Michael and I were eating empanadas on a big brick bridge in Rio, and he was rolling his eyes about a fight he had gotten into with his dad that morning.
“Be careful, son.” Michael pulled his shoulders back and deepened his voice. “Testosterone is the world’s most powerful drug.”
It was the same fight they’d been having every day that week, about our dangerous tendency of sneaking into each other’s rooms while they were out, about my wandering hand, which Michael’s mother had seen in his lap yesterday afternoon, and our attempts to spend unchaperoned time together in the later hours of the evening.
“Do you think we should cut back a bit?” My mouth was full of empanada.
“Nah, it’s fine… They’re always like this.”
On the bus to Sao Paolo the next day, Michael and I sat in the back with his sleeping brother, Kurt. “I think my parents might make you stay in their hotel room,” he said. “But they usually fall asleep around midnight, so we have a chance.”
I nodded silently, as Mrs. Morris was already walking towards us, a bag of tangerines in her hand. “Hey kids!” She smiled widely. “Anyone hungry? I brought snacks for the journey.”
“Oh, no thank you, Mrs. Morris.” “Yeah, Mom, we’re fine.”
“Ah, well maybe Kurt will want some.”
She took the empty seat next to us and began peeling a tangerine. “So Cheryl, tell me about your college plans.” She leaned against the window so she could face me. For the rest of the bus ride, Michael and I kept our hands in our laps as she inquired about my parents’ backgrounds, my political leanings, my grandmother’s involvement in the local parish.
When we finally arrived, the hotel turned out to be overbooked, and we ended up in the top-story penthouse suite, “with our most sincere apologies,” the concierge said.
Our duffel bags pressed up against the door as Mr. Morris fiddled the newly cut key in the lock. When he managed to get the door open, we pushed through the frame and found ourselves standing in a brightly lit reception area, with a bedroom to the right and a grand staircase leading up to the second floor.
A large mirror on the far wall reflected a lone pedestal in the foyer, on which balanced a pewter statue of a horse reared on its hind legs.
“Weeell, isn’t this nice.” Michael’s dad chuckled to himself as he tried to balance the set of keys on the horse’s nose. After a few attempts, he gave up and set them down on the pedestal.
Michael and Kurt emptied their bags onto the downstairs beds and immediately ran up the stairs to explore the rest of the suite.
I followed them with my two bags in hand, and we discovered three puffy armchairs, a large wooden dining table, a kitchen filled with free cookies, tea and chocolate bars, a plasma-screen TV and a bar area, and a balcony complete with champagne and Jacuzzi.
Mr. and Mrs. Morris unpacked their bags in the master bedroom, and the boys ran downstairs to get their swim trunks. I was left holding my luggage in what looked like a movie set designed for cocktail parties and bad pornography. Eventually I spotted a small rollaway bed near the entrance to the master bedroom, pressed against the wall like a middle schooler at her first dance. I set my bags next to the wallflower bed and waited for a bathroom to free up.
When the three of us were dressed, we found Mr. and Mrs. Morris looking out over the balcony.
“Oh no, no Jacuzzi tonight,” Mrs. Morris said, her eyes disapproving of my bikini. “We’d like to go to bed early, and we don’t want you out here by yourselves.”
They wouldn’t hear our protests.
“Let’s all watch some TV instead,” Mr. Morris suggested. “Yes, you’d like that, wouldn’t you, Kurt?” Mrs. Morris smiled.
Michael and I frowned and plopped down in the deck chairs. “What do you want to do?” he whispered.
“We’re going inside to watch a bit of TV,” Mr. Morris called. His eyes met Michael’s. “Don’t stay out here too long.”
Once they closed the screen door behind them, Michael suggested that we take our showers first, stay up with them until they went to bed, and then find a way to sneak back into the hot tub, just the two of us. I wandered on downstairs to the boys’ room to shower, while Michael used the one in his parents’ bedroom.
And I can’t remember if the shouting began while I was showering, or as I was just stepping out. “You do not do that to your parents.” It was a tone of such fury, of such power, I had only ever heard it once or twice before.
I stopped toweling my hair and peeked into the bedroom. Kurt stood in the center of the room with his eyebrows knitted, straining to hear.
“What happened?” I mouthed.
He shrugged and bit his lip, turned his eyes to the doorway and continued listening.
More shouts. “Listen to your mother,” or “Listen to me,” or maybe both. “I didn’t do anything,” or “Dad, just tell me what I did.” They came in bursts at first — Mr. Morris yelled and Michael yelled louder. The noise grew and grew until their voices merged. The walls of the penthouse suite shook with their bellows.
I clutched Kurt’s arms. “My family doesn’t do this.” “Mine doesn’t either,” he said. Kurt began picking at himself. He gets panic attacks, and he picks at himself. He started pacing the room and exhaling sharply, and I sat on the edge of the bed, waiting for the yelling to stop.
It didn’t. Scraping wood, shuffling feet, and we heard a thud, like something heavy hitting the ground. The mother was screaming too now. A second thud, and a shriek, “Harvey! Harvey, Stop!” and everything finally went quiet.
Silence. A thick, still silence. Kurt took a seat on the opposite bed, and we sat motionless in that silence, waiting.
And Michael finally came downstairs. I can’t remember if he said, “My dad just tried to choke me,” or “Please don’t tell anybody about this,” or “He’s only done this once before,” but he was crying and I was crying, and Kurt was breathing more calmly now but still pick pick picking away. Michael and I sat on the bedroom floor, his head on my shoulder. “Please don’t leave,” he said.
And then Mrs. Morris came downstairs. The large hallway mirror reflected her hunch, and a weary frown showed through the darkness as she stood in the doorway. “All right, time for bed.” Like a mother at a sleepover. “Boys, say good night to Cheryl.”
Michael and I exchanged looks.
“I think… I really need to be here right now.”
She stood silent for a moment. “Michael’s father would really like you to sleep upstairs.”
I stayed on the floor for a few long seconds and felt her gazing at me from the entryway. Then I got up slowly and walked towards the door. I said nothing as I passed the mother, and kept my eyes on the staircase in front of me as I brushed past the statue of the horse in the entryway.
When I reached the stairs, I heard a clang from the railing above. I looked up to see the corner of a bathrobe being pulled out of sight, and then heard a quick shuffle as the father darted back to his bedroom in the darkness, shutting the large wooden door behind him.
She came back upstairs after a few minutes, and walked past my rollaway bed with a quiet “Good night.”
As I lay in bed, I held my hand up to my face, testing the darkness. I listened to my heart pound and waited for Michael’s footsteps on the stairs.
Kath Wong-Vasquez lives in California. This is her first short story publication.