On July 7 at precisely 9:01 p.m., a boundless, unforeseen storm claimed one life, two hearts, and six destinies.
The Southern California skies had been a brilliant blue dappled with wispy threads of white. A warm, easy, splendid kind of day where you’d think nothing could go wrong. Ah, but one’s fate is not always built on solid ground. Andwrong is always a question of perspective. Take, for example, the girl at the center of this tale, Ava Granados. She is stubborn, quick-witted, was born into a mystical family, and, well, she thinks very little of me. Perhaps things would have been different for her if she had afforded me an ounce of respect.
On this summer day, like most days prior, Ava woke early and suffered through SoulCycle with her older sister Carmen. Boring, routine, sweaty. She spent the afternoon making a Pinterest board with monochromatic bedroom ideas and ended up spiraling down a rabbit hole of DIY crafts for the tactically deficient, like tiny shoe pom-poms and rag wreaths.
In two months’ time, she plans to begin her senior year and get a jump- start on college applications. Until then, she is committed to one thing: joyous boredom, much to her father’s consternation. He desperately wants her to go to college nearby and work for the family’s design firm. Raul Granados is always ranting and raving with some version of “Mija, why write about the people doing great things whenyou can be the great one? Look at our firm, right there in Architectural Digest. Eh? Someone wrote aboutus.” He would poke his chest with his thumb as his face lit up brighter than the Virgen’s altar.
Little does Ava know that in precisely five minutes and sixteen seconds, I will launch a lightning rod into her life. Death. Death always gets humans’ attention.
Ava has always hated thinking about death in any capacity. When she was a child, she would pray for all the dead animals’ souls to go to heaven. Then she began to include all the dead insects, because their ends always felt so untimely and unfair. She thought that the only thing those poor creatures had to look forward to was being squished under a shoe or flattened on a windshield.
I almost pity her—hunched over a dim desk, reading the black-and-white memories of strangers. With no idea that her life is about to be derailed in a way she’ll never see coming.
It is 8:16 p.m. now, and Ava is at the LA Times, organizing digital archives. It is her ideal summer internship: words, spines, photographs, paper. An introvert’s paradise.
Fifty-nine seconds to go.
Ava leans over her messy worktable and scans a 1959 photo of some young guy carrying a banner that says marry me. No name, no other descriptors. A seemingly innocuous object. Or is it? She, of course, does not yet realize its significance. She merely looks at the date and thinks it is ironic that it is the same as today. Oh, humans.
She wonders, Did she say yes or no?
And this is all I need to strike the match.
Ava’s cell phone buzzed, and a clap of thunder vibrated her bones. She reached for her phone, turned it over to see her sister’s name on the screen.
Lightning lit up the night sky in great unpredictable flashes. The wind howled violently.
Carmen’s garbled voice was swallowed by static and unceasing gales. Then, in a voice heavy with urgency, “Ava!”
The call was lost.
There was a moment of silence, stillness, nothingness. It was as if the universe had paused to take a breath and ask,What are you going to do now, Ava Granados?
A long shiver crawled up Ava’s legs, and in the space of a single thought,Something is wrong, her phone lit up again. The single buzz prompted the sky to split open and unleash a torrent like Ava had never seen or heard.
“Carmen?” Ava couldn’t control the tremble in her voice. “Is everything okay?”
“Where are you?” Carmen demanded.
A peal of thunder.
“Trying to impress the boss. Where are you?”
“That doesn’t matter.”
“Then why’d you ask me?”
“Why do you always have to be so immature?”
Carmen was twenty, three years older than Ava, but she acted like she was everyone’s mother. She had an opinion about everything under the sun—an opinion no one could count on because it was likely to change by the next moon.
Rain pounded the roof. Lights flickered. The very air seemed to sizzle with an ominous energy that set Ava on edge.
“It’s Nana,” Carmen said. “Dad says this is it . . . as in . . . the end.”
“Is he sure this time?” Ava’s heart crawled up her throat. “I mean, Nana’s been on her deathbed five times this month alone.”
“Yes, pendeja! But I’m in the middle of a gel fill, and I don’t know if I should leave or not.”
Lightning flashed. Then again. The rain came faster, harder. More determined than before.
“Seriously?” Ava chided. “If this really is the end, who cares about your nails!”
“I do! And remember the last time I was at the salon? I was still processing my highlights, ran out, and ended up looking like a fried version of J. Lo? But you’re right . . .” She took a breath. “This is Nana. How could she leave us like this? Hang on,” Carmen was gone for a moment, and when she returned, their oldest sister, Vivienne, had been looped into the call.
“Are you on your way, Ava?” Vivienne asked.
“Carmen just called a minute ago,” Ava grumbled as she began to make piles of the photographs and notes on her desk. “How can I be on my way?” She lowered her voice, remembering the cubicles around her were filledwith nosy people probably looking for a welcome distraction.
“That’s a minute you’ve wasted on the phone because you don’t move fast enough, and that’s why you’re late everywhere!” Vivienne nearly shouted.
“Hey!” Ava argued, accidentally knocking a few photos and documents onto the floor. She quickly retrieved them and tossed them back onto her desk as she headed toward the exit, past the roving eyes of her coworkers. “I was at the last seven deathbeds. You were only at three.”
“What does it matter?” Carmen groaned. “Nana didn’t die all those times, so no one missed theblessing!” She hollered the last word, as if any of them could forget what Nana’s deathreally meant.
“And I need my blessing,” Vivienne reminded her. “Like, bad.” Twenty-two-year-old Vivienne worried she would never find Prince Charming. Ava worried, too, but not because her sister wasn’t beautiful or smart or a newly minted architect who was also the most talented designer at the family’s firm. Viv was . . . Viv. Hard-hitting, stubborn, picky. She’d probably demand a résumé before a first date.
“Same,” Carmen chimed in. “I just hope I get something really good.”
“Is that all you guys care about?” Ava said, her heart sinking.
“As if you haven’t thought about it,” Carmen accused. “And she’s the one leaving us!”
It was so Carmen to make this about her. It was also so Carmen to deflect to ease the pain.
The lights flashed once, then croaked, plunging Ava and the entire office into total darkness. Groans rose up. Quickly, Ava turned on her phone flashlight. “I have to go,” she said.
“No!” Vivienne shouted. “You can’t drive in this storm. Are you crazy?”
“You just said—”
“Forget what I said,” Vivienne argued. “It’s getting worse. Dad just came in. He told me to tell you to stay where you are or he’ll take your car away.”
“She’s right,” Carmen agreed half-heartedly.
Ava asked Carmen, “Well, how come you can drive home?”
“I’m at the salon, point five miles away,” she countered. “You’re all the way downtown. This thing came out of nowhere, and it’s too dangerous. No blessing is worth your life, Ava.” Then, “Hey, you think Nana will give me yours too?”
She was joking of course, because Nana had made the fine print clear—only one blessing per person. All the women in the Granados family had this keen, odd, otherworldly ability to pass alongblessings to their female descendants. But here was the catch: they could only do so from their deathbeds.
And if they died suddenly? Tough luck.
Ava’s great-grandmother had graced Nana with an angel’s voice. Before that, Nana couldn’t even sing off-key. Ava’s dad always said Nana used to sound like a dying cat in a Tijuana alley. And after the deathbed blessing? It was like listening to a Mexican Pavarotti when she opened her mouth to sing.
Ava rolled her eyes. “You joke at the worst times, Carm.”
“I don’t care what you say. I’m coming,” Ava insisted. In her mind’s eye, Ava saw Nana lying in her linen-draped bed, wearing the gold bracelet she wore every day, saying only that it came from Fate. She remembered the long walks down the shore—always in the evening, because Nana loved the nighttime best. Ava set her jaw. Blessing or no, she wasn’t letting Nana take her last breath without her. Yes, she was curious about the blessing her grandmother had chosen for her. She had begged her to tell her about it, but Nana had only said, “I won’t know until the moment is upon us.”
Pushing through the double doors, Ava’s heart rate began to rise. What if Carmen is right? What if this really is it and not a death rehearsal?
The lights flicked back on as Ava came to her boss’s office at the end of the hall. Drawing nearer, she saw him stacking another World War II book on the bookcase.The guy is obsessed with warfare, Ava thought.
Grant was twenty-five-ish and looked like one of those guys who sold overpriced T-shirts at a rock concert, except that he was a super-smart features editor who had made it clear that he had lost the coin toss when they were handing out the intern supervisor title this summer. He had two burner phones, so Ava thought he either worked undercover for the CIA; had a lot of girlfriends, boyfriends, or both; was a drug dealer; or was just paranoid. Ava asked him about the phones once, and all he said was, “I like my privacy.” Ava wasn’t sure if he was telling her to buzz off or if that really was the reason.
Even though Ava had only been interning at the newspaper for three and a half weeks, she and Grant had already arrived at this exact moment several times. The call. Ava’s quick exit. The deathbed. The miracle recovery. Ava making up hours, and then some. Grant definitely knew the drill.
“Should I wait to say sorry?” Grant asked after she told him why she was leaving.
Ava shrugged, searching for the yes, but all she felt was no, no, no rattling around her chest.
He opened his mouth, hesitated. Then he turned his expressive hazel eyes on Ava in a protective,geez, sorry, kid kind of way. “You really going to drive in this wicked storm?”
Ava felt a mother of a headache coming on. “I have to.”
“Came out of nowhere,” Grant said, stroking his chin and looking at the blank wall as if there were a window there. “You want an umbrella?” he asked.
“I’m parked close.”
“That’s good,” he said. “I don’t think I even own an umbrella. Want me to drive you?”
“It’s only a few miles,” Ava lied. “I’ll be fine.”
With a full shrug and half nod, Grant threw his gaze back to World War II. “All right, but text when you’re safe.”
Outside, the turbulent rain came down not in drops but in sheets. Lightning flared, forcing Ava to shield her eyes. Unearthly shadows bent and writhed, leaped and thrashed. If she didn’t know better, she would think this damned storm wastrying to keep her away from Nana.
One, two, three breaths, and Ava sprinted into the squall, hoping she wouldn’t be struck down by the fearsome bolts intent on killing the dark.
She ran, awkward and half-bent, splashing through ankle-deep puddles, using her thin arms for pathetic and useless cover while simultaneously soaking her brand-new Golden Gooses.
Finally, she found her Jeep, unlocked it with the remote, and hopped inside. She craned her head to look out the windshield at the storm-shredded sky. “Perfect timing,” she groaned.
Another thunderclap shook the earth, making her jump in her seat.
For the first time, Ava was afraid. Afraid she wouldn’t make it in time to say goodbye.
Ava squeezed back tears and started the car. Fifteen miles, she thought.Hold on for fifteen miles, Nana.
I-10 was nearly empty. It didn’t surprise Ava. People in LA only knew how to drive in two types of weather: sunny and cloudy.
“She’s okay,” Ava said to herself, leaning forward, bent over the steering wheel as she struggled to see beyond the torrential rain. The windshield wipers were on the fastest setting, and barely helping.
“Listen, God,” Ava said. “If you get me home with enough time, I’ll go to confession for . . .” She hesitated. She hated confession, but these were dire circumstances, and she didn’t think God was going to be impressed with anything other than something monumental. “I’ll go for a whole week.” She swallowed the promise like it was poison. And then realizing she hadn’t been specific enough, she clarified, “Home in time to say goodbye.”
Fifteen miraculous minutes and ten stiff knuckles later, she pulled off the highway and into the seaside city of Santa Monica. Her phone, sitting in the cupholder, buzzed. Ava cursed herself for forgetting to turn on Bluetooth.
Glancing down, she saw that it was Loretta, her not-stepmom, but she was afraid to take even one hand off the wheel to answer. Maybe it was better. She wasn’t in the mood to get sucked into a drama-mama moment.
Ava came to a red light. Looked at the phone’s blinking screen. What if it’s about Nana? Swiftly, she pressed the speaker button.
The only response was an earful of static.
“Loretta, can you hear me? I’m only a couple of miles away.”
There was silence, and for a second Ava thought the phone had disconnected, until she heard Loretta say, “She’s fading fast.”
Fading? No! Jeans fade. Memories fade. Not people. Not Nana.
Ava hung up and accelerated, trying to balance speed with safety. A terrible combination under the best of circumstances.
“Please hold on, Nana,” she whispered, so low she couldn’t hear her own voice over the battering storm.
Ava had always known she was her grandmother’s favorite, although Vivienne had worked really hard to dethrone Ava. The oldest Granados sister had even considered becoming a nun once. And poor Carmen was third in line for Nana’s favor. Carmen had once been in second place, until she got a fake ID at fifteen just so she could get a heart tattoo on her hip.
The rain pounded unrelentingly.
And then, one mile from the house, the one thing Ava didn’t want to think about, the one stupid word that plagued everything in existence popped into her head:Destiny. If Nana were in the front seat (refusing to wear a seat belt) she would tell Ava to quit fighting, that Fate had played her hand. And won. But Ava refused to believe she wasn’t in control of her own life.
Wiping a tear with the back of her hand, she pressed her foot against the gas with more force. It was exactly 8:51 p.m.
The Jeep hydroplaned.
Ava braked, skidded, fishtailed before she righted the vehicle.
Too late to see the brake lights in front of her.
There are moments that define people’s lives, moments that are wedged in between before and after, then and now, here and there. And some of those moments are balanced precariously on the steep precipice ofwhat if.
Suddenly and without expectation, the storm ceased as if the collision had consumed the echoes of thunder, had swallowed the wind, had cast out the lightning and rain.
It took several breaths for Ava to realize that the impact sounded worse than it was. She was okay—the airbag hadn’t even deployed.
In the headlights, she saw a white guy hopping out of the truck she had hit. He looked around Ava’s age. Tall, loose-fitting jeans, unkempt hair, angular nose, defined jaw, and big feet. He wore a fierce glare, the kind that seemed capable of scaring a happy-go-lucky puppy.
Ava jumped out of her car. “What’s wrong with you?” she cried, indignant. “Why were you just . . . sitting there?”
The guy scowled. “See the big red octagonal sign? It means stop.”
Ava wanted to choke him. Twice. Hadn’t he ever heard of a California stop? Roll and go? “I don’t have time for this!” Her voice escalated as she realized she was wasting time arguing with a sarcastic someone she already didn’t like.
The guy started in on how Ava should watch where she was going, and then his dark eyes caught hers, locking her in place. She felt a drop in herstomach just as his thick eyebrows lifted in surprise. “Oh, um . . . you’recrying. I . . . uh . . . look, you didn’t even dent my truck. It’s all good.”
“It’s the rain,” she said, wiping the tears away. No way was she going to snivel in front of some stranger who didn’t know how to drive. Correction: who didn’t know how tostop.
But then he said, “Hey, are you okay?”
The dam shattered. Ava broke down sobbing, telling him her nana was dying at that very minute, and the harder she tried to shut up, the more her mouth kept churning out words. “And now I’m late all because of you, and if I miss saying goodbye . . .”
He looked terrified, and was urging Ava into her car before she could blubber another word. “You need to go,” he said. “Are you sure you can drive?”
Still sniveling, Ava nodded her head, closed the door, and took off. When she looked in the rearview, the guy was standing in the middle of the road, his truck headlights shining behind him, hands in pockets, watching her drive away.
Forty-five seconds later, she turned down a secluded cul-de-sac and pulled through the long driveway’s wrought iron gates. By the time she made it to the backyard casita, everyone was gathered around Nana’s bed: Dad, Carmen, and Vivienne, who strangely looked away when Ava entered.
Nana was sitting up, wide-eyed, gripping a pillow, rocking back and forth as she repeated Ava’s name over and over and over.
“I’m here,” Ava cried, rushing to her grandmother’s bed.
As if no one else was in the room, Nana’s eyes alighted on Ava, and with great effort, she rasped, “No . . . can’t be.” Then she grimaced, squeezed her eyes closed, and said, “Meteors, stars, 8:51. Collision. And the hummingbird. ¿Me escuchas?”
Ava’s throat tightened. She wanted to tell her nana that yes, she heard her but that she wasn’t making any sense, but what did it matter now? Ava merely nodded.
The old woman broke into a coughing fit.
Ava’s dad reached for the glass of water on the nightstand, but Nana waved him away, gesturing for Ava to sit on the edge of the bed.
A rumble of thunder shook the house. The sky unleashed a greater fury than before.
Nana grasped Ava’s hand, gripping it with surprising strength, tugging her closer.
“Ava . . . you are . . . you are . . .” Her voice was broken by another, more violent bout of coughing.
“It’s okay,” Ava told her, stroking her forehead. “Don’t try to talk.”
Urgently, Nana tightened her grasp. She held her granddaughter’s gaze, silent and unwavering. The lights flickered. A window blew open. “You are . . .” Suddenly she seized. Gasped. Fell back with a heavythud. And the last words to fall from her lips were “too late.”
Copyright © 2022 by J. C. Cervantes. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.