We’re excited to share an excerpt from Lobizona, a new YA fantasy from Romina Garber—available August 4th with Wednesday Books.
Manuela Azul has been crammed into an existence that feels too small for her. As an undocumented immigrant who’s on the run from her father’s Argentine crime-family, Manu is confined to a small apartment and a small life in Miami, Florida.
Until Manu’s protective bubble is shattered.
Her surrogate grandmother is attacked, lifelong lies are exposed, and her mother is arrested by ICE. Without a home, without answers, and finally without shackles, Manu investigates the only clue she has about her past—a mysterious “Z” emblem—which leads her to a secret world buried within our own. A world connected to her dead father and his criminal past. A world straight out of Argentine folklore, where the seventh consecutive daughter is born a bruja and the seventh consecutive son is a lobizón, a werewolf. A world where her unusual eyes allow her to belong.
As Manu uncovers her own story and traces her real heritage all the way back to a cursed city in Argentina, she learns it’s not just her U.S. residency that’s illegal… it’s her entire existence.
I approach the glass slowly, in a trance. There are two grave-faced women inside waiting to be serviced, but no one is working the front desk or any of the four stations.
I pull open the door, and a too-loud bell jangles through the space, prompting the women to look up.
One of them is clutching a bundle of fabric to her chest, and when a small foot kicks out, I realize it’s a baby. The sound must’ve roused it, and as the baby starts fussing, its mom and the elderly lady beside her make soothing sounds to calm it down.
A middle-aged woman with a pink streak in her hair darts out from a back door and strides up to me, examining me through kindly brown eyes.
“Hola, señorita. ¿Tiene cita para hoy?” Her articulated Spanish is fluid, and her neutral dialect gives every syllable space, so she’s definitely not Argentine… Maybe Peruvian?
I answer, “No, I don’t have an appointment.”
“¿Qué estilo de servicio busca?”
As I consider her question—which service am I interested in?—it hits me that the women waiting look too anxious to be here for personal grooming.
The knot in my stomach may have formed before I walked in, but it’s the tension inside this place that’s tightened it. Something’s not right.
A scream rings out from the back of the parlor, and this time I recognize the voice intimately.
I push past Pink Streak and shove through the door she came in from, my pulse in my throat—
Two women whirl away in surprise from a small television where a fútbol match is being broadcast. The older woman is in a white lab coat and the younger one is… Ma.
“Manu?” She rushes over, wearing blue scrubs I’ve never seen before. “¿Qué pasó?” she asks, her concern so consuming that she doesn’t consider the scene from my perspective.
Pink Streak bursts through the door behind me as the words spill out: “Perla fell! I think. I heard her scream, and she was bleeding from the head when I found her, and I called an ambulance, but she wouldn’t let me stay—”
A sob chokes me, and I swallow it down, blinking quickly behind my sunglasses to stave off tears.
Ma’s hand covers her mouth, her own eyes glassy and round and unblinking. “Dios mío,” she whispers. The woman in the white coat squeezes her arm, and Pink Streak takes Ma’s other hand.
“Dime el hospital más cercano a tu hogar y yo te averiguo lo que está pasando,” she says. Tell me the hospital closest to you, and I’ll track down an update. The three of them speak in hushed tones as they form a plan of action, and I look around, surveying my surroundings…
I’m not in a beauty salon anymore.
This back area is twice as large as the front, and judging by the privacy curtains to my left and the medicine-lined walls to my right—not to mention the general antiseptic smell—I know it’s some kind of medical office. The privacy curtains are bunched up, revealing a couple of empty patient beds, and all around me is strange equipment I only recognize from television dramas—IV drips, needles, glass tubes, and a chest-high machine that rolls on wheels. There’s a hallway in the back corner, but from here I can’t make out where it leads.
The only thing that looks familiar is the small television. It’s Perla’s old set.
Shock burns off quickly, exposing a heavier emotion simmering just beneath my surface. Ma isn’t a maid. She’s a nurse again.
At an underground clinic.
Pink Streak suddenly kisses my cheek. “Hola, Manu, soy Julieta. Tu mamá se la pasa hablando de lo inteligente que eres.” Hi, Manu, I’m Julieta. Your mom is always going on about how smart you are.
The fact that Ma has been praising my intellect even as she’s been manipulating me for years only accelerates the fire scalding my chest, bringing the flames closer to my throat and dangerously near my mouth.
“No te enfades con ella,” says Julieta, reading my face and coming to Ma’s defense. Don’t be mad at her.
“None of our families know.” Julieta sounds less confident as she switches into an accented English, like a person venturing across an untested bridge. “It’s a promise we make… so if we’re caught, the people we love can’t get blamed.”
I want to understand, but I can’t. These other families might operate on secrets, but the only thing Ma and I have is our trust in each other.
I guess Ma’s constant refrain is right: Our trust in each other is the only thing they can’t take from us. They didn’t take it—Ma did.
My mouth fills with all the hurtful words I want to hurl her way, but when our gazes lock, I swallow them.
I’ve never seen Ma cry. Not even when we lived in a shelter. “I’m sorry, Manu,” she says as tears roll down, and Julieta backs away to give us space. “This was the only way I could… take care of you.”
It’s the pause in her words that tips me off. Like she was going to say something more specific but caught herself.
I scrutinize the room again for a clue, and somehow I know where to look. Scanning the wall of medicines, I spot the telltale blue bottle.
This is how Ma really gets me the Septis pills. It’s not through Perla’s insurance. Ma’s working here, risking everything again, for me.
Julieta cups my shoulder with her hand, and the woman in the lab coat offers Ma a tissue. She blows her nose.
“How about you get some rest on the couch in the office?” Julieta asks me. “We just finished lunch, and there are only two patients waiting. Let your mom work, and I’ll find out about Perla. Okay?”
I nod because it’s as much as I can manage. “Are you hungry?”
“Is it really so sunny in here?” She adopts a lighter tone, trying to crack the tension. “Would you like some sunscreen too?”
Before I can even consider the possibility of taking off my sunglasses, Ma’s fingers coil around my wrist, and she pulls me away from Julieta. “I’ll take her,” she says, dragging me down the back hallway, deeper into the space.
I’ve barely glimpsed a small kitchen/lounge to my right when Ma pulls me through a door to my left and locks it behind us. I slide my sunglasses onto my head.
“I know you’re upset with me, and you have every right to be,” she says, and since I can’t stand to look at her yet, I scan the office. Black synthetic leather couch, L-shaped wooden desk, ominous six-foot safe in the corner.
“I will answer your questions, I promise.”
I glower at her. She looks like a stranger in those scrubs, and I can’t tell if her skin is paling, or if the blue is washing her out.
“But right now, I need you to stay here and wait for me.” She strides up to the huge safe and punches a code to unlock it.
“What the fuck is going on?”
The words explode out of me, and I brace myself for Ma’s reaction.
“We can’t go back to Perla’s,” she says as she reaches into the safe and pulls out a duffel bag. “We’ll tell the others we’re spending the night on the couch.”
When she doesn’t yell at me for my language, fear frays the hard edges of my rage.
She sets the bag on the desk and rifles through its contents. “Then once they head home, we’ll go.” Ma zips the duffel shut again and pins me with one of her no-nonsense stares. “Everything we have left is in that bag. Stay in this room and guard it with your life. Do not leave this clinic for any reason. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
My breathing shallows as I try to process the speed at which everything in my life is changing. I feel like this morning I woke from a dream into a nightmare.
Ma reaches for the door, and I make to follow her out. “But we don’t even know how Perla is—”
She whirls to face me, blocking the exit with her body. “Let me finish with my patients, and I’ll figure out a plan. Don’t let anyone see you without your glasses.”
I grab her arm, and I’m chilled by the terror glazing her eyes. Trying to infuse my voice with as much hope as I can muster, I say, “Maybe—maybe Perla’s fine by now—”
“Perla was attacked, Manu!” she shout-whispers.
I inhale sharply. “What do you—”
“Your father’s family found me.” Her voice is faint and fragile and foreign from the Ma I know. “Now we need to run, before they find out about you.”
The door slams in my face, narrowly missing my nose.
Ma left the office five hundred and thirty-three seconds ago. I know because there’s a loud clock over the couch, and I’ve been counting off its every tick.
Ma thinks Perla was attacked.
Ma works at an underground clinic.
Ma thinks my dad’s people found us.
We can never go home again.
What happens if they catch us?
A tendril of red smoke floats across my field of vision, but I blink and it’s gone. This hallucination is really starting to get on my nerves. I leap off the couch and start pacing up and down the office.
To tune out the deafening ticking of time, I try to make sense of a senseless situation. It’s just like playing chinchón, I tell myself as I deepen my breathing. I’ve been dealt a hand of unrelated cards, and now I have to discern a pattern and sort them into groups.
I think of Leather Jacket and the woman on the rooftop. Maybe they were there looking for Ma. The woman sounded Argentine—she could be a scout sent by my dad’s family.
What if his people really did hurt Perla?
What if they followed me here?
My heart vaults into my throat, and I reach for the door— but I stop myself before opening it. Ma might not be thinking clearly right now, which means it’s important that I be the rational one. I have to consider the facts objectively, for both of us.
Perla is a ninety-year-old woman whose health is starting to fail, and it’s perfectly logical that she could have fallen on her own. Ma has been running from my father’s family my whole life, so it’s natural for her to be paranoid.
I sigh and bury my face in my hands. I can’t even trust what I know to be true anymore. Until ten minutes ago, I was beyond certain there were no secrets between Ma and me, and now it turns out all we’ve ever had are secrets.
If Doña Rosa isn’t real, Ma’s anecdotes about her multi-story house and snotty little kids have all been fabrications. My entire life is made up of dreams and superstitions and lies—even the real parts aren’t real.
So what if Ma’s lying about the only thing that matters?
The question surges up my throat like bile. Ma wouldn’t betray me like this. She knows our only chance of survival is with legal residency. She knows we desperately need a real home. She knows the hope of our papers coming through is all that’s keeping me going.
My eyes latch onto the duffel bag she left on the desk. I’ve searched Perla’s whole apartment for copies of the paperwork Ma filed, just to touch proof of that hope, to know it’s real, but I’ve yet to find it. I always assumed Ma must have a really good hiding place because I never found anything else either, like our savings or my birth certificate.
I dive for the bag.
Sitting at the desk, I rummage through wads of cash, new clothing, unopened toothbrushes and toiletries, a flashlight, power bars, water bottles… and at the very bottom, a pile of paperwork.
I pull out the stack and push the duffel away, resting the documents on the desktop to flip through them. The first thing I come across are sketches and photographs of a symbol that looks like a fancy Z and reminds me of an old television series Perla loves called El Zorro.
I recognize it as the same symbol etched onto the blue pills.
Next, there are maps of different sectors of Argentina. The city names have all been crossed out, like Ma’s searching for something. Or someone.
Behind the diagrams is a manila folder, and on the cover is a name, written in Ma’s slanted handwriting: Manuela Azul.
I open it up to find a series of magnified photographs of my eyeballs.
I can’t help cringing. Having never seen a photograph of myself, it’s jarring to be confronted with close-ups of my mosthated feature. I don’t remember posing for these, so they must have been taken when I was very young. The five-point stars of my pupils look like graphite, and my irises aren’t at all what I expected.
Woven into the yellow are flecks of copper and amber and burnt gold, and the longer I stare, the more shades I see. Flipping from one photo to the next, I notice the particles of color keep shifting shape and location, like my eyes are golden galaxies orbiting silver stars.
There’s text bleeding through the back of the last picture, and I turn it over to read what Ma wrote. One word, in Spanish.
Abnormal. Aberrant. Wrong.
I ignore the stab in my chest, and I shove the file aside to finish reading later. I keep digging through Ma’s papers, but all I find are newspaper clippings and pages filled with unintelligible scribbles that could be notes on anything from Ma’s patients to the blue pills she’s investigating to the location she’s trying to track down. By the time I reach the last page, there’s nothing at all about our visa application.
Because Ma never filed for it.
The answer is so suddenly and strikingly obvious that I feel foolish for even daring to hope. Ma works at an underground clinic. She obviously has no employer sponsoring her. If anything, she’s just doubled down on our outlaw status.
A numbness seeps into my skin that makes it hard to access my thoughts or outrage or anything else. It’s like a vacuum of air building in my head, making the office blur out of focus and filling my mind with a white noise that’s intensifying into a full-body buzzing, until I can’t stay here anymore.
If I do, I’ll have to process that after all these years of waiting, I’m never going to belong here.
I’m never going to go to school.
I’m never going to be rid of these stupid fucking sunglasses.
The realization snaps shackles I’ve placed on my body my whole life. Hide, be invisible, take up as little space as possible— share a small bed, in a small room, in a small apartment, in a small corner of the world, limited to a small routine and a small life.
I’ve always felt cramped because I’ve been crammed into an existence too small for me. That’s why the only friends I have are fictional. Why the only world I know is within El Retiro’s walls. Why the only time I feel free is in my dreams.
But today, my body has outgrown its constraints.
And whatever the consequences, I’m not going back.
I shove my sunglasses back on—not for Ma, but for me, to avoid stares—and storm out of the office, knocking someone over.
The teen girl gasps as she tumbles to the floor, her auburn hair fanning around her stunned face. For some reason, her frightened reaction infuriates me, so I glare back and do something I’ve never done before—I growl.
At first, I think I’m going to belch. But instead, this deep, sonorous sound comes out of my mouth that doesn’t sound human.
I’m mortified. My cheeks burn like they’re pressed to a hot stove, and for a moment the girl and I just stare at each other. Then, without apologizing or helping her up, I run.
I’m going so fast, everything is a blur. Julieta dives out of my way as I reach the door that leads into the beauty salon, and even though I hear my name being shouted, I keep going until I’ve burst onto the street.
This time, pedestrians have to dodge me. My feet are locked into a powerful rhythm, and I don’t know how to slow down. The run is a catharsis, and as tears stream down my face, I realize it’s the first time since racing home from Ariana’s pool party that I’ve let my body go.
Running awake is different from running in my dreams: weightier, harder, more thrilling. My body has changed from what it was just months ago, my muscles somehow stronger despite my lack of exercise. It’s like I’ve been transforming moon by moon, becoming something new, someone new… But what? And whom?
I’m crying hard enough that I can barely see, until I lose track of the blocks, and I don’t know where I am. I have no idea where my life goes from here.
I don’t know if things with Ma can ever get back to normal. Can I stay in hiding with her if it’s forever? And where will we go now?
I only stop moving when I run out of land. As my sneakers hit sand, the impact on my body is instant: My knees wobble from the exertion, my muscles sting, and my breaths come in tidal waves. I must have covered four or five miles. I hinge my hands on my thighs and bend my spine, as I wait for my heart to slow down.
The beach is packed. Parents with children splash in the ocean’s shallows, and all along the shore people are lying out or playing volleyball or eating food, everyone basking and baking in the sun’s rays.
But the warmth won’t penetrate my skin.
My damp shirt clings to me, and the roots of my hair are itchy with sweat. The world grew deafening overnight; as a symphony of brassy conversations and stringy seagulls and crashing waves blares in my ears, I stare off into the sparkly blue Atlantic, yearning for a home that’s as elusive as the horizon. And I’m tempted to slip into the sea’s womblike embrace and drown out all the noise.
I suck in a deep inhale of briny air to snap out of it.
For a moment, I consider what it would mean if my father’s family really found us. Ma’s right that we couldn’t stick around, waiting to be captured. Especially not if they hurt Perla just for being in their way.
But if I’m going to agree to run, then Ma needs to agree to file an asylum claim with the US government. I don’t want to hear her excuses that the accusation might tip off my dad’s people to my existence and our whereabouts—because if they’re already onto us, we have nothing to lose.
I should have researched this residency stuff for myself instead of trusting her to handle it. She’s obviously been keeping me in the dark for a reason.
The only thing I’m sure of anymore is I can’t go back to how things were. I’ve already spent too many years fast-forwarding through a series of identical days, self-medicating every full moon, living a lonely and friendless existence. But at least then I had hope. I can’t do this without it.
Stepping back onto the hard concrete of reality, I retrace my steps to Doña Rosa, only this time I’m not running. As I cut through the city blocks in a clipped and determined gait, something starts to unsettle me.
At first, I think it’s the calm hollowness emanating from my decision. Then I register how much the sidewalks have emptied. Earlier, they were swarming with foot traffic, and now, I could be one of the last people left in the city.
Like the street is playing dead.
My heart stalls, and I’m back with Ma under Perla’s bed.
Waiting for agents to storm in and take us away.
I don’t know when I make the decision to run. All I know is I’m rocketing through the empty streets, moving faster than I’ve ever moved, each desperate second echoing in my head.
I see the blue lights first.
Flashing atop a black SUV.
ICE is at Doña Rosa.
Excerpted from Lobizona, copyright 2020 by Romina Garber.