Six - First Mentor
"And this is the original collection of tiaras worn by the first queen of Obierna during her early reign. Center, is the pendant she wore on the day of her wedding." The red-lipped tour guide batted her false eyelashes as if it would summon applause.
"What did she wear to her execution?" Yasmin answered, her dark eyes flat and serious.
The museum goers tittered.
"I - uh…" The woman's eyes found Karen's raised hand. "Yes, the little girl in yellow."
"That's not the collection. That's a replica. The original is at the family's home castle. Why would they give it to a Kindle City museum?"
"Okay, that's enough touring," Paola interrupted, steering her daughters toward the gift shop.
Karen was relieved. There wasn't much she didn't already know that the Museum of Northern American History couldn't tell her. She loved learning more than anything. It was hard to stay quiet when the tour guide mispronounced half of the words in her barely memorized facts. Yasmina had followed her in her absorption of facts and history. The girls were the same age, both ten years old, but she looked up to Karen. And they both had to look out for each other.
Karen picked out a necklace. It had a portrait with the ill-fated queen inside the locket, across from her husband, who had died the year before, escaping the rebels. It reminded Karen of what Aunt Miranda had said - about Charlie's father dying before he saw their mother fall apart.
It took Yasmina years to decide on a small carving knife.
"You can't even use that!" Karen protested. "It's pointless."
"No, it's not," Yasmin said calmly. "I'll keep it on display in my room. And when I'm bigger, I can use it for the disessections on my toys. Right, Mama?"
Paola laughed, flipping her hair in the wind as they walked to the ice cream parlor. "Of course, mija. You can use it as you like." Sometimes Paola seemed younger than Dad, even though they were the same age.
Karen poked at her vanilla ice cream, deep in thought. She'd never had much of a sweet tooth. She wished they had gone to a park instead. She stared out of the shop window, watching people stroll past, enjoying the unusually warm November day. They were on the east coast still, but further south than Karen's hometown of Rungswell, along with Peachtree, where the rest of her family lived. She missed playing hide-and-seek in the basement and cartwheeling in the backyard. She missed Uncle Drew and her cousins and her sister. And a teeny-tiny part of her that knew it was hopeless, but she missed Nana and Mom.
"So how would you girls feel about a little vacation?" Paola suddenly asked. She had already finished her little scoop of ice cream.
"The Catacombs, please," Yasmin said, wiping cookie crumbs off her face. "I want to go to Paris."
"I'm not asking for suggestions, Yasmina. I'd like to take you guys to see my parents over the winter break in Puerto Rico."
Yasmin shrugged, a light smile on her face. "Fine. But I'm not getting in the water again."
Karen sighed, pushing her food away. "That's fine."
"But Kare, you've never been!" Paola said. "Won't you like having a warm winter for a change?"
What Karen would like is to be able to see Charlie again. Last month Charlie had stayed home from the monthly visit because of a stomach bug. Their visits were already too spaced out. It was terrible not living with her favorite person in the whole world. Before she knew it, one day Charlie wouldn't even care about seeing Karen anymore - she'd think of Marta and Cara as her 'real sisters', since she lived with them. And Karen would be the far-away 'cousin'.
But she didn't want to upset Paola. She wasn't sure what answer she hoped for but she had to ask: "Will Dad come with us?"
Paola smiled. "He'll join us on Christmas, for two or three days. Business."
Karen rolled her eyes. "Of course. Priorities."
"Little Bee," Paola chided. She had taken to calling Karen that, saying the girl came in sudden and quick with her jabs. "Your father is protecting us and our home," she said in a soft voice.
Karen took a big bite of her ice cream so she wouldn't have to talk. Paola knew everything that went down in and out of the house, much more than Karen ever hoped to find out. The bloody knife from three years ago had been the tip of the iceberg. These days, her father rarely hid his shouting matches on the phone with his associates and more than once did a delivery (translation: a dead or soon-to-be dead body) show up at the back door during dinner.
Her stepmother simply smiled and asked her or Yasmin about school. Her father called for dessert or another glass of wine.
Perhaps, in some backwards way, this was her father accepting her into the family. Embracing her as her daughter by keeping his affairs out in the open. That was comforting, to a degree. Nana used to say, "Better a devil you know than a devil you don't." And while her dad wasn't a saint, there were worse crooks to live with.
"I'd like to visit Puerto Rico," Karen declared. "But I do want to get in the ocean."
Yasmin pouted, crossing her arms, but said nothing. She didn't like being afraid of small things, like bugs or swimming or heights, but made no move to try to change that. It baffled Karen.
"Yay!" Paola cheered. "Let's get the -" Her eyes turned toward their right, staring out the window.
The glass shattered as gunshots broke through, fragments raining down on them. A shard of glass sliced into Karen's arm as it fell.
BAM! BAM! BAM!
Paola lunged for the girls, pulling them to the ground before they could move. Customers screamed, ducking under tables, as the shots fired wildly, as if trying to kill anyone and everyone in one go.
Karen lay in a pile of broken glass on her belly tucked next to her stepmother. Each gunshot beat against her eardrums, smacking into her heart, accompanied by the violent, prickly noise of glass exploding and chairs splintering. In the back, a machine erupted open, splattering ice cream onto the walls.
Long after the gunshot quieted, sharp screams and pained moans continued, along with the wail of sirens. Karen's eyes fluttered open and she jumped away from the pool of blood snaking its way to her and her family. Dark yet vibrant and almost magical. Before her eyes, someone's life was leaving their body.
Paola sat up, crouching against their table. She muttered a long string of curses in Spanish, peering out of the window and seeing the cop cars and ambulances outside, along with large crowds of people nervously staring at the scene. Everyone inside the parlor crowded around the wounded or ran frantically out to safety.
Karen barely had time to grab a napkin for her bleeding face before Paola pulled her and Yasmin to her feet and dragged them behind the counter to the kitchen. The workers must have fled out the back door or been all out front. No one stopped them as Paola marched swiftly out the back like she knew the place, holding her daughters by their sleeves.
"Paola?" Karen choked out, still shocked. "Paola! Where are we going?"
"Home." Paola grinned her customary toothy smile. As she walked, she brushed the last bit of glass from her turtleneck and trousers. She peeled off her plum-colored coat and shoved it into a waste bin. "It's hot, anyway." She stopped once, to pull a scarf from her purse and wrap it around Karen's neck. The thick wool obscured the shallow cut. She smoothed Yasmin's hair and fluffed Karen's. "There."
She guided the girls through a few side streets, calling for their driver. When she was done, they waited outside the museum they had visited earlier. "Now," she said. "Who wants to start shopping for vacation?"
After a somewhat silent dinner, Paola told Yasmin to go to her room.
"Must I?" The small girl whined.
"Yes, you must." When her daughter left, Paola took another big sip of her wine, rubbing her temple. Dad was out working late at the office. Karen was still trying to decode what that meant - most of his business was conducted at home, no matter how ugly. Which meant something so grim was going on that his family couldn't see it.
Karen nervously looked up at Paola, but the woman got up without another word. After a minute, she followed her silently.
The bedrooms and the playroom were upstairs. There was little to see downstairs, besides the living room, the library, her dad's office, and the kitchen and dining area. To her surprise, Paola went behind the grand staircase, to the obscured downstairs one. Some time ago, the basement had been remodeled into a nice gym, filled with chrome and black and glass, but nothing there interested Karen.
She looked around at the white brick walls and grey floor, at the treadmills, the boxing bags, the locker room in the back. Karen crossed her arms. "I'm not going to run until I forget about it."
"Little Bee," Paola started in her warning voice.
"Paola, you literally ran out of there! Why did we have to leave? And you saw something before we did! You could have given the police your account and stopped that guy."
"Karen, it by no means was some guy I could have reported and got thrown in jail."
"Those guys then. You could've helped. But you didn't."
"I'd rather be alive," her stepmother argued weakly, so soft it was barely audible, staring over Karen's head. She chewed on her lip, even though she wore her dark brown lipstick. For a minute, the light in her seemed to fizzle out.
Paola suddenly laughed. "When I was your age, I would've helped. I would've done all I could. But some fish are too big for the net. So you have to sink to their level."
Understanding dawned in Karen's eyes. Could she mean…? "Dad's enemies. They were looking for him. Why would they shoot at you?"
Paola waved her hand dismissively. "It could've been people after your father. It could've been people from my past, coming after me specifically. Or it could've been some flunkeys with a different target entirely. We don't know. Yet." She hesitated. "I can't tell you all that your father's up to. Nor would I want to burden you with more than you need to know."
Karen shrugged a little. She wished she weren't so weak that she was scared of knowing. This was where her thirst for knowledge stopped - when it scared her. When it could cost her.
"Even so…" Paola strolled over to the corner of the room. She reached a potted plant. At first, Karen thought she was going to pull off a leaf, but Paola turned the leaf over, tapping strategically onto its surface, her fingernail clinking against metal as she did so.
The corner of the room broke away, turning slowly. On the other side was a secret, one Karen could never have guessed: a bow, a quiver of arrows, and a bullseye.
"This is the best I can give you, for now."
Karen gaped at Paola. "What is this?"
"Karen, this is the start. I pray you and Yasmina will never grow up to live a life like this. You're both much too smart and talented, already. Still, I want you to always be safe. And one way to do that is to know how to defend yourself."
"You want me to learn how to shoot arrows?" Karen paused, but no denial came. "So should I just wear a bow over my shoulder instead of a backpack to school.?"
"No, mija. I want you to learn target practice. And if you're a decent shot, the gun will come next."
Karen's eyes stared at the exit. "Nope. No way. Nuh-uh. I'm not killing people."
Paola sighed softly. She lifted the bow off her shoulder. "That is always your choice, Karen. But please do not assume pacifism will grant you peace and safety." She reached into the quiver, selecting an arrow. "You don't ever have to shoot. But try this. Just today. For me."
She was used to following adults' orders - especially when they came from people she shouldn't ever disagree with, like her aunt or her father. But when Karen's hand started to reach for the bow and arrow, she found the strength to pull back. This was an adult she could count on for patience. "Paola? I have a favor to ask you."
"Will you tell me what goes on in Dad's office?" She said the words quickly, so fast she wasn't sure Paola heard her right.
"Not like you do."
Paola straightened, seeming much, much taller, though Karen could tell it'd only be a few years before she dwarfed the woman herself. "Once I tell you, Bee, I cannot untell you."
Karen swallowed. "I know that. But it'd help me understand why we're doing this at all."
"Today wasn't enough for you?" Her voice was sharp, the harshest Karen had ever heard her speak. Then another dry laugh came. Paola leaned against a treadmill. "You are asking me to make you less safe and more safe all at once."
"Please, Paola. You know I hate to be left in the dark. If something happens..." She didn't know how to finish that sentence. If something happened to either of her parents, she'd be as good as dead. Or she'd go back to living with her aunt and uncle, and who knew what kind of danger she'd bring to them. Today, someone had wanted to kill her stepmother, and probably her, too. Who knew when they'd return to finish the job?
Paola nodded tiredly, but there was a resignation in her eyes. She always got it, always saw how your mind was working before you could explain yourself. "First shoot. Then we talk," was all she said.
Karen skipped back to her room, invigorated and tense all at once. There was this feeling that the knowledge in her brain was precious as a queen's jewels, but she couldn't lock it away. She was vulnerable to thieves everywhere she went.
Yasmina was laying on the rug in front of Karen's bed, looking at the ant farm. The television was playing some black-and-white movie. "Where were you?"
Karen sidestepped the question as she went to change into her PJ's in her closet. "Why are you playing with my ants?"
"It's mine, too. Daddy got them for both of us."
"But you're scared of them," Karen called over her shoulder.
"Not that much." A lie. "Where were you?"
Karen left the closet and flopped onto her bed. She turned the station to a cartoon. "Paola took me to the gym."
Yasmin didn't say anything, or even look up.
Karen took a deep breath. "Have you been there?"
"Duh. I've lived here since I was four." Yasmin gave her a sideways glance. "And I know about Mama's equipment."
Karen sat up. "So you know how to shoot an arrow?"
"I'm really good. Mama is the best. She can shoot a gnat with her eyes closed." Yasmin carried the ant farm back to the display table in the corner, placing it next to Karen's pet fish, Sammy.
Karen fidgeted with her hands in her lap. There was one last question she had to ask. "Yasmin… Have you held a gun before?"
Her stepsister gave her a baffled look. "I know how to use a gun."
Her heartbeat sped up. Was everyone in the entire family insane? How long before she'd join them? "Who did you shoot?"
"You don't have to shoot anyone to know how to use it." Yasmin flopped onto the bed. "I'm not brave enough to, anyway."
"That's not true. You're much braver than me. You tell Dad I'm sick when I say I don't want to see him. You hide Dad's weapons when he's in a bad mood."
"That's because it's important."
Yasmin gave one of her rare little smiles. "Mama should've shot those guys today."
"Why didn't she?" Karen hadn't even known whether or not Paola was armed.
"I don't know. I think she's afraid of scaring you. Which is stupid. You're brave."
"I hope you're right," Karen sighed
And the two girls fell into silence, trying to feel older than their minds would allow, and tougher than life had made them.