An Excerpt from the forthcoming novella Cities and Throngs and Powers:
The bus dropped her off almost a mile from the big house. Alicia watched the long-unwashed back-end of the distance bus disappear down the road before she picked up her luggage and trudged the rest of the way to the gate. As she got close, the wrought-iron panels swung open on almost silent hinges, just as they had for her father, and Alicia frowned. Well, Mr. Mills expected her, so that explained it, especially after she spotted the little camera hidden in the ornate tracery along the top of the heavy brick pillars beside the drive. The swirling, curling patterns in the iron of the gate and the trim caught her eye and she stopped, tracing them with a careful finger. Someone had done a beautiful job, the welds and joins so smooth that she couldn’t feel them. Then she snorted and started walking up the curving driveway. The work could have been that good, or someone had buried rough welds under so many layers of paint that she couldn’t feel them. Paint and gilt covered a lot of metal and woodworking sins.
The trees shading the curving driveway whispered in the afternoon breeze, a long snake-like procession marching along toward the still-hidden house. Alicia looked between the straight trunks and saw nothing but grass, knee-high, that also bowed in the wind. She wanted to leave the pave and walk into the sunny pasture, to run her hands through the waving green, but stopped, shaking her head to knock loose such a stupid idea. Even she knew that rattlesnakes lived in grass. And she’d seen that clip on the news, the one about a mountain lion attacking a jogger in a park not too far from this place. Alicia dropped her suitcase onto the black and moved her satchel to the other shoulder, then grabbed the worn, taped up old suitcase again and resumed her trudge.
The plod up to the house gave her time to think over the past week. Her father had started it. He’d lost his business back in the Great Collapse of 2015, when all the government chickens came home to roost and dragged his business in with them. But even then her family would have been fine except for credit. In the last month before the currency crash, Pedro Martin Salazar had let two business partners overextend their hardware and fine-wood business. After all, and Alicia growled at the memory, the government and TV people promised everything was getting better and economic opportunities abounded. Then came the truth, and the collapse, and her father’s insisting that the business repay its debts. “Honor, Maria Antonia Rosa,” he’d told her for the thousandth time, using her full name. “Without honor there is nothing. With honor I can rebuild and we can look people in the eye. You will come to understand that, mia Rosita.” Now, two years later, he’d all but sold her in order to pay off a debt of honor and she hated him for it.
Papa, and Mama, and her sisters Mona and Caritas, had cried when they’d left their house near Cherry Creek, moving into a small rent-house in the country northeast of Wellington, where they could grow their own food and a few chickens, while her father went back to working as a day-laborer and carpenter, trying to compete with younger men, and Mama took in ironing and mending, and worked on the garden. It didn’t help when the December Gang War of 2015 reduced entire blocks of Denver to cinders and everyone started locking their purses and gates against strangers. Their friends had shrugged, said they felt sorry for the family, but couldn’t risk helping them; “not in this economy.” The Salazars found a way, somehow, but Alicia knew her father and mother had suffered.
But they’d adapted, until two weeks ago. Alicia hitched her satchel up again and admitted that the shade felt good. Well, that same shade had lured her father into trouble, she reminded herself with a scowl. Word had reached Pedro Martin Salazar that a former customer had discovered a large, unpaid invoice and wanted to make it up. So her father had taken his battered red pick-up and had driven all the way down to Trinidad, at the other end of the state. He’d needed to take half the grocery money to pay for the fuel, but he’d promised that he’d bring back something to make up for it. Mona asked for books, Caritas wanted a new dress, and Alicia requested beads and fittings for the jewelry that she made.
Four days ago her father had driven into the yard with boxes in the back of his truck. They’d tumbled out of the house to meet him, excited. But he’d shaken his head, “Help me, please. There are more boxes in the cab, and frozen food. Take those to your Mama, por favor mis niñas.” Alicia helped with the boxes in the bed of the pick-up while Mona and Caritas took the food in. Her father refused to say why he seemed so sad, when he’d come home with tools, clothes, new tools and replacement parts, some new cooking things for Mama, coffee beans, and bags and strings of beads that shone like little gems, even in their packages.
Only after they’d unpacked and put everything away did he tell them the story. “I drove to Trinidad and met with Mrs. Beaubien. She’d started paying off her creditors as she could. Since people can’t find doctors anymore, business at her mineral-water spa is soaring. So is her herb market, and so she’s trying to restore her family honor and pay off everyone. She can’t make good on her full debts yet, but she’d paying each of us off as much as she can, in turn, Deo gracias. She’s an honorable woman.”
He sipped a little coffee. “I used half the money to pay the bank and Tomaso.” Mama’s eyes had bulged at the news, and she’d started to protest, but caught herself and scrubbed the kitchen counter instead. “Then I found you some books, and the dress you asked for. But there’s no fine wire or beads in the city, Rosita. And fuel is ten dollars a gallon down there.” They’d gasped—it only cost six dollars here, and they’d complained about the robbery!
Alicia frowned again, hearing her father finish the story in her memory. “So I drove back, intending to fuel up and get groceries closer to home. And I stayed off the highway, to use less gas. I misjudged, and just before I ran out of gas, the radiator overheated on the road near the old Illif Mansion. I had to get water and gas. It had gotten late, so I managed to push the truck into the drive of the house and walked closer.
“I met one of the hired men on his way out, and he told me to go on in, that Mister Mills, who lives there now, kept emergency road supplies for things like this. So I did, and Deo gracias, I found a full gas can and water cans, with instructions near them for refilling the water cans. After I took care of the truck, I returned the cans and found a bottle of cold water and some food, with a note inviting me to help myself.” Her father had shrugged. “I was starving, since I’d left the city as early as I could but still got caught in traffic. Things have changed down there, and the old routes in and out are not safe,” he’d told Mama.
“As I got ready to go, I saw a light on in a room down the hall from the entry to the house. I wanted to go thank Mr. Mills, so I went farther into the house. I found no one there, but piles of hardware and craft things. And wire and beads.” He hung his head. “I didn’t think he’d notice, mia Rosita, so I took a little spool of silvery wire.
“As I reached the door, I heard someone pumping a shotgun.” The girls all gasped. “Mr. Mills was not happy. And he was right, I’d violated his hospitality. He said that all I had to do was ask and he had fuses and wire for several vehicles. I told him it was for my daughter, who made jewelry and sold it to help feed her sisters.” Alicia had blushed. She’d thought she’d been able to keep that secret!
“Mr. Mills said I could go, but he wanted Alicia to come and repay the cost of the fuel, food, and silver, by working in the house for the rest of the summer.” Her father had shrugged. “I’m sorry, Rosita, but I gave my word.”
She’d wanted to scream at him, to throw something, to have a scene like Tia Manuela or the women on the telanovelas did. Not that it would do any good. She might be seventeen, but her Papa was her Papa and that was that. She’d even though about calling Child Services, until she remembered what happened when her school friend Amy Nguen had done that. When Amy came back from the county’s “counseling center” her parents had separated, her mom was in jail, and all the life had been counseled out of Amy. And deep down, getting away from the tiny rent house sounded pretty good, although Alicia would never, ever admit it to her family.
And so now she shuffled up to the house. Alicia sighed, tired and angry both, concentrating on her shoes and on not tripping. The asphalt changed to gravel; she looked up and stared, blinking. The Illif House looked nothing like what her old history book said it did. Instead of a long, low ranch house, a three-story brick and wood palace reared up from behind the trees and flowers in the curving beds. Five wooden steps led to a deep porch, complete with swing. Fancy siding, some scalloped, some diamond-pointed, some plain, marched down from the steep roof, and she could still see traces of the garish colors the house had once sported. And a tower rose to the right of the porch, climbing as high as the top floor, its conical roof capped with a weathervane. The afternoon sun glinted on bits of gilding still clinging to the battered metal longhorn. White-painted pipe fences separated the house and garden from the endless stretch of grass behind and around them. Perhaps four or five miles past the house, Alicia caught a glimpse of the Flatirons, the funny-shaped slabs of gray rock marking the end of the plains and the start of the edge of the foothills. Not too many miles behind, the wall of the Rocky Mountains reared up, combing clouds out of the sky.
Alicia climbed up onto the porch and found a note. “Miss Salazar, please come in.” She shrugged. The brass doorknob needed polish, but the hinges worked without a sound and Alicia walked into the dark coolness of the old house. She shut the door behind her out of habit. A stack of papers sat on the small table beside the door and she glanced at them. “Dear Miss Salazar,” the first one began. She set her bags down and began reading.
“Welcome to Illif House. I apologize for not greeting you in person, but I am currently wrapping up a spot of business and will be occupied for some time to come. Your rooms are on the second floor, at the rear of the house, with the unlocked door. The workroom is the first door down the hall, on the left. Yes, it is the ground floor of the tower. You may hear steps above you. My workroom is on the second floor. The third floor houses a small library that you are free to borrow books from.
“You will find the kitchen and laundry in the addition on the back of the house. This floor also contains a dining room, breakfast room, sitting parlor, and billiards room. Please do not abuse the billiard table. The cover is original and somewhat fragile, as is the cue ball. You will find a modern cue ball on the rack by the fireplace should you desire to play. The kitchen is not entirely modern, but all the appliances work. If you run low on something, leave a note and Teddy, the range manager, will pick it up when he goes to town.
“Do not let the taps and faucets run, Miss Salazar. This house and surrounding land are on a well. It flows slowly and if you run out the hot water heater and storage tank, you will have to hand pump a new pressure head. It is not a fun way to spend several hours, I assure you from painful personal experience.” She had to smile at his words, her first smile in several days. No, pumping water did not rank high on her list of favorite activities.
“I’m sure you wonder about your personal safety. You will find a shotgun and shells in your room. If you need instructions on how to use them, ask Teddy. There are other firearms in the house and should the need arise, you will learn how to use them.” Oh, she knew how to use a shotgun, her father had seen to that. It was not honorable to depend on others for your safety if you could protect yourself. And in these times, well, a woman on her own . . .
2014 © Alma T.C. Boykin. All Rights Reserved, reproduction prohibited without permission.