5:53 PM. Carlos breathed in quickly and rubbed his hand through his jet-black hair. “Yo Mike! Ya got that order yet? I need to get going!” He grabbed the keys to the sub shop’s little Honda and waited for Mike to bring out the last of the orders for his delivery. He glanced at his watch again: 5:56 PM. Another hour and he would finally be done with work for the week. He was anxious to get on the road. Leena was finally coming to visit! Carlos had been looking forward to this visit, ever since Leena called him and asked if she could drive up and meet him to visit. He knew that he hadn’t talked with her much as of late. He promised himself that he would make it up to her later, when his studies weren’t weighing so heavily on his mind; when he didn’t have to worry about life and his sisters. Because he had gone to a college so far away, they decided to meet somewhere in the middle. Fresno it was. Carlos had some friends who were from Fresno and told him about a couple motels he could stay at and helped him compile a list of fun things to do. He’d already booked a couple nights at La Quinta Motel. His friend Josué even knew the owners and was able to swing a small discount. And his boss Mike was lending him the delivery car for the week so he could make it down to see Leena.
Nonetheless in the back of his mind, Carlos didn’t mean to, but he felt it was too good to be true. He shook his head; no, he didn’t need those thoughts. Things were going to be fine; in fact, more than fine. He’d take her out and he’d make it up to her for not being there for her as much as he would have liked. And even more, this would be the first time they went out as young adults; they’d both turned eighteen back in October, two weeks apart.
Still, he had that nagging little doubt. The last couple years had been difficult for Carlos. Even despite everything that had happened in the past two years, he had worked hard to pass all his classes and to get into the college of his choice. But neither of his parents had lived long enough to see him graduate. Even more, his younger siblings didn’t get to be with him either, but at least they were safe and together. Carlos had made a lot of sacrifices already in his short life; but one choice that he would always regret was not taking on the role of ‘father’ to his two younger sisters, Carmina and Patricia after the accident. They were currently in foster home in another little town about thirty miles from Yucca Valley and Carlos missed them terribly. He tried to call them at least once weekly to check in with them and make sure they were doing okay. He had told the judge to place them anywhere as long as they could stay with each other. They were both so young. Carlos hoped that they wouldn’t remember. He already had to bear those hard moments last year when he had to identify his parents’ remains. They’d been in a car accident coming home late one night from a family gathering. Just like that, their lives had been snuffed out. It was a freak accident; a deer jumped out in front of his father’s pick-up truck and there was no stopping. The forensic investigator figured his father had been so tired that he just didn’t have time to react. But that was all in the past now. Carlos needed to stay focused on the future. His and Leena’s possible future.
Only Leena understood why he’d made the decisions he had. Over the last year, Carlos spent many nights with Leena, telling her how it was best if he went on to college, and earned his degree as quickly as possible. And he would do it in three years if he could. He’d study right through the summers. Then he planned to come back home and take over the care for his sisters. Leena always told him he was extremely brave for doing things this way, but Carlos felt that he hadn’t made the right decision in the end and had abandoned his sisters.
Carlos rubbed his hand over his face. He didn’t want to think about that right now. Now he had something good to look forward to. Leena was on her way to see him!
“Mike! I have to go!” Carlos waited by the counter impatiently. It was a slow night in the sub shop tonight, but that didn’t mean the delivery orders stopped. Spring break was right around the corner and that meant lots of studying for the midterms that were coming up. It was time to have a little break from everything. Carlos didn’t mind working at the sub shop, but sometimes he felt that he practically lived there. On one hand, he really needed the money and as far as jobs went, this job paid well enough along with his other part-time job of tutoring. On the other hand, it also had an old dial-up computer and he could study there.
Carlos was lucky that his parents had left a small bit of money they had worked hard for in their will, which would help to cover half of his tuition and fees for the next four years, as long as he worked to make the other half of the money. It also helped that the college he chose, Sacramento State, had given him the most grants as well. While it should have been a happy moment for him to leave for college, as it was for most of his classmates, it coincided with the last times he had seen his sisters. Carlos again shook his head. If he continued to think about it, it would just bring his mood down, and he couldn’t afford for that to happen. In only a few short hours he would see Leena and he definitely didn’t want his mood to bother her.
“Alright already! Hold ya horses man! Here, I got the two Big Jims, one Turkey, no lettuce, and two more Meatball Marinara subs. These need to go to somewhere in the Commons-- you know that area?” A slender but tall guy with a graying beard and hairline walked out of the back kitchen with the sub sandwiches packaged up. Carlos looked at the address. “Yeah, I know it. My study partner lives there. I’ll be back in about fifteen. Now listen Mike, don’t forget--” Carlos started to remind him.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I got it! You’re leaving to meet your long-distance girlfriend and you need to leave early tonight. Sheeesh! Man, that’s all you been talking about this week. How’s a guy supposed to forget that? In one ear and out the other! Ayyy!” Mike wiped his hands on the dishcloth he’d been carrying and tossed it into the dirty towel bin. Carlos smiled ruefully. “Mike, thanks again for letting me borrow your car. I know it’s for work only, and I promise I will drive carefully. Remember what I told you; I’ll even work some extra shifts for free to pay you back for letting me use it. Sorry about all the reminders, I know you said you are forgetful, but just wanted to make sure! It’s just, I haven’t seen Leena since I left back in August. I’ve really missed her.”
“Yeah yeah. Young love and all that crap, I know it.” Mike began to wipe down the cash register counter and looked at Carlos pensively. “I know you been working your tail off these last few months. How about this: You deliver this last order and take off early. Go and see your girlfriend, it’s bad driving out there, with all the traffic and whatnot. I’ll take care of the rest of the orders tonight. I’m thinking about closing up early anyhow. My old lady, ya know, she wants me home earlier on Fridays to spend some of that quality time ‘together’. And how about I give you your six-month bonus a little early, eh?” Carlos turned towards him and blinked. He didn’t know what to say. Mike winked.
“Now Mike, I know you said if I did a good job, you’d MAYBE consider it, but if this is just an advancement on my check--” Carlos started to say.
“Nahhh, my man. You been working hard. And plus, you didn’t even go home for Christmas. I don’t know anyone else who doesn’t do that. Even I took off Christmas! Consider it a late Christmas gift. You been helping me run things for a while here. Go, have fun. Take your girl on a nice date, eh?” Mike reached into the cash register and put some money into an envelope. He folded it and then handed it over to Carlos. Carlos hesitated.
“Go on now, Carlos. You deserve it. Take the money! I’ll see you in about a week; just don’t be late for that returning shift!” Mike placed the envelope into Carlos’ hands and walked away. Carlos folded the envelope and put it in his bag. “Now, make sure you close that front door!” Mike yelled out as Carlos walked out of the sub shop. He closed the door and pulled on it. It was closed solidly. Mike was a good man. Back in October, after noticing Carlos had been hanging around at the shop to study quite a bit, Mike started to talk with him and found out that he had pretty much run out of money. So he offered him some work hours at his sub shop. Carlos hoped one day to return the favor to him. It was what his father had always taught him; always pay back in some way or another what you are given.
Carlos jumped into the little blue Honda and turned it on. One thing that he was grateful for was how well the little car ran. Carlos quickly delivered the last sub order. Several minutes later, he drove the car back to his apartment and pulled his bag onto his shoulder. He had packed light with several changes of clothing only. He grabbed the directions off the table that he had printed the day before at the library. He needed those to get to Fresno. He was going to meet Leena there tonight because it was about half-way between each of them.
Carlos looked around his little studio one more time. He was all set to go. Grabbing his door key off the table, he walked out of the apartment and secured the door. Most likely, nobody would bother the apartment while he was gone, but he wanted to make sure it was at least locked up.
He walked quickly to the little Honda. Within minutes, he drove over to the Krist gas station and gassed it up fully. Now all he had to do was get going on I-80. He checked all his mirrors. He was ready. “See you in a week Sacramento! Here I go!” Carlos stepped on the gas pedal and pulled out of the gas station. A mile later, he maneuvered the car onto the ramp for I-80 and sped up. Only three hours to go.
9:38 PM“--Oh, sí, así mismo--” Leena sang out loud to the radio. She tapped her fingers against the steering wheel to the tune. The drive up to Fresno was taking no time at all. Soon she would see Carlos and be able to hold him in her arms. She smiled, knowing that even if she were to hold him, to touch him, she’d still be vertically challenged compared to his height. His chin always fit right on top of her head in just the right way. It almost seemed unreal. She’d finally be there.
Leena had only stopped once to stretch her legs for a bit and get something to eat at a small, run-down diner off the side of the road. Traffic had even died down a bit. So far there were no complications. Leena figured she had a little less than an hour left to drive. The sun had gone down a little while ago, so Leena was taking extra care to be alert. 9:41 PM. The bright green lettering of the clock on the dash shined out. Leena started to get nervous.
What would Carlos think of her? After all, it had been seven months. She really hadn’t changed much, just a little thinner and slightly more bags under her eyes. Leena shivered in nervousness. “Oh Carlos, I’ll be there soon. What are you going to think? When should I tell you?” Leena took a deep breath. She WOULD tell him this time. So many questions ran through her mind. The biggest one stuck out in her mind: how would he feel about her knowing her secret? What, if anything, would change? Leena rubbed her arm across her face; she couldn’t dwell on this right now. This week was going to be so special. They would not only finally be able to see each other again, but this time as adults. They were going to stay together. In the same room. Together. For a whole week. While Leena wasn’t sure what to feel about that, she knew she wanted to be with Carlos and take their relationship to the next level. If Carlos decided that he couldn’t handle being with her after she told him, then at least she would have these memories to hold onto for the rest of her life.
Twenty minutes later, Leena read the sign for the Fresno exit. She would need to drive for another twenty minutes beyond the sign until the exit ramp appeared. “Soon mi amor. Soon, I’ll be there.”
9:17 PM. Carlos paced around the motel room. He had arrived almost thirty minutes ago and had checked in. His part of the drive was shorter than Leena’s and she wouldn’t be arriving there just yet. What should he do now? There was a video rental place down the street he could walk to. There was also a pizza joint next door to it. Should he go and get a pizza so Leena wasn’t hungry when she arrived? Carlos wiped his hand over his face. He had already changed his clothes, the nice jeans and shirt that Leena had gotten for his last birthday. She’d like that, he thought.
Carlos was very nervous, but he didn’t know why. It was the first time he would see Leena in seven months. Would anything change between the two of them? His friend Rob and his long-distance girlfriend had recently broken up because of the same reason: they were high school sweethearts living apart and couldn’t handle the distance and lack of seeing each other. For a brief moment Carlos froze: Was that was the reason Leena was driving up to see him? So that she could tell him she wasn’t interested in being with him anymore? What if she had found someone else while he was away? Carlos’ heart dropped to the bottom of his stomach. Why hadn’t that thought ever occurred to him?
Carlos stopped himself. “Oh man, Leena isn’t coming to break up with you! ¡Que tontería! Knock it off! Why would she want to stay the whole week if that were the case? I’m so stupid!” Carlos knocked his hand against his forehead. Of course Leena wasn’t coming to break up with him. They were spending the whole week together. It felt unreal. They were going to be alone. For the first time. In the same bed even, well only if Leena agreed. That thought had definitely crossed his mind in the past couple of weeks. It had passed through his mind so much that Carlos even went to the drugstore nearest his apartment and purchased some condoms, just in case. He never wanted to put Leena in that position. Leena may not even want that, and Carlos would never pressure her. They hadn’t even done much more than go to second base in the back of his car.
Carlos sat on the edge of the bed and put his head down in his hands. Now he was even more nervous. What WOULD Leena want to do, if anything? He knew that he loved her, and planned to even marry her one day, once they were both out of school and graduated. He wouldn’t disrespect her parents like that and take that opportunity away from her. Leena was so smart; she would do well in college when she went one day. And kids? Well, Carlos hoped those would be in their future, but not for a LONG time. He liked kids well enough, but hoped Leena wouldn’t mind waiting until his sisters were grown up. He didn’t want to compromise their teen years once he took over the care for them.
“I should go get that pizza. She’s going to be here soon, maybe within the hour. I don’t want her to be hungry when she gets here.” Now that he decided, Carlos shoved his feet into his Converse shoes and grabbed his ballcap to put on. It was still warm out and he didn’t need a jacket. He grabbed the motel key off the desk and walked out, locking the door behind him. The pizza shop was only a couple minutes walk from the motel and it was in a pretty safe area. Carlos wasn’t worried about anything happening. He would be back soon.
10:07 PM. Leena carefully stepped on the brake to slow her car down. The exit ramp to Fresno was right in front of her. She breathed a huge sigh of relief: she had finally made it. The motel was only another six to seven minutes away, at least according to her directions. Leena became more nervous. Carlos was in the same town as her! She was going to see him very soon!
“Calm down girl. Pay attention to the road.” Leena smiled to herself. Everytime she got nervous, she had to talk herself down. Carlos always loved that about her. She thought it made her weird, but Carlos didn’t.
Leena needed to stop somewhere to look at the directions again. Fresno didn’t seem so bad so far, but she definitely didn't want to get lost the first night there. Oh! There was a gas station. She would pull over for a minute, stretch her legs one more time and then figure out where to go from there. She turned on her blinker to the right and pulled into the gas station. It was a brightly lit place, with a pay phone off to the side. Leena parked the car off to the side of the main building and grabbed out the map from her bag. She only needed to take two right turns from this road and then the motel should be on the left side. Easy-peasy.
Leena carefully folded the map and put it back in her bag. She glanced at her appeared in the rear-view mirror and smoothed back her auburn wavy hair. She grabbed her wallet and got out of the car. A lemonade or water wouldn’t hurt to get. She was a little parched. She entered the gas station and walked towards the refrigerators in the back. After selecting a cold pink lemonade from the top shelf, she turned to the snack aisle. Just as she was selecting a small package of Oreos, the door to the gas station exploded.
Leena screamed. Two man ran into the building with nylon masks on their heads. Leena instantly threw herself to the floor and rolled next to the shelf. She shut her eyes tightly and held her breath. “Oh por favor, not now! Not this! I need to see my Carlos!” She clasped her hands together and started praying as hard as she could. “Please let me see him! Please let me have one last moment with him! Please, I’ll do anything! Please let me get through this!” Leena whispered vehemently to herself.
“Hey! Give us all the money you got in the cash drawer! Now! Hurry! Get that money!” One of the men yelled loudly at the attendant. Leena could hear the man at the register opening the register. “Ye-ye-yes! Take it all! Please don’t shoot me! I have a young son at home! Here, here’s all the money! Take it! Please! No, please don't shoot me!”
“Hurry up asshole! Give me all the money! I know you got bigger bills than this under that drawer! All of it! Hurry up! Yo - go watch outside for the cops! Go man!”
Leena could hear footsteps walking around the store. It was the second man. Glass crunched under his feet. He was still over by the door and Leena was a couple aisles over. No more glass crunching now. Leena felt as if he was getting closer. Leena pulled her hands over her head and curled herself even more into a fetal position. What will happen to Carlos if she didn’t show up? What would he think? Please don’t let them find her! Would anyone even know where she was? Please let these guys leave soon! A million thoughts flew through Leena’s mind in that moment. The footsteps came closer. Leena squeezed her eyes shut even tighter. Suddenly, she felt a hot shadow over her.
"Ohhh ho ho. What have we got here? GET UP! NOW!" The second man grabbed Leena's hair and pulled her up. Pain ripped at the base of her neck. Leena stifled another scream.
"Wooo-weee. What have we got here? Such a pretty little thing, what you doing out this time of night all alone?" The second man breathed hot, stale breathe into Leena's face. He smelled her hair.
"Hey! Dude, what the hell? Was she in here? Shit, shit, shit!" The first man called out to the second man. "Just leave her. She can't see us! Don't make anymore of a scene man!"
"Awwww Bobby, we can have ourselves a little fun! She can go with us! Come on babe! Move it!" BANG! BANG! The first man shot his gun up towards the ceiling.
"I said leave her. She's seen us; now she can ID us! Get her down! You! Get down on the floor! NOW!" The first man came over and yelled in Leena's face. She instantly dropped to the floor and covered her head again. He slammed his gun upside the head of his companion.
"Ple-please. Don't hurt me. I'm not from here. Please." Leena's voice wavered in terror. She closed her eyes, but not as tightly
"Oh, don't worry babe, you won't even know what hit you." The first man cocked his gun. Leena felt her tears roll down her face. Goodbye Carlos. Te amo amor.
* * * * *
Several weeks later. 7:47 AM. Carlos awoke to the phone ringing. In his dark mood, he rummaged around for the land-line and found it on the floor next to his bed. His head was pounding.
He'd been so hopeful. So happy and excited. But Leena had never shown up. He waited up until late that first night and nothing. He tried to call her at home, but even her parents' landline was disconnected. Leena hadn't even called him back. Why? Why didn't she come? Carlos rubbed his hands over his face.
His heart hurt so much still. When would it stop? Leena had made her decision. Carlos had been given no choice. He wasn't even sure if he was something he did because he couldn't even get in contact with her.
"Hell-oo? Yeah?" Carlos' brain was still fuzzy from the night before with all the alcohol he'd imbibed.
Silence on the other end. "Look, whoever is there! Stop playing these games and stop calling me! Please! Leave me be!"
There was a soft groan on the other end and a sniffle. "Hello!? Seriously! HELLO??" Carlos was about to slam the phone back on its receiver.
"Carlos--" A quiet voice startled. "Carlitos, m'hijo. It's Roberto."
Carlos stopped and quieted down. "Mr. Silvio, Señor. ¿Cómo está usted? I been trying to get ahold of Leena. Your phone wasn't working?"
"Carlos." Sniffle. "I have some terrible news to tell you. Please sit down and stop what you are doing. It's pretty serious." Carlos sat up in his bed. "Okay, I'm listening. Is Leena there? Where is she? Why didn't she show up two weeks ago? Has she met someone--" Roberto interrupted Carlos.
"No, m'hijo. No. None of that. It's just--God. This is so hard."
It was then that Carlos knew something had happened to Leena. He didn't know how he knew, whether it was the tone of Mr. Silvio's voice, the sniffling, or just a premonition.
"Tell me. Please. Tell me, what happened to Leena?... She isn't there, is she?"
A breath. More sniffling. "No Carlitos. No, Leena isn't with us anymore..." Silence and a long pause. "Carlos, two weeks ago, she did drive up to see you. That was the plan. We aren't sure what happened--" Carlos heard his voice break. He sucked in a quick breath.
"Lo siento. Ahem. We received a phone call this morning from the Fresno Area Police. Two weeks ago, you remember that robbery gone bad in Fresno?"
Carlos suddenly felt very cold. He was so cold, chilled to the bone instantly. "Yes. I remember. The one where the attendant and another were killed." Carlos realized where this was going and felt tears pooling in his eyes. "That was her, wasn't it? The other body in the gas station, it was Leena."
On the other end of the landline, Roberto began to cry quietly. "Sí. It was our--our beautiful Leena. It was her! They-they-they killed her. Ayy Dios!" Carlos could feel nothing at this moment. His Leena was gone. That was why she never showed up. She couldn't. Carlos closed his eyes and laid back in the bed.
"We just received the news this morning because her wallet wasn't found until late last night. Al parecer, apparently, it fell under the aisle she was next to. Ayy Dios, why? Why our beautiful Leena? Why did he have to take her earlier?"
Carlos' ears perked up. "Mr. Silvio, wait. What do you mean, 'Why did he have to take her earlier?' She was supposed to live a long life! With me!" Tears rolled down his face uncontrollably.
"Ayyy m'hijo. I'm sorry. I assumed you knew." Roberto took a deep breath.
"Carlos, Leena was sick for the last year. She was coming to see you to say goodbye because she knew her time was coming to an end quickly."
Carlos froze. "What? Leena was sick? How? Why? Wait, why didn't she tell me? How long did she know? What was she sick with? Tell me por favor, Mr. Silvio. Please."
"Carlos, Leena was sick for the last year. She had Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia and the treatments were no longer working. She wanted to see you before the summer because she didn't think she would make it before you came home. Ohh Dios. She loved you so much, Carlos. She knew the summer when you left and didn't want to tell you. She never wanted to take away your dream of college and knew how important it was. She knew you needed to get your life together for your sisters. Ohh mi niña, how much we loved you!" Roberto cried on the other end of the phone.
"Ayyy m'hijo. We're holding a-- a gathering for Leena next weekend to say goodbye. Please, we'd really like to see--to see you there." Another sniffle. A minute later, the phone call dropped.
Carlos laid in his bed. He curled himself into a fetal position. He couldn't say anything, couldn't think. He would never get to see her beautiful face again. He didn't go home for Christmas. She had asked him to, but he didn't. How selfish was he! That would have been his last chance to be with her. Oh his poor Leena. She'd needed him and he wasn't there for her.
* * * * *
Carlos made it to Leena's funeral. He didn't say much but was glad that he was able to make it. Leena's family had sort of taken him in after his parents died and he needed to be there for them. After the funeral, Leena's mother gathered up some things of Leena's for Carlos to have, including pictures of the two of them. She'd put the little knick knacks and pictures into a lovely box; now the box sat in his room next to his bed.
Later on, he worked longer hours at the sub shop, studied his heart out. He passed all his final exams and soon the heat of the summer was here. He didn't go home like all his friends; instead he stayed in his little apartment, with plans to find a bigger place. The summer semester term was about to begin.
He wanted Leena to be proud of him. He would get his sisters back soon. He couldn't let them be away any longer, especially after Leena's death. He knew that family needed to stick together. Her death amazingly gave him strength to rethink his life. He couldn't be away from his sisters. They would be moving up to be with him at the end of the summer. He needed to be there for them. After talking to his professors, and having them understand what he was going through, many agreed that he could drop to part-time and would still finish college, but at a slower pace than he originally planned. It was okay. This was a sacrifice he would willingly make now.
To some, college was a way to mature and grow up into adulthood, and leaving would be a huge sacrifice. For Carlos, it wasn't a sacrifice. It was another way to live. He would get that degree eventually, perhaps just later. In the meantime, he would honor Leena's memory by being with his family. Like he was always meant to be.