house, and in the big house in their bedroom, Selena went under the bed. There, by the head of the bed, she lay and pried out a piece of the wall. She had discovered the hiding place long ago when she was sweeping under the beds, and saw that there was a window to the wall. She thought it was a window, a tiny one, and was disappointed when she found nothing in there. She forgot all about that window till Papa gave her the bag to hide.
Now she trembled, partly in fear of Papa having to find out, and partly in excitement to share the big secret. Carmen sidled up to her under the narrow bed, their small frames fitting perfectly under. Selena hesitated slightly, then she moved the bit of wall and reached in to grab the bag.
Carmen’s eyes grew wide as the bag came into view, and she snatched it away from Selena. She opened it up quickly, and her breath caught as she saw the money. All that glorious money, under Selena’s bed all this while. For a moment, she seethed in jealousy and anger. Why was the baby hiding it and not her? She looked up and saw her little sister’s look of pleasure on her face. And she knew why. Selena was an innocent. Carmen closed the bag up and gave it back to her. Gently, the bag was put back in its place, and the wall sealed. It sat in the dark, awaiting its fate.
For a week, Carmen stewed in her newfound knowledge. She promised not to tell anyone anything, and Selena, silly child that she was, didn’t tell Papa anything either.
Papa knew he had to leave the country and seek better doctors. He called upon his family, and when he told them his plans, everyone was in tears. No-one could hide the fact that they had known, but to hear him say out loud what they had all feared made the sadness palpable. Their brother would accompany him abroad, and AnaMaria would go along with them. Mama would stay behind, and the other girls would have to keep her company while her husband went away, hopefully to get better.
Selena knew Papa would need the money in the bag soon, and she kept waiting for him to ask her for it. Now that Carmen knew her big secret, she felt safe and secure. She no longer had the urge to open the bag and see for herself the fortune she hid under her bed.
At the end of the week after Carmen found out, they once again woke to the sound of a single horse galloping hard across their land. Fear kept them immobile in bed, and Mama and Papa shivered. The last time they had been awoken like this, something terrible had happened to their beloved Mercedes. Papa knew he could not bear something like that happening again. He would rather die.
After the initial shock, everyone clambered out of bed and headed outside to see which horse had come loose. They spilled out into the early sunshine, and to their amazement, Alfonso was astride his horse. He looked older, but still, he smiled.
Papa was glad to see him, and he called out to him. Alfonso looked at Papa, and he knew his timing was perfect. He would be needed.
The kitchen bustled with life as everyone greeted the former foreman, with the marked exception of AnaMaria. She had taken one look at the visitor, and promptly had headed out to the workshop. No-one took any notice of her, and everyone else enjoyed breakfast. Alfonso was greeted like a family member, and Papa soon outlined his plans, and happily, Alfonso agreed to take over while he went away to get better. The date was set, and a new routine began.
The flurry of preparations had everyone busy, and no-one took any notice of Selena’s sudden enchantment with the man who had fled after Mercedes had died. He was so much older than her, but she tried to get his attention. She was so entangled in her own silly notions that once again, she failed to take note of what was happening around her.
Carmen had her plans in place, and with the sudden break in time and opportunity, she knew she had to move quickly. Martin Magana had a place to stay – and he was waiting; all that was left was for Carmen, his future wife, to show up with the money, and they could begin their new life. Carmen never thought to talk to her parents about her plans, never did she outline her desires, and she never knew how much she truly lost.
She stole away when no-one was around the bedrooms, and she took the stacks of bills, hiding them on her person and in her bag of clothes. She waited for the perfect time, while everyone was preparing a sendoff feast, and then she ran away.
Papa had prepared everything, and he knew there was one more thing to do. Everyone’s routine had been disrupted, with the exception of AnaMaria’s. As usual, she took the least amount of time to prepare, and once she was done, she was back at the workshop while everyone ran about in a tizzy. Selena was in the kitchen, helping Mama prepare the feast and hoping to impress the new foreman. She saw Papa beckon her and she slipped out of the kitchen and joined him. She knew what he wanted.
As Papa walked with her to the bedroom, his breath caught several times. Don Aurelio was a very sick man, and he needed a lot of help. Selena proudly slid under the bed, and took out the bag. It had been a few days since she’d done so, and she wondered if it had been as light before. She came up from under, and sat on the mattress and opened the bag.
Save for a few bills, there was nothing else in the bag.
Papa felt ice clutch his heart. He couldn’t breathe. He looked at Selena, caught the stricken look on her face. He knew she had shown someone else. He saw the future, and it was bleak. The room tilted, swam before his eyes, and turned black.
Selena couldn’t even scream. She saw Papa blink, gasp once, then he clutched his heart and fell onto the next bed. She knew he was gone. She held him, hugged him, murmured to him. Nothing - like the bag, they were empty words.
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