The needle wavered at sixty-five miles per hour. The engine gunned and the car shuddered seconds before the tires left the pavement. Metal crunched against metal, sparks igniting across the highway. Jesse squeezed her eyes shut and braced for the impact. Her body slammed against the passenger door as the car rolled, the seatbelt strap pinning her against the leather seat and cutting into her neck. Glass shattered against her skull as the car tumbled to a stop in a shallow ravine. Jesse struggled with her seatbelt, fighting to unclasp the latch. The burning odor of gasoline and smoke stung her eyes.
Outside a shadowed figure stepped forward and crouched beside her door.
“You should have left it alone,” the voice said.
Through the paralyzing fear she heard the unmistakable scrape of a match. The figure took a step back and tossed the tiny stick into the car.
Her scream woke her.
Jesse bolted up on the sofa, her arms flailing as she fought the restraints of the chenille blanket tangled around her. The soft glow of light from the laptop on the coffee table caught her attention, and it took her a moment to realize it had been a dream. She was not that helpless child anymore, trapped in a burning car with her parents. She was at home, in her apartment, where she lived for the past five years.
She shoved the blanket off and pressed the heel of her hands to her eyes to push back the burning tears. She is safe. She is fine. She is alive.
She tried to repeat the mantra, but the images from her nightmare continued to play in her head.
She took a moment to steady her pulse then slapped the computer closed. She didn’t need to look at the clock to know what time it was. Three o’clock in the morning. Same freaking time every night for the last two weeks.
She staggered into the kitchen and yanked open the refrigerator to grab a water bottle. The cold liquid did little to soothe the rawness of her throat.
Lightning sparked outside her window, followed by the sonic boom of thunder. She jolted, her heart ramming against her breastbone like a sledgehammer. The dream flashed in her mind. The car tumbling across the highway. Her mother’s terrified screams. The explosion that turned her parents’ flesh to bones and ash.
Jesse closed her eyes and held her breath, counting against the thump of her pulse.
After the accident, the doctors told her she would lead a normal life; that her injuries, though life threatening at one time, wouldn’t keep her from living a normal life. She slowly exhaled and slid a look at the orange pill bottle on the windowsill.
But they didn’t say anything about her mind debilitating her.
She took another pull from the bottle, her gaze shifting to the blinking light on the old answering machine buried under a newspaper. She rarely received calls on the machine since most everyone she knew had her cellphone number. She mentally ran through the short list of possible callers who had her home number–her boss at the paper, a student from her computer research class wanting her notes again, or her friend Amy dying to tell her about her latest date. Most days she enjoyed living vicariously through Amy’s erotic encounters since Jesse hadn’t had a serious relationship in over three years but, thanks to her nightmare, she was no longer in the mood.
“Whoever you are can wait.” She finished her drink and tossed the bottle in the recycle bin before leaving the room.
After a hot shower, where she stood for half an hour to let the beating spray massage the tension in her muscles, she poured herself a glass of wine then pressed play on the answering machine. Muted rustling sounded before a soft voice came on the line.
“Jesse. Are you there? Pick up. I know you must hate me and I’m sorry. You were right. I should have believed you. I’m so sorry I didn’t listen. Please, pick up the phone. Mierda. Where are you? I need you. Ay, dios mio, I don’t know what to do. Please Jesse, you have to help me. I think he’s going to kill me.”
Jesse froze as her sister’s voice rushed from the machine. The glass slipped out of her hand and shattered on the floor. The wine spread like blood onto the tile.
She swallowed hard as the call ended, too stunned to do anything but stare at the phone. The second message started immediately. Muffled noise and the timbre of a trumpet played in the background. Her sister’s voice sounded strained and barely audible.
“Jesse, where are you? I can’t find you...oh God it hurts...I think he’s coming....not now, please, not now.” Background noise rustled through the tiny speakers before Alicia’s voice continued. “Please, you can’t let him hurt my baby. Where are you? You promised me you would be here.” Pause. “Jesse? Jesse, is that you? No, please—.” A succession of loud pops sounded through the small speaker. The call ended.
Jesse snatched the phone off the counter and pulled up the messages again. Her sister’s terrified voice piped through the small speaker a second time. When the messages stopped Jesse stabbed the back button on the caller ID. Fernando Peña and the number from her childhood flashed on the tiny display. Her heart dropped as it always did when she saw her father’s name.
She swallowed against the tears lodged in her throat and focused on the time stamp. The first call had come in two nights ago but she’d let the voicemail take it because she’d been on her way to work. She pressed the button to show the next call. It read ’unavailable’ and came in at six o’clock Monday evening. Only nine hours ago. Her stomach clenched.
She punched in the number to Alicia’s home and paced the short length of her counter as she listened to the rings. Her pulse hammered, the blood turning to ice water in her veins.
“Come on, Alicia. Pick up the phone.” She pressed her fisted hand against the pain in her stomach. Nervous stomach. That’s what her mother always called it. Her body’s way of telling her something was wrong. The thought froze in her mind.
“No, don’t think that way,” she said forcefully. “Alicia is probably just having a panic attack or something. Maybe she and Marcus are having a fight.” She gripped the phone tighter. “Hopefully, she’s finally kicking the bastard out.”
The ringing stopped.
“Hello, you’ve reached the Vega residence,” a smooth male voice answered. Jesse started to speak before she realized it was a recording. She ground her teeth and waited for the signal to tell her to speak.
“Alicia. It’s Jesse. Are you home? Pick up.”
Silence answered her.
Her hand tightened around the phone, pinching her skin against the hard plastic. “Alicia! It’s Jesse! Are you there? Oh God, please answer.”
She continued pacing, rubbing her palm against her bathrobe. The fluorescent bulb in the light fixture clicked as if counting down the seconds.
She blew out the breath she didn’t realize she held and dropped the phone back on its base. Something was wrong. Alicia wouldn’t call her, freaking out, unless something was really wrong. Not after all this time.
She gripped the edge of the counter, battling against the panic trying to coil its way to her chest. The red charge light on the phone blinked as if challenging her to reach for it.
Maybe she should call the police. And tell them what? Her sister might be in trouble? That her rat bastard of a husband was trying to kill her? They hadn’t listened twelve years ago when she told them Marcus Vega had murdered her parents, it’s not like they were going to listen to her now. But, she couldn’t do nothing. She owed Alicia that much.
She returned to the sofa and opened up the laptop. Regardless what the police thought of her, she had to help her sister. And this time, she wasn’t going to let Marcus get in the way.
* * *
The flight from Houston to Brownsville took less than an hour and a half. Jesse tossed her carry-on bag onto the back seat of the cab and slid in beside it. She gave the driver her sister’s address then settled against the warm vinyl, gripping her hands in her lap. The faint scent of pine hung in the air, courtesy of the tree-shaped deodorizer dangling from the rearview mirror, but it wasn’t enough to cover the stale odor of a cigarette.
Because of a thunderstorm the night before, she hadn’t been able to find an available flight online and had to make a direct call to the airline to be placed on stand-by. The woman at the Southwest Airlines counter told her most of the flights were booked because of the Charro Days celebration in Brownsville.
Over the years the weeklong celebration held by the city of Brownsville and its sister city Matamoras, had become one of the largest fiestas along the Texas/Mexico border. People arrived from all over to enjoy the parades and various entertainments such as a street dance and a large firework display along the Rio Grande River.
Jesse thought about the loud pops she heard before Alicia’s phone cut out. Fireworks. It must have been the fireworks she heard. It was little comfort, but better than letting her mind run with the various scenarios that kept her awake most of the night. Whatever happened, Alicia was fine. She would continue to believe that.
She rested her head against the cool glass. The landscape rushed by in a blur. She didn’t see the green of the palm trees swaying in the soft Gulf breeze or the dark soil in the fields waiting to be planted. No whispers of white clouds added color to the soft blue of the tropical sky. Only dread and fear and grief colored her vision.
Tension locked every muscle in her body, as the cab pulled into the Rancho Viejo subdivision. She sat up, swallowing the knot in her throat. Her fingers curled around the handle of the door, biting the chrome bar into her palm. Anxiety surged through her like an electric current.
They continued for two blocks before the driver pulled the cab alongside the curb in front of the modest, stucco, ranch-style house. The house looked as she remembered; steady, strong. Home.
She handed the driver some money through the opening in the glass partition and stepped out of the cab. Grief threatened to break the dam of her control. She squeezed her fingers around the handle of her bag and continued to the front stoop.
She studied the yard as she moved up the walkway. The lawn was well-manicured, and a line of neatly trimmed box-hedges now bordered the adjoining yard. Standing sentry along the heavy pine front door were two vat-sized terra cotta planters, sprouting various colored perennials. Since neither she nor Alicia had inherited their mother’s love for gardening, she knew Marcus was the reason for the curb appeal. He was all about appearances.
She pushed on the doorbell, tightening her fingers on the bad strap and straining to hear the coming footsteps. The singsong chime echoed in the silence of the house. She waited a beat then pressed the button again. A cold breath of panic swept across her neck, shivering down her back.
“Alicia!” She pounded her fist on the door. “Alicia, open the door. It’s Jesse.” She struck harder, the vibration shooting to her elbow.
She set her bag on the ground and moved to a side window, cursing under her breath when she found the blinds closed. She pushed against the pane. Locked. She continued to the back of the house. The back door was locked as well. She tapped her knuckles hard on the glass and peered through the lace curtains but could only see her reflection in the glass.
The heat of the late afternoon sun burned into her back. Her nightmare flashed in her mind–the car engulfed in flames, the terrified screams, the stench of burning flesh.
Then gunshots and Alicia’s scream.
She grabbed the knob and twisted. “Alicia!” The door rattled but didn’t open.
She ran back to the front of the house and grabbed hold of the doorknob, twisting it back and forth and hammering her fist against the wood. Tears burned her eyes and knotted to an ache in her throat.
“Dammit, Alicia, open the door!”
With a frustrated cry, she pushed away and searched the ground for something to break into the house. She spotted a large rock in the dirt and remembered the spare key. Alicia always left a spare in a fake rock next to the house.
After a short search, she found the plastic faux stone tucked inside one of the planters. She slid opened the hidden compartment to retrieve the key. Stabbing the deadbolt, she pushed the door open and charged into the house.
The entryway extended into a large living room. The faint smell of lemon oil clung to the air, but the room was empty. She rushed into the kitchen and found it empty as well.
She pulled in a lungful of air to ease her rising panic, scanning the space for any sign her sister was there. The room was immaculate; the only dish in the sink was a large mug with dried grounds coating the bottom. A copper-plated kettle sat on the stove, beside it was a tin canister decorated with colorful strips of tissue paper. It was the cookie jar she had made in second grade for Mother’s Day. Alicia used it as a tea canister.
Jesse hurried back to the front room, turning into the hallway leading to the bedrooms. There were three in the house. The one at the end of the hall had been hers.
She stepped to the room her parents had once slept in and knocked on the door.
“Alicia? Are you in there?” She chewed on her bottom lip then took a deep breath and turned the knob. She took a cautious step inside. The room stood cold and empty. Anxiety stabbed her chest like an ice pick. She’d always had a strong intuition, and at the moment, it was telling her something was very wrong.
She took a slow turn toward the adjoining bathroom. The door was partially open, the room dark. She eased her hand in the small opening and turned on the light before she pushed the door open wider. The room, like the others, was empty. A small pile of towels lay crumpled on the floor next to the tub. Drops of dark red spots peppered the lip of the sink.
She stepped back, choking in a breath.
Oh, God, don’t let that be blood.
She spun around, sweeping her gaze around the room. It was as clean as the rest of the house, not even a dust mote could be seen through the thin slats on the window blinds.
With slow steps she wandered into the hall and moved to the next bedroom. It had been Alicia’s when they were children. Memories flooded her mind. Indoor camp outs under the mesh canopy. Dancing and singing to the latest Tejano band. Curling up on the bed and dreaming about the men they would one day marry. Alicia had always believed Mr. Right was out there waiting. But Jesse never believed in Prince Charming.
She pushed open the panel door and froze. Her heart dropped like a cold stone.
The floral wallpaper Alicia had picked out on her sixteenth birthday no longer covered the walls; the room now lightened with soft blue paint. Along the top of the wall ran a six-inch border of animated trains. Next to the window sat a changing table and a matching old-fashioned crib waiting to be put together. Placed on a wicker rocking chair were several teddy bears in various sizes and colors.
Jesse picked one up and clutched it against her. Alicia’s words raced through her head.
You can’t let him hurt my baby.
Jesse staggered as the word slammed into her with a breathtaking blow. She didn’t know her sister was pregnant. She was going to be an aunt, and no one had bothered to tell her. But why would they? For nearly eight years she and Alicia hadn’t spoken more than a few words to each other. There had been too much pride and too much anger to allow either to do so. When Alicia had chosen her husband over her sister, Jesse swore she would never forgive her. It felt like a lifetime ago and she’d moved on since then. But her pride had still kept her from returning home. Pride mixed with the fear that they would never get back the bond they once shared. And now, standing in the empty house, she was afraid it might be too late.
Her breath shuddered out as she gripped the bear tighter, her tears absorbed into the curly fabric. “No please, God, don’t let them both be dead.”
Heavy footsteps jolted her from her panic. She whirled around as a booming voice called out from the front entrance.
“Hello! This is Officer Mendoza with the Brownsville Police Department. Step out slowly with your hands in front of you.”
Jesse tossed the bear onto the rocking chair and rushed from the room.
A burly uniformed police officer stood inside the open doorway of the foyer, his hand at his hip, gripping on the butt of his gun.
“Officer, she’s gone! I can’t find her anywhere. She isn’t here. Oh, God, I think he killed her.