Chapter 27: Purple Rain

Dear Tadi,

First off, I’d better warn you – the Aurelio Leon you used to know has disappeared. This letter is coming to you from a new Leon. A Lost in Space Leon. A Leon who’s been punctured by Cupid’s arrow and is stumbling around, bleeding love for Lindsay Tate. Okay, maybe that’s a little dramatic.

I’ll get back to all that in a minute. Knowing you, you are probably more concerned about what happened to poor D.J. after he was swindled by Mo and Yolanda (if those were even their real names). Well, he had it rough for a few months, I have to say. But like he always does, D.J. emerged from his tomb of self-pity with a new sense of purpose flashing in his eyes.

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“I’ve decided to go to college,” he announced. That same day, he headed over to Palmas Muertas Junior College and enrolled in computing classes. And bam! Just like that, D.J. traded life on the edge and blowing his money at the poker tables for the student life. He rose early each day, slung a backpack over his shoulders, and marched off to campus.

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He used up the rest of his gold money buying a state of the art home computer. Now, whenever he is home, I can hear him in his room, clicking away at the keyboard. Whenever I ask him what he’s working on, he just shrugs and says, “Studying.”

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He keeps trying to convince me to take some college classes, too. “You should really learn some computer programming skills,” he says. “It will really help you with your career.” But I don’t know. This personal computer thing is probably just a fad. And there’s nothing I can do on a computer that I can’t do on a plain, old-fashioned typewriter. Besides, things are going great at my work. My name is starting to get around. People come to the car lot and ask for me. After a little conversation, I can always figure out just the right car for the buyer. And cha-ching! I’ve made another sale.

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The funny thing is, even though I fixed up and sold cars, I had never bothered to buy one of my own. It had always been so convenient to ride my bike, or to hitch a ride with D.J. But one day, I had a brilliant thought (I do get those from time to time, haha).

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I had been trying to figure out how to work up my nerve and ask Lindsay Tate to go out with me. I know, I know…still? Yes, well, I still had barely even spoken to her. I couldn’t. I found excuses to stop by the Prickly Pear Botanical Garden practically every day just so that I could see her. When she saw me, she would give me this wide, friendly smile, and say, “Hey there!”

I would smile back and open my mouth to say, “Hey there,” back to her. But nothing came out. She was probably beginning to think that I was mute.

Then came the Great Idea. What if I bought myself a really awesome car, then cruised slowly past the garden? I could lean out my window and shout, “Hey there, Lindsay! Wanna go out with me?” And she would be so impressed by how cool my ride was that she would say yes.

So I pulled all of my money out of savings and plunked down a big down payment for a sweet muscle car, which I named Purple Rain. Then D.J. and I took her out for a few test rides, zipping through town and revving the engine at every stoplight.

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If I’d known anything about Lindsay, though, I would have saved my money. When she found out that I was the idiot polluting the desert air with my noisy car, she wrinkled her nose in distaste. But still, for some reason, she still agreed to go out with me when I finally felt brave enough to ask. So we went out eat. The next week, we went to the movies together. Then to an art museum. She loved cars, just not muscle cars. So instead of cruising around in Purple Rain, we rode bikes and breathed in the fresh desert air.

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I told Lindsay about my roommate, and about Asteria (minus the curses and hauntings), and about my boyhood in Detroit and Zewedu. Then she told me about her childhood, and get this – she was also a child of missionaries, and had grown up in Haiti. “My parents still live there,” she explained.

The more I learn about Lindsay, the more helplessly head-over-heels I am in love with her. I haven’t told her that, though. It’s much too soon. But I did ask her to be my girlfriend early one morning, as we watched the sunrise together. And she said yes. In spite of my new car.

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Your car-crazy (and Lindsay-crazy) friend,

Leon

 

 

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26: Guess Who Came to the Wedding?

Dear Leon,

Before I knew it, the big day was here. The day that Belinda would marry Chris, and the happy couple would start their new life together. And I would be alone. But I was trying hard not to think about that part. I just wanted for Belinda to be happy.

The weather could not have been more perfect for the wedding. The coastal fog had rolled back out to sea, and the air was calm and cool. We gathered on a small bluff overlooking the ocean – neighbors and friends we had made in Pirate Bay, and a few very special guests.

Belinda shrieked when she spotted them. “No freaking way!” she cried. Not caring about grass stains on her beautiful white gown, she raced across the grass and flung herself into the arms of our friends, our sisters, Leslie and Megan. No one could hold back the flood of happy tears (or rivers of streaked mascara). “How did you guys know? How did you find us?” Belinda asked.

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“Actually, Tadi found us,” said Megan.

“I hired a detective to help me track them down,” I said. “I couldn’t just let them miss your wedding, could I?”

Megan and Leslie weren’t the only surprise. I had also invited some of our good friends from Asteria, Clara, Barbie, and Mariah. We all had such a wonderful time catching up, that I had to save the biggest surprise for after the wedding ceremony.

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As the sun sank down in the horizon, Belinda and Chris exchanged vows. As the first stars twinkled in the night sky, they shared their first moments as husband and wife.

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After the confetti had settled, and the cake had been cut, I at last introduced Belinda to two last special guests, who had traveled a long way just to meet her.

“I’d like for you to meet Diane Ferguson and her daughter,” I said.

“Nice to meet you,” said Belinda with a polite smile. “Thank you for coming.”

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Diane’s lip quivered. “I always wondered how you’d turned out.” She spoke with a soft southern drawl. “And look at you! You are such a beautiful young woman. You look just like your grandma did when she was your age.”

Belinda turned to me, eyes questioning. I nodded. “Diane Ferguson is your mother.”

Belinda’s eyes grew very wide. “How is that…?” she said.

“Your daddy had to look for work, and I had to find us some food. You were so hungry that morning. We left you alone in the car for maybe twenty minutes. That was all. Twenty minutes.” Her voice trembled. “You disappeared. No one had seen you. My baby girl had vanished.”

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Belinda was crying again. So was I. I knew the rest of the story. The so-called Teacher had kidnapped her. Whisked her away to grow up on Rainbow Acres, under his twisted teachings and forced child labor. And Belinda had barely known her real parents.

The girl next to Diane tugged on her arm. “Mama? Can I get some more cake?”

Diane smiled and patted the girl’s curls. “Belinda, this is your half-sister, Jesykah. Say hi, Jesykah.”

I slipped away to let the three of them get to know each other and to spend more time catching up with our other guests. As the wedding party wound down later that evening, and many of the guests had left, I noticed Clara approach Belinda and Chris. The three of them engaged in conversation for a few minutes. Then Clara stepped away, lifted her hands, and clapped twice. Suddenly, the bride and groom were bathed in a magical glowing light. Then Clara snapped her fingers, and the light was gone.

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As Clara sauntered past me, she winked, and said out of the corner of her mouth, “Just a little gift for the newlyweds.”

I have no idea what her gift could be. I only hope that she didn’t turn them into fortune tellers!

 

Always,

Tadi

Chapter 25:Vroom!

Dear Tadi,

Mo Yung was trouble. Oh I know…trouble seems to follow us wherever we go. But Mo was a different kind of trouble than haunted houses, genie frog spells, and witchy curses. Mo was Real World trouble. Unfortunately, D.J. and I had lived for so long in that eerie storybook town, that we had forgotten all about the dangers of the real world.

It started so innocently. Well, innocent for Palmas Muertas, anyway. D.J. met Mo one night while out at the casinos. The two hit it off right away. D.J. was thirsty – thirsty for girls, riches, and adventure. Mo had all of that. All it took was a few smooth words and a couple of drinks, and soon, D.J. was following Mo Yung like a rock band groupie.

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While I was standing in the dry desert heat, trying to squeeze a small commission out of junky old cars, D.J. was eating out of Mo’s hand. Mo said “Jump.” D.J. jumped. Mo said “Bet on black.” D.J. bet on black. Mo raised the stakes, and D.J. jumped in.

“I don’t know,” I told D.J. when yet another morning, he’d come staggering home, reeking of beer, eyes ringed with purple shadows. “Something doesn’t seem right about this guy.”

“He’s cool, man,” said D.J., scowling. “We’re just out having fun, all right?”

He invited me to join them a few times after that. And I have to admit – Mo Yung really did know how to have fun. He seemed to have access to everything a guy could dream of. With a snap of his fingers, he got D.J. and me into the hottest parties in the city. He connected us with tons of beautiful women.

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One day, he even fixed us up with a pair of beauties – two sleek, shiny race cars. “Go on – take them out for a spin,” Mo told D.J. and me, tossing us each a racing uniform. “Just don’t get them scratched up.”

Vroom! I couldn’t believe it! Next thing you know, D.J. and I were racing each down empty stretches of highway, zooming through the desert at speeds I’d never imagined. It was such an incredible experience, that I almost become a Mo groupie, too.

Almost.

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Because deep down, a nagging part of me kept thinking, there must be a catch. Mo Yung seemed too good to be true. A desert mirage, shimmering like a lake for the thirsty wanderer.

Then Mo introduced us to his cousin, Yolanda.

“Cousin?” I asked, eyebrows raised. Yolanda didn’t look even a little like Mo.

Mo laughed. “Did I say cousin? I meant, my stepsister.”

Something seemed off, but D.J. didn’t appear to mind. He kept staring at Yolanda like she was a work of art hanging in a gallery. She caught on, and flashed him a smile that may as well have been a fisherman’s hook. D.J. was caught.

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For the next several weeks, D.J. was more or less Yolanda’s slave. Yolanda called, he went. Her power over him was even stronger than Mo’s.

For a minute, I thought maybe D.J. had found that special someone and had fallen in love. Maybe he and Yolanda would end up together, get married, start a family one day. But that minute was brief.

One night, while D.J. was snoozing in her hotel room, Yolanda sneaked across the room and stole all the cash from D.J.’s wallet. He had just won big at the casinos that night, so he had a wad of a few thousand dollars. Yolanda took it all. And his credit cards. And the fancy Rolex watch Mo had given to him as a gift.

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Then she disappeared.

Mo disappeared, too. The police could find no record of anyone named Mo Yung in the city of Palmas Muertas.

Just like that, D.J. was penniless. And since he no longer had money or connections, he found himself pretty much friendless, too. Well, except for me. He’d always have me, money or no money.

 

Your friend,

Leon

Chapter 24: Miss Baker Feeds the Hungry

Dear Leon,

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People in Pirate Bay are beginning to take notice of me. They do not call me by my real name, Tadelech. But everywhere I go, people smile and wave, and say, “Hi Miss Baker!.” That is because I all but live at the Sweet Dreams Bakery, where I work. It is not difficult work, thanks to those years of domestic training at Rainbow Acres. Now, I rise before the sun to head to work. By the time the first customers stop in for a cup of coffee and one of my hot, sticky cinnamon rolls, I am covered with flour, and the shop is filled with the warm fragrance of baking bread.

Belinda adores the shop, too. She has begun taking classes at a local sewing school, in hopes of becoming a fashion designer someday. But she works part-time hours, tending the bakery cash register. I have more to tell you about Belinda, but I’ll save that for later.

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Something extraordinary happened a few weeks ago while I was at work. A homeless man wandered into the bakery. His clothes were filthy and torn, and he seriously needed a bath.

“Please ma’am,” he said, his voice as ragged as his clothes, “I’m just so hungry. I haven’t eaten anything in two days. Can I just have a slice of bread?”

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I was so moved. I remembered those days when Belinda and I were without a home, taking whatever handouts we could get. I remembered those cold nights when we could hardly sleep, because the growl in our bellies was louder than the wind rushing outside our tent. “Here,” I said, placing two hot baguettes in the man’s arms. “Take these. Then come back tomorrow at closing, and I will give you more.” And so, the next evening, and every evening after that, the man appeared at the bakery door, and I handed him a sack full of bread and pastries that had not sold that day.

Soon after, there was another incident. I caught a little girl stealing from the shop. She reached her hand into the case, snatched a large oatmeal cookie, and was just trying to run away when I caught her.

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At first I was angry. “How dare you steal from me!” I scolded. “If you had tried that where I grew up in Africa, the elders would have dealt with you severely.”

The girl’s eyes, first filled with fear, rounded with amazement. “You grew up in Africa?” she asked. “But you don’t look African.”

I blinked, startled out of my anger. “Well yes, I lived there when I was a little girl. In a tiny village in Ethiopia.”

“Do you speak African?” she asked.

“No.” I smiled. “But I speak Oromo.” To demonstrate, I said, “Akkam? Maqaan koo Tadelech. Hello, my name is Tadelech.”

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“Wow!” The girl grinned. Then her face fell, as though she’d just remembered her crime. “My name is Nicole. And I’m sorry I stole your cookie. I won’t do it again.” We talked some more, and I learned that Nicole, just like the homeless man, had simply been hungry. She was from a big family, and there often wasn’t enough food to eat at home.

Can you believe that in such a large, rich country, so many people go hungry? Zewedu was only a poor village, but families shared, and no one ever went hungry. I gave cookies to Nicole and her brother, and offered give them a snack each afternoon if they would wipe down tables and sweep the floors of the bakery.

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And now to get back to Belinda. I told you in the last letter that Belinda had fallen in love with a young man named Chris. Well, as the months passed, they began to see more and more of each other. Belinda seemed happier than I had ever seen her. Floating on air, if you’ll pardon the cliché. And so it was no surprise when one summer evening, she came home to tell me that Chris had proposed.

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“We are going to get married on the beach, and we will start our very own little family.” I cried as we hugged – in part from happiness, and in part because while Belinda would be off starting her new family, I would be losing my family once again.

And so now, my life is a flurry of wedding preparations with Belinda. I have been mailing invitations, reserving caterers, and practicing decorating wedding cakes.

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I also made an appointment to speak with someone from – well, I won’t say, in case things fall through. But if all goes according to plan, then I will have a very special gift for my best friend on her wedding day. And no, it won’t be a sack of baguettes, haha.

 

Always,

Tadi

Chapter 23: The Desert Rose

Dear Tadi,

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At first, the town of Palmas Muertas seemed to live up to its name. Asteria had been surrounded by lush green hillsides and forests thick with trees and swarming with life. Palmas Muertas is dead. Dead brown plants that grow brittle in the sun. Dead, dusty earth that blows in the wind and stings your eyes. Rows of blocky buildings surrounded by lifeless red rocks.

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A part of D.J. seemed to have died, too. He wouldn’t speak to me about what had happened to Keith. In fact, for the first two weeks, the only words he spoke were, “It’s over. It’s gone.” He’d held up his hands so that I’d understand his meaning. Catherine’s golden touch curse had ended. We did, however, still have those two golden rocks, which D.J. cashed in at some sleazy cash-for-gold pawn shop. Instead of using the money to travel the rest of the way to California, we ended up renting a house.

D.J.’s morose state lingered on and on. He spent hours just sitting out in the desert. Meditating, I guess. Burning, too. He’d trudge home with downcast eyes and lobster-red skin, which he slathered with aloe vera gel. When he wasn’t cooking himself under the sun’s rays, he just lay on the sofa, zombie-like, or cooked his lungs with cigarettes, another one of his new habits. I wondered if Catherine’s curse had some residual effects on D.J.’s personality.

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Then all of a sudden, he was himself again. Like snap! He woke up from the Black Sleep of the Kali Ma and was ready to live life on the edge. “Let’s own this town,” he said, almost jittery with excitement. So out we went to discover all that Palmas Muertas has to offer. And I have to say, it isn’t as bad as I thought at first. The town has lots of interesting shops and clubs and interesting places to hang out and eat. I tried Mexican food for the first time ever, which is funny, considering how my Detroit friends used to call me the Mexican.

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While exploring the town, I made two great discoveries. The first was Honest Bob’s Used Car lot. Most of the cars were total wrecks, and possibly illegal to sell under state lemon laws. But still, there was a Help Wanted sign in the window, and before I knew it, I was a salesman. It wasn’t too hard to talk people into buying cars, since I was sincerely excited about them, and knowledgeable, too. I tried to steer people toward the working cars, and spent my spare moments fiddling around under the hoods of the junky ones.

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The other great discovery I made was the Prickly Pear Botanical Garden in the center of town. Not because I was into botanical gardens, but because that’s where Lindsay Tate works. Who is Lindsay Tate? She is a rose blooming in the middle of desert sand. She is the reason why I decided that the desert is the most beautiful place on the planet. (Yes, even more beautiful than the savanna). The desert is not dead and lifeless at all! The land is teeming with life, and the sunlight glows red and gold against the sculpted crags and peaks, and art-like desert plants reach toward the blue, blue sky. I’m not sure why I didn’t notice that from the start.

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As for D.J., well, he was too busy spending hours inside of casinos to see much of the desert beauty. He had discovered a new religion, trading in the cult of desert meditation for the altar of the Almighty Poker Chip. I went along with him a few times, and watched my hard-earned sales commission get eaten up by hungry slot machines.

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But where my interest faded quickly, D.J.’s only grew. When at last I deserted him, preferring to spend my energy at work or peering at Lindsay from behind giant saguaros, D.J. found a new friend to spend his time with – Mo Yung. I didn’t know it then, but Mo Yung was bad news. If I could have foreseen the future, then I would have been a better friend to D.J. I would have warned him to run. Run fast.

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Your (lovestruck) friend,

Leon