He hadn’t mentioned seeing Tía Callida, his old babysitter, but as soon as he’d heard about Jason’s vision—the lady in the black dress and shawl—Leo knew it was the same woman. Tía Callida was Hera. His evil babysitter was the queen of the gods. Stuff like that could really deep-fry your brain.
He trudged toward the woods and tried not to think about his childhood—all the messed-up things that had led to his mother’s death. But he couldn’t help it.
* * *
The first time Tía Callida tried to kill him, he must’ve been about two. Tía Callida was looking after him while his mother was at the machine shop. She wasn’t really his aunt, of course—just one of the old women in the community, a generic tía who helped watch the kids. She smelled like a honey-baked ham, and always wore a widow’s dress with a black shawl.
“Let’s set you down for a nap,” she said. “Let’s see if you are my brave little hero, eh?”
Leo was sleepy. She nestled him into his blankets in a warm mound of red and yellow—pillows? The bed was like a cubbyhole in the wall, made of blackened bricks, with a metal slot over his head and a square hole far above, where he could see the stars. He remembered resting comfortably, grabbing at sparks like fireflies. He dozed, and dreamed of a boat made of fire, sailing through the cinders. He imagined himself on board, navigating the sky. Somewhere nearby, Tía Callida sat in her rocking chair—creak, creak, creak—and sang a lullaby. Even at two, Leo knew the difference between English and Spanish, and he remembered being puzzled because Tía Callida was singing in a language that was neither.
Everything was fine until his mother came home. She screamed and raced over to snatch him up, yelling at Tía Callida, “How could you?” But the old lady had disappeared.
Leo remembered looking over his mother’s shoulder at the flames curling around his blankets. Only years later had he realized he’d been sleeping in a blazing fireplace.
The weirdest thing? Tía Callida hadn’t been arrested or even banished from their house. She appeared again several times over the next few years. Once when Leo was three, she let him play with knives. “You must learn your blades early,” she insisted, “if you are to be my hero someday.” Leo managed not to kill himself, but he got the feeling Tía Callida wouldn’t have cared one way or the other.
When Leo was four, Tía found a rattlesnake for him in a nearby cow pasture. She gave him a stick and encouraged him to poke the animal. “Where is your bravery, little hero? Show me the Fates were right to choose you.” Leo stared down at those amber eyes, hearing the dry shh-shh-ssh of the snake’s rattle. He couldn’t bring himself to poke the snake. It didn’t seem fair. Apparently the snake felt the same way about biting a little kid. Leo could’ve sworn it looked at Tía Callida like, Are you nuts, lady? Then it disappeared into the tall grass.
The last time she babysat him, Leo was five. She brought him a pack of crayons and a pad of paper. They sat together at the picnic table in back of the apartment complex, under an old pecan tree. While Tía Callida sang her strange songs, Leo drew a picture of the boat he’d seen in the flames, with colorful sails and rows of oars, a curved stern, and an awesome masthead. When he was almost done, about to sign his name the way he’d learned in kindergarten, a wind snatched the picture away. It flew into the sky and disappeared.
Leo wanted to cry. He’d spent so much time on that picture—but Tía Callida just clucked with disappointment.
“It isn’t time yet, little hero. Someday, you’ll have your quest. You’ll find your destiny, and your hard journey will finally make sense. But first you must face many sorrows. I regret that, but heroes cannot be shaped any other way. Now, make me a fire, eh? Warm these old bones.”
A few minutes later, Leo’s mom came out and shrieked with horror. Tía Callida was gone, but Leo sat in the middle of a smoking fire. The pad of paper was reduced to ashes. Crayons had melted into a bubbling puddle of multicolored goo, and Leo’s hands were ablaze, slowly burning through the picnic table. For years afterward, people in the apartment complex would wonder how someone had seared the impressions of a five-year-old’s hands an inch deep into solid wood.
Now Leo was sure that Tía Callida, his psychotic babysitter, had been Hera all along. That made her, what—his godly grandmother? His family was even more messed up than he realized.
He wondered if his mother had known the truth. Leo remembered after that last visit, his mom took him inside and had a long talk with him, but he only understood some of it.
“She can’t come back again.” His mom had a beautiful face with kind eyes, and curly dark hair, but she looked older than she was because of hard work. The lines around her eyes were deeply etched. Her hands were callused. She was the first person from their family to graduate from college. She had a degree in mechanical engineering and could design anything, fix anything, build anything.
No one would hire her. No company would take her seriously, so she ended up in the machine shop, trying to make enough money to support the two of them. She always smelled of machine oil, and when she talked with Leo, she switched from Spanish to English constantly—using them like complementary tools. It took Leo years to realize that not everyone spoke that way. She’d even taught him Morse code as a kind of game, so they could tap messages to each other when they were in different rooms: I love you. You okay? Simple things like that.
“I don’t care what Callida says,” his mom told him. “I don’t care about destiny and the Fates. You’re too young for that. You’re still my baby.”
She took his hands, looking for burn marks, but of course there weren’t any. “Leo, listen to me. Fire is a tool, like anything else, but it’s more dangerous than most. You don’t know your limits. Please, promise me—no more fire until you meet your father. Someday, mijo, you will meet him. He’ll explain everything.”
Leo had heard that since he could remember. Someday he would meet his dad. His mom wouldn’t answer any questions about him. Leo had never met him, never even seen pictures, but she talked like he’d just gone to the store for some milk and he’d be back any minute. Leo tried to believe her. Someday, everything would make sense.
For the next couple of years, they were happy. Leo almost forgot about Tía Callida. He still dreamed of the flying boat, but the other strange events seemed like a dream too.
It all came apart when he was eight. By then, he was spending every free hour at the shop with his mom. He knew how to use the machines. He could measure and do math better than most adults. He’d learned to think three-dimensionally, solving mechanical problems in his head the way his mom did.
One night, they stayed late because his mom was finishing a drill bit design she hoped to patent. If she could sell the prototype, it might change their lives. She’d finally get a break.
As she worked, Leo passed her supplies and told her corny jokes, trying to keep her spirits up. He loved it when he could make her laugh. She’d smile and say, “Your father would be proud of you, mijo. You’ll meet him soon, I’m sure.”
Mom’s workspace was at the very back of the shop. It was kind of creepy at night, because they were the only ones there. Every sound echoed through the dark warehouse, but Leo didn’t mind as long as he was with his mom. If he did wander the shop, they could always keep in touch with Morse code taps. Whenever they were ready to leave, they had to walk through the entire shop, through the break room, and out to the parking lot, locking the doors behind them.
That night after finishing up, they’d just gotten to the break room when his mom realized she didn’t have her keys.
“That’s funny.” She frowned. “I know I had them. Wait here, mijo. I’ll only be a minute.”
She gave him one more smile—the last one he’d ever get —and she went back into the warehouse.
She’d only been gone a few heartbeats when the interior door slammed shut. Then the exterior door locked itself.
“Mom?” Leo’s heart pounded. Something heavy crashed inside the warehouse. He ran to the door, but no matter how hard he pulled or kicked, it wouldn’t open. “Mom!” Frantically, he tapped a message on the wall: You okay?
“She can’t hear you,” a voice said.
Leo turned and found himself facing a strange woman. At first he thought it was Tía Callida. She was wrapped in black robes, with a veil covering her face.
“Tía?” he said.
The woman chuckled, a slow gentle sound, as if she were half asleep. “I am not your guardian. Merely a family resemblance.”
“What—what do you want? Where’s my mom?”
“Ah … loyal to your mother. How nice. But you see, I have children too … and I understand you will fight them someday. When they try to wake me, you will prevent them. I cannot allow that.”
“I don’t know you. I don’t want to fight anybody.”
She muttered like a sleepwalker in a trance, “A wise choice.”
With a chill, Leo realized the woman was, in fact, asleep. Behind the veil, her eyes were closed. But even stranger: her clothes were not made of cloth. They were made of earth—dry black dirt, churning and shifting around her. Her pale, sleeping face was barely visible behind a curtain of dust, and he had the horrible sense that she’d had just risen from the grave. If the woman was asleep, Leo wanted her to stay that way. He knew that fully awake, she would be even more terrible.
“I cannot destroy you yet,” the woman murmured. “The Fates will not allow it. But they not do protect your mother, and they cannot stop me from breaking your spirit. Remember this night, little hero, when they ask you to oppose me.”
“Leave my mother alone!” Fear rose in his throat as the woman shuffled forward. She moved more like an avalanche than a person, a dark wall of earth shifting toward him.
“How will you stop me?” she whispered.
She walked straight through a table, the particles of her body reassembling on the other side.
She loomed over Leo, and he knew she would pass right through him, too. He was the only thing between her and his mother.
His hands caught fire.
A sleepy smile spread across the woman’s face, as if she’d already won. Leo screamed with desperation. His vision turned red. Flames washed over the earthen woman, the walls, the locked doors. And Leo lost consciousness.
When he woke, he was in an ambulance.
The paramedic tried to be kind. She told him the warehouse had burned down. His mother hadn’t made it out. The paramedic said she was sorry, but Leo felt hollow. He’d lost control, just like his mother had warned. Her death was his fault.
Soon the police came to get him, and they weren’t as nice. The fire had started in the break room, they said, right where Leo was standing. He’d survived by some miracle, but what kind of child locked the doors of his mother’s workplace, knowing she was inside, and started a fire?