It had been a long, exhausting week, but Leo was filled with energy as he worked his last shift at the Apple Store. He swayed and sang along with the holiday music—the same ones repeated every couple of hours—and even smiled at the customers when he usually scowled behind their backs, annoyed with their frenzied holiday cheer. Where’s the latest model? What are the features? How much is this? Does it come with that? He’d answered the same questions over and over, he was beginning to sound like a robot—stilted speech, mechanical gestures.
Crowds made Leo claustrophobic. He’d much rather be in the back, away from people, fixing machines. But he was in a good mood today, crowds and long hours be damned. In two days he would be flying home to Lima for a three-week vacation. Home, he thought, though he’d been a New Yorker most of his life.
He scanned the space by the entrance; all employees must be on the lookout for theft this time of year. Nothing suspicious, but Leo made his way to the entrance just the same. A tangled ball of tinsel lay cheerless on the floor, and he bent over to pick it up. Then his eyes flicked toward a pair of long brown boots, scuffed, slim legs peeking through ripped jeans. He rose back up. The girl with the brown boots and ripped jeans smiled at him.
“You work here?” she asked.
“Mm-hm.” Leo admired her black leather motorcycle jacket, distressed in places. “How can I help you?”
“I got an alert. My MacBook’s ready?”
“Lemme check. Come with me.” Leo waved for her to follow him to the back. “So, any fun plans for the holiday?” He employed his usual customer service chit-chat, though this time felt more genuine than most other times.
“I don’t know yet…” Her voice sounded far away, unreachable. Leo’s heart softened. He turned around to take stock of her face—full lips, springy hair, eyes like a giraffe’s, wild and gentle all at once. “Sticking around here, I guess.” She stuffed her hands inside her pockets as if grounding herself in place.
“It’s not a bad thing,” he said, trying to be upbeat. “There’s lots to do in the city. I’m going to Peru this year, though.” He smiled, though he tried to contain his excitement and hoped he didn’t sound like he was rubbing it in her face.
“Wow, really?” Her face brightened, and it surprised Leo that it mattered to him.
“Yep. Visiting family in Lima.” They reached the back of the store to the Genius Bar. “Name, please?” Leo asked as he tapped away on an iPad.
“Priscilla. How long are you staying there?”
“Three weeks. Laporte?”
“Mm-hm, that’s me.”
“ID? Need to make sure it’s really you and not some hardened criminal. Cuz you definitely look like one.” Leo hoped his tone was clever and funny.
“Sure.” Priscilla fished around in her bag for her wallet and thumbed through her cards. As she handed Leo her license, she scowled and pointed to her face, then relaxed her features. “Yeah, I’ve been told I have the face of a criminal.” She laughed, then leaned her elbow on the bar and cradled her face in her hand. “Wish I could go to Peru…” There was that wistful voice again, but only for a breath. “So, is everyone here a genius?” She tilted her chin toward the Genius Bar sign.
“Oh, that’s just marketing.” Leo looked up after noting her age; Priscilla was twenty. “But yeah, most of the time we can fix your devices. Some of us aren’t good with much else, though.”
“What else are you good at—” Priscilla squinted her eyes at his badge— “Leo? I mean, what else do you like to do?”
“Oh.” Leo glanced down at his shirt feeling exposed somehow, though he didn’t mind. “Hmm… soccer? That and climbing. And drawing. Just doodles, though.” He tapped a fellow genius on the shoulder who was on his way to the storage room, then turned back to Priscilla. “Jacob’s going to grab your MacBook.”
“Thanks. Me too, I like soccer. Well, I used to play when I was a kid.”
“Yeah. In Haiti. I guess that was a long time ago.”
She nodded. “Moved here when I was twelve.”
“I moved here when I was nine. From Lima.”
“Ah. We’re two of a kind, then.”
Leo smiled. “Are we?” Her brown eyes were mesmerizing, he wished Jacob would take a long time to get back so he could gaze at her face a while longer. “What happened there?” He nodded to a spot above her eyebrow, to a jagged scar. He was never this bold with anyone. The scar seemed fresh, it was still red and imprinted with stitches.
“Oh, this?” Priscilla touched her scar and her cheeks flushed, her lips forming a self-conscious smile. Her left cheek dimpled, and for a second she looked like a child. “I slipped on the ice and hit a rock when I fell. Just got the stitches out yesterday. It looks worse than it is.”
Her phone rang, and she jolted upright. She gestured an apology and turned away to check who was calling. “Alo Papa. Wi. Byen. Ah, non. Demen? Okay, cool. Cool. Na wè pita. Babay.” She hung up and turned back to face Leo. “My dad,” she shrugged.
“Ah. So you speak French?”
Priscilla nodded. “As Haitians do,” she lied a little, too lazy to explain the difference between French and Haitian Creole.
“Right, right.” He nodded as well, though he was clueless on the matter.
Priscilla stared at her phone a moment, her face crimped in deliberation. Sighing, she slipped her phone in the back pocket of her jeans. “Do you think you’re free, Leo?”
“Um…” Leo tilted his head. “My shift’s not over, so, no. Not yet.” He laughed, trying to alleviate his nerves.
“I mean… do you ever wonder whether we’re really free? What does freedom mean to you?” Her face was earnest.
Leo’s nerves sparked. He didn’t normally have this sort of conversation with customers. “I think… I think freedom is a choice we make. It’s a state of mind, no?”
“But do you feel trapped sometimes? Do you feel like… no matter what you do, no matter what you choose, it ends up being a trap?”
Priscilla’s voice echoed in his head like a dewdrop falling slow-motion inside a cave. He was no longer at the store with shoppers milling about, the bright smell of technology spiking the air. In his mind, a gate had flung open and Leo stumbled inside a place where instincts were unburied. “I—”
“Okay, here’s that MacBook for Priscilla… Laporte?” Jacob slid next to Leo and set the laptop on the counter.
Priscilla laced her fingers together and turned her attention to Jacob. “Oh nice. All fixed?”
“Yep,” Jacob said. “You just had a loose connection, not a biggie. Leo already told you?”
Leo and Priscilla exchanged a quick glance while Jacob booted Priscilla’s laptop.
“Mm-hm,” Priscilla nodded.
“Okay, we’ll just get you logged in, make sure everything’s working fine. Leo here can help you with all that and take care of the rest.” Jacob patted Leo’s back and stood watch as Leo worked.
Leo cleared his throat. “Looks like everything’s working just fine,” he said after Priscilla logged in, a sudden formality in his voice. “Make sure all your apps are on there, all your files, nothing’s missing or wonky.”
“Everything looks good. Thanks!”
“Just give us a call if you run into any issues or if you have any questions.” Leo smiled, though it felt stiff. “Here’s your license back.”
“Not a problem. Enjoy the rest of your day!”
“Um, okay, you too!” Priscilla started walking away, but stopped after a couple of steps and turned around. “Have fun in Peru! I’m very jealous, just so you know.” She smiled then went on her way.
Leo followed her with his eyes until she disappeared through the exit.
Sticky sweet smells of fruit cake—panetón—and spiced hot chocolate wafted through pockets of Jorge Chávez Airport. Leo followed the scent of Christmas in Peru. At the entrance of one of the shops, a large mechanical Santa Claus stood waving a hand at regular intervals, in sync with the robotic sound of Ho! Ho! Ho! The store next to it showcased a nativity scene with illuminated characters of random scale and variety—three wise men on alpacas with red Santa hats, a baby Jesus larger than Mary or Joseph, a black sheep, a white angel, and palm trees beside snow-capped Christmas trees. Leo laughed to himself, then walked toward a bakery and bought a slice of panetón.
When he was younger, Leo visited Peru with his family every year, usually during Christmas season when it was summertime there. He had not visited the country in seven years, not since he’d attended his uncle’s wedding when he was fifteen. He had fallen in love with the most beautiful girl then. A girl three years older who turned out to be his second cousin, though he didn’t find out until after they’d kissed and he swore he’d bring her to America where they would get married one day. She’d gotten married two years after that, according to his other cousins, and now had three children. Rosalinda is not beautiful anymore, primo, his cousins told him. She’s now frumpy and mean, and besides, she moved to Puerto Rico with her husband’s family. She had gone to America after all.
But his mind was not stuck on Rosalinda. For the past two days, Leo had been thinking about the girl at the store. Priscilla. He wondered about her life, her thoughts, what it was like to be with a girl like that. As a friend? An acquaintance? As someone, he simply knew from around? No—he wondered what it would be like to crawl inside her mind, slip into her skin, know her, be inside her.
He wished he’d had a chance to finish his conversation with her, to see her smile, then frown, to see her eyes glitter, then downcast, then excited again, pondering over things he never pondered about with anyone.
“León! León!” Leo’s uncle stuck out his head and was waving his arm from inside his red SUV. Leo perked up, hopped off the curb, and zigzagged through bands of just-landed tourists and locals and two lanes of cars.
“Tío!” Leo called out as his uncle rushed to grip him into a bone-crushing hug.
When Tío Nestor finally freed Leo, he stood back and eyed his nephew up and down. “Asu mare! Look at you—you’re a man!” Leo was broad-shouldered and half a foot taller than him. Tío Nestor smiled and patted Leo’s back. “Okay, vámonos! Your papito and mamita and your cousins and everyone are excited to see you back home.”
Leo hoisted his backpack and luggage into the SUV. “Sí, vámonos!”
Home had always meant Peru. Most of Leo’s family still lived in the country, and the year before, his parents decided to go back after closing down their slow-trickling cleaning business in New York. His sister, meanwhile, was in Singapore working for a start-up she couldn’t seem to take a break from. But while he was excited to come home to the familiar sights and sounds of his childhood, to be surrounded by the people who loved him most, an unrecognizable part of him was stirring and wished to be back in New York. It unsettled him, knowing it had everything to do with a girl he barely knew. But Leo tried to dismiss it as a simple crush that would soon fade away, even as he mulled over her words like a mantra: We’re two of a kind.
Someone dumped more causa onto his plate—his cousin Ana. “Since you’re here, gringo, should we try turkey for Nochebuena? Like in America?” she teased. “Or stick with lechón?”
Leo eyed her as if she were out of her mind. “Turkey? No no. Lechón!”
Carolers interrupted their dinner for the second time that night, and his aunt opened the door to welcome a cheery band of kids with their makeshift drums and tambourines, hoping to earn treats and money. Ten days until Nochebuena. Leo knew the drill: carolers, chocolatadas, and bone-rattling fireworks that put the fear of God in everyone, religious or not.
On the way to the house earlier, a firecracker—certainly illegal—exploded like a bomb underneath Tío Nestor’s car. Leo thought that was that, his card was up, and this was how he was going to die. Tío Nestor didn’t even flinch.
Leo picked at his food. Amid the carolers’ off-tune villancicos, his thoughts wandered back to Priscilla. Where was she now, what was she doing? In another life he would’ve taken her to Peru with him—watch the glittering lights along Plaza San Martín, trek through the jungles, hike up the mountains. He shook off his thoughts, irritated with his daydreams.
Lying in the dark, Leo laughed. His bed must be at least a hundred years old; it was the same single bed he’d slept in since he was little, transferred from his parents’ old house, and before then, who knows? He was bunking with his teenaged cousins, Mario and Javier, now asleep on the bedroom floor. Thirsty, Leo got up, tiptoed toward the door, and made his way out toward the kitchen.
The house was so dark, so quiet. The pop of firecrackers had died down. As Leo’s eyes adjusted, he caught a glimmer of light tracing the outline of the door to the courtyard. He walked toward it, sparked by a sudden desire to look up at the sky and breathe in the night air. But when he reached it, the door opened by itself. Floating just beyond, as if in the middle of a haze, Priscilla sat on a couch wearing an oversized hoodie over pajamas, bleary-eyed, tapping away on her phone.
I can’t do this anymore. I wish I were stronger. I wish I didn’t need him.
She paused her fingers in mid-air, pondered a moment, then deleted some of her words.
I can’t do this anymore.
She stared at her phone, then pulled the edge of her sleeve and wiped the corner of her eye. She tilted her head toward the ceiling and took in a breath that seemed to rattle her lungs. Looking at her phone again, she exhaled slowly, her mouth open as if to whistle. Then she deleted everything she had written, and her text to a friend went unsent.
Leo woke to the sound of music blaring and a rooster crowing next door. How his cousins could still be asleep when the neighbors were going about as if it weren’t barely seven in the morning stumped him. Then he remembered being a teen—always sleepy, always hungry, always too much. Though there was no time difference between New York and Lima this time of year, Leo was bone-tired. He thought about skipping the daytime activities to stay home, get more rest, more sleep. Besides, there was another dinner party to attend in the evening, in Miraflores, where his wealthy cousins lived.
Javier and Mario stirred; they were waking. “I smell food.” Javier yawned and stretched his arms above his head. Mario smacked his brother on the shoulder. “Why’d you do that?” Javier groaned and shoved him back.
“You yawn like a gorilla,” Mario grunted.
In a moment, the brothers stumbled out of the bedroom, shoving each other through the door, and followed their stomachs to the dining room.
By mid-morning, everyone had left to run errands or go to church, as was the case with Leo’s mother and aunt. Though much of the breakfast conversation centered around convincing Leo to go out with the rest of the family (why not, what’s wrong, are you sick, m’ijo?), in the end, they dropped the matter, though not without a great show of grievance. He reassured them he was simply tired and hoped to shore up his energy for the evening’s festivities.
Leo lay on the ancient bed, thankful for a moment of solitude. He turned to where he left off in the book he’d picked up at the airport. But soon his eyes grew heavy, words started falling off the page, and Leo drifted to sleep.
It wasn’t long before the sound of firecrackers woke him, though the sound was muffled, as if he were still dreaming. He got up to close the windows and turn on the air conditioner while he peeled off his sweat-soaked shirt.
Standing in the middle of the room, Leo rubbed his eyes and squinted at the door. It glowed along the seams. Then slowly, the door opened. What’s happening? Leo thought. Am I dreaming?
In the middle of the haze, Leo saw Priscilla once more. She was sitting in a café with a friend, and Leo watched as she swiped through Instagram photos on her phone.
“Ooh… he’s cute,” Priscilla’s friend said, pointing to a slick photo of a man with perfect teeth, perfect hair, perfect abs it seemed, from the way it rippled underneath his tight shirt.
Priscilla scrunched her face. “I guess. If you’re into that.”
“Oh yeah, I’m definitely into that,” her friend nodded. Priscilla nudged her, and they giggled like seventh graders.
Just then a man in a black leather jacket walked in and lined up to order. He had the same look, the same air—a staged ruggedness—as the man in the photo they were ogling. Priscilla tucked in her chin, trying to hide that she was watching him. Her friend poked her, and again the impish laughter.
“So,” Priscilla’s friend pivoted to a more somber tone, picking up on an earlier conversation. “What do you want to do?”
Priscilla shrugged and shook her head, then gazed at the ceiling as if looking for answers there. “I just… I can’t just do whatever I want, Trish. I make peanuts translating part-time, I can’t afford to leave Lance. And now my dad’s moving back to France with his girlfriend. Where would I go?”
“A-hem! You could stay with me, you know.”
“You’re broke and you live with your parents. No thank you.”
“Hey, we could make it work.”
“Short-term, maybe. But I need a plan. The thing is, I don’t think I know what I want…”
“Oh, hon…” Trish draped her arm around Priscilla and leaned her head on her shoulder. “You’ll find what you’re looking for soon enough. You’re barely legal drinking age yet so don’t worry about it.” Her eyes sparked, and she sat upright. “Hey, take out a loan! Go back to college! Travel! Get into debt like the rest of us. You’ve got lots of time.”
“I’m already in debt. And I feel like I’m fifty. I’m just… tired.”
“I know, hon. You’ve gone through a lot in the past couple of years. It’s okay to just rest. Don’t plan. Don’t think. Just breathe.”
Priscilla sighed. “I miss her…”
Leo was in a daze during dinner, though aunts and uncles and cousins clamored around him, eager to know about his glamorous life in New York. (Do you see famous people all the time? Are you dating a model?) He was excited to see them as well, but Leo strained to focus on the present; his skin prickled whenever his mind wandered to the door in his dreams—were they dreams?—and to Priscilla.
Though he had no recollection of it, he’d been told he used to sleepwalk when he was little. Now Leo reminded himself of this old tendency and used it to sow doubt in his mind about the things he had seen.
But Priscilla was real. She was real, and when he got back to New York, he would plant himself in her path. And he would know why she was calling him to her.
That night, after staring in the dark for hours at the bedroom door, willing for it to illuminate and open, Leo finally gave in to sleep. In the morning, he woke up frustrated and disappointed—no door, no dream, no Priscilla.
The next night was the same, and the next night after that.
During the day, he went along with family to their many outings. Though he was glad for the distraction, Leo had hoped to try napping at noon to see if that did the trick—maybe the door only opened at certain times. Maybe only on certain days. Perhaps only on a full moon? But the full moon has yet to come; he had not yet figured out a pattern.
One day, while wandering through the mall with his cousins, Leo spotted a black leather jacket in a store window. A racing jacket, like the one he’d seen on the man Priscilla had admired at the café. He was on a budget, but no matter the cost, he told himself, it would be his one splurge.
Somehow he would find her, Leo resolved. They would meet again.
A week had passed and the door to Priscilla had not opened for Leo. He tried to push aside thoughts of her, wanting to enjoy the company of family and friends, the food, the girls at the bars and clubs who whispered in his ears in Spanglish and who set his skin on fire with their flirtatious touch.
Three nights before Nochebuena, Leo and some cousins and friends took their festivities to Barranco. They bar-hopped along the trendy beach town, drinking and dancing and walking along the beach while eating the most delicious sánguche de chicharrón Leo had ever tasted. “Oe! Try this! Have a bite!” he called out, inebriated, to the girls who walked by.
It wasn’t until the sun broke through the sky that they finally made their way home. Leo throbbed in places he hadn’t felt before, all the spaces between his ribs, the little bones of his feet and toes, the sinews of his face. He was wrecked. Back at the house, he dragged himself into the bedroom, fell on the bed, and slept the day away.
It was dark when Leo awoke. His throat was a desert that sucked all the moisture from his now-sandpaper tongue. He looked down and saw that he hadn’t changed his clothes. He got up, felt his matted hair, and scrunched his face.
Leo lumbered into the kitchen and drank a tall glass of water. The house was quiet; no one else was home. He slapped his forehead—ah, the Mendozas’ party! Then he shrugged and drank another full glass of water.
Odd, the sound of rustling leaves filled his ears as if he were outside and the trees were swaying right above him. His skin prickled. Leo turned toward the courtyard door; it was already open. And in the hazy light beyond was Priscilla.
She was on her computer looking at pictures of a woman, an older version of her, with the same giraffe eyes, soft and mysterious. She laughed at one, then cried at another, her hand reaching out to touch the screen then pulling back to rest on her lips.
“I’m trying, manman,” she whispered. “I don’t want to break my promise. I know you don’t want me to go back, but… just for a little while. I’ll be okay. And I’ll come back here. Please. Please let me go. Don’t be angry with me. I want to stay with granmè for a little while. Just a little short while.”
Leo wanted to turn away but couldn’t. He’d become a statue, feet glued to the floor, eyes unblinking. Watching something so intimate felt like a punishment, a flagellation of guilt and sorrow. Rocks rattled in his stomach. He felt sick, dirty for invading her privacy. He closed his eyes, willing away the pain of her loss, her suffering.
At least fifty people packed his cousin’s house in Miraflores for Nochebuena. Another dozen came and went, dropping by to say hello and bid Christmas greetings. It had always been a point of pride for Leo to be part of a sprawling family, though he was unfamiliar with most of them. But as midnight drew close, the party thinned out with only the closest ties staying put, and after midnight mass, most sauntered back to their respective homes.
Mario and Javier stayed in Miraflores, and Leo was glad to have the bedroom to himself. He shut the windows, drew the blinds, turned on the air conditioner, and inserted ear plugs he’d bought in desperation to muffle the boom of firecrackers; he knew it wouldn’t stop until after the new year. By early afternoon he was alone in the house again, though it wouldn’t be for long. They were hosting the Christmas Day party that evening.
Leo woke from his nap. Sparks crackled through the room, through his fingers, the hairs on his skin. He got up, walked toward the bedroom door and stood in front of it, waiting. The door was glowing, then opened on its own.
When the veil of fog cleared, Leo watched as Priscilla paced around a room, eyes sullen and glistening as she shook her head. She was arguing with her boyfriend. “No, Lance,” she said. “Stop. Let’s not do this.”
Lance’s face wrenched with sadness and confusion. He seemed to Leo a decent person, a good person. Weary, Priscilla sat on the bed and stared at her lap. Lance knelt in front of her and lifted her chin to face him. She turned away then stood up. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I can’t do this anymore,” she said. Then she walked out the door.
Priscilla kept walking, unseeing. She crossed a street without looking where she was going. She was walking so quickly she was almost running.
Leo followed her, tried to catch up to her. He was so close, just behind her. “Stop!” he called out. “Stop! Your mother didn’t know. She didn’t know you were so unhappy. She didn’t know.”
But Priscilla didn’t hear him.
Her eyes were blurry with tears, she couldn’t see where she was going. Leo broke into a run. A truck was driving by. She didn’t see. She wasn’t looking. “Go!” Leo pushed her aside. “Go! Be free…”
Priscilla staggered on the ground, eyes blinking in confusion. A truck honked and roared by her. She looked around. She heard a voice in the wind: Be free.
In Lima, a frightened driver got out and rushed to the front of his van. When he saw what he had done he paced back and forth, clutching at his clothes, his hair. He fell to his knees and wailed, covering his face to hide his shock and confusion and pain. Soon a crowd gathered around the young man on the ground, blood leaking from his nose and mouth and head. He was broken and lifeless, but his lips were parted in a smile, and his face was tranquil.
M. Ocampo McIvor was born in the Philippines, raised in Toronto, Canada, and currently lives in Seattle. After a career in technology, Ocampo McIvor has returned to her roots to follow her calling in literature. Her work has been featured in The Bangalore Review, Burningword Literary, and Rigorous, among others. She is the author of Ugly Things We Hide.