"I love you more than anything in the world," the woman said quickly. "Never forget that. But you were only loaned to me, mi vida."
Matt had trouble understanding the word loaned. It seemed to mean something you gave away for a little while -- which meant that whoever loaned him would want him back.
"Anyhow, the kids in the Big House are brats, you better believe it," Celia went on. "They're lazy as cats and just as ungrateful. They make big messes and order the maids to clean them up. And they never say thank you. Even if you work for hours making special cakes with sugar roses and violets and green leaves, they can't say thank you to save their miserable little souls. They stuff their selfish mouths and tell you it tastes like mud!"
Celia looked angry, as though the incident had happened recently.
"There's Steven and Benito," Matt reminded her.
"Benito's the oldest. He's a real devil! He's seventeen, and there isn't a girl in the Farms who's safe from him. But never mind that. It's adult stuff and very boring. Anyhow, Benito is like his father, which means he's a dog in human clothing. He's going to college this year, and we'll all be glad to see the last of him."
"And Steven?" Matt said patiently.
"He's not so bad. I sometimes think he might have a soul. He spends time with the Mendoza girls. They're okay, although what they're doing with our crowd would puzzle God Himself."
"What does Steven look like?" It sometimes took a long time to steer Celia to the things Matt wanted to know -- in this case, the names of the children who'd appeared outside the window.
"He's thirteen. Big for his age. Sandy hair. Blue eyes."
That must have been the boy, thought Matt.
"Right now the Mendozas are visiting. Emilia's thirteen too, very pretty with black hair and brown eyes."
That must be the girl, Matt decided.
"She at least has good manners. Her sister, María, is about your age and plays with Tom. Well, some might call it play. Most of the time she winds up crying her eyes out."
"Why?" said Matt, who enjoyed hearing about Tom's misdeeds.
"Tom is Benito times ten! He can melt anyone's heart with those wide, innocent eyes. Everyone falls for it, but not me. He gave María a bottle of lemon soda today. 'It's the last one,' he said. 'It's really cold and I saved it especially for you,' he said. Do you know what was in it?"
"No," said Matt, wriggling with anticipation.
"Pee! Can you believe it? He even put the cap back on. Oh, she was crying, poor little thing. She never learns."
Celia suddenly ran out of steam. She yawned broadly and fatigue settled over her right before Matt's eyes. She had been working from dawn to well after dark, and she had cooked a fresh meal at home as well. "I'm sorry, chico. When the well's empty, it's empty."
Matt rinsed the plates and stacked the dishwasher while Celia took a shower. She came out in her voluminous pink bathrobe and nodded sleepily at the tidied table. "You're a good kid," she said.
She picked him up and hugged him all the way to his bed. No matter how tired Celia was -- and sometimes she almost fell over with exhaustion -- she never neglected this ritual. She tucked Matt in and lit the holy candle in front of the statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe. She had brought it with her all the way from her village in Aztlán. The Virgin's robe was slightly chipped, which Celia disguised with a spray of artificial flowers. The Virgin's feet rested on dusty plaster roses and Her star-spangled robe was stained with wax, but Her face gazed out over the candle with the same gentleness it had in Celia's bedroom long ago.
"I'm in the next room, mi vida," whispered the woman, kissing the top of Matt's head. "You get scared, you call me."
Copyright © 2002 by Nancy Farmer
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Southern Gothic fantasy with a contemporary flare set in Savannah
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