"Seriously, Shy. Get up."
Shy rolled over on his cot.
"Don't make me smack you upside the head."
Shy cracked open his eyes.
Big Rodney was standing over him, hands on hips.
Shy looked around their small cabin as reality came flooding back: no sleeve in his hands. This, a completely different voyage--bound for Hawaii, not Mexico. The man jumped six days ago, meaning it'd been almost a full week now.
"I know you didn't forget, right?" Rodney said.
"Forget what?" Shy sat up and rubbed his eyes. He knew this answer would stress Rodney out, though--because everything stressed Rodney out--so he smiled and told the guy: "I'm playing, man. Of course I didn't forget. You see I'm already dressed, right?"
"I was gonna say." Rodney ducked into the bathroom, came back out with an electric toothbrush buzzing over his teeth, mumbling something impossible to make out.
Shy got out of bed and went to his dresser, pulled a brown paper bag from behind the safe he never bothered using.
Tonight was Rodney's nineteenth birthday. A bunch of people were supposed to celebrate on the crew deck outside of Southside Lounge. When Shy's shift at the pool ended at nine he'd come down to his and Rodney's cabin to shower and change, but he wound up crashing hard. This was a minor miracle considering he'd hardly slept the night before. Or the night before that. Or the night before . . .
He peeped the clock: already after eleven.
Rodney ducked back into the bathroom to spit, came out wiping his mouth with a hand towel. Guy was surprisingly nimble for an offensive lineman. "I said, you were thrashing around in your sleep, bro. You dreaming about the jumper again?"
"I was dreaming about your mom," Shy told him.
"Oh, I see how it is. We got a second comedian on the ship."
The suicide might have happened six days ago, on a completely different voyage, but every time Shy had closed his eyes since . . . there was the comb-over man. Sipping from his water bottle or talking about corruption or climbing his ass over the railing--guy's meaty arm slowly slipping through Shy's sissy grip.
Even worse, halfway through the dream the man's face would sometimes morph into Shy's grandma's face. Her eyes slowly filling with blood from her freakish disease.
Shy tossed the paper bag to Rodney.
"Bro, you got me a present?" Rodney said. "What is it?"
"What do you want it to be?"
Rodney studied the ceiling and tapped his temple, like he was thinking. Then he pointed at Shy, told him: "How about a beautiful woman in lingerie?"
Shy gave an exaggerated laugh. "What, you think I'm some kind of miracle worker?"
"I'm playing, bro," Rodney said. "She doesn't have to be beautiful. You know I'm not picky."
Shy pointed at the bag. "Just open it."
Rodney unfolded the top and pulled out the book Shy got him: Daisy Cooks! Latin Flavors That Will Rock Your World.
"They had it in the gift shop," Shy told him.
Rodney flipped it over to look at the back.
"If you're gonna be a famous chef," Shy added, "you need to know how to do tamales and empanadas. Me and Carmen could be like your test audience."
Rodney looked up at Shy with glassy eyes.
The gift proved Shy remembered their first conversation on their first voyage together. When Rodney mentioned his dream of becoming a New York City chef.
"Come on over here, bro," Rodney said, holding out his arms.
"Nah, I'm good," Shy told him, moving toward the door. Rodney was an enthusiastic hugger who didn't understand his own strength. And Shy wasn't the touchy-feely type.
"I mean it, Shy. Come give your boy some love."
Shy went for the door handle instead, saying: "We need to hurry and get you to your party--"
Rodney grabbed him by the arm and reeled him in for a bear hug. Shy imagined this was what it might feel like to be squeezed to death by a Burmese python.
"You're a good friend," Rodney said, his voice cracking with emotion. "I mean it, Shy. When I become a world-famous chef and they put me on one of those morning TV shows to do a demonstration . . . Watch, I'm gonna name a dish after my Mexican compadre. How about the Shy Soufflé?"
Shy would've come up with some crack about Rodney having more of a face for radio, but he couldn't think straight. Rodney was cutting off all the oxygen to his brain.
Crew Within a Crew
Shy and Rodney sat down at a table on the crowded balcony where Carmen, Kevin and Marcus were guarding a stack of steaming pizza boxes.
"Took you long enough," Marcus said.
Rodney pointed at Shy. "Talk to him. He was having another nightmare about that guy he saw jump."
Shy stared at Rodney. Guy was crying over a cookbook not fifteen minutes ago. Now he wanted to call people out for nightmares?
Carmen opened the top box, said: "They just dropped these off for you, Rod. Happy birthday, big boy."
"Happy birthday," they all echoed.
Rodney thanked everyone with an over-the-table hug and slid the first slice onto his paper plate. Then he took a second and third.
The smell of pepperoni and cheese hit Shy so hard he barely had time to drool over Carmen. His stomach growled as he reached into the box with everyone else. He dotted off the extra grease with a napkin, folded the thick slice as best he could and took a sideways bite.
There were two crew lounges on board, one on each end of the ship, but this was their favorite. The Southside Lounge.
Paying passengers had every amenity imaginable. Luxury spas and pools. Multiple full-service casinos. Five-star restaurants. Dance clubs. Theaters. Gourmet food stations that stayed open all night. But the real action was down here on the crew level. At around midnight, once most of the work shifts had ended, there were parties up and down the halls, in the bars, spilling out of the lounges. A mix of good-looking young folks from all over the globe.
It was especially crowded tonight because it was the beginning of a brand-new voyage. No one was burned out yet, and there were plenty of fresh female faces to scope out--Shy's favorite pastime. The tables were all overflowing. Everyone drinking and talking and laughing. Playing poker. A group of Japanese girls were at the bar doing shots. A few Brazilians moved their sweet hips to the reggae beat against the far wall.
An older black man Shy remembered from his first voyage sat by himself near the railing, writing in a leather notebook. Hair gray and wild. Braided chin beard. He looked like some kind of black Einstein, or a terrorist--but all he did on the ship was shine shoes.
It was kind of weird having some old dude on the crew, but Shy doubted kids his own age had the shoeshining skill set.
Two Thousand Dollars Richer
As everyone else discussed their few days away from the ship, Shy thought about one of his own recent birthdays. Couple years back his mom and sis and grandma had taken him to a college hoop game. At halftime they called out three seat numbers, asked the people sitting in those seats to proceed down to the court level for a chance to win prizes. Shy couldn't believe it when his sis pointed out he was sitting in one of the lucky spots.
He made his way down to the hardwood with the two other contestants, stood in front of the packed arena as the emcee explained the rules. Each of them would shoot a layup, a free throw, a three-pointer and a half-court shot. If you made one shot you got a gift certificate for Pizza Hut. Two shots got you free tickets to the next home game. Three, a suite for you and five guests. If you made all four shots, including the one from half-court, you got a two-thousand-dollar savings bond from the bank that sponsored the arena.
The first shooter was an old dude with tufts of gray hair popping out of his ears. He missed every shot.
The second shooter was a short-haired mannish-looking chick in Timberlands. She made the layup and the free throw.
Then it was Shy's turn.
He laid the ball in off the glass and then buried the free throw with quickness. He sank the three, all net, and listened to the crowd begin to stir. As Shy dribbled out to half-court, the emcee announced: "If this young man can make one last shot from half-court, ladies and gentlemen, he'll go home tonight two thousand dollars richer!"
Shy stood a few steps behind the half-court line, looking up into the crowd. A bunch of folks were on their feet, cheering. A rush like no other. He spotted his mom and sis clapping, his grams leaning over the railing, snapping photos he knew would end up in one of her famous scrapbooks. He pulled in a deep breath, then turned to the distant hoop, took a dribble and a couple quick strides and heaved the ball from down near his waist.
He watched the rock sail through the air in super slo-mo. Watched it smack off the backboard and go straight through.
The crowd erupted.
The bank sponsor came out to half-court and presented Shy with an oversized check. Two Gs. Shy held it up, almost laughing. Because nothing like this was supposed to happen to some anonymous kid like him. He was just a dude from down by the border. Didn't they know?
Shy reached for a second slice, still buzzing off the memory. He wondered how long before his laughter might make a comeback. He'd never admit it to anyone, but seeing a guy fall from the ship had sort of messed something up in his head. Shit was hard to process.
He took a bite and decided he should scan the balcony again, see if there were any new females as fine as Carmen. It was a little game he sometimes played. He was only half finished when he realized Kevin was staring at him from across the table.
"What's up?" Shy asked.
"We need to talk," Kevin said in his subtle Australian accent. "Soon as you're done eating."
"I still gotta close down Lido," Shy told him. The pool area was his final responsibility for the night.
"I'll close it with you, then."
Shy shrugged and took another bite of pizza. It was strange to see Kevin so eager to talk. They didn't work together, though, so Shy didn't see how he could be in trouble.
He watched Rodney hold up a fresh slice and say: "You know who made this for us, right?" He pointed a thumb back at himself. "Head chef comes to me right as I'm clocking out, says, 'Oh, I'm sorry, Rodney. We just got an order for four pies. It'd really help out if you could get them in the oven before you leave.' Bro, I had my apron off and everything."
"And you actually did it?" Marcus said.
Rodney shrugged. "No choice."
"Damn," Carmen said, looking to Shy. "They had your boy prepare his own birthday dinner."
"Wish they had him deliver it, too," Shy said. "Then we could've stiffed his ass on the tip."
They all cracked up some, even Rodney, who said: "Speaking of tips, tell everyone what the jumper slipped you before he hopped in the soup."
Shy reached into his uniform pocket, held up a hundred-dollar bill. "Forgot all about it till we boarded today."
Rodney shook his head and pulled another slice. "I was like, what'd you do, bro? Give the guy a happy ending?"
"Just a bottle of water," Shy said, staring at the comb-over man's money. Technically, the crew wasn't supposed to accept tips. But that never stopped anyone. This tip seemed different, though. Like it'd be messed up to spend it on some dumb shit.
Carmen held out an open palm, told him: "Might as well hand it over, vato. That's exactly how much you owe me for being your friend."
Shy made like he was placing the money in her hand, but the second her manicured fingers started curling around the bill, he snatched it back and shoved it in his pocket. "Gotta be quick," he told her.
Carmen made a face and pinched the back of his arm.
Shy felt better when he noticed Kevin laughing with everyone else. Whatever he wanted to talk about couldn't be that big a deal.
"Lemme get this straight," Marcus said, wiping his hands on a paper towel. "If you would've just peeped the tip right away, you could've saved this cat's life?"
"How you figure that?" Shy asked.
"I'm saying, someone slips me a Franklin, my ass goes on high alert."
"Maybe I'm just good at what I do." Shy shot him a sarcastic grin.
"Not," Carmen said.
"Yeah, okay." Marcus laughed and bit into his pizza slice.
"Some passengers just like to tip like that," Kevin said. "They wanna impress everybody."
"I got tipped fifty for adjusting a karaoke mike," Carmen said. "Two voyages ago."
"Man or woman?" Rodney said.
"You know all these rich white dudes got a warm spot for you, Carm. You're like their jalapeño chalupa fantasy."
Carmen reached across Shy and slugged Rodney in the shoulder. It was impossible for Shy not to stare at her shirt riding up her beautiful brown back.
"Shoot," Marcus said, "fifty seems kind of high for the Mexican platter."
Carmen grabbed a piece of crust out of the half-empty pizza box and heaved it at his head. Marcus ducked in time, though, and the crust went sailing over the railing, into the Pacific. "I guess chicken and waffles are supposed to be fine dining," she said.
"Compared to a bowl of wack taco salad?"
Everybody was cracking up now, including, Shy noticed, the group of Swedish crew members at the next table over.
"For the record," Rodney said, "everyone here is the fine-dining version. Look around you, bro. Paradise only hires attractive people."
Shy watched them all sort of glance around the table at each other. They didn't need to, though. Rodney had it right. Pretty much everyone on the crew was attractive, especially the group Shy kicked it with.
Kevin was a rugged, outdoorsy Australian. Messy blond hair and three-day stubble. At twenty-two he was the oldest and most worldly at the table. When he wasn't mixing martinis on a Paradise cruise ship, he was posing for pictures all over Europe as an underwear model.
Copyright © 2013 by Matt de la Pena. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.