THERE WAS NO STREET PARKING NEXT TO THE Botanica, so we parked three blocks away. The torrential downpour had reduced to a heavy mist, and Noah held the umbrella over me. I moved it so that it was between us, and we pressed together underneath it. The familiar thrill of his proximity made my pulse gallop. We were closer than we had been in days. I didn’t include the shoulder incident from last night because it didn’t happen. My shoulder didn’t hurt.
I was warm next to Noah, but shivered anyway. The charcoal clouds did something to the atmosphere of Little Havana. The Domino Park was abandoned, but a few men still huddled in the rain next to the mural at the entrance, under the eaves of one of the small tents. Their eyes followed us as we passed. Smoke curled from the entrance of a cigar shop nearby, mingling with the rain and the incense from the computer repair store in front of us. The neon sign buzzed and hummed in my ear.
“This is it,” Noah said. “1821 Calle Ocho.”
I looked at the sign. “But it says it’s a computer repair store.”
“It does indeed.”
We peered into the shop, pressing our faces to the cloudy glass. Electronics and dissembled computer parts mingled with large terra cotta urns and an army of porcelain statues. I looked at Noah. He shrugged. I went in.
A bell jangled behind us as we entered the narrow store-front. Two young boys peeked out from above a glass counter with no adults in sight.
My eyes wandered inside the store, over the rows of shelves lined with plastic bins. Inside the bins, in no discernible order, there were halved coconut husks, bear-shaped containers of honey, several types of shells, rusty horseshoes, ostrich eggs, absorbent cotton, tiny jingle bells, packages of white plastic flip-flops, beads, and candles. Stacks of candles of every size, shape, and color; candles with Jesus emblazoned on the front, and candles with naked women emblazoned on the front. There were even dozens of varieties of ice cream sundae candles. And … handcuffs. What was this place?
“Can I help you?”
Noah and I turned around. A dark-haired young woman on crutches appeared in a door frame between the main store-front and a back room.
Noah raised his eyebrows. “We’re here for the seminar,” he said. “Is this the right place?”
“Si, yes, come,” she said, beckoning us over. We followed her into another narrow room with plastic patio chairs arranged on the white tile floor. She handed us two pamphlets and Noah handed her money. Then she disappeared.
“Thanks,” I said to him as we sat in the back of the room. “I’m sure this wasn’t how you planned on spending your Saturday.”
“I’ll be honest, I was hoping you’d suggest the beach,” he said and shook out his damp hair, “but I consider live entertainment a close second.”
I grinned. I was starting to feel better, more normal. More sane. My eyes wandered around the white room. Hospital white, and the fluorescent lights made it brighter. It contrasted oddly with the furniture—grandma furniture, really. A brown and yellow armchair, a pea green cabinet, more shelves with candles. Strange.
Someone coughed to my left; I turned my head and a pale, thin man dressed in a white robe, wearing white flip-flops and with a white triangular hat on his head, sat in the row in front of us. Noah and I exchanged a look. The other attendees were more normally attired; a heavyset woman with short, curly blond hair in jean shorts fanned herself with a pamphlet. Two identical middle-aged men with mustaches sat in the far corner of the room, whispering to each other. They wore jeans.
Just then, the speaker walked up to the podium and introduced himself. I was surprised to see him wearing a crisp suit, given that he was supposed to be a priest. A priest of what, I did not know.
Mr. Lukumi arranged his papers before smiling broadly and scanning the few filled seats. Then our eyes met. His went wide with surprise.
I turned around, wondering if someone behind me had caught his attention, but no one was there. Mr. Lukumi cleared his throat, but when he spoke, his voice shook.
I was being paranoid. Paranoid paranoid paranoid. And stupid. I focused on the lecture and on Noah, as he took an exaggerated interest in what was being said. I’m not sure what I expected, but hearing Mr. Lukumi discuss the mystical properties of candles and bead necklaces wasn’t it.
Noah cracked me up as he pretended to actively listen; nodding and murmuring at the most inappropriate moments. We passed the Cuban sandwich he’d bought back and forth during the seminar and at one point, I struggled so hard not to laugh that I almost choked on it. If nothing else, I was having some badly needed, well deserved fun after the hellish week.
When the talk ended, Noah went to the front of the room to chat up Mr. Lukumi as the handful of other attendees filtered out. I went to explore.
There was only one small window in the room, and it was partially hidden by a shelf. An overflow of rain gurgled out of a storm drain, sounding like a muffled plug-in fountain through the glass barrier. My eyes scanned the labels of dozens of tiny bottles and jars of herbs and liquids in front of me; “mystic bath,” “recuperation of love life,” “luck,” “confusion.”
Confusion. I reached out to inspect the bottle just as something squawked behind me. I whipped around and, in the process, dislodged a poured candle from the shelf. It fell in slow motion then smashed against the tile, the glass casing splitting into a thousand little diamond shards. Noah and Mr. Lukumi both turned in my direction, just as a small silver cup with jingle bells on it tipped over.
Mr. Lukumi’s eyes flicked to the cup, then to me. “Get out,” he said, as he approached.
His tone stunned me. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”
Mr. Lukumi crouched and examined the broken glass, then raised his eyes to mine. “Just go,” he said, but his voice wasn’t angry. It was urgent.
“Wait a minute,” Noah said, growing annoyed. “There’s no call to be rude. I’ll pay for it.”
Mr. Lukumi rose from his crouch and reached for my arm. But at the last second, he didn’t take it. His tall figure loomed over mine. Intimidating.
“There is nothing for you here,” he said slowly. “Please leave.”
Noah appeared at my side. “Back up,” he said to Mr. Lukumi, his voice low. Dangerous. The priest did so without pause, but his eyes never left mine.
I was beyond confused, and speechless. The three of us stood still a few feet from the doorway. One of the children giggled in the other room. I tried to orient myself, to figure out what I’d done that was so insulting and examined Mr. Lukumi’s face in the process. His eyes met mine, and something flashed behind them. Something I didn’t expect.
“You know something,” I said to him quietly, not sure how I knew. I registered Noah’s surprise in my peripheral vision as I stared Mr. Lukumi down. “You know what’s happening to me.” The words felt true.
But I was crazy. Medicated. In therapy. And believing that was what had led me here to a hole in the wall with a medicine man made more sense than the impossible idea that there was something very, very wrong with me. Something worse than crazy. Mr. Lukumi dropped his gaze and my conviction began to slip away. He was acting like he knew. But what did he know? How did he know? And then I realized that it didn’t matter. Whatever insight he had, I was desperate for it.
“Please,” I said. “I’m—” I remembered the tiny bottle clenched in my sweaty fist. “I’m confused. I need help.”
Mr. Lukumi looked at my fist. “That won’t help you,” he said, but his tone was softer.
Noah’s expression was still wary, but his voice was calm. “We’ll pay,” he said, digging into his pocket. He had no idea what was going on, but he was going along with it. With me. Reckless Noah, game for anything. I loved him.
I loved him.
Before I could even dwell on the thought, Mr. Lukumi shook his head and motioned us toward the door again, but Noah withdrew a fat wad of bills from his pocket. As he counted them out, my eyes went wide.
“Five thousand to help us,” he said, and pressed them into Mr. Lukumi’s hand.
I wasn’t the only one shocked by the money. The priest hesitated for a moment before his fingers curled over the cash. His eyes appraised Noah.
“You do need help,” he said to him, shaking his head before closing the door behind us. Then his eyes found mine. “Wait here.” Mr. Lukumi headed to a back door I hadn’t even noticed. How deep did this place go?
He finally disappeared, and the sound of squawking and clucking met my ears.
“Chickens?” I asked. “What are those—”
A nonhuman scream cut off my question.
“Did he just—” My hands curled into fists. No. No way.
Noah tilted his head. “What are you getting so upset about?”
“Are you joking?”
“The medianoche we just ate had pork in it.”
But that’s different. “I didn’t have to hear it,” I said out loud.
“No one likes a hypocrite, Mara,” he said, a sad shadow of a smile turning up one corner of his mouth.
“And anyway, you’re running this show. I’m just the financier.”
I tried not to think about what might or might not be happening in the back room as the sandwich turned sour in my stomach. “Speaking of finances,” I said, swallowing carefully before I continued, “what the hell were you doing with five thousand dollars on you?”
“Eight, actually. I had grand plans for today. Hookers and blow aren’t cheap, but I suppose animal sacrifice will have to do. Happy birthday.”
“Thanks,” I deadpanned. I was starting to feel more normal. Relaxed, even. “But seriously, why the money?”
Noah’s eyes were focused on the back door. “I thought we’d stop in the art district to meet a painter I know. I was going to buy something from him.”
“With that much money? In cash?”
“He has cash vices, shall we say.”
“And you’d enable them?”
Noah shrugged a shoulder. “He’s supremely talented,”
I looked at him with disapproval.
“What?” Noah asked. “Nobody’s perfect.”
Since Noah’s money was now being used to support animal sacrifice as opposed to someone’s cocaine habit, I dropped the subject. My eyes roamed the room.
“What’s the deal with all the random stuff here?” I asked. “The rusty horseshoes? The honey?”
“It’s for Santeria offerings,” Noah said. “It’s a popular religion here. Mr. Lukumi is one of the high priests.”
Just then, the back door opened and the high priest himself appeared, carrying a small glass in his hands. With a picture of a rooster on it. Terrible.
He pointed at the ugly brown and yellow flowered armchair in the corner of the room. “Sit,” he said as he ushered me toward it. His voice was dispassionate. I obeyed.
He handed me the glass. It was warm. “Drink this,” he said.
My bizarre day—my bizarre life—was getting weirder and weirder. “What’s in it?” I asked, eyeing the mixture. It looked like tomato juice. I’d pretend it was tomato juice.
“You are confused, yes? You need to remember, yes? Drink it. It will help you,” Mr. Lukumi said.
I flicked my eyes to Noah and he held his hands up defensively. “Don’t look at me,” he said, then turned to Mr. Lukumi, “But if anything happens to her afterward,” he said carefully, “I will end you.”
Mr. Lukumi was unruffled by the threat. “She will sleep. She will remember. That is all. Now drink.”
I took the glass from him but my nostrils flared as I brought it to my mouth. The salt-rust smell turned my stomach, and I hesitated.
This whole thing was probably fake. The blood, the botanica. Mr. Lukumi was humoring us for the money. The hypnotist would probably do the same. It wouldn’t help.
But neither did the pills. And the alternative was waiting. Waiting and talking to Dr. Maillard, while my nightmares got worse and my hallucinations became harder to hide, until I’d eventually be pulled out of school—dashing any hope of graduating on time, of going to a good college, of having a normal life.
What the hell. I tilted the glass and winced when my lips reached the warm liquid. My taste buds rebelled at the bitterness, the metallic iron flavor. It was all I could do not to spit. After a few painful gulps, I wrenched the cup from my lips but Mr. Lukumi shook his head.
“All of it,” he said.
I looked at Noah. He shrugged.
I turned back to the glass. This was my choice. I wanted this. I needed to finish it.
I closed my eyes, tossed my head back and brought the glass to my mouth. It clicked against my teeth and I swallowed the thin liquid. I chugged it when my throat protested, screamed at me to stop. The warmth dribbled over both sides of my chin and soon, the glass was empty. I sat upright again and held the cup in my lap. I did it. I smiled, triumphant.
“You look like the Joker,” Noah said.
That was the last thing I heard before I blacked out.