Isabela stood at the glass wall of her office, gazing out over the busy city below. It seemed like only yesterday that she was on the street corner below, gazing up at the dazzling skyscrapers which climbed above the other buildings, and seemed somehow detached from the crime and dirt which marred the streets nearby. She remembered how she used to hop into a cab when she had a few extra dollars and take a tour of the business district, with well-dressed executives walking briskly along the sidewalks and elegant offices. It had always been her dream to work in an office like this, and it had taken her a lifetime of dreaming and eight years of schooling to accomplish. Now that she was here, she always felt slightly guilty for turning her back on her mother and sisters. Even though at the time she didn't have much of a choice, her guilt was so great that every once in a while Isabela would send a couple hundred dollars to the family which had raised her for the first half of her life, anonymously of course.
She studied the people walking on the neat, attractive sidewalks below. Here the sidewalk slabs were still connected; not overgrown with weeds and grass like they were on the street on which she was raised. Flowers and bushes were planted in small gardens outside of the buildings, and kept neat and free from litter throughout the year. Elegant benches lined the entrances to the buildings, which usually had cement steps and glass doors. There were no used drug needles lying on the walkways, contrary to her old neighborhood; where as a child she'd collected needles and cleaned them before selling them "new" to the druggies. But of course, the most drastically different aspect of the business district was the type of people walking on the sidewalk. True, there were probably criminals and bigots among them, but if she was mugged in the center of the street, she had at least a slim chance someone would leap to her defense, whereas in her old part of town it was a spectator sport.
The phone on her desk rang suddenly, causing Isabela to jump slightly. She sighed as she turned to answer it, walking across the plush carpet in her office with her bare feet, as she was prone to do when she wasn't expecting any clients.
"Isabela Galindez, Law Firm of Ruiz, Delgado and Galindez," she said automatically.
There was a pause on the other end of the line before a heavily accented voice said, "Hola, Isa."
Isabela smiled. "Hola, Papi," she said warmly. "¿Qué pasa?"
"Nada en particular. ¿Puedes ir conmigo a cenar el viernes? Mi novia tenía que cancelar y necesito alguien ir conmigo."
Isabela sighed. "Ay, Papi," she said. "Lo siento, pero ya tengo otros planes."
He chuckled. "¿Qué? ¿Una sita caliente?" he asked jokingly.
At her lack of a response, he chuckled again. "Bueno, pues . . . llámame si no sales," he said. "Creo que voy a llamar esa abogada que estaba sonriéndome ayer. Hasta luego, m'hija."
"Adiós, Papi," Isabela said cheerily. She hung up the phone and then moved back to the window, lost in thought. This Friday, she was attending some huge fundraiser for a very prestigious client of her law firm. She didn't really want to go, but since this client could drag down the firm, she didn't have a lot of options at this point. One of the cute junior partners had asked her to be his date, and she had accepted without thinking twice, even though she knew it would be gossip fodder in the office for a long time. But since she was a senior partner, technically she could fire almost anyone, so she didn't mind if they talked about her a little beforehand.
Her computer beeped at her, and Isabela sighed, reluctant to leave the peace of her office for the crowded, boring, useless meeting which was scheduled for today. She ran one hand through her hair automatically to smooth it and straightened her suit jacket. Grabbing a few legal pads and the files she would need, she was halfway out the door before she realized she was still barefoot. She suppressed a few curses which entered her mind as she crammed her feet into the stiff, uncomfortably high heels and wobbled unsteadily out the door.
Once she was in the hallway, she realized she wouldn't catch the elevator, so she stopped hurrying and strolled down the corridor, calmly pressing the button on the wall. At least this bought her an extra couple of moments of peace . . . A larger hand brushed against hers as she pressed the button. "Sorry," its owner apologized.
Isabela shrugged. "No problem," she said. She found herself looking into his eyes; eyes so deep brown they were almost black. There was a familiar expression in those eyes, and behind the surface, a total lack of warmth . . . she was absolutely sure she had seen them somewhere before.
The elevator arrived, chiming as it opened its doors. Isabela stepped aside to let the people inside pass before she tried to enter. She dropped a file on the threshold and tried to balance while she bent down to retrieve it. After her fingers had gripped the manila folder, she overbalanced and toppled backward, landing on her hips. The file spilled its contents into the elevator.
"¡Hijo de la gran puta!" she muttered under her breath.
The man who was also waiting for the elevator stopped the doors from closing on her ankle. He offered her his hand, and once she was standing (safely holding onto the railing), he bent and collected her papers, stuffing them into one pile before handing them to her. "That's the kind of Spanish they don't teach you in college," he remarked with a smile.
Isabela felt her cheeks redden slightly. "It's just one of those days," she replied, also with a smile. She awkwardly juggled the files until she could extend her hand. "Isabela Galindez," she said. "Twelfth floor."
He smiled as he shook her hand, and she noticed that he had perfect teeth. "Tom Hendricson, ninth floor."
"Do I know you?" she asked after a moment. The question had been burning a hole in the tip of her tongue ever since she'd met him. At his surprised look, she explained, "It's just that you look really familiar . . ."
She was pleasantly surprised when he answered, after an almost unnoticeable hesitation, "I was wondering the same thing . . . I probably saw you a bunch of times in this building."
Isabela knew that he was probably right, but she was still pretty confident that she remembered him from somewhere other than the building. How many hundreds of people worked here? The chances she saw him often enough to recognize him were slim at best. The elevator chimed as it reached the fourth floor. "Well, see you," Isabela called over her shoulder as she exited the elevator.
"Nice meeting you, Isabela Galindez." The elevator doors closed, and Isabela found herself smiling as she walked to her meeting.
That night, as she lay curled up in her bed, her sleep was una mezcla de sueños. . . un hombre, con un rostro de fuego, y ojos negros y enfadados. . . los gritos de una mujer. . . . Las calles, que compaginaban en una mezcla de confusión, e Isabela sabía que ella estaba corriendo por las calles. . . por las noches. No sabía si estaba corriendo del algo, o si estaba persiguiendo alguien. Nadie caminaba por las calles, con la excepción de ella, y después de un rato, ella paró de correr y empezó a mirar las sombras oscuras. Cada ruido era un monstruo, cada sombra tenía una secreta oscura.
Isabela sabía esas calles, esas sombras, y esa voz que gritaba. Sabía que el sueño era una colección de memorias antiguas y de pesadillas de su juventud. Pero, cuando ella se levanta en la mañana, no recordó el sentido de miedo que tenía durante su sueño. Sólo recordó que debe estar buscando algo, algo que no tiene, o algo que ella desea que tenga.
It was two days later, as Isabela was working on her closing statement for a triple murder case, when she finally realized where she had seen Tom before. It had been over ten years ago, when Isabela was still living in the other part of the city, under a different name. The apartment where she used to live with her mother and three sisters had been the center of prostitution and drug rings for many years before she was born. Once Isabela was sixteen, she was expected to continue in the family business, and she eventually did so, hoping to scrape together enough money to maybe pay her way through college one day. But one night, everything had gone terribly wrong. Two strange men had burst into their apartment, yelling at her mother, even though there were no clients scheduled then. Isabela learned (from eavesdropping on the other side of the wall in her room), that her mother had been blackmailing one of them; threatening to go public with proof of their affair. The strange man had paid her to keep her silence, but eventually became tired of paying so much money. Isabela became alarmed when she heard her mother shrieking. Jumping out of bed, she ran down the hall to the living room. One of the men was speaking softly with her mother, with his back to her. He turned around as she entered.
He approached her cautiously, as if afraid of her. "¿Cómo te llamas?" he asked her softly.
She had looked at him suspiciously, not understanding why he was being so nice to her, but not to her mother. With a glance to her mother, to ensure she was alright, she answered truthfully, "Carmela."
"¿Carmela . . . qué?"
"Do you speak English?"
"Is Carmela your real name?"
She hesitated, glancing at her mother, who nodded slightly. "No . . . mi nombre es Isabela."
"Creía que sí. Pack your things. You're going to live in the other part of the city with me."
She hadn't trusted this man, hadn't wanted to leave. But the other man, the one standing by the door with a shotgun, (whom she now recognized as Tom), convinced her that it was a good idea to do as she was told.
When she returned, carrying only a small suitcase filled with clothes and personal possessions, her mother stepped forward to embrace her. "Ve con ellos," she told Isabela. "Haz lo que te dicen, y recuérdanos siempre."
As she hugged her mother, Isabela felt something small and cool pressed into her palm. Curling her fingers around it, she slipped it into her pocket to examine later. The men were waiting for her on the front step, in the pouring rain.
Isabela nodded goodbye to her sisters, and hugged her mother one last time before she ran out into the rain. A black sedan was waiting for her at the sidewalk. She hurried inside, and was startled to find that one of the men (the one without the shotgun) was already seated inside, on the other end of the backseat.
She eyed him warily, not trusting him. He was in his mid-to-late forties, with dark hair and black eyes. Unlike the other man, when he smiled, it reached his eyes, and she found herself liking him instinctively, even though he had just ripped her apart from her family. He smiled at her, and began to talk to her, about her mother and when he was younger. Despite her inclination to ignore him, Isabela found herself listening to the story leading to her birth. This man was her father, and he had grown tired of being blackmailed. He decided to come for her, and raise her in a proper household.
Although her father's house was spacious and comfortable, and even though she received her own room upstairs (which was unsettling since she was accustomed to sharing everything with three sisters for her entire life), Isabela was uneasy. She didn't sleep that night; she was convinced he was going to kill her eventually. Why would some man she'd never known come claim her and want to raise her? Wouldn't it be easier to just kill her so she'd be out of the way? The cynical side of her, which had been nurtured in her observations of human character the past seventeen years, kept asking herself these questions.
The next morning, Isabela woke from a light sleep to sunlight streaming in through her window. Her room was large and clean. There was a bed, a desk, a bureau, a vanity and a very large closet. She lazily approached the mirror, realizing that her hair was most likely a mess. While growing up, there hadn't been much money for luxuries like huge mirrors for her room, so she studied her reflection. Heart-shaped face, long dark hair, and dark eyes. She realized that her face was shaped like her mother's, but she definitely had her father's eyes and smile. Isabela had also figured out that her father must be a rich man to afford such a high standard of living. She guessed that he was involved in some kind of politics.
She dressed in the best clothes she possessed, a modest top and skirt, and smoothed her hair as best as she could. Still wary and unwilling to trust her father, she circled the kitchen table nervously, nibbling at an apple.
He was seated at the table, reading the paper, a large mug of coffee in front of him. After a time, he looked up at her. "¿Dormiste bien?" he asked politely.
"No . . ."
"¿ Por qué? ¿No te gustó tu cuarto?"
"No, mi cuarto es muy bonito. Me gusta mucho."
"Pues, ¿hay algo de que quieres hablar?"
"Sí . . ." Isabela sat down in the chair across from him. "No quiero morir. Si me permite vivir, no voy a causar ningunos problemas para usted."
To her surprise, he laughed. "¿Crees que quiero matarte?" he asked.
"Sí, porque sé que usted es mi padre y mi madre es una prostituta."
"No te preocupes. Si quería matarte, habría podido hacerlo cuando estabas viviendo en la ciudad."
Isabela was forced to admit to herself that this was true. With all of the drug dealers and gangs in her neighborhood, there were countless ways of killing someone who lived there, if one talked with the right people.
"Supongo que me dice la verdad. ¿Me permite hacerle una pregunta?"
"¿Qué hace usted? O, ¿dónde trabaja?"
"Soy el Abogado del Destricto." After her silence, he continued, "¿Quieres preguntarme algo más?"
"Si, gracias. ¿Podemos ir de compras? No tengo si un cepillo de dientes aquí."
"¿Tu mamá no te compró un cepillo de dientes?"
"Si, pero lo olvidé a traer."
"Bueno, después del desayunar, vamos al centro comercial. Puedes comprar todo que te necesitas."
"Gracias. ¿Cómo se llama usted? O, ¿qué debo llamarle?"
"Pues, me llamo Roberto Delgado. Puedes llamarme Berto o si quieres, Papá."
"Gracias, Berto." He smiled at her, and she reached for another apple.
Isabela remained on her guard the next few weeks, but once she began her senior year, and once he had shown her that he was prepared to raise her, she gradually relaxed. Through talking with her father, she discovered many interesting facts about her mother. It wasn't just a rich guy picking up a prostitute, as Isabela had previously thought. Her parents had gone to high school together, and had once talked about marriage. That fell apart when her father received a free ride to law school after college, and her mother still worked as a housekeeper. Eventually, they had grown so far apart, they called it quits. Isabela was born six months later. Once her father was an ADA (Assistant District Attorney), her mother used him for money, which at first she set aside in a separate account for Isabela. Later, she had to use it to survive. And even later than that, she had to turn to prostitution to enable her family to eat. Despite knowing practically all the details of her birth, it would be many years until Isabela would finally realize that she was the proof of the affair with which her mother had threatened her father.
Isabela continued to be haunted by her dreams for the next two weeks. She tried taking sedatives before she went to sleep, relaxing music, even lavender candles, but nothing relieved her of those dreams. Eventually, she decided that perhaps the best way to let go of the past was to return to her old house, see her mother and sisters.
It was a cold November morning, breezy and covered by a gray sky. The leaves had turned vibrant shades of red, gold, and orange, and the streets and roofs were covered with layers of the beautiful colors. Isabela hailed a cab a few blocks from her house, and when she told the driver where she wanted to go, he stopped and stared at her.
"Lady, you gotta be crazy if'n you wanna go down there," he said. "Ain't safe for a pretty girl like you to be walkin' alone."
She thanked him politely for his concern, and explained that she would be fine. As she exited the cab, she tipped him an extra couple dollars when he offered to wait with her.
Isabela began to study her surroundings. Many houses in the row of small homes needed new paint, windows, or roofs. The few blades of grass in between each house were long and straggly, and forced apart the concrete slabs which composed the sidewalk. Shards of broken glass littered the road and sidewalk. Isabela remembered how she and her sisters had collected all of the intact beer bottles and cans to return at the grocery store down the block for a few extra coins. The streetlights were spray-painted and missing bulbs, which had either been shot out, broken or even stolen.
A tap on her shoulder made her start. A large man with tan skin stood in front of her. "Gimme your purse," he said in heavily accented English.
She smiled. She recognized him as little Juanito Benez, who had lived down the street from her. Many years ago, as a teenager, she had often babysat him while his mother was working. "¿Juan, crees que soy bastante estúpida a llevar una bolsa aquí? A propósito, ¿cómo está tu mama? Yo iba a visitarla hoy, pero no tengo tiempo. Díle hola de mi parte, por favor."
He shifted his weight uneasily as before nodding to her and shuffling off down the street. Isabela smiled to herself once more before she inhaled deeply, mentally bracing herself for what was behind the door of the first small house in the row, with the crooked mailbox (not that anyone ever actually received much mail- usually it was stolen).
She carefully climbed the stone steps leading to the front door, remembering the loose second step. Knocking hard on the front of the door, she folded her arms to her chest against the cold.
The door opened a sliver. "¿Qué quieres?" a voice asked. Though it was extremely hoarse, Isabela recognized it.
"Mamá, es Isabela."
Isabela shifted her weight impatiently. "Isabela, tu hija."
The door opened slightly wider. Half a face peered out at Isabela, scrutinizing her. "Pues, entra."
Isabela did as she was told and stepped into the house. It was just as cold inside the house as it was outside. The interior was dark, and Isabela could see faint outlines of the few pieces of furniture.
"Siéntate," said the woman. "¿De qué querías hablar?"
Isabela chose the couch, which she remembered as being much more comfortable than the chairs. Her mother, Lucía, sat across from her. She was much thinner and older than Isabela remembered. Her face seemed shriveled.
"Quería verte. Hace muchos años que nos vemos."
Lucía didn't say anything, but folded her hands in her lap and stared at them.
Isabela tried again. "Mamá, ¿recibiste el dinero que te envié?"
Lucía looked up at her daughter. "Sí. Estoy ahorrándolo hasta que yo tenga bastante dinero para mudarme afuera de la ciudad."
Isabela nodded slightly. "Pues, tengo mi propio apartamento ahora. Puedes vivir conmigo si quieres."
Lucía smiled and shook her head. "Gracias, m'hija, pero creo que me quedaré aquí. No quiero estar una carga pesa a tí."
There was a moment of silence before Lucía asked, "¿Qué haces, Isa?" It seemed as if this was a question which she had wanted to ask for a while but was almost afraid to say it.
Isabela looked her in the eye and smiled. "Soy una abogada," she said.
"¿Ganas mucho dinero?"
"Supongo que sí," Isabela said lightly. "Si te necesitas algo, me gustaría ayudarte si puedo."
Lucía looked at her. "Estoy orgullosa de ti," she said. "Muy orgullosa."
Isabela smiled. "Gracias, Mamá," she whispered. "Eso me significa mucho."
When she rose to leave, she timidly embraced her mother. "Te echaré de menos," she said.
Her mother looked at her. "Si . . . estaré cerca de tu edificio, ¿puedo visitarte algún día?"
"Claro que sí. Adiós, Mamá."
Isabela was halfway through the door before she remembered. "Mamá," she said, "¿recordaste lo que me diste cuando tuve que salir de aquí?"
Her mother nodded. "No puedo olvidar," she replied.
Isabela moved the collar of her coat slightly and lifted a thin, gold chain from her neck. A small, gold cross dangled from the chain and glinted in the dim light.
A smile broke out on her mother's face.
After Isabela had left, Lucía stood by the front window, gazing wistfully at the spot where Isabela had been picked up by a taxi. "Gracias por visitarme, Isa," she whispered. "I'm so happy for you."