Page 2

"No trouble." He looked down at me for a moment longer and fell back a half step.

"That's real nice of you," I said.

"Hell." He shook his head and replied with a smile, "I'm not nice. But between Miss Marva's pit bulls and Sadlek, someone's got to watch out for you."

We walked along the main drive, Hardy shortening his long stride to correspond with mine. When the pace of our feet matched perfectly, I felt a deep inner pang of satisfaction. I could have gone on walking like that forever, side by side with him. There had been few times in my life I had ever inhabited a moment so fully, with no loneliness lurking at the edges.

When I spoke, my voice sounded languid to my own ears, as if we were lying in lush grass beneath a shade tree. "Why do you say you're not nice?"

A low. rueful-sounding chuckle. "Because I'm an unrepentant sinner."

"So am I." It wasn't true, of course, but if this boy was an unrepentant sinner. I wanted to be one too.

"No you're not," he said with lazy certainty.

"How can you say that when you don't know me?"

"I can tell by looking."

I darted a covert glance at him. I was tempted to ask what else he read from my appearance, but I was afraid I already knew. The unkempt tangle of my ponytail, the modest length of my cutoffs, the big glasses and unplucked brows...it didn't exactly add up to the picture of a boy's wildest fantasies. I decided to change the conversation. "Is Mr. Sadlek mean?" I asked. "Is that why I shouldn't visit him alone?"

"He inherited the trailer park from his parents about five years ago, and ever since then he's harassed every woman who crosses his path. He tried it with my mother a time or two until I told him if he did it again I'd make sure he was nothing but a smear on the ground from here to Sugar Land."

I didn't doubt the claim for a minute. Despite Hardy's youth, he was big enough to inflict quite a lot of damage on someone.

We reached the redbrick ranch house, which clung to the flat arid land like a deer tick. A large black-and-white sign proclaiming BLUEBONNET RANCH MOBILE HOME ESTATES had been planted on the side of the house closest to the main drive, with clusters of faded

plastic bluebonnets tacked to the corners. Just beyond the sign a parade of pink yard flamingos riddled with bullet holes had been arranged precisely along the roadside.

I was to find out later it was the habit of some residents from the trailer park, including Mr. Sadlek, to visit a neighbor's field for target practice. They shot at a row of yard flamingos that bobbed and sprang back whenever they were shot. When a flamingo was too full of holes to be useful, it was strategically placed at the front entrance of the trailer park as an advertisement of the residents' shooting skills.

An OPEN sign hung in the little side window by the front door. Reassured by Hardy's solid presence beside me, I went to the front door, knocked tentatively and pushed it open.

A Latina cleaning lady was busy mopping the entranceway. In the corner, a cassette player spat out the cheerful polka rhythm of tejano music. Glancing upward, the girl spoke in rapid-fire Spanish. "Cuidado, elpiso es mojado. "

I only knew a few words of Spanish. Having no idea what she had meant, I shook my head apologetically. But Hardy replied without missing a beat, "Gracias, tendremos cuidados. " He put a hand on the center of my back. "Careful. The floor's wet."

"You speak Spanish?" I asked him in mild surprise.

His dark brows lifted. "You don't?"

I shook my head, abashed. It had always been a source of vague embarrassment that despite my heritage I couldn't speak my father's language.

A tall, heavy figure appeared in the doorway of the front office. At first glance Louis

Sadlek was a good-looking man. But it was a ruined handsomeness, his face and body showing the decay of habitual self-indulgence. His striped Western shirt had been left untucked in an effort to hide the billow of his waist. Although the fabric of his pants looked like cheap polyester, his boots were made of blue-dyed snakeskin. His even, regular features were marred by the florid bloat around his neck and cheeks.

Sadlek stared at me with casual interest, his lips pulling back in a dirty joke of a smile. He spoke to Hardy first. "Who's the little wetback?"

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the cleaning lady stiffen and pause in her scrubbing. It seemed she had been exposed to the word often enough to know its meaning.

Seeing the instant tension in Hardy's jaw, and the clenching of the fist at his side. I broke in hastily. "Mr. Sadlek, I'm—"

"Don't call her that." Hardy said in a tone that made the hairs rise on the back of my neck.

They stared at each other with palpable animosity, their gazes level. A man well past his prime, and a boy who hadn't yet entered it. But there was no doubt in my mind how it would have ended if there had been a fight.

"I'm Liberty Jones," I said, trying to smooth the moment over. "My mother and I are moving into the new trailer." I dug the envelope from my back pocket and extended it to him. "She told me to give you this."

Sadlek took the envelope and tucked it into his shirt pocket, letting his gaze slide over

me from head to toe. "Diana Jones is your mama?"

"Yes, sir."

"How'd a woman like that get a little dark-skinned girl like you? Your daddy musta been a Mexican."

"Yes, sir."

He gave a scornful snicker and shook his head. Another grin eased across his mouth. "You tell your mama to drop off the rent check herself next time. Tell her I got stuff I want to talk about."

"All right." Eager to be out of his presence, I tugged at Hardy's rigid arm. After a last warning glance at Louis Sadlek. Hardy followed me to the door.

"You'd best not run with white trash like the Cateses, little girl," Sadlek called out after us. "They're trouble. And Hardy's the worst of the lot."

After a scant minute in his presence, I felt as if I'd been wading through chest-high garbage. I turned to glance at Hardy in amazement.

"What a jerk," I said.

"You could say that."

"Does he have a wife and kids?"

Hardy shook his head. "Far as I know, he's been divorced twice. Some women in town seem to think he's a catch. You wouldn't know it to look at him, but he's got some money."

"From the trailer park?"

"That and a side business or two."

"What kind of side business?"

He let out a humorless laugh. "You don't want to know."

We walked to the loop intersection in contemplative silence. Now that evening was settling there were signs of life at the trailer park...cars turning in, voices and televisions filtering through the thin walls, smells of flying food. The white sun was resting on the horizon, bleeding out color until the sky was drenched in purple and orange and crimson.

"Is this it?" Hardy asked, stopping in front of my white trailer with its neat girdle of aluminum siding.

I nodded even before I saw the outline of my mother's profile in the window of the kitchenette. "Yes, it is," I exclaimed with relief. "Thank you."

As I stood there peering up at him through my brown-framed glasses. Hardy reached out to push back a piece of hair that had straggled loose from my ponytail. The callused tip of his finger was gently abrasive against my hairline, like the tickle of a cat's tongue. "You know what you remind me of?" he asked, studying me. "An elf owl."

"There's no such thing," I said.

"Yes there is. They mostly live to the south in the Rio Grande Valley and beyond. But every now and then an elf owl makes its way up here. I've seen one." He used his thumb and forefinger to indicate a distance of five inches. "They're only about this big. Cute little bird."

"I'm not little." I protested.

Hardy smiled. His shadow settled over me, blocking the light of sunset from my dazzled eyes. There was an unfamiliar stirring inside me. I wanted to step deeper into the shadow until I met his body, to feel his arms go around me. "Sadlek was right, you know," he said.

"About what?"

"I am trouble."

I knew that. My rioting heart knew it. and so did my weak knees, and so did my heat-prickling stomach. "I like trouble." I managed to say. and his laugh curled through the air.

He walked away in a graceful long-legged stride, a dark and solitary' figure. I thought of the strength in his hands as he had picked me up from the ground. I watched him until he had disappeared from sight, and my throat felt thick and tingly like I'd just swallowed a spoonful of warm honey.

The sunset finished with a long crack of light rimming the horizon, as if the sky were a big door and God was taking one last peek. Good night, Welcome, I thought, and went into the trailer.

CHAPTER 2

My new home smelled agreeably of fresh-molded plastic and new carpeting. It was a two-bedroom single-wide with a concrete patio pad in the back. I'd been allowed to pick out the wallpaper in my room, white with bunches of pink roses and a narrow blue ribbon woven throughout. We had never lived in a trailer before, having occupied a rent house in Houston before we moved east to Welcome.

Like the trailer, Mama's boyfriend, Flip, was a new acquisition. He'd gotten his name from his habit of constantly flipping through TV channels, which hadn't been so bad at first but after a while it drove me crazy. When Flip was around, no one could watch more than five minutes of any one show.

I was never sure why Mama invited him to live with us—he seemed no better or different than any of her other boyfriends. Flip was like a friendly, oversized dog. good-looking and lazy, with the hint of a beer belly, a shaggy mullet, and an easy grin.

Mama had to support him financially from day one. with her salary as a receptionist at the local title company. Flip, on the other hand, was perpetually unemployed. Although Flip had no objection to having a job, he was strongly opposed to the concept of actually looking for one. It was a common redneck paradox.

But I liked Flip because he made Mama laugh. The sound of those elusive laughs was so precious to me, I wished I could capture one in a Mason jar and keep it forever.

As I walked into the trailer, I saw Flip stretched out on the sofa with a beer in hand while Mama stacked cans in a kitchen cabinet.

"Hey, Liberty," he said easily.

"Hey, Flip." I went into the kitchenette to help my mother. The fluorescent ceiling light shone on the glasslike smoothness of her blond hair. My mother was fine-featured and fair, with mysterious green eyes and a vulnerable mouth. The only clue to her monumental stubbornness was the sharp, clean line of her jaw, vee-shaped like the prow of an ancient sailing ship.

"Did you give the check to Mr. Sadlek. Liberty'?"

"Yes." I reached for sacks of flour, sugar, and cornmeal, and stowed them in the pantry. "He's a real jerk, Mama. He called me a wetback."

She whipped around to face me, her eyes blazing. A flush covered her face in delicate red patches. "That bastard." she exclaimed. "I can't believe—Flip, did you hear what Liberty just said?"

"Nope."

"He called my daughter a wetback."

"Who?"

"Louis Sadlek. The property manager. Flip, get off your ass and go talk to him. Right now! You tell him if he ever does that again—"

"Now, honey, that word don't mean nothing." Flip protested. "Everyone says it. They don't mean no harm."

"Don't you dare try to justify it!" Mama reached out and pulled me close, her arms wrapping protectively around my back and shoulders. Surprised by the strength of her reaction—after all, it wasn't the first time the word had been applied to me and certainly wouldn't be the last—I let her hold me for a moment before wriggling free.

"I'm okay, Mama," I said.

"Anyone who uses that word is showing you he's ignorant trash," she said curtly. "There's nothing wrong with being Mexican. You know that." She was more upset for my sake than I was.

I had always been acutely aware that I was different from Mama. We garnered curious glances when we went anywhere together. Mama, as fair as an angel, and me, dark-haired and obviously Hispanic. I had learned to accept it with resignation. Being half-Mexican was no different than being all-Mexican. That meant I would sometimes be called a wetback even though I was a natural-born American and had never set so much as a toe in the Rio

Grande.

"Flip," Mama persisted, "are you going to talk to him?"

"He doesn't have to," I said, regretting having told her anything. I couldn't imagine Flip going to any trouble for something he plainly considered to be a minor issue.

"Honey," Flip protested, "I don't see no point in making trouble with the landlord on our first day—"

"The point is you should be man enough to stand up for my daughter." Mama glared at him. "I'll do it, damn it."

A long-suffering groan from the sofa, but there was no movement save the flick of his thumb on the remote control.

Anxiously I protested, "Mama, don't. Flip's right, it didn't mean anything." I knew in every cell of my body that my mother must be kept away from Louis Sadlek.

"I won't be long," she said stonily, looking for her purse.

"Please, Mama." I searched frantically for a way to dissuade her. "It's time for dinner. I'm hungry. Really hungry. Can we go out to eat? Let's try out the town cafeteria." Every adult I knew, including Mama, liked going to the cafeteria.

Mama paused and glanced at me; her face softening. "You hate cafeteria food."

"It's grown on me," I insisted. "I've started to like eating out of trays with compartments." Seeing the beginnings of a smile on her lips, I added, "If we're lucky it'll be senior citizens' night and we can get you in for half-price."

"You brat," she exclaimed, laughing suddenly. "I feel like a senior citizen after all this moving." Striding into the main room, she turned off the TV and stood in front of the fading screen. "Up, Flip."

"I'm gonna miss WrestleMania," he protested, sitting up. One side of his shaggy head was flattened from lying on a cushion.

"You won't watch the whole thing anyway," Mama said. "Now, Flip...or I'll hide the remote for an entire month."

Flip heaved a sigh and got to his feet.

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