Characters are not mine, please don't sue.
This was originally part of a Five Things fic (that grew to a Six Things fic, and is now back down to five) and is as such slightly AU. Thanks to Andraste and Timey for the rush betas. Archival is my site and anyone who lets me know they're snatching it.
(This wasn't a dream I was living. It was my life.)
Late at night, by the flickering light of oil lamps, her father would tell her stories about America. Purple mountains and shining towers of glass and steel where a man (or girl, he'd add with a kiss to the top of her head) with the drive to work hard could support their family. Streets that ran with a steady stream of shiny cars and chrome-trimmed motorcycles instead of weak brown rivers of sewage. Busy plastic playgrounds with slides and swings behind schools teeming with laughing children and wisely smiling teachers.
She used to dream of the cafeterias, alive with bustle and the squeak of sneakers on proper flooring, filled with the wafting odours of food to warm you to the toes. Brightly coloured maps that showed current borders, cities and towns that still existed. Her first day, the teacher would tell her to stand up, and she would, shyly. Introduce herself in a small voice, and tell them her family had just arrived from Puerto Rico. There would be pause, where she'd try unsuccessfully to sink into the floor, until a boy at the back of the room would ask where Puerto Rico was. She'd look at the teacher in askance, and the smiling blonde lady (wearing a light-blue blouse and carefully buffed shoes) would nod, and Cecelia would run to one of the glossy maps hanging on the wall and point it out. There would be another pause, then the class would explode with questions.
And she would answer them, all of them, with a shy smile as she looked out at her class, each in their very own desk. Desks for every student, and the next day, they'd all ask her to take the one beside them.
Instead, they trade one slum for another, and the tiles in her school hall are stained and broken. Metal bars separating the classroom from the school grounds, with their listing soccer posts and worn rubber tire swings. She is not allowed to tell anyone she is from Puerto Rico, so instead of making room for her at the lunch table to pepper her with questions they laugh at her accent.
The harder she works to sound like them so they'll forget, the more they laugh, push her around the playground at recess. Here, when she is knocked to the ground there is no grass to catch her, just rocks and asphalt to split her knees.
Her father no longer has time to toss her, laughing, to his shoulders and spin wildly in circles. No longer has time at nights for her to crawl onto his lap, wrap his arms around her while he serenades her with stories. The apartment has one bedroom so she sleeps on the couch, and keeps herself awake telling to herself the tales her father used to tell her of America. The muffled sounds as he drops his jacket, his boots in the hall are always heavy and weary, giving her plenty of time to pretend to be asleep: it is always long past her bed time when he returns and she doesn't want him to worry, but she needs to be awake when he drops a kiss to her forehead.
In her remembering of the stories he used to tell her, they grow and evolve, until she becomes convinced that this is not America--the gripping poverty and needles in the sandboxes, the guns and knives she sees tucked in pockets and behind belts.
America is dreams and blue ribbons at county fairs, towering monuments and fairy tale endings, but this is no longer Puerto Rico. Lying awake through the weeks, waiting for her father to stumble wearily in, a niggling suspicion starts to grow in her mind that America must be some place beyond and behind this.
This is America's shroud.
Late, when it's dark and she can hear the ricocheting music from outside, this idea grows in her mind until it is always with her. Daylight and dark she searches for a rabbit hole or a rip in the gauze that surely covers the real country. She peers behind dumpsters and she jumps backwards into bus stops, hoping to break through. She catches glimpses of it in reflections on storefronts, broken by the heavy metal bars. Out the corner of her eye, between the petals of waving, wilted flowers that tumble from faded window boxes.
There is nothing, and there is nothing, just flashes that she turns her head a second too slowly to catch, and glimpses through the static on their black and white television. She thinks she finds the key, once--a crumbling tome lodged beneath a brown prickle bush in the park. She dives for it, scrambling through the dried lower branches without noticing the thorns or the way they grasped at her clothes, skin and hair.
When she emerges, triumphant, with blood streaming from scratches on her forehead and cheek, it is to find that her prize is only a book of fables and fairy tales. She hides it quickly away in her knapsack, with crumpled math papers and the broken remains of wax crayons, so that no one can see the fool she was.
Her mother cleans each nick out with iodine, washes the blood from her face, and does not ask how Cecelia came to stagger into the apartment scratched and bleeding. She has come home before with split lips and bleeding noses, and there is no reason for her mother to suspect this time to be any different--not with the book tucked away inside her bag. Her mother clucks her tongue at the ruin Cecelia's shirt has become; even if each hole were individually sewn shut, the blood would remain.
Her mother's favourite hairpins disappear after that, but Cecelia has a new shirt.
At night now, between retelling and growing the stories her father would whisper as she curled on his lap (when she had been smaller and when he had not been so gaunt that his knees and legs hurt her) she hides the book away beneath the covers on the couch and reads out loud to herself tales of heroes and villains and enchanted kingdoms. It is here she discovers the magic woven by the stars and the night wind, and by the moon, be it full or new or blue.
What, what if, the gateway to America lies through a reflection of a full moon in a puddle on the sidewalk? Up a stair provided by the northern lights (though she has been in the building north of her that casts the orange sherbet glow, and it is as little America as is her own home)? What if the only way to the real country is by following the guidance of a blue moon?
These ideas swell and multiply with each passing night, with each phase of the moon, until one night she gathers together crumbling buns and a small container of milk in her favourite handkerchief and sets out to find the real America.
A present for her father who loves her, and her mother, who works two jobs and sometimes cries when she thinks no one can hear her. She will bring them home the America he dreamt of; and they will live in an apartment without roaches and rats. Her father (without two-day stubble on hollow cheeks) and her mother (with a smile and her curls up in her missing favourite hairpins) will walk her, hand in hand to a school not surrounded by beaten chain link fence and spray painted with obscenities Cecelia pretends she does not know the meaning of.
So with her hands notNOT shaking, she quietly latches the front door, and slips down the stairwell (for not once since they occupied the small apartment has she seen the elevator move). Around and around she goes, flickering back and forth as she grows dizzier and dizzier.
At night, the stairs are darker, danker. The faint tang of piss is more noticeable, and a scratching comes from the shadows in the stairwells. It seems, almost, that the distance between each stair is larger, and that there are more of them between the landings; but 'round and 'round and 'round she continues to go.
The 'Lobby' sign, chipped and faded and missing one 'b' looms up at her suddenly, as she hops down that last step, and she stops dead in her tracks. Swaying back and forth on her feet, tightly clutching her bulging kerchief, she reminds herself of the green parks and good jobs she is looking for. With her hand hovering by the door, she reminds herself of her father's worn eyes and her mother's muffled sobs, and pushes it slowly open.
She peers through the slit, at first. A single brown eye, too wide, visible between the beaten red frame and dented metal door. She sees no one, not a soul, not a ghost drifting over the torn and stained carpet; so she darts through the shadows of the flickering fluorescents and out the heavy front doors.
They ring shut behind her, like palace gates thundering closed, and she starts. Pretends her breathing is not harsh and loud, and smoothes her hands from fists. With a long look cast back over her shoulder, she starts down the street, not sure what she's looking for.
There's a puddle around a blocked storm drain, and she crouches on the sidewalk above it and peers down. All she sees is her own face, looking back up at her, very small with eyes too large and lips too white. Hesitantly, she reaches down to touch it, pushes her fingers through, hoping to find something below, but her fingers just come away wet and sticky and the oil slick above the water whirls.
Shivering, she wraps her arms around her knees and stares down the street, at the puddles of this reality cast by the street lights, and it comes to her that she couldn't see the moon or the stars in that puddle--just the looming apartment building behind her.
Just--just until she finds the right puddle, she tells herself, as she rises and tucks her arm close to her body to hide the shivers. Just one more, because maybe the moon isn't right (not because the night is cold and dark and she hears the echoes of music and screaming), and she'll go back home and wrap her blankets close around her and snuggle down into the couch until her mother shakes her from sleep in the morning.
There is something silver shining, just down the street, so she winds her way towards it, being careful (step on a crack, break your mother's back) to place her feet only where the cement is not shattered. When she reaches it, she finds it to be a puddle, clear. Free of oil or debris, and when she edges around it she finds an angle where she can see the moon's pockmarked reflection.
She settles on her heels, cautious, and slowly, ever so slowly, reaches her hand down towards the surface. Her hands, both the real and the one shown in the water, shake as they hover less than an inch from embracing. She takes a deep breath, steadying, and reaches through the water as the moon is blocked out by a shambling shadow.
She turns, skittering backwards on her hands and heels, through the puddle as the shadow behind her solidifies into a (manwomanthing), all tattered hair and mumbling and pushing a shopping cart that rattles and smells full of things she does not want to recognize.
Cold water soaking her cuffs and splattered along her back, Cecelia runs.
She runs, and runs, and when she finally stops it is not because she is far enough away, but because she cannot breathe and there is fire lancing her sides. She spins wildly, searching for anything she recognizes, for a place to hide, but this is any park in any neighbourhood, and all she sees are the prickle bushes and thin trees.
So she forces herself through the grasping brown branches, deep into the heart of the brush as the thorns stick in her skin and grasp at her braids and clothes. She pays for her refuge in blood, droplets of it watering the parched ground as she sits ever so still in the hedge. The inner branches wind around her, a thorny embrace, but they protect her from anyone on the outside.
She fancied herself a heroine, she thinks as she sits with her arms around her legs. A heroine to unlock the magic kingdom, but she's lost it now, because she has splattered the entrance all across her clothes and skin where it even now mixes with her blood.
With her head on her knees, she cries.
She does not know how long it is before she hears footsteps outside her sanctuary. She raises her face (stained with tears and blood) and tries to worm her way farther back into the hedge, because *these* footsteps aren't moving right on by, aren't uneven or heavy with anything but purpose. She sees scuffed and worn sneakers right before her own, patched jeans on thin legs that bend to settle their owner to the ground, sees a much mended shirt that's almost familiar, and a face hidden in shadows.
The man just sits there, watching her, then leans forward. She shrinks back farther, but the moon breaks the clouds and it is her father (her FATHER) and she throws herself forward and into his arms. The hedge relinquishes her easily, and *now* her father has time to wrap his arms around her as she trembles in his lap, and sobs into his shirt.
"Thought I might find you here," he says as he presses a relieved kiss to her forehead.
She raises her head, and looks at her surroundings with new eyes, no longer blinded by panic, and she realizes that the prickle she took shelter in is the same one that offered up to her the book of fairy tales.
"Don't you *ever* do that again, Cecelia. Ever," her father whispers, voice dry and choked. "Do you hear me?"
Maybe her tears tell him that recriminations are useless, her blood that she is as angry with herself as he could ever be with her. "Don’t you *ever,*" he says.
She nods. Nods her head so hard she smacks his shoulder with her forehead and does not tell him that he does not have to worry about it ever again.
She is not a hero.
"I lost it," she gasps, between the sobs. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, daddy, but I lost it."
"Lost what?" he asks as he helps her to her feet and scrubs her face with his shirttail.
"I just wanted to find it for you but it all turned out wrong, and--"
"Cecelia," he says, dropping to his knees before her, and tilting her face up to his, "whatever it was means nothing, because there's nothing I'd rather have than you."
She nods, and realizes she's lost her favourite kerchief, with its food supplies somewhere along the way. She wishes she'd brought the stupid book and lost that instead.
"Come on," her father says, and takes her hand. "Your mother is worried sick. Let's get you home."
She hops down the sidewalk beside him, skipping back and forth over the cracks, swinging his hand and looking grave.
Maybe, she decides, she's found the real America after all.
The streets don't seem as dark or as scary now that she has her father here with her. They wander down the deserted sidewalks, and she hops in and out of the pools of light cast by the unbroken streetlights, holding tight to her father's hand.
After a while, he starts to look around suspiciously, and tugs on her hand, pulling her faster down the empty streets. She wants to ask him what's wrong as he cranes his neck to scan the street behind, and they walk even faster. There's no one around, so why is he...
No one around. There is a complete silence. No echoed thrum of boom boxes, squeal of tires. No one rooting through the dumpsters or garbage cans, no teenagers laughing on the corners, flicking ash from glowing cigarettes.
Distantly, there comes the reverberation of bass. Barely audible, and working its way up through the cement and their shoes as they walk faster still. A series of faint cracks, like popcorn on the stove, growing louder as the bass nears.
It sets the sidewalk shaking, and Cecelia's father starts to run, pulling her after him. She runs as hard as she can, but the toe of her worn high tops catches, and she stumbles on a fissure in the sidewalk. Sprawling on her knees, she loses her grip on his hand, and stares up at him as he hauls her to her feet, brows drawn together.
"Run," he says, staring backwards as there comes the squeal of rubber and the roar of an engine. She runs beside him, stretching her legs as far and as fast as they'll go (and wondering how the pain from a single split knee can be worse than the sum and total of every scratch and bruise on her body) as the bass develops treble and swallows her mind.
She cannot stop herself from looking back, so she sees as a car on two wheels peels around the corner. Sees the men with their heads out the window, like hounds from hell. Sees the driver, with a red cap twisted sideways, swing his arm out the window. Sees the flash of silver in his hand and the reflexive jerk of his finger on the trigger.
Always sees the dark light in his eyes, and the way her father's chest blossoms red as the driver's hat, the taillights of the car as it lays rubber around another corner.
She is beyond tears as she gathers as much of him into her small arms as she can. He has lost a lot of weight, so it is more than she would have been able to do in Puerto Rico, but what she can hold is strangely heavy. Years later, she will come to recognize it as the weight a dead body (or a body near enough dead) seems to magically acquire, but for now she is small and has never lost a patient or a teammate, nothing more than a home or a dream or a favourite stuffed animal.
She will never learn the right words to say, to soothe the fear. She will never be one to offer false hope or meaningless platitudes at a patient's bedside. In this one moment, she was not able to find the words, and this one moment will be with her at every ending.
She presses her small hands to the roses growing across his shirt and sobs. He raises his head, catching her eyes, and tries to smile. "Shh, shh," he says. "It's... it's all right." His head drops wearily, and she crawls to cradle it in her lap because she is doing nothing to stop the bleeding.
"It's all right..." he gasps, and coughs. Small drops of blood speckle her face. "Because you're okay."
She shakes her head, braids flying wildly. "No," she says, and finds herself repeating it. No, no, no no nonono.
"Shh," he says. "Shh." With a great effort, he lifts his hands towards her, and she catches them in her own. They are already cool, and she rubs them to try to transfer some of her own feverish heat. He pulls one of them free, and cups her face. "Love you," he says, and sighs.
His hands fall from her own, and she grabs them again, desperately. "Daddy?" she asks, in a small voice.
"Daddy?" she asks as the last of the bass fades from air around her, from the cement beneath her. In the silence, and the shroud of light cast by the streetlight in a sweeping circle around them, she lowers her head to his chest and cries.
Once again, time passes and she lives outside it, mixing her blood and his with her tears. It is a (minutehalfsecondhouryear) before she hears pounding footsteps.
They are coming back for *her,* is her only thought, but she can't bring herself much to care. The footsteps stop, close, and she feels a presence. Slowly, she raises her head, blinking against the light and the tears. A shadow looms above her, but she will not close her eyes against the end, just stares up defiantly.
It crouches down beside her, in the pool of light, a man taking form. He has blue-moon eyes in a face as black as midnight. No pupils, no irises, just a steady, unearthly glow and a scar that cuts through his right eyebrow and down across his cheek.
He reaches for her and she thinks that it is the end for her, but he just gently wipes the tears from the corner of her eyes. He turns to those behind him and jerks his head, and they run off into the night. She sees that two men are hauling another with a similar red stain at his side, and another has a scrap of fabric tied around his arm that is rapidly turning red.
He turns back again to her as they fade off into the night, and says "Usted es demasiado joven para esto, pequeño uno." She notices then that he (and those now gone) wear yellow bandanas with intricate designs, not the red ball hats of those in the car.
There is sadness in his eyes, but no surprise. A steady weariness and a cold anger that this has happened, but it is nothing new. This is nothing that doesn't happen every day.
By the light of his blue moon eyes, she reads all this.
"An eye for an eye," he says, softly, and kisses her forehead, not minding the blood and sweat. "You will be avenged."
By the light of his blue moon eyes, she hangs her head, because through them she sees that the route to the real America doesn't lie in reflections of starlight on ponds, or through gaps in reality in zen gardens. That way lays dreams, and nothing more. This is the real American, in the streets and the lovers and the fighters, the blood in the gutter washing away pieces of dreams.
"Walk in peace," he says, and closes her father's eyes.
The distant siren song starts to rise and fall, and he kisses her forehead once more before melting off into the shadows.
Just another hero.
They tell her she could be a hero.
They come with their flashing lights and their cleanly pressed uniforms, smelling of laundry detergent and gunpowder. They wrap her in a heavy wool blanket and a set her on the back of an ambulance, where she swings her legs and watches with ancient eyes as they zip her father (but it's not her father, not really, not any more) into a black body bag.
They ask her what she and her father were doing out so late and she tells them (can't tell them what she was looking for, because she knows she is a fool now and does not need that to stain her father) that she got lost. Hid in some bushes and so that is why so much of the blood is hers because really, she's not hurt at all.
They ask her what happened, and she tells them that she doesn't remember. That it all went too fast and all she can see is red. That there was a car, and screaming, and bass throbbing, and a man with a gun.
A drive-by was reported, the tell her. One gang out to get a rival gang. Were the men in the car wearing red hats?
Yes, she tells them.
They ask her if she saw any men on foot. Anyone wearing yellow. If anyone was injured, could she remember the specifics of their injuries so the emergency rooms could keep an eye out?
She does not tell them anything about the man with the blue moon eyes, who showed her the way. She does not tell them of his friends, because they promised her a vengeance the police could never provide. An eye for an eye.
They tell her she could be a hero. That they know she is afraid they will come after her, or after her mother, but that they will protect her. That the more she can help them, the more likely they are to be able to catch the men who did this.
She knows, with a ghost of the simplicity that she will never again have, that this is a lie. That if these men come after her mother, the police will not protect them--Puerto Ricans from the slums. She knows that the man who has killed her father will get away even if they find him, because he will have people to say they were hanging back at his place (because to them he is a hero) watching Disney movies and slamming back shots of tequila; and she knows that if they find the man with the blue moon eyes they will find a way to hang him for something.
What she doesn't know is how they don't see that the last thing the world needs is another hero.