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Hidden gifts, p.3

Hidden Gifts, page 3


Hidden Gifts

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  To make things a little less awkward, I pulled out my phone as well. It was brand-new, purchased for me only a few days before I left on this trip. The contacts list was conspicuously bare, and only contained my parents’ cell phone numbers and email addresses, and Genoveva’s phone number as well, just in case I needed to get in touch with her sometime during my travels. Yet another of the Castillo prima’s quirks — she’d insisted that I have a new phone, so my friends wouldn’t be able to reach me. That stricture also applied to not having any of their information in my contacts; I wasn’t supposed to reach out to them, either.

  The whole thing was very strange. In a way, though, as much as it hurt to leave behind the people I’d known in high school and college, it would have hurt more to still talk to them after I’d reached Santa Fe, to hear how normal their lives were in comparison with mine. Better to make a clean break, to continue with this odd ritual of purification.

  When a shaman went on his spirit walk, he went alone.

  I didn’t try to reach my parents. I only muted the sound on the phone, then played a game until the train got to the outskirts of Santa Fe. Then I was much more interested in watching the sights outside than I was messing around with my phone. Simon also put his earbuds away, and, seeming to decide it was okay to start talking again, said, “This is the first stop here, by the National Guard armory. We’ll stop again near the 25 Freeway and Zia Road. The next stop after that is the Railyard.”

  “Thanks,” I told him, although my heart began to beat a little faster at his mention of the Railyard, my final destination. I still didn’t know who would be meeting me there, only that someone from the Castillo clan would be on hand to pick me up and take me to the prima’s house off Canyon Road.

  Simon gave me another of those piercing glances, as if he could somehow tell that I was hiding something. “Do you have someone picking you up there? Because if you don’t, you should use the Ryde app to call a car for you.”

  “No, I’m fine,” I said hastily as we pulled away from the first station and began chugging our way along to the next. “My um — my cousin is going to be there to get me.”

  The words must not have sounded too convincing to Simon, because his brows were still pulled together in a faint frown. To my relief, though, he didn’t argue, didn’t try to push it any further. “Oh, that’s good.”

  He got his backpack out from under the seat and stowed his phone inside rather than returning it to his pocket. I likewise busied myself, putting my phone in my purse and then getting my sunglasses out of the side pocket where they’d been resting ever since I got on the Railrunner in Albuquerque. By the time I was done fussing around, we’d gotten to the next station, which looked like it was across the street from a fairly large shopping center. A good number of people got off here, leaving the car half empty.

  And then it was on to the final stop, passing through a part of town that seemed to be a weird mix of modern commercial buildings and shops and warehouses, and older ramshackle adobe structures. The tracks cut across a busy intersection with at least four lanes going in either direction, and then we were moving through more warehouses, the train slowing down as we finally pulled into the Railyard, which was busier than I’d thought it would be, with restaurants and shops and what looked to be a movie theater.

  The train stopped, and once again I could feel the way my heart pounded in my chest. I didn’t know what was waiting for me. All I knew right then was that I wanted to stay on the train, wanted to keep talking to Simon and postpone for as long as possible what was coming next.

  He seemed to detect my unease, because he asked, “You’re sure you’re okay, Miranda?”

  “I’m fine,” I said quickly. Knowing that I didn’t dare have him anywhere near when I met my first Castillo, I added, “Oh, I see my cousin waiting for me. It was — it was really nice meeting you, Simon.”

  A smile touched his lips, even as he stood up and waited for his chance to move out into the aisle. “It was nice meeting you, too. And who knows? Santa Fe isn’t that big a town. Maybe we’ll bump into each other again.”

  “Maybe,” I repeated, even though I knew that wasn’t going to happen. “Good luck with your car!”

  His smile didn’t fade. He just tilted his head toward me, as if acknowledging my words, then began to make his way toward the front of the car. After I saw him go down the steps and exit the train, I figured it was safe to reach up and pull my luggage out of the overhead compartment. My fingers shook, but I managed to wrestle the bags down and slide them on my shoulders, my purse dangling from the crook of my elbow.

  Then there was nothing left to do but take a deep breath and move forward as well.

  Toward my future.


  High Walls

  I scanned the platform, but I didn’t see any sign of Simon. Good. Apparently, he wasn’t so invested that he’d hung around to see who was coming to meet me. That could have been awkward, to say the least.

  There weren’t a lot of people in my immediate vicinity; it seemed like most of the Railrunner’s passengers must have headed directly for the parking lot. Of the ones who lingered on the platform, none seemed likely to be part of my Castillo welcoming party — I saw a casually dressed couple, probably a few years older than I, walking away toward what appeared to be a brewery and restaurant, and there was a gray-haired Native American woman with two young children in tow. Probably her grandchildren, since she looked too old to be a mother to kids who couldn’t be much more than five or six.

  Then I saw a black-haired girl around my age, in jeans and a puffy dark green jacket, walking toward the platform. A smile spread over her pretty features when she saw me, and she quickened her pace. As she approached, she said, “Miranda McAllister?”

  “Yes,” I replied, figuring she must one of the Castillos if she knew my name and knew what I looked like.

  Her smile widened. “Hi. I’m Cat. Rafe’s my older brother.”

  Rafe. That sounded infinitely friendlier than “Rafael,” a name that conjured images in my mind of some stuffy upper-class Spanish don or something. I smiled at her in response, although something about the expression felt stiff, as if I had to fight to move those muscles after my long and uncertain journey. “Hi, Cat.”

  “Let me take one of those,” she offered, reaching toward one of the bags I had slung over my shoulder.

  I handed her the lighter one, grateful for the offer. “Thanks.”

  “My car’s over here,” she said, and gestured with her free hand toward the parking lot.

  Since I really had no choice but to follow, I went with her as she walked away from the train platform, toward a well-tended lot with planters separating the various sections. At this time of year, most of the trees were completely bare, but it still looked nice. My spirits lifted, if only slightly.

  Cat led me to a shiny black Mercedes SUV. If it wasn’t brand new, it still couldn’t be much more than a year old. She pulled out her phone, and used the car’s app to open the rear hatch, then slid my weekender bag inside. I put the one I was carrying inside as well, and she shut the hatch once my meager luggage was safely secured.

  Although I wanted to know why she was the one who’d come to get me, and not Rafael or her mother, I figured it was probably better to remain quiet until I got inside. I opened the passenger door and climbed in, and she took her place in the driver’s seat. However, she didn’t touch the steering wheel, but instead pushed the button on the steering column to initiate the self-driving function.

  “It’s a city ordinance,” she said in answer to my unspoken question as the Mercedes maneuvered us out of the parking lot and then headed down a narrow street lined with a bewildering array of shops and restaurants. “No manual driving within a mile of the Plaza. It cuts down on accidents, but the tourists still like to complain.”

  “You’d think they’d feel better, not having to worry about navigating around here,” I remarked, glad that she’d opened the conv
ersation with a neutral topic. I didn’t know much about Santa Fe, but even the first impressions I was getting as I looked out the SUV’s window told me it didn’t seem to be a very driver-friendly town. Was it a people-friendly town? I supposed only time would tell.

  “You’d think that.” Another smile, although a slightly rueful one. Then she sent me a sideways glance through her thick lashes. “And you’re also probably trying to figure out why the heck I came to pick you up, instead of my brother.”

  “Not really,” I lied quickly, but she only chuckled.

  “Oh, come on. You can tell me the truth. I mean, I know I would have been thinking the same thing if I’d been in your situation.”

  Her expression was mischievous, and although I knew I should still remain on my guard, something within me relaxed slightly. I thought I could like Cat. For some reason, in all my tortured imaginings about whatever fate awaited me here in Santa Fe, I hadn’t expected that Rafael might have a sister close to my age, someone who in time might turn out to be a friend.

  A friend. I had a feeling I could use one of those right about now.

  “Well, maybe,” I admitted.

  She tapped her fingers on the steering wheel, although I noticed she was careful not to interfere with the SUV’s self-driving mechanisms. “I figured I was probably the least frightening option,” she said. “At first my mother was going to be the one to meet you, and I told her no way, she’d scare the living daylights out of you. And since she was adamant about you meeting Rafe at the house, and not on some train platform, that didn’t leave us a lot of options. I suppose one of my sisters could have done it, but they both have little kids they would’ve had to bring along, and that might have been kind of overwhelming.”

  There was a lot to unpack in her comment, so I tried to narrow in on the one that had the most immediate impact on my life. “Is your mother really that scary?”

  Cat’s lips pursed. “Well, I’ve had my whole life to get used to her, so she doesn’t bother me most of the time, but she can come on a little strong for the uninitiated. But don’t worry — she doesn’t bite. Much.”

  I didn’t know whether I should be reassured by Cat’s words or not. Anyway, I figured I’d better reserve judgment until I’d met Genoveva Castillo for myself. So far I had no reason to think particularly well of her, just because my family and I had been forced to put up with her capricious demands, long-distance though they might have been. It seemed safer to move on to a different topic. “Do you have a lot of sisters?” I asked. All I knew was that Rafael was Genoveva’s only son. I had no idea how big the family was otherwise.

  “Two,” Cat replied. “Louisa is the oldest, and then there’s Malena. Rafe comes after her, and I’m the youngest. But,” she went on, as if noticing that I didn’t appear entirely thrilled by the idea of Rafael having two older sisters, “they’re married and live elsewhere in the area. It’s just my parents and me at the house now.”

  “Rafe doesn’t live with you?” I asked, trying the nickname on my tongue, just to see how it felt. After thinking of him as Rafael for so many years, it did seem a little strange, but I hoped I would get used to it.

  The SUV abruptly lurched to a stop to avoid hitting a couple of pedestrians who’d decided to jaywalk right in front of us. I put up a hand to grab the dashboard, while Cat did the same — and muttered a curse under her breath. Something about tourists, and I had to repress a grin. The Goddess only knew I’d done more or less the same thing a few thousand times myself. Spending part of my life in tiny, picturesque Jerome, which could see more than a million tourists pass through in a year, I’d had my own run-ins with people who couldn’t figure out how to negotiate the town’s twisty, narrow streets.

  “No,” Cat said as the Mercedes began to move forward again, only to have to pause again before taking us down a side street. This had to be the part of town close to the Plaza, with all these shops and all the people crowding the sidewalks. It looked old, but not really older than the historic downtown section of Flagstaff, and a lot of the architecture wasn’t all that different, either. “Rafe has a house not too far away. He moved out a few years ago.”

  In a way, I was obscurely reassured by her reply. If he’d moved out, that meant I wouldn’t have to live with the terrifying Genoveva. From the way my parents had described the Castillo prima’s house, it certainly sounded large enough to house her whole family and their respective spouses, but that wasn’t the point. At least Rafe and I would be able to set up our own household.

  “Oh,” I said, which I knew sounded silly. Unfortunately, I really didn’t know how to respond. The last thing I wanted was to tell this girl I’d just met — as friendly as she seemed to be — was that I’d been less than thrilled at the prospect of having to live with her mother.

  Cat opened her mouth, as if she intended to reply, then appeared to stop herself. What she’d meant to say, I didn’t know, because she gave a little self-deprecating chuckle and went on, “I suppose I should have moved out, too, but my mother wouldn’t hear of it. No daughter of hers was going to leave the house, unless it was to get married.”

  “She’s old-fashioned?”

  “Positively hidebound. Part of it’s this place.” Cat waved a hand toward the world outside the SUV’s windows. Now we’d gotten out of the densest part of downtown and were driving down a road that appeared to curve eastward, toward hills and mountains. Here I could see houses and buildings that looked positively ancient, the adobe that formed them making them appear more as if they’d grown on the spot, like mushrooms, rather than been built by human hands. “The Castillos have been here for three hundred and fifty years. People can get positively fossilized in that amount of time.”

  I hadn’t thought about it that way, but Cat was probably right. The McAllisters and the Wilcoxes had occupied northern Arizona for almost a hundred and fifty years, and that seemed like an insanely long amount of time, considering how young our country was in the grand scheme of things. But three hundred and fifty? No wonder Genoveva Castillo insisted on following traditions. How could she not?

  As to the rest of Cat’s comment…I wasn’t really sure what I should say. I hadn’t known her long enough that it seemed appropriate to comment on the fact that she wasn’t married, even though, now I’d been around her for a little while, I guessed she was probably a couple of years older than I. Witch-kind generally married early, just because most witches and warlocks had an innate sense of who would make a good life partner. That special sixth sense wasn’t infallible, but they tended to get divorced at a far lower rate than the general population.

  Maybe it would be that way for Rafe and me, crazy as it sounded. Maybe what Isabel Castillo had seen all those years before, the thing that had made her cook up this insane bargain in the first place, was that her grandson and I were meant to be together, and she feared it would never happen if matters were allowed to run their course naturally. I wanted this to be true, because despite the help they’d offered all those years ago, our clans hadn’t mingled at all. They kept to themselves, just as tradition decreed they must.

  As Cat had said, hidebound.

  She must have guessed at my thoughts, though, because she said, “It’s crossed my mind that the best way to get away from my mother is to get married. But, despite looking high and low throughout New Mexico, I still haven’t found the right one.”

  “That’s too bad,” I replied. “And too bad that you can’t go looking outside your clan. I’ve got lots of cousins who would love to meet someone new.”

  “It is too bad,” she agreed, a light dancing in her eyes that told me she wasn’t as upset about the situation as some people — namely her mother — thought she should be. “I’ve heard about those Wilcox men.”

  I couldn’t help smiling a little, although I also wondered if I should be offended on behalf of the McAllisters. Still, if I was trying to be completely impartial, I would have to admit that my Wilcox cousins did tend to be better-looking
than my McAllister ones. “I didn’t know they were that famous.”

  “Oh, word gets around.”

  The Mercedes took a hard right onto Canyon Road. I was able to tell that was where we were because a large sign at the intersection called out its name on a big bright blue sign with white lettering. Here were more shops, but also many, many art galleries, some with wind sculptures outside, their fanciful shapes turning lazily in the wind. I’d seen some of the same types of sculptures in Sedona, but here they seemed more impressive, just because so many of them had been clustered together in one spot.

  “World-famous Canyon Road,” Cat said, her tone so dry that I knew she was being slightly mocking.

  “Your house is on this street?” I asked. I couldn’t exactly call it commercial, not with all the differently shaped buildings, some of which looked like houses that had been converted to gallery space. Still, it didn’t seem like the kind of place to find a witch clan, not when we had to try so hard to keep our true natures from civilians.

  Then again, I supposed you could say the same thing about Jerome.

  “One street over. It’s a little more residential there.”

  This proved to be the case, because after we’d driven a few more blocks, the SUV turned left onto a side street. Immediately we were away from the galleries and the shops and the foot traffic, and headed toward a huge property that sat at the intersection of the road we were on and what I thought was Palace Avenue, if the glimpse I caught of a street sign we passed was correct.

  The entire block seemed to be hidden behind a high adobe wall. Beyond it, I was able to catch sight of a large house, one that would be mostly concealed during the months when the trees that surrounded it were leafed out. Now, though, the cottonwoods were beginning to lose their golden leaves, and the sycamores were nearly bare, definitely not thick enough to block my view of the two-story hacienda-style house, something that looked solid and heavy enough to have been here for the entire 350-year reign of the Castillo family.

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