Our Little Secret
The last box slid into place and the dented, scratched, barely yellow back doors slammed shut, one after the other, after a brief shifting and rippling of muscle under bare skin. Lance brushed his hands off, turning to face the pile of crates beside the bus. Wordlessly, he squatted to begin the process of transferring them.
A hand clapped his shoulder. “Nah, man, I got it.”
Lance straightened in concession, watching the other man pass him. Casually, he rolled his head around on his shoulders, his blue do-rag lightly flicking as he did so, and, without further ado, lifted the entire pile without so much as a grunt of exertion, the muscles of his tattooed arms and back—bared to the… less harsh Los Angeles December sun—flexing more in a calculatedly impressive manner than straining. He walked over to the long, sleek, brown-and-blue expanse floating docile in the water at chest-depth. Part of it lifted, revealing a large mouth and a wide, pink tongue. Ripples lapped out from the creature, to wash up carefully on the shore. Carefully, the man placed the crates on the whale-creature’s tongue, then patted its side, prompting it to close its mouth. He then turned, nonchalantly running a hand over his head as he looked back to Lance.
“All right, I got this, then,” called Lance, trying so hard to keep the smugness off his face.
He turned and lifted the bus, just as effortlessly. It groaned a little in protest, but he ignored it, carrying it over his head to the rocky crags it had been previously hiding behind. His own tattoos shifted with his movements, making it seem almost as if the individual feathers were brushed by the light coastal breeze.
It was quite a sight. Even if it was for the sake of machismo and oneupmanship… which had been going on for the better part of the day.
A grin broke out on the other man’s face. He nodded, as if in approval. “You know, Gorman, you alright. For a middleweight.”
Okay. This was too much. If it wasn’t stopped it would only get more and more obnoxious.
Carmen rolled her eyes. “You know he’s taken, right, Rogers?”
The thick-built Kahele, who had been drifting serenely on his back out of the corner of Carmen’s eye, spit out his laughter, then splashed to his feet, hands pressed to his broad stomach so that he could better manage his mirth. A smile even flicked over Alejandra’s lips, despite the fact that, to all eyes, she was a ways away, carefully examining the carefully tabulated and undoubtedly accurate list of goods and quantities in her free hand, her other arm looped around her four-month-old son.
Rogers snapped a startled look to Carmen, then to Kahele, his smile fading, and sucked on his teeth in dismissal, rolling his own eyes. “Yeah, and I gotta question your taste, there, Saavedra.” He shifted his stance and motioned to himself, a smirk spreading across his face. “I mean, this is some prime dark meat right here.”
In a way, this was still oneupmanship. But at least this wasn’t a tea party—Carmen could hold her own when it came to playful banter.
Before she could respond, however, Lance did.
“Did you just objectify yourself, man?” he asked, look of concern on his face as he strode over.
“Did I do what?”
Kahele’s guffaws doubled him over. The disrupted waves nearly touched his face, before he threw his head back and directed his laughter to the skies. Carmen managed to wrestle her own mirth into a smirk. Okay, this would be worth watching.
“Don’t sell yourself so short. We’re all human beings here, more than the sum of our parts.” He casually wrapped an arm around Carmen, still regarding Rogers. “See, if I were a woman, I’d want to get with a person, not a piece of meat.” His eyes turned up and he squinted a little, as if deep in profound thought. “I mean, really. Who wants to be fucked by a drumstick?”
Kahele’s hand thumped against Rogers’s back, unable to manage more noise than little wheezes. Carmen nodded helpfully, motioning to Lance for emphasis. It took all she had to keep her composure.
Rogers shook his head. “Shiiit, man.” A resigned half-smile broke out on his face.
“Oh, is the packing done already?” Coyote emerged from behind another rock. He yawned and stretched his arms out, before letting them drop to his sides. Then he moved around the bus, eyeing it with an utterly disingenuous look of keen scrutiny. After a couple moments he nodded in authoritative approval. “Good work, Lance. Very efficient.” He walked over and clapped Lance on the shoulder before moving over toward Alejandra. She rested the list on the whale creature’s nose just in time for Coyote to close the distance.
Without prompting, he took her now-free hand and shook it vigorously. “Pleasure doing business with you, ‘Jandra.” He paused, and offered her a smile, his eyes pointedly flicking to the baby she held against her shoulder. “And, I must say,” he released her to motion over her entirely, “if the proof were not before me, I would never have guessed you to be a new mother. Which is not to say new mothers aren’t beautiful, in their own way, but few carry the weight of sleepness nights and dedication so effortlessly and gracefully as you!”
“Why does he still bother?” Rogers muttered. “It was funny at first but now I’m fuckin’ gettin’ annoyed. Lôlô-ass mothafucka.”
Kahele sobered. “Hey now. That’s Coyote, man,” he said, quietly. “The Coyote. Might wanna watch your mouth.”
“Where’s the lie, though?” retorted Rogers.
Carmen almost found herself audibly agreeing. She looked up to Lance, offered him a little smile, patted his chest, and stepped away to extract the poor woman from Coyote’s attentions.
Alejandra gave Coyote a flat look, then turned and stepped past him as Carmen approached, composing her expression into something much more pleasant and approachable, even though it was still strung a little with residual distaste.
“Everything’s in order, then?” Carmen asked. “I trust that you got what you needed? We made sure to be a little more timely this time around.”
“Thank you, yes,” Alejandra said. She briefly flicked a look over her shoulder. “You came not a moment too soon.”
“Funny, that sounds familiar…” Coyote interjected, stepping forward to put himself back in the circle of conversation.
Carmen pointedly did not look at him, offering her own smile. “Of course.” She switched to Spanish. “Just ignore him. Six times out of ten he’ll go away.”
Alejandra responded in kind. “Only six?”
“Uh… no habla Espanol,” said Coyote.
“The best odds so far.”
She offered a wry little smile of sympathy. “I can’t imagine what it must be like to live with him.”
Carmen let out a bark of laughter. “We don’t let him inside anymore.”
“But si habla el amor. Mucho.”
“Smart.” Alejandra’s eyelids flickered as she just barely resisted looking at him. “He’s not going away.”
“Okay. Just follow my lead.” Carmen dropped her jaw and widened her eyes, switching back to English. “They had to sew you up there?” She made a little pained noise. “See, I thought Lisa had it bad with Ruben and his big ol’ head. Susan had to do this thing with salad tongs and pulling… but man, that’s got to be awful.”
Alejandra, without skipping a beat, nodded matter-of-factly. “Couldn’t sit right for days.”
Carmen let out a low whistle. “Sweet Xochiquetzal, I ain’t ever havin’ kids.”
Coyote opened his mouth, then closed it, the blood draining from his face. He swallowed, then said, “I think I’ll go check on the goods. Don’t want to miss anything, you know.” Without waiting for a response, he started off.
After waiting for Coyote to move out of earshot, Alejandra spoke again, in lower tones this time, a grin spreading across her face. “Thank you. That was genius.”
Carmen rolled her eyes and waved her hand dismissively. “You get lots of practice, living around him.”
Alejandra offered another sympathetic look. Her boy Leon fussed and wiggled a little, breaking off their conversation. She transferred him to her other side, resting him on her hip. As he moved, his mouth formed a little ‘o’ and his eyes widened and flicked around as he took in the shifting surroundings.
What a cutie. It made Carmen miss when Galen and Ruben were that old. A couple of little charmers, they were. Now they were so big. In just a couple years they’d be pre-teens.
“Hey, will you stay for the festival?” Alejandra asked. Her expression grew a little more solemn. “We could use the extra teotl.”
Carmen hesitated, eyes flicking to the bus. There was no immediate need for them back at home. They’d made good time—the others wouldn’t be expecting them for another couple of days. But the thought of staying too long away wasn’t exactly appealing either.
Alejandra must’ve sensed her struggle. “Just for another day.” She nodded over her shoulder to Coyote. “It’ll delay the long trip home with him.”
That certainly brightened the prospect. But she had a job to do all the same. Still, the Queen of Fallen Angels herself was personally requesting it—and had mentioned teotl. It had to do with… well, with family; it was probably important.
“What exactly is this festival for?” Carmen asked. “Not that I’m not sorely tempted.”
“My brother,” Alejandra replied.
Yep, that was pretty important.
Leon fussed again. After tending to him, Alejandra continued. “One week from tomorrow is the longest night of the year. The longest time Tlilocelotlpilli will spend fighting off the Tzitzimitl.” She paused, then pinned Carmen with her gaze. “The divine blood is really hard to come by now. Kahele and Linda are good about offering theirs, but Rogers isn’t convinced and Javid’s still off in Yomi.” Her gaze dropped. “Eloisa… wants to offer hers this year too.”
Carmen hesitated. That was… well, good wasn’t the right term for it…
“Are you going to let her?”
“I have to. We can’t exactly afford to be picky.” Alejandra looked back up to Carmen with a strained half-smile. “And she’s so proud to do it, you know?” Her smile faded a bit and an eyebrow quirked. “My little girl’s first sacrifice.” Her small, wry chuckle was utterly unconvincing.
“Well!” Carmen flicked her hand, taking the weight off the conversation. “I get to avoid Coyote, help out a cousin, and attend a party?” She glanced over to Lance, who, by the look of it, was still bantering with Rogers and Kahele. “I just need to convince Gorman over there. You know those Greeks—they hate parties.”
Alejandra smiled, drawing back from her earlier solemnity. “Thanks.” She paused. “I’ll even put you up for the night, if you want. Y’know, ‘cause you’re family.”
Carmen grinned. “It’s a deal.”