THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product ofthe author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, livingor dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright ? 2010 by Laura McNeal
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of RandomHouse Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Dark water / Laura McNeal. — 1st ed.
Summary: Living in a cottage on her uncle’s Southern California avocado ranch since her
parents’ messy divorce, fifteen-year-old Pearl DeWitt meets and falls in love with an illegal
migrant worker, and is trapped with him when wildfires approach his makeshift forest home.
eISBN: 978-0-375-89720-7 [1. Wildfires—Fiction. 2. Illegal aliens—Fiction. 3. Homeless persons—Fiction. 4.
Divorce—Fiction. 5. Cousins—Fiction. 6. Family life—California—Fiction. 7.
California—Fiction.] I. Title. PZ7.M47879365Dar 2010
Random House Children’s Books supports the First Amendment and celebrates the right to read.
Chapter Twenty-three Chapter Twenty-four Chapter Twenty-five Chapter Twenty-six Chapter Twenty-seven Chapter Twenty-eight Chapter Twenty-nine Chapter Thirty Chapter Thirty-one Chapter Thirty-two Chapter Thirty-three Chapter Thirty-four Chapter Thirty-five Chapter Thirty-six Chapter Thirty-seven Chapter Thirty-eight Chapter Thirty-nine Chapter Forty Chapter Forty-one Chapter Forty-two Chapter Forty-three Chapter Forty-four Chapter Forty-five Chapter Forty-six Chapter Forty-seven Chapter Forty-eight Chapter Forty-nine Chapter Fifty Chapter Fifty-one Chapter Fifty-two Chapter Fifty-three Chapter Fifty-four Chapter Fifty-five Chapter Fifty-six Chapter Fifty-seven Chapter Fifty-eight Chapter Fifty-nine Acknowledgments About the Author
You wouldn’t have noticed me before the fire unless you saw that my eyes, like a pair of sockschosen in the dark, don’t match. One is blue and the other’s brown, a genetic trait calledheterochromia that I share with white cats, Catahoula hog dogs, and water buffaloes. My uncleHoyt used to tell me, when I was little, that it meant I could see fairies and peaceful ghosts.
Then I met Amiel, and for six months it seemed true what he whispered in his damaged voice: Tú
.eres de dos mundos
He was wrong, of course. You can only belong to one world at a time.
Now that he’s gone, I try to see things when I’m alone. I put one hand over my blue eye, andI look south. With my brown eye I can see all the way to Mexico. I fly over freeways and tileroofs and malls and swimming pools. I cross the Sierra de Juárez Mountains and the Sea ofCortés to the place where Amiel was born, and I find the turquoise house with a red door. Thereare three chairs on the covered patio: one for him, one for me, and one for Uncle Hoyt. I tellmyself the chairs are empty because we’re not there yet. I watch for as long as I can and whenmy eye starts to water, I remove my hand.
Tomorrow, I’ll look again.
People move to Fallbrook, California, because it’s sunny 340 days of the year. They move hereto grow petunias and marigolds and palms and cycads and cactus and self-propagating succulentsand blood oranges and Meyer lemons and sweet limes and, above all, avocados. They move here togrow them, I should say, or to pick them for other people.
The houses are far apart when you’re out in the hills, where trees and petunias grow instraight lines for profit, but once you get close to town, the streets look like somethingdrawn by a child with an Etch A Sketch. No overall plan, no sidewalks, just driveways going offin crazy lines that lead to other driveways, where signs point to other dead-end streets namedin Spanish or English with no particular theme—La Oreja Place sticking out of Rodeo Queen
leading to Tecolote Avenue, which if it were a sentence would read “the Ear on the RodeoDrive
Queen of the Owl.”
The ear and the queen and the owl are overrun with bougainvillea, ivy geraniums, tulip vines,and star jasmine, and that’s what makes Fallbrook beautiful from a distance but tangled andconfusing up close. It’s a place where you can get lost no matter how long you’ve lived here,and there are only two roads out, something we didn’t think much about before the fires began.
I first saw Amiel de la Cruz Guerrero on the corner of one of those Etch A Sketch streets,where Alvarado meets Stage Coach. I was fifteen and he was seventeen, although he toldemployers he was twenty. I was in my sophomore year of high school and my mother wassubstitute-teaching because my father had left us, and as my mother was constantly saying overthe phone when she thought I wasn’t listening, The wolf is at the door.
Every weekday morning at seven-thirty we’d leave my uncle’s avocado ranch, where we wereliving free of rent (but not shame) in the guesthouse. My mother would drink her coffee in thecar while she drove, and I would eat dry Corn Pops from a Tupperware bowl. Traffic would bunchup as all the cars going to all the schools had to inch through the same four-way stop atAlvarado and Stage Coach, one corner of which was a day-labor gathering site, meaning Mexicanand Guatemalan men would stand around on the empty lot hoping to get a day’s work diggingtrenches, moving furniture, hauling firewood, or picking fruit. The men stared intensely intoevery car, hoping to win you over before you stopped. Pick me, their faces said. The wolf is at
But on this morning, the men had their backs to the road. Our car rolled slowly to the stopsign, going even slower than usual because the drivers of the cars were staring, too.
When we got close enough, I could see a lanky guy in a flannel shirt and work pants doing somesort of act. Fallbrook calls itself the Avocado Capital of the World, so you don’t live herewithout seeing guys pick avocados. Mostly it’s done on high ladders, but there’s also thisfunky tool like a lacrosse stick with a six-foot handle. You stick the pole way up in the tree,hook the avocado, yank, then lower the pole so you can drop the fruit into a huge canvas bagyou’re wearing slung over one shoulder and across your chest. That’s what Amiel was doingthat morning, only without the pole, the sack, the tree, or the avocado.
“What in the world?” my mom asked.
“He’s picking imaginary fruit,” I said.
She snuck a look. “That’s the oddest thing I’ve ever seen.”
“Can we hire him?”
She snorted. It was our turn to dart through the intersection just as Amiel de la Cruz Guerrerotouched his imaginary avocado-picking pole to a live electrical wire and received an imaginaryjolt, which made all the day-labor guys laugh.
The next day, he was juggling three actual, not mimed, soda bottles. “Look, Mom,” I said, soshe peered over for a second.
“I hope he doesn’t litter,” she said.
“That sounded kind of racist.”
“There’s no trash can on this corner, if you haven’t noticed. And the neighbors will make astink if junk starts piling up.”
The day after that, Amiel was standing on his head. While I watched, the guy next to him gavehis feet a shove and he tipped over. “I guess the other guys think he’s showing off toomuch,” I said.
My mother sighed. “It could be he’s in the wrong field for his talents.”
On Friday, the boy just stood there, hands in his pockets like the rest of the men. He didn’teven look into our car like the others did. “Why do they come here?” I asked my mom.
“I don’t know why they pick this corner,” she said.
“I mean cross the border.”
“But they clearly don’t have work.”
“The hope of work,” she said.
That’s when I thought of Hoyt. My uncle Hoyt grew so many avocados that he had to employpeople year-round to fertilize, water, pick, prune, and patrol fences to keep thieves fromstealing bins of fruit worth thousands of dollars, a crime called—I’m not kidding—“GrandTheft Avocado.” All of his employees were Mexican. I asked him about it once, why everyfarmworker you ever saw in Fallbrook was Hispanic.
“I don’t know who picks corn in Iowa or lingonberries in Sweden,” Hoyt said, “but whiteteenage boys don’t pick avocados in California. Neither do grown white men. Not enough moneyin it for them. Or status.”
I didn’t ask if his guys were legal, because I knew generally who was and who wasn’t. Thelegal ones had drivers’ licenses. They could go home to Mexico on planes and come back onplanes. The illegal ones worked seven days a week for years at a stretch, saved their money,then went home for about eight months to be with their families. Every time they went home,they had to borrow money to pay coyotes who smuggled them back in.
“Do you think they’re happy, the workers?” I asked. You could ask Hoyt questions like thatand he wouldn’t get defensive.
“I’ll tell you a story,” Hoyt said. “You know Esteban, right? His kids and wife are herebecause he has papers. He brought them legally about ten years ago. That was when I wasbuilding Robby’s tree house.” My cousin Robby. “I took Esteban’s kids up into the treehouse because I thought they’d like to play in it. And you know what his youngest kid said? Helooked around with this really serious face and asked, ‘Who’s going to live here?’?”
Robby’s tree house was pretty nice, with cedar shingles on the outside and two framed windowsand a peaked roof, but there was no electricity or plumbing or even a door, and it was abouteight feet square.
“That’s because,” Hoyt went on, “in the village where they were born, plenty of peoplelived in places worse than that tree house. I’ll tell you what, Pearl. I’m going to take youand Robby with me to Esteban’s village in Mexico next time I go. I want you to see why heleft.”
On Friday after school, I decided to ask Hoyt if he ever hired guys from the street corner. Ifound him standing in his driveway, shaking his head in frustration while Esteban talked inSpanish on a cell phone. Esteban kept saying the same phrases over and over again, and Ididn’t know what they meant, but I could tell he was calming somebody down.
“What’s the matter?” I asked Hoyt when Esteban had gone away.
“They’ve deported one of my guys.”
“How did they get him?”
It was a mystery to me how the border patrol made decisions. There were lots of day-laborpickup points like the corner where I’d seen Amiel, and those places didn’t change much, soyou’d think agents would know right where to go.
“He was at the grocery store,” Hoyt said.
“Does that happen a lot?”
“It didn’t used to,” Hoyt said.
“What will happen now?”
“We’ll get the money together to help him cross again, which means about four thousanddollars, or he’ll give up and go home.”
“So?…,” I said, stalling until I could think of the right words. “Do you need any help inthe meantime?”
“Why? Can you prune avocados?”
“Well, maybe, but I was thinking of someone you could hire.”
I didn’t know Amiel’s name yet, and I fumbled for a way to make a juggling mime soundemployable. “This guy I saw at the corner of Stage Coach. You know, where they gather whenthey want work.”
Hoyt looked amused. “What, is he handsome?”
“No. I mean, that’s not why.” I told Hoyt about the mime routine and the headstand. “Hejust seemed unusual is all. And I feel sorry for those guys. They have it the worst, don’tthey?”
“They’re probably bad workers or they drink too much. If they were good workers,” Hoyt said,“their friends and relatives would recommend them and they’d have jobs.”
“What if you don’t have any friends or relatives here?”
“They all do, Pearl.”
“But how? Somebody has to be first, right?”
Hoyt just looked at me. “Technically, yeah. But everyone I hire is recommended by a cousin, abrother, an uncle, or a friend. It works better that way.”
It reminded me of the riddles my dad used to ask me at dinner:
What can you catch but not throw?
What goes around the world but stays in the corner?
If nobody knows you, how do you ever get a job?
To this I had no answer.
Sometimes on Saturdays, if Hoyt had errands to run in town, he’d talk Robby and me into goingwith him in exchange for a donut, and that’s what he did the next morning.
It was late spring, meaning April, and the look of everything just about made you happy even ifyour father was a louse. The wild grass that had sprouted after the winter rains (my favoritetwo months of the whole year) had not yet turned to evil poky foxtails that drill into yoursocks and shoelaces. Most of the hills were a heartbreaking velvety green, and the others,where fruit trees had been stumped and painted white, looked like brown quilts knotted withwhite yarn.
I would have gone with Hoyt even if no donuts were involved. I loved riding in his truckbecause it was an old Ford with bench seats. It smelled like dirt, coffee, grease, and thescratchy wool Indian blanket that covered the front seat. Robby and I called it the FordPackrat because the foot wells were filled with irrigation tubing, receipts dating to 1985,hamburger wrappers, and rusty iron tools. We had plans to market something called the FordPackrat XC80 if Robby pursued his planned career in industrial design.
My cousin Robby no longer speaks to me and is living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, starting hissecond year at MIT.
On the day in question, though, that beautiful, green-grass day, I sat in the middle and angledmy knees toward Robby. Robby at sixteen was tall and ethereal-looking, like his mother, my auntAgnès, pronounced Aun-yez, not the American way. She was born and raised in France, a point ofsuperiority to her way of thinking that made it hard for all of us, except Robby and Hoyt, todo anything but tolerate her. Robby played the clarinet and scored outrageously high on collegetests and ran track and collected these cute but obscure figurines no one in America had everheard of, which depicted the comic-book adventures of a bald-headed kid named Tintin and hiswhite terrier, Snowy. I scored pretty high in English because, thanks to my mom, I read all thetime, but Robby was the acknowledged genius in our family.
First we drove to Miller Pipe and hung around while my uncle picked out whatever pipe fittingshe needed for the grove, and then we rode in all that sunshine to the Donut Palace, a tinystore lacquered in yellow Formica that was owned and ferociously sanitized by a Taiwanesefamily. I always got a chocolate-glazed, Robby always got a jelly-filled, and Uncle Hoyt alwaysgot a sugar twist. Hoyt could take or leave the sugar twist, to be honest, but he hated to goanywhere by himself.
I was still nibbling on my chocolate-glazed when we rolled up to the four-way stop at Alvaradoand Stage Coach, and Amiel was in his usual spot, juggling nothing and looking depressed.“That’s him!” I told my uncle. “The mime I told you about!”
“Keep driving,” Robby said with his usual semi-irritating authority. “We should close theborders to all mimes. And clowns. And folk dancers.”
Amiel, so graceful and brown and lean, was wearing a loose T-shirt and jeans, so he didn’texactly have that I’m-a-mime look about him. To my surprise, Hoyt slowly swung the Packratonto the dirt. Five men swarmed the truck right away, clapping their chests, gripping thedoors, and shouting in English and Spanish until you hated yourself. They called Hoyt “Señor”and “Mister.”
Uno momentito,” Hoyt said to the workers, his stock phrase, and I looked kind of desperately“
at Amiel, hoping he’d somehow impress my uncle.
“That one,” I said.
Amiel saw me, so he pointed to himself with an extra-long, extra-expressive finger. He raisedone eyebrow. He looked in an exaggerated way behind him.
“Oh my God,” Robby said. “If he gets into a box, I’m going to shoot myself.”
The mime walked slowly toward the pickup, which was angled so that he was approaching Robby’sside. Hoyt patted Robby’s knee and said, “Roll down your window, Rob.”
It was that kind of truck, where you had to roll, so Robby did, but very slowly. “This is notworth a donut,” he muttered.
“You know how to use a chain saw?” my uncle called out Robby’s window at Amiel.
All the other men were still holding Hoyt’s door like they were in deep water and we were aboat. “?Sí! Chain saw!” they said, but Hoyt was still looking out Robby’s window at the boywho was now six inches from me.
He was slender to the point of bony, with a smooth, narrow, mournful face. His eyes were alighter shade of brown than his skin, like gold sand in a river bottom, and his nose might haveseemed large if his eyes hadn’t been so arresting. In contrast to his straightness andtautness, his hair seemed uncontrollably curly.
Amiel held one hand in the shape of a C, a gesture I later learned was his gesture for “sí.”
He strapped an imaginary pair of goggles over his creek-glitter eyes. He pulled on an imaginarycord and started up an imaginary chain saw. He shuddered and appeared unable to control theweight of it, then nodded to himself and smiled at us before starting to cut through aninvisible tree limb. He stopped the chain saw and picked up the imaginary log and presented itto us.
Uncle Hoyt laughed. Robby groaned. The other men, the ones at Hoyt’s window, made disgustednoises and looked angry enough that I knew things would be worse for Amiel if Hoyt just droveaway.
But he didn’t. “What the hell. Hop in!” Hoyt said, then he nodded at the oldest man hangingaround his door handle, a guy who couldn’t have been more than four and a half feet tall underhis black cowboy hat, and said, “You too, señor.” I felt extremely happy and was full ofaffection for my uncle. I just knew he wouldn’t be sorry.
The very small old man and Amiel climbed into the narrow backseat.
“What’s your name?” Hoyt asked.
The tiny vaquero said he was called Gallo, and Amiel handed us a not entirely clean businesscard that said AMIEL DE LA CRUZ GUERRERO. HARD WORKER.
“Are you deaf?” Hoyt asked him, returning the card to Amiel.
Amiel shook his head and pointed to his throat.
“Well, mucho gusto!” Hoyt said, another of his stock Spanish phrases, and Robby looked likehe was figuring out how fast he would have to roll if he jumped out of a truck going thirtymiles per hour.
“Where are you from?” Hoyt practically shouted in Spanish to the old vaquero in the back. Thetruck was loud with the windows down, sunshine and wind whipping us all, the motor roaring. Butit wasn’t just that. Uncle Hoyt, like just about everyone else, spoke louder in a foreignlanguage, and I think he still thought Amiel was deaf. Bougainvillea flew by.
“Acapulco,” the old man said beautifully, like it was the name of a love song.
“This is my son, Roberto,” my uncle announced real slow and loud, and Robby shrank into thedoor. “I’m Hoyt, okay?” he went on. Then he added, “This pretty señorita here is my niece,Pearl!”
“You daughter?” the old one asked in English.
” Hoyt said.Sobrina,“
“Sí,” the vaquero said. “Sí. Sobrina.”
By this time we were crossing the freeway to Rainbow, population 2,026, elevation 1,043.Rainbow had its own elementary school, café, gas station, and fruit stand but was otherwisejust a strung-out collection of ranches, packinghouses, nurseries, and farms. Huge boulderswere clumped in all the hills like brown sugar that’s gone hard on you, and lilacs and oaktrees grew crooked and wild in their shade.
Six months from this day, a fire would leap from east to west, from Rainbow to Fallbrook. Eightlanes is a lot of concrete for a fire to cross, and I would have told you there was no way itcould ever happen. In spring, everything is so conk-you-in-the-head pretty. Painted ladybutterflies kept fluttering past the windshield, the air smelled like orange blossoms, andAmiel was in the backseat. I understood exactly why people wrote musicals.
We turned and headed toward the gate that Uncle Hoyt welded in adult education classes beforeRobby or I was born.
“Here we are,” he said, steering us under the sign that said LEMON DROP RANCH in loopy ironletters. When I was little, he would always sing, Where troubles melt like lemon drops, away
.above the chimney tops, that’s where you’ll find me
In Rainbow, see.
We drove under the arch, gravel popping under the tires of Hoyt’s truck as I moved into thefuture, where I would be Perla and Amiel would sign my name by opening the oyster shell of histwo hands and extracting a small invisible pearl, his long expressive fingers turning into anest and then a bird, undulating so that you forgot his hand was a hand at all.
My mother and I lived uneasily that year in my uncle’s guesthouse, the oldest structure inRainbow. The cottage was the original homestead of a pioneer named Lavar Mulveen, who came toRainbow in the thirties to raise olives but ended up planting alligator pears, an early,fanciful name for avocados. I hated Lavar’s rusty bathtub and dysfunctional toilet, but Iliked how the porch was a big extra room, which my mom and I had fitted out with an old wickersofa and a lamp and even a needlepoint rug that Robby and I bought at a garage sale for threedollars. Everything that reminded us of my dad we pitched: his sports memorabilia (not truethat you can get a fortune for old baseball cards), his record albums, his ultra-lux leathersofa, his ultra-lux glass-and-steel office furniture, the model train layout his dad built andwhich was like a tiny green kingdom in our garage when I was little, complete with creeks andforests and bridges and houses and barns. We smashed it to pieces, my mother and I. I was KingKong and she was Godzilla. In case that seems slightly hysterical, I’ll tell you how he left.
It was a Friday in January, and on this particular Friday we were expecting my father to flyhome from Phoenix, where he was turning apartments into condos, something you can’t do in afarm town like Fallbrook. He’d be gone for about a month at a time, and for those weeks it waslike my mom and I were roommates. We never made our beds and we didn’t keep to any kind of aschedule and we watched girl movies after I finished my homework, and then my dad flew in andwe cleaned everything up and my mom cooked fancy food and it was like they were dating eachother in the type of movie we liked best.
At least, I thought that’s the kind of movie it was until I came home from Greenie’s onJanuary 12. I’d made my bed in the morning, and the night before I’d helped clean thebathrooms and iron napkins and pick popcorn bits out of the lux leather sofa. I knew my motherwas making lobster Newburg and bananas Foster. I knew she’d bought a new dress at Talbotsbecause I helped pick it out.
I came into the house, the one on Macadamia Drive with a stained glass window of a hummingbirdby the front door, and I saw that my mom had left pots and pans and food all over the kitchen.