Eventually, the quiet of the street returns to normal – a soft quiet comprised of sighs and whispers instead of the deafening quiet of fear. My toes, my calves, my thighs are pulsing with the insistent throb of limbs about to go on strike, so I move to stand. The runner grabs my arm and jerks me to the ground.
“There are at least eight of them out there,” she whispers. “We stay put until dawn.”
Peacekeepers rotate patrol every four hours, even I know that. Staying until daylight will ensure the soldiers currently hunting us will be gone. I try not to smile. It also gives me time to convince her to give me another chance. The roosters have gone home to roost and a tired parade of hawkers walk back through the streets to wherever home is.
“Have you ever been caught by them?” I whisper.
“What did they do?”
“Before or after they processed me?”
“After,” I say, confused.
“They lock you up,” she says, and I don’t even know this girl but I can feel her voice change, harden, “and then you work.”
“Like, what kind of work?”
In the weak light I can see her face, full of scorn. “Anything they want. If you’re a kid, sewing buttons and patching holes on uniforms mostly,” she says.
“Did your family get you out?”
She doesn’t answer me.
I try again: “How’d you get out?”
It’s past dawn. The streetlight snaps off but I can see everything now: filthy blankets, chewed nails, frayed shorts, frayed shirt, frayed hair pulled back in a loose ponytail around a young, dirty face – younger and far dirtier than mine. She stands and the blankets fall from her shoulders.
“I don’t have family,” she said. “I got myself out. I ran. See ya.”
She’s walking away, joining the ragged parade of people headed back to the crumbling suburbs while I stand and stumble, my legs asleep.
“Wait!” I shout but she doesn’t even pause. “Please!”
“My mom works at Circus Circus!,” I shout again. “I can get steak! I can get water!”
I’m lying but maybe I can get those things. In that moment, I want to believe I can, at least. Now dozens of eyes are sizing me up: my clean shoes with fresh shoelaces, my clean knees and freshly braided hair. It occurs to me to be embarrassed but before I can count my failures she’s walking back until we are nearly toe to toe.
“I can get water,” I repeat. “I can get –”
“Your mom works at Circus Circus?”
“Get me a PO badge and you can run with us.”
A Peacekeeper’s badge? Not possible.
“Ok,” I say. “I can get that. No problem.”
She doesn’t stick around to hear how, which is the only luck I’ve had tonight. I am fresh out of bravado and about a million steps from home.
It’s past watering time when I stumble through the back door, yet despite the lateness of the morning, Peasant and Los and Vivian are all still gone. Pops is snoring on the living room floor. The couch has a stain the size of his body on it. Each night, while Vivian – and apparently my siblings – make the nightly pilgrimage to downtown’s neon glow, he drinks and sleeps and sweats. It’s a luxury most vets don’t have – the drinking. Vivian smuggles him bottles of Circus Juice so instead of fighting with us, he fights in his sleep.
I ferret my shoes away and return to watch him. It’s been years since I’ve done this. When he first came home we’d all watch him like this, waiting for his eyes to open and the smiles and stories to come because we were stupidly hopeful for a normal that was never returning.
I don’t know when they get home – Peasant and Los – I never hear them but at some point, the quiet of the house changes from empty to breathing. At some point, Peasant joins me on the living room floor. She’s got a big glass of astronaut juice with her and a crumpled, foiled bag.
I take her juice and drink it, all of it, gulping so long and hard it sounds as if I’m sobbing. Astronaut juice doesn’t quench the thirst so much as tricks it into receding for awhile. I hand the glass back to her. My mouth is sticky.
“Sorry,” I say.
She offers me the foil bag. She must be apologizing for something. It makes me suspicious.
“What is it?” I ask.
“Belated birthday present.”
I squeeze the bag until it resembles an air-puffed pillow.
“Sour cream and onion,” I read.
“They’re potato chips.”
Fear creeps up my spine and settles on my shoulders. Extra rations are hard to get. Non-rationed foods are impossible. We haven’t had potato chips in the house since before Peasant lost her baby teeth.
“Where did you get these?”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“Answer me, Persephone: how did you get these?”
“I found them.”
“Don’t worry about it, ok?” she says. “Just don’t let Vivian know – she won’t bury Paul or Melanie or any of the others but show her some food and she’ll be planting it in the front yard.”
“That’s mean.” I don’t mean to chastise, I’m just shocked. Peasant never talks like that about our mother.
“It’s not mean. It’s true.”
It’s unsettling, this little girl who has secrets she won’t share. We used to share everything. Even things she didn’t want to share I could usually beat out of her. Now I sense a shift in her, like she thinks she doesn’t need me anymore. It’s insulting and scary, like the first time I realized that ending the war didn’t make us any safer or our bellies any more full.
My sister’s ego has grown too big for her delicate frame. If Los mentored this change in her, I can only hope he’s being safe.
“Where did you go last night?” I ask.
“Nowhere,” she says. “Where did you go?”
I wonder if she saw me last night, too. Her eyes are on the chip bag and I know she’s just as eager to try them as I am, so I shut my mouth and squeeze the bag until the top bursts open. Then I root two fingers inside, my fingers getting slick with grease and salt, pull out a handful and offer her the bag. The first crunch is jarring. Chip shards drive into my gums. Nothing in our rations packages is crunchy or hard or as delightfully salty as this. Peasant closes her eyes at the first bite. She keeps them closed as she chews, eyebrows lifted and pulled together as if trying to savor the flavor of happiness. She looks exquisite, just like her namesake, a woman so beautiful she caught the eye of the king of Hell himself. Everyone remembers the beautiful queen part but not many people know what “Persephone” actually means: “bringer of destruction.”
I wonder if we become the names we are given. If so, I wonder who Peasant will end up destroying.
If we do live up to our namesakes, it’s no wonder my real name is Roberta, after my abuela – my dad’s mom. All I remember is that she liked to eat and complained a lot about having a “hot aynoos” (hemorrhoids. Her English wasn’t so good). My siblings used to tease me that I had a face shaped like an empty dinner plate, a “real Roberta of a face.” I guess I should be thankful my parents didn’t name me Medusa.
It was Vivian who nicknamed me Rio. That was back when I called her mom.
Peasant sighs an exquisite sigh, then opens her eyes and smiles a smile that belongs on a ceiling fresco in an Italian bathroom somewhere fancy, like the Venetian. Even if she won’t tell me what she’s doing in the city, I get why Los has her doing it – no one would suspect that face of dishonesty. They’d just as soon accuse a kitten of collusion.
“I’m thirsty,” I say.
“Me too,” Pops says, surprising us both. He hasn’t moved on the floor but his big brown eyes study us with unsettling steadiness.
“Mel, can you get your old pops un poco de agua?”
When he talks to me, he often calls me by my dead sister’s name – Mel, or Melanie. He looks normal but it still startles me, this raw wound he has. This brain illness.
“I’ll get it,” Peasant says, standing, and I don’t stop her. Vivian will be pissed but the potatoes can go thirsty for a day.
Thirty seconds into our staring contest and I’m wondering, is he sober or did he fall asleep with his eyes open again? He blinks and I jump a little. It’s been months – years? – since I felt his gaze on me this steady for this long and I hold on to it like I would a hand. At moments like this, it’s easy to hate Vivian for bringing bottle after bottle of Circus Juice into the house, even though he screams and begs and shakes for it.
“Qué estás pensando, mija?”
As if he cares what I’m thinking about, as if he’s ever bothered to ask before. For a minute, I hate him before I can stop myself. But the truth is, I need advice, even if it comes from a talking couch stain. Okay, that’s mean – a part-time parent.
“How do you get people to like you?” I ask him.
“Who doesn’t like you?”
I can’t keep his eyes. It’s harder to lie to him sober. Soberish.
“Nobody. That’s not what I asked.”
Peasant returns and sits cross legged next to me while he gulps water so hard it sounds like he’s trying to swallow a brick. I notice the ceiling over the couch is crumbling away, leaving a hole we can never fill. Maybe that’s why he’s on the floor.
When he finishes, he speaks: “Well, there’s a couple answers to that question. Pacifists – excuse my language – will say ‘be yourself’ but that’ll only get you liked by like-minded chuckleheads. The politicians of the world – again, excuse my language – will give you some bullshit about eye contact and chanting people’s names every 20 seconds, but that only ever worked for other slick idiots who are in the business of selling spit to camels.”
We hear the kitchen door hinge open; Vivian is finally home. I crumple the chip bag into a quick, tight fist as Pops’ voice drops to a whisper and his sweaty palm grips my elbow, but he’s no longer looking at me. His eyes are on Peasant. He even remembers her name.
“You want to know how to make people like you, Persephone?” he asks. “Find out what they need. If they don’t know what they need, tell them what they need, then give it to them. Be indispensable. Make them say ‘thank you’ enough and they won’t like you – they will resent and fear you. In this world, honey, being needed is better than being liked.”