“Uthnavi, where do I put the milk?”
Usnavi looks over at his younger cousin, who has just come in the door. In Sonny's arms is a crate of milk half the size of his whole body. He's still so small for his age.
“Sonny, put that down before you drop it,” says Usanvi in the stern voice he learned from Abuela. Sonny laughs and sets the crate down next to the big refrigerator.
“Can I have a candy bar now?” asks Sonny, practically bouncing up and down. Usnavi nods; Sonny runs over to the cash register and grabs a Hershey bar. He unwraps it, drops the plastic on the floor, and runs out of the bodega. Usnavi rolls his eyes and picks up the wrapper. He casts a glance around the small room.
His parents left this small store for him, so that he would have a way to get by without them. Now, he can finally take over. He's finally dropped out of high school. He doesn't need to go to college. For him, getting by will be enough.
And protecting his parents legacy, by providing a place where people can stop by and chat like they used to. Get a cup of coffee. Scratch off a lottery ticket just for the fun of it.
That's important, too.
Nina finally decides that she can't take this anymore, and throws her pencil across the table.
“It's no good, Abuela,” she says, throwing herself down onto her folded arms. “Even Mr. Pavia said. I'm no good at math.”
Everyone that she knows calls her a genius, and true, she excells in humanities and English. But math is her downfall, and she needs it to get a good SAT score. Without math, she might as well not be any good at the other things. Why doesn't anyone realize that? Why do they always try to encourage her when she's not good enough? Every day she comes here to do her homework. And every day, Abuela tells her that she's so smart when she's really not.
Abuela's humming ceases as the pencil bounces down to the floor. They are silent for a moment, and then Nina hears the old woman's footsteps going to the other side of the table. She picks up the pencil and slips into a chair. Her warm, callused hand lifts Nina's chin, and she brushes away one of the tears rolling down the girl's face.
“Come now,” she says in Spanish. “It can't be as bad as all that.”
“It is, though,” says Nina through a haze of tears. She looks down, ashamed. “I can't do it. I don't know how.”
Abuela sets down her dish towel and takes both of Nina's hands. “Then why don't you focus on what you do know?”
Nina lifts her head and gulps back her tears. “What?”
“Figure out everything you know, and use that to solve this problem.”
Nina looks away and thinks for a moment. “Well,” she says, “I know that I can solve this part... with FOIL, I think.”
“And the rest?” Abuela presses, kneading Nina's hands gently in hers.
Nina surveys the problem. “I don't know. But...” Slowly, an idea comes to her. “But I think we learned it in Lesson 57.” She flips back through the book to the lesson from last week. Sure enough, there is a list of example problems, and an explination of what she didn't understand.
“What did I tell you?” asks Abuela with a laugh. She places one hand on Nina's back and tilts the girl's face towards hers with the other. “Patience and faith. Use what you know, Nina. The answer will come to you.”
She stands up and goes back to doing the dishes. Somehow, Nina can tell that she isn't just talking about math.
“C'mere and I'll give you a haircut.”
Usnavi hestitates as Vanessa waves him over towards the chair she has set up in the corner of his store. “Are you sure?” he asks hesitantly. Vanessa nods and waves the hand that isn't planted on her hip through the air.
“Yeah, I've done it a hundred times on my hair. That's why it's so short.”
She gave herself a pixie cut last week, after her bob the week before, which was modeled off her layers that she did a month before that. Usnavi has to admit that it looks good on her.
“I really don't know...” he stammers. He can already imagine Abuela's reaction – you let a fifteen year old girl take scissors to your head?
“C'mon. It's so long. It's really ugly.”
He still isn't sure. Vanessa rolls her heavily-lined eyes.
“I'll kiss you on the cheek if you lemme cut your hair.”
Usnavi is in the chair before he can think.
In an instant, there's a sheet around him, one that she stole from Daniella. Vanessa rakes a comb through his shaggy hair, scrubs his hair with dry shampoo, and snaps the scissors several times in the air. Usnavi squeezes his eyes shut as pieces of his hair start falling onto his shoulders, tickling his face. At this point, he's not sure if a kiss on the cheek is worth it. But there's no going back.
Eventually he calms down and opens his eyes. Vanessa has music playing; she's concentrating intently, with her tongue sticking out against her lip as she focuses. It feels nice – the brush of the cool wind blowing in through the open window, the light touch of her fingers on his scalp and his neck, the old boleros humming from the speakers.
Finally Vanessa announces, “Done,” and hands him a mirror. Usnavi takes it, and she leans forward with her hands on his shoulders. His hair is back to a normal length. It really does look better. She did a great job.
“Thanks,” says Usnavi.
“No,” says Vanessa, and gives him a light peck on the cheek. “Thank you.”
The fireworks on the Fourth of July are always beautiful, but this year, they're better than ever. This year, Sonny is watching them on the roof.
Peter told him that this was the best place to watch and suggested that Sonny come up here, too. Sonny is fairly sure he's the first person Peter's actually said anything nice like that too. He knows he's the only person who's allowed to call his friend Peter – everyone else is supposed to call him Graffiti Pete, which Sonny thinks sounds kind of ridiculous, but of course would never say so.
He jumps as an especially loud firework goes off, and Peter laughs.
“What, you aren't scared, are you?”
“NO!” says Sonny. He knows that everyone thinks he's immature just because he's so small, and he won't do anything to help that rumor. He's twelve, but he doesn't look a day over nine. “I just wasn't paying attention and it startled me.”
Sonny turns away, annoyed.
“Hey, I'm sorry. I was just kidding.”
Sonny doesn't forgive him.
“Okay, I forgive you.”
Peter laughs again. He laughs easily, and so Sonny laughs too. The artist is a lot older than him, true, but maybe they can be friends anyway. Aside from Usnavi, Sonny's never had anyone to hang out with. He turns around suddenly.
“Can we be friends?”
Peter arches an eyebrow.
“Please?” asks Sonny.
“Okay, sure. Yeah, sure.”
“Great!” Sonny reaches over and snatches the bag of chips that Peter brought up here, and to his surprise he meets with no resistance. Satisfied, he settles back into his spot with the chip bag on his lap. It's nice to have a friend.
Nina only left for Stanford a year ago, but she comes back looking completely different.
On the day she left, she was wearing a skirt and sweater. She returns in skinny jeans, a Stanford t-shirt, and hair loose around her shoulders rather than pulled up into a bun. She's lost her glasses. She looks like a whole new woman.
She comes into the dispatch booth with a suitcase dragging behind her, and when she sees Benny she smiles. “Benny, hey!”
“Nina, you're home!” he exclaims, quickly shuffling the million papers spread across the booth back into order.
“Yes. Have you seen my -”
“Your parents?” Three sheets of paper fall off the desk; Benny almost falls too, leaning out of his chair trying to pick them up. “They'll be here soon.”
“Ah,” says Nina delicately as Benny actually does fall out of the chair and bumps the microphone. “So, anyway...”
“Hey – it's good to see you again,” he says, jumping up and extending a hand. Nina shakes it awkwardly and he instantly feels stupid. They're friends, why is he greeting her like this? Should he maybe give her a hug? A blush flashes across his face as he imagines himself giving Nina a hug.
“You too,” she says, and he interrupts.
“Wait, hang on – you used to run this dispatch, right?”
“A couple of times.”
Benny begins to get excited. “Well, I've been practicing a lot. Check it out.” He slams the headphones on, hops into the swivel chair, and rattles off the directions at top speed. “Now everyone, listen up. We've got a special guest.”
“Oh no, Benny,” says Nina, but he's caught up in this now and his hand grabs her slender wrist.
“She just got back from her year out west, and she looks a little tired, so give her a warm welcome. Nina Rosario, the best of the Washington Heights, has returned!”
Her lipstick-y mouth flutters into a smile, and Benny feels his heart fluttering at the same speed as those lips. “Yo, she's smiling! Say hello, Nina.”
“Hellloooo!” she belts out, to his surprise. She laughs into the mic and they push the button to turn it off. Benny takes off the headphones.
“I'd better go find my mom and dad,” she says. “Thanks for the welcome.”
She's leaving, heading to the door, and Benny has her by the wrist again in a second. Words tumble out of his lips.
She glances at his hand and looks surprised, but then, to his delight, she closes the door and plops back into the chair. “Okay. After all, we do have some catching up to do.”
"Who'd of believed we're finally getting out of this place?" asks Daniella as she wipes down the counter. Carla pauses where she's sweeping the floor.
"Can you believe we're getting a salon in Manhattan?" she sighs dreamily, hugging the broom like a lover and twirling around. "We could end up giving haircuts to movie stars..."
"I said we might get a salon in Manhattan," reprimanded Daniella, pointing a finger at her. "Nothing is decided yet."
Carla drops the broom and dances over to Daniella. "Hey - Dani - is it true that Abuela's having trouble with her heart?"
"Si, that's true." She sticks a finger in her assistant's face. "But you will say nothing about it to anyone, you hear me?"
Carla nods like a bobble head. "And is it true about Nina and Benny kissing... and did Sonny really... and has Jose..."
As Daniella confirms or denies each rumor, they tidy up their life's work, and prepare to move it all deeper into the jungle of New York City.
Abuela studies the lottery ticket in her fingers. When she bought it, it looked just like every other ticket in the small plastic shelf on the front of Usnavi's counter in the corner store. Now, it is worthless because it has been scratched out. Or it would be if it weren't for the paper bag full of cash that the ticket had provided.
She leans back against the park bench and closes her eyes. The birds cluster around her feet waiting for more food, and she reaches into the nearest bag automatically, only to remember that this bag doesn't have any seeds.
Instead, it contains dozens of crisp hundred-dollar bills, bound together in stacks of five and ten.
She picks up the other bag and scattered a handful of seeds for the birds, and then while they eat, peeks back into the bag. Her hands tremble. Is that just from excitement?
There are so many people who this money could help, but for once, she decides that she'll help herself. Her whole life had been devoted to taking care of the children and youth of the barrio. Now, now that they were all in good places and could tend to themselves, she could move on and go home.
She will take Usnavi with her. If it wasn't selfish enough to use all the money, she would take the best member of the neighborhood away.
It feels so unnatural to be like this, but she doesn't have very long left. She needs to get out of this place, before it could consume her entirely...
Usnavi hadn't cried for three years, but when the coroners pronounce Abuela dead, he curls up on her couch and weeps for two hours straight.
Sonny joins him and hugs him tight; after a while, Nina wanders in the door and sits down beside him as well. There are tears running out from under her eyelashes, shielded with waterproof mascara. The three of them had all loved Abuela; she had practically raised Usnavi and Sonny, and she had always looked after Nina when Kevin and Camilla couldn't.
The three of them who had been closest to her all hold each other and cry. And then the door opens again.
Vanessa and Benny come in silently. The stylist sits down next to Usnavi and pulls him into her shoulder, and Benny takes Nina's hand and holds it, since her other arm is still tangled around Sonny. A few minutes later, he and Nina pull back so that the newest arrival, Peter, can sit down next to the boy. Sonny clings to him and keeps right on crying.
The six of them barely fit on the couch, but they make it work. Nina and Usnavi and Sonny each hold onto someone and pour out their heart on that person's shoulder. In the midst of all the heartache and all the pain, all three of them can't help but feel an overwhelming sense of love.
Daniella comes in near the end of their crying session with Carla in tow. The younger hairdresser joins them on the couch; Daniella quietly goes into the kitchen to cook them some dinner. She isn't about to let them starve.
There is agony in the small home, but there is also peace. None of them are alone, like they had been when Abuela first found them. Now, each and every one of them has people to love, people to trust - even if the person who had taught them those things is gone. And yet, somehow, it still feels as though she is watching over them, perched in her chair nearby...
So the eight people who had loved her each whisper their goodbyes, and Abuela from her place, watching, smiles.