Nuestra Señora de la Esperanza

The Wild Cards universe has been thrilling readers for over 25 years. In Carrie Vaughn’s “Nuestra Señora de la Esperanza,” ace Ana Cortez discovers that sometimes to be truly healed, you must return to your roots.

This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by George R. R. Martin.

 

The thing Ana Cortez remembered most about being shot was not realizing she’d been shot. It was more than adrenaline or the chaos of the situation. It was thinking, this can’t possibly be happening. No way was this really happening. When you have ace powers, you’re supposed to be able to save the world. But then you get shot.

She’d been part of the group that ditched American Hero to try to do some good intervening in Egypt’s civil war. And maybe they had done some good—they’d done something, at any rate. Maybe they’d stopped a conflict that would have raged out of control; maybe they’d saved some lives. But they’d killed, too. She’d killed. She avoided news coverage and replays of the event, but she still saw it playing over in her mind: a crack in the earth opening under her touch, part of an army falling in, hundreds of soldiers buried alive. . . Self-defense, she told herself. Those soldiers had been about to attack her and the people she was helping to defend. It had been mostly instinct. She hadn’t believed she was capable of such massive power, of so much destruction.

And then she got shot. She didn’t think she’d been in serious danger of dying—help had been close by. Michael—Drummer Boy—carried her to a first aid tent, his six arms feeling like a cage around her while she was still trying to figure out exactly what had happened, her blood spilling over them both. Others had died; friends had died. She was lucky. That was what she kept telling herself.

A month had passed. She was home now, on the dried-out fringes of Las Vegas, New Mexico. She’d been told to go home, visit her family, rest. She didn’t really want to be here. If she slowed down, if she rested—if she came home—she might never get out again. Her getting out of here the first time was almost a miracle.

But she was here. She couldn’t sleep. Her heart ached.

The family home was a double-wide in a trailer park in an okay neighborhood. She’d grown up here and had never really noticed how tired the place looked—especially compared to the Hollywood madness. Still, it looked a ton better than some of the places in Egypt she’d seen. Everyone here got enough to eat, had running water, cars, and jobs. It was all a matter of perspective.

Kate, aka Curveball, her teammate from American Hero turned best friend, had wanted to come with her and look after her, but Ana had said no, that she needed the time alone to think. But really, if she were honest, she didn’t want Kate to see where she came from.

Just her father and younger brother Roberto lived there now. Her mother had died when Roberto was born; Ana didn’t remember her well.

Her third afternoon home, when she couldn’t stand lying on the sofa and staring at the TV anymore, she walked to church. She had something she needed to do.

She used a cane. The muscles in her gut still hadn’t fully mended from the gunshot wound, and she needed the help. She moved slowly, like an old woman, leaning on her cane and rocking with every step. A truck drove by with a couple of guys in the cab. One of them shouted out the open window, “Earth Witch! Hey! We love you, Earth Witch!”

She managed a smile, waving with her free hand. They drove on.

Yeah, and she was famous. Local girl makes good. She’d never get used to it.

She arrived at Our Lady of Sorrows, the church where she and her brother had been baptized and confirmed, where her parents had been married, where her mother’s funeral had been held, where every Sunday of her life until a few months ago she came for Mass. The old sandstone building with its two square towers loomed like an elegant grandmother, straight and tall. Ana hobbled into the vestibule and made her way to the carved-wood confessional.

Inside, she closed the curtain, set the cane against the wall, and slowly, very slowly, lowered herself to her knees. She needed a moment to catch her breath. Her injured body ached. Almost, though, the ache comforted. It was dull, like being worn out. Not sharp, like the initial injury had been.

The shadow on the other side of the screen moved. It was Father Gonzales, who had presided here for ten years, who had counseled Ana’s father Manuel, who had tutored and advised Roberto, and who every Sunday had asked Ana, “Is everything all right? Do you need help?” She’d always proudly said that her family was well and didn’t need help. They were coping. Sure, Papá drank too much and things were harder without Mama to help. But they were fine.

She was glad he was here. He might understand. Might have words of comfort, because things weren’t so well for her at the moment.

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.” They continued with the ritual, speaking familiar words without really hearing them.

Then Father Gonzales asked, “What’s wrong, child?”

Her eyes stung, and she bowed her head. She wouldn’t be able to speak all this without crying, but she tried to keep her voice steady. “I’ve done something terrible.”

“Don’t be afraid. You’re safe here; you know that.”

He watched the news. He read the newspapers like anyone. He knew what she was going to say. This shouldn’t be hard.

“I killed people,” she said, and took a deep breath. And it wasn’t so bad, now that she said it. The tears fell, and her voice was tight. “I don’t even know how many, really. I don’t. . . I can’t even say if I meant to or not. It happened so fast.” She saw it again in her mind’s eye, how the earth split open, swallowed all those soldiers, and closed back over them again with a crack like distant thunder.

She swallowed, because she had more to say. “I did it to protect my friends, to protect so many people. But I know that doesn’t justify it. Doesn’t erase what I did. I want to ask for forgiveness.”

Father Gonzalez was quiet for a long time. Each passing moment made Ana’s heart clench a little more. This was what she’d been afraid of: God will not forgive you for this. God doesn’t forgive mass murderers, even when those murderers have the very best of intentions, even when the people you killed were going to kill you with guns and tanks.

Finally, he said, “You’re sorry for what you did?”

“Yes. I am.” She nodded emphatically. “I’m so sorry.”

“Then here is your penance. If you are truly sorry for what happened, and you seek true forgiveness from God, then you will never use your ace again. You must abandon your power.”

She held her breath, forgetting to inhale. Whatever she had expected to hear, that wasn’t it. Not use her ace? Might as well tell her heart to stop beating, it was that much a part of her.

“Can you do that, Ana?” Father Gonzales continued. “Scripture tells us that if our eye offends us, we must pluck it out. Your power has wrought harm. Therefore, you must renounce it. Do you understand?”

Without thinking, she shook her head. Her power was all she had in this world. She had nothing else, nothing to do, nothing to live for. But that was pride speaking. Vanity. Selfishness. Another sin.

“Father—I’m sorry, no. My power—it’s a tool. I used it badly. That doesn’t mean I should abandon it. Does it?”

“You said it was instinct. That you don’t even know if you meant it. What if something like this happens again? Will you be able to stop it? Or will you be back here in a year, confessing more deaths?”

What if he was right? It made sense—if she was really sorry, it should be an easy thing to walk away. Still, she shook her head. “I can use it to save people. If I have a chance, I should save people, shouldn’t I? God wants us to do good in the world—”

“Are you willing to risk it?”

Now she was crying quietly, tears falling as she tried to catch her breath. The wound in her gut throbbed, as if it too was saying, Walk away. She clutched the St. Barbara medallion hanging around her neck, which her mother had given her and she always wore. St. Barbara was the patron saint of miners, geologists, and ditch diggers.

What would Kate and the others say to that? Kate, Michael, John Fortune, Bugsy, they were all in New York right now, forming the Committee on Extraordinary Interventions, a project they all believed in: using their ace powers for good. She was going to be a part of that—and here she was, full of doubt.

When she found her voice again, she said, knowing that she was probably lying, the worst time to lie, here in the confessional talking through Gonzales to God, “I can try. I’ll try. I’m so sorry.”

“I know you are. You’re a good girl. I know you’ll do the right thing.”

On the way out, she stopped in the bathroom to wash her face, then set off on the long walk home. Only a couple of blocks away, a pickup stopped next to her. She ignored it until her brother Roberto leaned out the window. Eighteen, in his last year of high school, he’d already been accepted to UNM. She was supposed to help pay for it—with her ace power, with all the opportunities that opened up for her after her stint on American Hero. What now?

“Ana, hey, are you even supposed to be walking?”

She stopped her hobbling trek and hid a smile. “Not really.”

“Thought so. Get in, I’ll take you home.”

She did, grateful in the end that she didn’t have to walk back. “I guess you knew I’d be out here, at church.”

“Kind of. Yeah.”

A long pause, tires rumbling on asphalt. Then he said, “Did it help?”

She started crying again, quiet tears. She quickly wiped them away, but even if he hadn’t seen the tears themselves, that movement betrayed them.

“You talked to Father Gonzales? What did he say?” Roberto said, glancing at her. She just shook her head.

Back home, their father Manuel was standing on the steps outside the trailer door.

“Papá’s up,” she said.

“Yeah. He’s the one who sent me after you. It’s like he just woke up. You know, to everything. It’s kind of weird.”

Old worries awoke in her: was he well, or was he drunk? Would he be mad at something she’d done? Would he want to eat and be angry that she hadn’t fixed anything? She had to calm herself; he’d gotten by this long without her. She didn’t have to take care of him anymore.

Still, as she approached the door, limping on her cane, she braced for whatever he might unleash at her.

Roberto slipped around him, smiling brief encouragement at her. Papá didn’t look at him but stared square at Ana and didn’t say a word.

Hija, you shouldn’t be walking around hurt like that,” he said, in Spanish. He knew English well enough but spoke it rarely, especially when he drank.

She answered in Spanish. “I know. I did it anyway.”

“Gone to church, right? How did it go?”

Surely he could tell by the look on her face. She felt heavy. She felt like God had turned his face from her, ashamed.

“Ana, sit here with me a moment.” He lowered himself to the top step and patted the space next to him.

She did, easing down with her cane, leaving her leg straight to keep the injured side of her body from cramping.

“What happened?” Manuel asked.

“Father told me not to use my power anymore. He said it’s wrong, the power is evil, and if I was really sorry—”

Manuel’s look darkened, his jaw tightening, like a rage was taking him. But nothing like the drunken angers where he screamed until he sobbed. Consciousness lit his eyes. This anger had a target.

“He had no right to tell you that. No right, do you understand?”

“But what if he’s right? What if he’s right about me, and I can’t do anything but hurt people?” She was crying again.

“Ana, I have to tell you a story I should have told you long, long ago. I’ve been a bad father, Ana. Terrible.” Un mal padre, terrible words.

“Papá, no—” She said reflexively, because she should, because it was the right thing to say.

He took her hand in both of his. “No, it’s true. Let me speak. You should have had a family around you, aunts and cousins to teach you. Grandmothers. You’ve had no women in your life to teach you, and so you go out to earn a living like a man, and it isn’t right. I made you do that—I made you go out when I should have kept you home, kept you safe. I was too greedy. I made you do all the work. And now what kind of wife will you make? You should be married now. You should have babies. I should have been glad to take you to the church myself, to marry you off. Your mother would be so ashamed of me.”

“Papá—” Once again, she wanted to argue reflexively. Part of Manuel had died with her mother. That didn’t mean she’d be ashamed.

Ana was born with the wild card virus in her—born an ace. She’d had her power her whole life. She was eight when her father started hiring her out to the neighbors for ditch-digging and gardening projects. She’d always earned her way with her power. She’d been proud of that. It wouldn’t do any good to tell him she didn’t particularly want to be married off and matronly, at least not at this point in her life. That was what he focused on; she wasn’t going to be able to steer him off it.

“But she would be very proud of you, Ana. Very proud. I have to tell you—you might not come back home again, so I have to tell you now.”

“Papá, I’ll come back, I’ll always come back.” And they both knew the bullet hole in her gut gave the lie to that.

“I have to tell you about your grandmother. Your mother’s mother, in Mexico. She was one of the cursed ones. A joker. You know that, yes?”

Ana had known that her grandmother passed the wild card virus to her mother, who passed it in turn to her. Her mother had been latent until she turned the Black Queen when giving birth to Roberto. But she hadn’t known any more than that.

“They say she is like a vine, that her skin is green, and instead of limbs, branches grow from her. But Ana, what I haven’t told you is that she is also holy. A great curandera. La Curandera de Las Flores. Because flowers bloom from her, and she plucks these flowers from her own body, dries them, and makes medicines from them. She cures thousands of people. When your mother was born—she was like a seed, growing larger and larger, and when they opened it up, there she was, a little baby. Everyone said that she was cursed, too. Though your grandmother helped so many, people shunned her. Called her bruja. She sent her daughter away, to live with cousins in America where she wouldn’t be called the daughter of the witch.

”Ana, the power you have, it comes from your mother and her mother. The priest is wrong. Your power comes from God, and from the mother of God. I know they call you brujita, and we all laugh. Everyone laughs because they’re really frightened. But your power is holy—I believe that with every drop of my blood. I always knew that God would call you away from me because of it. God has called you, Ana.“

Ana had never heard Manuel Cortez speak so many words together. His face flushed from the passion of it, and his look was filled with all the tales he’d never told of their family, his beliefs, and his fears. The shadow of her mother watched over them, and the even dimmer shadow of a grandmother. Ana imagined a picture of her: a woman who rose from the earth like a tree, her face turned toward the sun.

I come from a family of witches, she thought. I’m not surprised. Perhaps it isn’t so bad, though she didn’t feel particularly like God had called her. More like she had walked into the desert without a path to follow.

Her father wasn’t finished: ”But the thing you must know about your Grandmother Inez, the most important thing—she’s still alive, Ana. If you don’t believe me that God has called you, go to her and ask her. Make a pilgrimage. Talk to your grandmother.“

Ana should have laughed, but this was the most real thing she’d heard since she’d come home. Of course she should go talk to her grandmother. Roberto loaned her the truck and gave her a list of instructions that made her rethink the whole trip.

”Keep the extra gas cans full, because you never know—you know how it gets out here, a hundred miles between gas stations. And there’s an extra container of radiator fluid. You’ll definitely need that. I’m not sure what’s wrong with it, but you see smoke coming out of the hood, it’s probably the radiator. Just stop and top it off and you’ll be fine. There’s a clanking comes out of the engine sometimes, but don’t worry about that—“

”Roberto, I don’t know anything about keeping a car running like that! How do you expect me to remember all this?“

Her little brother—three inches taller than her—took a patient breath and explained it all again, opening the hood to show her the parts and pieces, the difference between the radiator and the washer fluid reservoir, and everything else.

Again she expressed despair, and he looked at her in exasperation. ”Ana, you battled the Righteous Djinn in Egypt, I think you can drive a beater truck to Mexico and get back in one piece.“

Well. When he put it like that.

She brought along a case of bottled water and a cooler filled with ice and sandwiches, made sure she had her passport and birth certificate in hand, gave Roberto a hug, looked for her father to do the same, but he wasn’t home. He’d probably vanished on purpose to avoid an emotional scene.

”Call if you need anything,“ Roberto said, helping her climb into the driver’s seat. The soreness seemed to be fading. Having a distraction probably helped with that. She brought her cane along, propping it on the passenger seat. ”And have a good time!“

She wasn’t sure that was the point, but she gave him a salute anyway. ”Love you, Roberto. Take care of Papá.“

And before dawn, she was off.

Until she got onto American Hero, she’d been alone, the only wild carder in an inconsequential New Mexico town. But now, she had friends.

She called Kate on the road. Curveball, the blond and beautiful softball player turned human rocket launcher who would have won the whole show if she hadn’t ditched it to go to Egypt. Ana liked her a lot.

”Ana! When are you coming back?“

Kate was apartment hunting. They were supposed to share a place in New York. Assuming Ana went back. She didn’t want to say that part.

”I don’t know. Something’s come up. I’m driving to Mexico.“

”What?“

”I know, kind of crazy.“

”Is this a family thing?“

”Grandmother. I didn’t even know she was alive until my dad got all emotional and told me to go find her.“

”Can’t say no to that, I guess.“

”Not really. And . . . well, I need to talk to someone, and she’s supposed to be a good person to talk to.“

She could hear the hurt in Kate’s voice. ”You can’t talk to me?“

”I’ve already told you everything. This is . . .“ A Catholic thing, a church thing, a family thing . . . ”I’m still kind of messed up about what happened, you know?“

”Yeah,“ she said. Kate had killed too, her thrown missiles blowing up tanks and helicopters and the people inside them. But not at the scale Ana had.

”How’re things going there?“ Ana said, feigning brightness. She wanted to hear about Kate, not talk about herself.

”Good, good. I think I found us a place. It’s tiny but near a subway stop. People here tell me that’s important.“

”I’ll have to take their word for it.“

”John’s taking me out to dinner.“

Kate and John Fortune were a thing, now. They’d been a thing before, but Egypt had cemented it. ”That’s good. Isn’t that good?“

She hesitated a beat. ”It’s great. It’s just weird, being in New York instead of L.A., and being part of the U.N. instead of in Hollywood. And John not being totally himself. He’s still John, and I still like him a lot, and. . . Well.“

John, who was now playing host to a powerful parasitic joker, Sekhmet, who gave him superpowers. The ace he always wanted. And Kate stuck by him, because that was Kate.

”Have fun, okay?“

”When do you think you’ll be back, Ana?“

She had to say, ”I don’t know. I gotta go — there’s traffic ahead.“

”Okay. Call me later. Be safe.“

Ana put her phone away. There was no traffic, not in rural freaking New Mexico. She clutched the St. Barbara medallion and tried not to think too hard.

The border crossing in Ciudad Juárez went smoothly. No reason it shouldn’t have; she had all the right paperwork. But there was always that worry in the back of your mind that they’d decide to search, that they’d make up some excuse to stop you, that they’d hold you for hours, or worse. Crossing back into the U.S. might be a different story—but it wasn’t like she’d be smuggling anyone in the open back of the truck. There wasn’t even a tarp back there. She kept telling herself everything would be fine.

The officer asked the reason for her visit, and she answered, ”To see my grandmother. She lives in the country southwest of Juárez.“ Her father hadn’t known exactly where. He’d given her vague directions. She was hoping to find a name in a phone book somewhere.

Then the unexpected happened. The border officer looked at her passport, looked at her through the open window, back at the passport, and again like five times before furrowing his brow and saying, ”I’m sorry . . . but are you Earth Witch?“

That was when she remembered: she was famous now. For a split second, she thought about denying it, saying she was just an anonymous traveler. But her name was right there on the passport, and for all she knew, this guy was a fan. ”Yes,“ she said, her smile thin.

The guy broke into a huge smile. He called over the other officers. There was some chaos. Cell phones came out and pictures were snapped.

”Can you do something right here? Dig a hole or make an earthquake or something?“ one of the officers asked. It was a ridiculous question, on the road inside the glass-and-concrete bunker of the border crossing. He’d gestured vaguely off to a patch of dirt on the other side of a chain link fence.

But mostly Ana heard Father Gonzales: renounce your power. Pluck out your eye.

”I’m sorry,“ Ana said. ”I really probably should get going.“

A line of cars had queued up behind Ana’s truck, so they settled for autographs, and Ana obliged them. Maybe getting back into the U.S. wouldn’t be a problem at all.

Mostly, she smiled and said thank you a lot as her new friends told her how much they loved American Hero and thought she definitely should have won. Kate, with her athletic build and bright smile, was so much better at this sort of thing than she was. Ana was glad for the barrier of the car door.

And then she was in Mexico.

She had never been to Mexico, which seemed ridiculous now that she thought of it. It had always been there, just a day’s drive away. Her mother came from Mexico. Her father didn’t, or didn’t recently. His family had started out Mexican, but the borders moved around them. There’d never been a reason to go to Mexico until now.

Juárez didn’t exactly inspire her to want to spend more time in Mexico. It was a city, urban, crowded with buildings for miles in all directions. It had a claustrophobic, washed-out feel to it that made her homesick. Never mind its reputation as murder capital of the world. She wasn’t going to stop, right? Just drive straight through, following her father’s not-exactly-detailed directions. Take the main road west out of town and then keep going, maybe thirty miles. You might have to stop and ask someone.

Yeah, this was all seeming like less of a great idea than it had when she started out.

Much of the town seemed normal—houses, shops, streets with cars parked, people walking. She could tell when she passed through a less-normal part of town—probably even a dangerous one. People vanished; the streets were empty, except for one or two cars that were dusty, abandoned. Graffiti covered the walls, slogans and gang signs in black spray paint, crossed out by more spray paint and replaced by different slogans. Ana kept her eyes open and didn’t see much of anything, suspicious or otherwise.

She was almost out of town when the clanking coming from the truck’s engine got louder. Roberto didn’t tell her what to do if that happened. The whole cab started shaking.

”Come on, come on, keep going,“ she muttered, as if she could coax the vehicle into turning healthy.

Then smoke started pouring out from under the hood. The temperature gauge on the dash spiked into the red. Perfect. She pulled over to the curb before something blew up. Groaning, she rested her head on the steering wheel. Broken down on the outskirts of Juarez, in one of the obviously not-great neighborhoods. That was exactly what she should have expected on this trip.

Fine. Like Roberto said, she’d battled the Righteous Djinn; she could handle this.

First thing she did was pop the hood and step back from a billow of white pouring out. She had enough common sense to figure she ought to let the engine cool some before she started pouring things into it. She really hoped adding radiator fluid did the trick, because Roberto didn’t give her fixes for anything else.

Sighing, she sat on the front bumper and looked out at the road. It seemed to run to the end of the world. No gas stations, of course; no mechanics visible in the immediate vicinity. The truck had broken down at the edge of a neighborhood—short stucco houses, TV dishes attached to some, old-fashioned antennae to others. A dog barking somewhere. The place didn’t look abandoned, but its emptiness seemed strange.

She really wanted to get moving.

Sure enough, the radiator reservoir was low, just like Roberto told her it would be. Her little brother, looking out for her, which made her smile.

At the sound of the gunshot, she dropped to the ground, hunching by the protection of the driver’s-side wheel well. The movement had been reflexive, a hard-won instinct honed those weeks ago in Egypt. Her heart was racing, and the wound in her gut throbbed, remembering.

She had no way to tell where the shot had come from or if others would follow. Best thing she could do was get the hell out, so she got to work. Funnel in the opening of the reservoir, bottle of radiator fluid open, she poured. Hoped the little that splashed out wouldn’t cause problems.

Another shot rang out and was answered by automatic gunfire. A full-on gun battle was happening, way too close.

She’d just about gotten the cap screwed back on the radiator when a sedan squealed around a corner a few blocks away and came barreling toward her. Someone leaned out of the back window, firing a handgun at some unseen pursuer. In a few more seconds, Ana and her truck were going to be in the crossfire.

She expected to see another car chasing the first, some gang or drug cartel dispute gone mobile. And it did, this one a small pickup truck with yet another guy leaning out the window with a gun.

A third car roared into the intersection, just in time to cut off the first. All three cars squealed to crooked stops not thirty yards away from her. Shouting followed, and things were about to get really ugly. She didn’t know why these guys were in a three-way shootout. She didn’t much care; she just wanted to get out of here without getting creamed by a stray bullet. But of course, they were blocking the road. She could backtrack, find another way. Hope she didn’t draw their attention. Hope they didn’t feel a need to get rid of witnesses.

Or she could use her power. Her hands burned from wanting to use her power.

”Screw this,“ she muttered, and put her hand on the ground.

If you’re really sorry, you won’t use your powers. You’ll stop getting in trouble. You’ll stop causing trouble. She could never promise to not use her power, because she couldn’t put it on a shelf or lock it up. It was always with her, a part of her. And she couldn’t just huddle under her truck, hoping it would all go away.

In Egypt, she opened the ground beneath her attackers, buried them. Here, she did the opposite: raised pillars of earth, platforms of clay. She pictured it, sent the power through her hands and into the ground, which rumbled with the strength of an earthquake. Ten feet, twenty feet, she pulled in the soil from underneath, from all around, from the crust of the earth. Asphalt ripped, the street broke, and the three cars shot upward, each on its own platform. There was lots of shouting, and the guns stopped firing.

The towers of earth, twenty feet tall, eased away from each other, separating the cars. Men opened doors, trying to climb out, three out of the first car, two from the others. Near as Ana could tell, they all had guns, they just didn’t know who to shoot at anymore. She tried something—a little more complex, but it should work if she could manage it. Gathering more dirt from beneath the street, she raised the sides of the pillars, building up walls around the cars. Just thick enough to keep them from thinking of shooting.

Before the wall went up, one of the guys tried to climb down from the third car, scrambling over the edge and sliding off his dirt platform as it lifted him higher. Shouting, he slid down the side of the pillar, clawing uselessly as the slope went vertical and space opened up—he was going to fall a dozen feet and end up broken. Setting her jaw, clenching her hand in dry earth, she altered the path of the dirt under him. The vertical pillar expanded, sloped back out, and caught him in a bowl-shaped hillock. Instead of falling, he rolled up one side of the bowl, back up the other, then came to a stop, panting for breath. He’d lost his gun somewhere on his fall. Good.

When she stopped, she imagined she could still feel the ground shaking under her. Her muscles ached as if she’d been running.

Finally, she stood and regarded her work. It was like giant termites had appeared in the middle of town and built uneven, clay-colored mounds in the street. Bits of dirt and gravel still rained down from the sides. The surrounding street had sunk in, about twenty feet in all directions, from the dirt she’d pulled up.

She sighed. Once again, she’d done a lot of damage. Still, she never would have been able to do anything like this before American Hero, before Egypt. She never would have gotten this angry. It was a good anger. Focusing. And she just stopped three cars full of guys from shooting each other. What did that do to her tally of damage from Egypt? What would Father Gonzales say?

She hadn’t even been able to keep from using her power for a whole day.

”Hey! Hey, chica! Who the hell are you?“ The guy, shouting Spanish, was leaning over the edge of his bowl and looking down at her. He was in his early twenties, about her age, dressed in jeans and a faded Dallas Cowboys T-shirt.

”Someone who’s trying to fix her car without getting shot!“ she called back.

”What are you, some kind of fucking ace?“

That was fairly obvious. Was it weird that it was kind of encouraging that he didn’t recognize her from TV? ”What’s it look like to you?“ She realized suddenly, her Spanish had an American accent. She’d never noticed that before.

She finished with the radiator fluid and closed the hood.

”Hey—you gonna get me down from here? You gonna get my friends down?“

”Your friends? They were shooting at you. Or you were shooting at them. Or something.“

”None of your business. Get me down from here.“

Glaring, she ignored him. She’d pretty much made a wreck of the street and wondered how much of a detour she’d have to take to get out of town. She probably at least ought to make an effort to put things back the way they were.

”You going to behave? Tell your friends to behave?“

”Yes, Christ, yes! You could fucking bury us all if you wanted!“

Yes, she could.

She’d churned the ground enough; she’d never be able to get it back to perfect, but she’d get close. First, she lowered the platforms, returning tons of dirt to the sinkhole she’d created, raising the surface back to level. She pictured it all as one giant blob, a chunk of clay she could stretch and mold however she needed to. Working slowly, steadily, she returned the earth to some kind of street-like configuration. The asphalt maybe had a lot more cracks than it had before. She left the walls up around the three cars, just so she wouldn’t have to deal with the gangbangers and guns. The guy on his own slope returned to street level and ran a dozen steps away, as if the ground was haunted.

It was a cliché move, but she brushed her hands off when she was done. ”You guys can dig out of that on your own, after I’m gone.“

The guy was staring at her handiwork, hand on his temple like he had a headache. He was rough, a scar on his chin, his skin baked to sandstone brown. Tattoos decorated his arms and neck; a bandana was tied on his head in a way that was no doubt coded.

From within the dirt cages she’d constructed came angry shouting and curses. But nobody was shooting, which was the whole point.

”You’re La Bruja de la Tierra, yeah? From American Hero?“

She just looked at him, because who else would she be?

”So, what the hell are you doing here? Why aren’t you in Hollywood or New York, being a big star or whatever?“

A snapped non-answer was on the tip of her tongue, but she hesitated. Who knew—maybe he could help. ”I’m looking for someone,“ she said. ”My grandmother.“

”Yeah? She live around here? Maybe I know her—“

”She lives out in the country. I figured I could ask when I get out there.“

”Try me. I know everyone.“

”Why would you want to help me?“

He put his hands up. ”Hey, peace.“

Well, maybe he did know everyone. ”Her name’s Inez Salerno. She’s a joker. I guess people call her La Curandera de las Flores. The joker bruja.“

She expected him to shake his head and send her on her way, but he showed a flash of recognition. Her grandmother had a reputation—he knew her, or at least of her.

Suspicion shut down his expression. ”Why do you want to find Inez? What can you get from her that you can’t get up north? You’ve been on TV—you must be rich, you can get anything you want.“

He was testing her. He had the stance of a gatekeeper. This thing is ours, he said, and you are a stranger here. That he seemed to be protecting Inez made Ana feel better.

”I just found out she’s still alive. I need to see her. I need . . . advice, help. Something.“ She sounded helpless, like a child. The sound of her own pain startled her.

”Your ace. You got it from her?“

”I got the wild card gene from her, yeah. The ace was dumb luck.“ She hadn’t been infected with the virus like so many others. She was one of those of the second-, third-, and fourth-generations who’d inherited. Enough generations had passed since the first Wild Card Day, the recessive wild card gene was recombining, popping up where it wasn’t expected. It was part of the genome now; Ana was proof of it.

”If you find her—you think she’d really want to see you?“

The question had never occurred to Ana, and it made the whole trip even crazier. She didn’t have any pictures; she didn’t know anything about Inez.

No sé,“ she said. ”I don’t know. All I can do is find her and ask.“

He nodded. ”There’s a side road. Not the main highway. Last right turn before you leave town, then a left. That’s the road you want. Take it for a couple of hours, at least until dusk. You won’t find her before dusk. When you see the evening star, that’s when you stop. Understand?“

She could ask for more exact directions—how many miles, what kind of landmarks—but her instincts told her she was lucky to get this much. The surreal directions seemed exactly right for a quest that had started out vague.

Sí. Gracias.

The guys in the dirt cages were still shouting. Some dirt crumbled down the outside—one of them probably hitting at the wall from the inside. They’d figure out they could escape soon enough, and she needed to be gone by then. She got back into the truck, said a prayer, hoped the problem really was just the radiator fluid, and turned the key.

The engine coughed a couple of times, but it started. Clanking, just like before, but working.

Bruja,“ the man called over the sound of the engine rattling, into Ana’s open window. ”Her friends call her La Señora de la Esperanza.

The lady of hope. Maybe this was really going to work.

He waved to her as she drove on.

She hadn’t had nightmares after Egypt, not that she could remember. But she hadn’t slept well. If she couldn’t find her grandmother by nightfall, she didn’t know what she was going to do about finding somewhere to sleep. Pulling over to the side of the road was an option, but then she really wouldn’t sleep. She might as well just keep driving. Wisely, she’d filled up with gas before leaving Juárez. And filled up the cans in the truck’s bed.

Ana had probably been nuts to trust that gangbanger and his crazy directions. Now here she was, on a flat waste of desert scrub, nothing visible for miles, not even a cactus. The road was an actual paved road, which was good. But it was a narrow two lanes, the lane markings were cracked and faded, and she hadn’t passed any kind of sign in half an hour. She hadn’t passed another car in an hour. It had been two since she left the outskirts of Juárez. The sun was setting, the sky’s blue deepening to twilight, and her gut was aching. She pulled over, set her hazard lights, and dug in her backpack for her bottle of aspirin. Look for the evening star, he’d said, like she was Peter Pan or something.

Except there it was, a diamond-bright light low on the western horizon, above the crooked silhouette of mountains. Up ahead was a light, an ancient dim streetlight standing watch over a small building. It had been just far enough away that she hadn’t seen it. Not until that streetlight came on.

She started the truck again and pulled over in front of the building. It was a gas station but abandoned, the windows boarded up, the two pumps out front so old-fashioned, it had numbers that flipped over mechanically on plastic tiles.

The place seemed like another mirage. A threat, even. She ought to just drive on past it. It would be a trap that would open under her, swallow her up. Except in the fading light, her eye caught something else.

A footpath led away through the dust and desert. A paler stripe of yellow earth worn into the beige by many feet. It went on maybe a mile or two, though distance was hard to judge in this arid landscape, then sloped down to a nearby arroyo. While the building and skeletal pumps of the gas station were foreboding, the footpath seemed like an invitation. Another mirage, this one leading to an oasis.

It would be a long hike in her injured state. She would probably definitely regret leaving the truck alone out here. But why else had she come all this way? What other reason would there be a path at an abandoned gas station, unless to point the way to somewhere?

Yeah, to a drug stash or cartel hideout. And if that was the case, she could handle it.

She grabbed her backpack with its water bottle and headed out.

She shouldn’t be walking, not this far. Her doctor wouldn’t like to see her walking. Roberto and Kate would both give her a hard time for this. What happened to resting?

Because if she’d sat down, if she’d lain on the sofa to do nothing but watch TV and think, she might never have gotten up again. This hurt, but this was better.

It was full dark now. She hadn’t thought about setting off at dusk, hadn’t thought about how long such a walk would take, or that she maybe should have waited until morning. Setting off immediately had seemed the most natural thing in the world. The moon was high overhead, close to full. She could see the dirt path cutting across the desert, like it had been painted. It glowed, almost. Her cane bit into the dirt. The rhythm was solid, stable, if lurching.

The path began sloping up, and at the top of the rise, she stopped because of the scene spread out before her.

A beautiful hacienda nestled in an oasis, a lush depression tucked in between the hills. One story, sprawling, made of clean white stucco, it was surrounded by a waist-high wall, and a tall archway decorated with tiles opened into a paved courtyard with a well. Golden lights shone from all the windows, a glowing halo. Outside the wall, a pond spread out from the front, surrounded by willow trees and rose bushes.

For no particular reason, the path worn into the dirt became paved with pale cobblestones just a few steps from where she’d stopped. The path led right to that archway.

She took a breath and smelled perfume, sweet and heady. There were flowers, everywhere flowers, climbing roses arcing over pergolas, clematis climbing fences, a dozen different kind of lilies lining the walkway, and never mind what season it was, they were all blooming together. She could imagine getting drunk on the smell of all the flowers. Finding a grassy spot to lie down and sleeping for a month, safe in paradise.

She felt like she had been walking for a very long time, and seeing this place made it worthwhile.

As soon as she crossed under the archway into the courtyard, a small man in a pale shirt and loose trousers appeared. He had a mustache and his hair was carefully combed. He’d probably come from the front door, though she wasn’t sure. Ana stopped, a little confused—her steps had been carrying her, almost unconsciously, toward the front door. This was the right place; it had to be the right place. But the man, frowning, intercepted her.

Before he could say anything she asked, in her clearest Spanish, ”I’m looking for Inez, does she live here? ¿Esta aqui?

¿Quien es?

She hoped this was the right place. She swallowed the lump out of her throat. ”Ana Cortez. Her granddaughter.“

There was no reason the name would mean anything to him, but recognition lit his eyes and he nodded. ”Yes, of course! We’ve been expecting you.“

Ana stopped herself from asking how. From asking anything at all. She merely followed him when he guided her inside the house.

Just as many plants, vines, and flowers grew inside as out. Instead of painted walls or art, vegetation decorated the place. There must have been hundreds of pots and planter boxes, and all of them had something growing from them.

The short man chatted as he led her through room after room to the back of the house. ”My name is Antonio, I’m the caretaker here and run errands for Inez. Been working for her for, oh, twenty years, I think. Ever since I shut down the gas station, you know? Can I just say—it’s so good of you to come. I was really hoping you would come. You see, you’re just in time.“

”Just in time for what?“

His smile turned sad. ”She’s very sick.“ He turned away and passed through another doorway into a darkened room.

His tone gave the statement a dark weight. The phrase was a euphemism. She was sick, and she would not get better. Ana’s steps slowed as she tried to imagine what she would see when she walked into the room. She had no idea.

”Inez? Señora, you have a visitor.“

The room smelled pleasantly like a greenhouse, of damp earth and new growth and the perfume of flowers. Around the walls were shelves, tables, cabinets, and all of them were piled with pots, jars, boxes, and growing things. Grow lamps clipped to stands and hanging from the ceiling focused on the vegetation and gave the room a glow like it was lit by a pale sun.

The bed in the corner seemed like nothing so much as a hillock of grass, and the woman lying propped up on a mound of mossy-velvety pillows seemed like she must be growing from the earth.

”Inez?“ Antonio said again, gently prompting the woman awake.

Abuela Inez was a joker; Ana had known this. But she’d never seen any pictures, so the image before her was new. The old woman’s skin was brown, wrinkled; she might have been any Mexicana who’d spent her life working in the sun, except the furrows and whorls across her body were so regular, the shape and color of bark. Vines and sprouts grew from her the way hair would have on another person. Her face, eyes, and smile were human, and she woke up and reached a twig-like hand to Ana.

¡Por supuesto, maravilloso! Ana, I knew you would come.“

And suddenly, everything was fine. They’d known each other forever. This was her mother’s mother.

Ana knelt by the bed and took her grandmother’s hand. It was warm, like bark that had been in the sun. ”Abuela. How did you know? How do you even know my name?“

Her smile grew wide, her green eyes laughed. ”Oh, I knew. I was keeping an eye on you even if it didn’t seem like it. And Tony—he brought over his son’s laptop so I could watch your TV show. You were so beautiful on the TV, so powerful. I think you should have won.“ She patted Ana’s hand.

Ana wanted to laugh, because that was exactly the kind of thing a grandmother was supposed to say. ”I think I did win. I made friends. I have so much to look forward to. I got out of New Mexico, and I can get Roberto into college. We won.“

”I’m so glad to hear you say that! It’s so hard to tell on the TV—but I’m glad you and the others are truly friends. Friends are so important. But Ana, right now, you don’t look like someone who’s won.“

Ana started crying, which she should have expected. Just quiet tears falling. Now that she was here, she couldn’t get the words out as to why she’d come. It seemed ridiculous to kneel before a woman who was so obviously ill, probably dying, and say, I need to be healed.

Inez’s gaze fell to Ana’s shirt, to the St. Barbara medallion shining on its chain. The old woman lifted it, studied it.

”This is from your mother?“ Abuela asked.

Ana nodded. ”I’ve had my power since I was little. Mama said I needed someone to watch over me.“

”Saint Barbara is a good patron. Your mother chose well. I knew when I sent Susana away that I would never see her again.“

”Was it really so bad, that you had to send her away at all?“

”Aren’t you glad I did? If I hadn’t, there’d be no you, no Roberto.“ She chuckled, patted Ana’s hand, settled a bit more deeply, more comfortably, against her pillow. ”Maybe it wasn’t so bad, but if she’d stayed here she would have been La Hija de la Bruja her whole life, never her own person. She was such a bright light, she deserved more than that.“

”I miss her.“

”Oh my dear, of course you do. Now, you came here because you’re hurting. Digame todo.

Ana didn’t say anything. What was there to say? She lifted her shirt, exposing the puckered pink scar of the gunshot wound. Inez urged her close and ran a gentle hand over the wound. It felt like the brush of a flower petal.

”It’s healing well, but I imagine you’re still in a lot of pain? Deep in the muscles? I have something for that—on the shelf behind you, look for the blue glass with the lid . . . the small one . . . there it is.“

Ana followed her directions and fetched the jar, which was filled with some kind of yellowish, pungent ointment. When she rubbed it into the wound, it soothed. The earthy scent of it relaxed, and it left a warmth against her skin.

”Papá said you make your medicines from the flowers that grow from your own skin,“ Ana said. ”Is that true?“

Inez gave her a wry look. ”Of course not. That’s just a story. A folktale. Did he also tell you that your mother was born out of a pea pod?“ Ana chuckled, nodded. ”I was in labor for two days with her, there was no pea pod! People say all kinds of things about me—don’t mind them. I use the plants from my garden. But I do have something of a green thumb, yes?“ She held up her thumbs, which were indeed green, bristling with hairs that looked like grass. ”Now, here you go. Twice a day, it’ll be better in no time. And you probably shouldn’t be walking around so much.“

”That’s what the doctor said.“

Inez lifted a greenish brow as if to say, Of course he did. ”Now, what else is bothering you?“

Because she knew it wasn’t just the pain. Ana leaned against the bed; Inez rested her bony, woody hand on her hair.

”The priest back home told me not to use my power anymore. That if I’m really sorry for killing all those people, I won’t use my ace again. I came because . . . because I don’t know what to do. I can’t not use it. If I don’t use it, what good is having it at all? But I don’t want to hurt anyone. If it’s too dangerous for me to use it . . .“

”This is an old complaint, my Ana. When the priest tells you one thing and your heart tells you another, who do you listen to? When the priest says this, but you hear God saying another. Do these powers come from God or the Devil?“

Ana looked up. ”They came from aliens.

”Exactly. So what does your heart tell you?“

”If I can help people, I should. Avoid the bad. Don’t fight in any more wars.“

”Sometimes we can’t avoid the wars. But that shouldn’t stop you from doing what you can, you think?“

”I knew that. Maybe I needed to hear someone else say it.“

They sat together in silence for a time, Ana lulled by her grandmother’s touch, by the beautiful smells of the plants and flowers. No wonder everything grew so lush here—it all felt so safe.

”Are you hungry?“ Inez asked after a time. ”Have you eaten at all today?“

She couldn’t remember. ”Not really.“

”Go into the kitchen. There’s fruit and lemonade in the fridge. Go bring us some.“

Ana went, and noticed that her gut hardly hurt at all.

They had a picnic by the bed, but Inez didn’t eat anything, Ana noticed. Sipped a little of the lemonade and seemed pleased to watch Ana eat. Something else hung in the air. The conversation wasn’t over, and so Ana wasn’t surprised when Inez spoke again.

”Ana, will you do something for me?“

”Of course, if I can.“

”I will need to you dig my grave.“

Ana answered reflexively, ”Abuela, I don’t think—“

”I want to be buried here, where I’ve lived my whole life and where everything good I’ve ever done is. Your mother was born here and your grandfather is buried here. But Tony is too old to dig, and I don’t want heavy equipment barging through my garden. But you, Ana—you could do it in a moment. I think it’s why you’re here, why you came to me now. Will you stay with me and make my grave when the time comes?“

”Yes, I will.“ It was the only possible answer.

It happened quickly, just two days later. Ana was at her side; Tony stayed by the doorway, stifling tears. She fell into a deep sleep and never woke up. It was so very peaceful. Nothing like an earthquake. Ana held her hand and was sure that Inez had stopped breathing for a long time before Ana even noticed. Tony said that Inez had been waiting for the right time to let go; she’d been waiting for Ana.

Tony made a simple wooden casket for her. He called his teenage son to help him carry it out to the spot that he’d marked out, where Inez had wanted to be buried.

”Don’t you have to dig the hole first?“ Tony Junior asked.

Ana said, ”No. Just set it down. I’ll take care of it.“

Because Inez had known, and this was exactly how her abuela wanted it.

Ana knelt, pressed her medallion to her chest with one hand, touched the other to the earth, digging her fingers in. She could feel its depth, its life, cut through with a billion roots of all the growing things around her. Gently, she opened a hole, the particles of soil serving as a million hands supporting the casket, lowering it as the ground parted to make space for it. There was a noise like ants walking, or rain falling on a desert. The earth simply swallowed her. The surface continued churning until her grandmother had traveled deep enough to her last resting place. Ana dug the hole and buried her grandmother in the same moment.

The shifting earth fell silent, and the three of them stayed still, watching.

”Do we need to call a priest?“ Ana asked finally. ”To say a blessing?“

”We’ll do it,“ Tony said, and they all bowed their heads as he recited an Our Father and a Hail Mary. Then it was over.

Tony walked her back to her car, a hike of several miles that seemed much more ordinary than the walk to the hacienda had been. ”You can’t be too careful out here,“ he said. ”All the gangs and thieves and monsters. It’s very dangerous.“

She just smiled.

The truck was fine, right where she left it. She checked the gas, checked the oil, topped off the radiator again just to be sure. Gave Tony a hug—he and his family would keep looking after the hacienda.

At last, she set off on the empty road and made a call.

”Ana!“ Kate greeted her. ”I’ve been texting and calling, but nothing was getting through—where have you been?“

”I don’t think there was any reception where I was. Anyway, I’ll tell you all about it. The important thing is, I’m coming home. To New York.“

 

”Nuestra Señora de la Esperanza” copyright © 2014 by Carrie Vaughn

Illustration copyright © 2014 by John Picacio

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