The speed boat moves fast and Genesis notices Kayla’s hair keeps getting into her eyes. She laughs, as do all the others, who bounce up and down and let out high-pitched screams each time the boat rides a wave up into the air before crashing back down on the choppy water. Kayla grips the edge of the white leather seat beneath her. Genesis holds on to nothing.
The boat heads towards the Rosario Islands. One of the private ones, which La Turca rented out for the day. Business is booming and she’s decided to treat the girls to a beach day. Genesis has never been out to the islands before, even though she’s heard plenty about them. People are always telling her about the turquoise color of the ocean and the powdery white sand.
“It’s paradise,” they say. “The ocean sparkles in a thousand colors,” they brag.
Genesis thinks it sounds like they’re apologizing for the lackluster beaches in Cartagena, all muddy shores and brown water.
The music is loud. The bass hits tickle the back of her thighs. Some of the girls mouth the words to J. Balvin’s newest song. Genesis closes her eyes and faces the front, allowing the wind to drown out the noise.
Her peace is interrupted when La Turca takes a seat next to her. The breeze makes her jet-black hair point out like daggers in all directions. She holds up a bite-sized plastic cup in her hands that smells of aguardiente. Genesis shakes her head no. She hates the taste of anise, but La Turca insists.
“Mija, look at where we are,” La Turca says as she bounces up and down the seat, careful not to spill a drop from the tiny cup. “Have some fun.”
Genesis takes the shot. The guaro burns as it makes its way down her throat.
The boat docks near a small pier. A staff dressed in white apron uniforms helps them off and hands them each a yellow striped towel with a monogram that most likely belongs to the owners of the large glass house towering behind them.
La Turca stays back and gives detailed instructions to the captain on when he should come and pick them back up. She jumps off and the boat turns around and heads back the same route they came from.
Most of the girls spread the towels out on lounge chairs, shed their clothes, and dip their toes into the crystalline water, but Kayla keeps her shirt on and sits on the warm sand. Within minutes, the gaggle has claimed the small, private beach as their own. Music starts playing from hidden speakers. Another reggaeton song. La Turca always blasts reggaeton at full volume.
“Ok nenas,” she says, rallying the troops. “We’ve got this place to ourselves until one.”
One of the girls lets out a squeal of delight.
“Then after that the guests start to arrive,” she adds and pulls out a mass of sequined string bikinis from her tote bag, placing them on a small table. “Please be ready by then.”
One of them groans under their breath.
“What are you complaining about?” La Turca says, smacking her lips. “Look around, girls—doesn’t get better than this.”
Genesis walks over to the pile and picks up one of the uniformed bikinis. She knows by now there’s no such thing as a day off with La Turca.
The girls splash around in the water. A few are off to the side posing on the sand, squatting with their legs spread eagle. Others are on their knees, their palms joined together, their index fingers pointing up to the sky in the shape of a gun.
Genesis walks over towards Kayla, who’s standing on the edge of the shore. By her side, she sees Kayla’s small toes sink deeper and deeper into the sand with each passing wave.
“Race to the buoy?” Genesis asks, and points at the red dot bobbing at the edge of the ocean.
Kayla scoffs and shakes her head no. “Don’t tell the others,” she says. “But I don’t know how to swim.”
“Yeah. Whenever we went down to the river back home, I was afraid the current was going to wash me away, so I just stayed on the rocks. Always too scared to go in.”
“The river?” Genesis asks. “Where are you from again?”
“Ciudad Bolívar, in the interior. Only ever saw the Orinoco River,” Kayla explains. “Never made it out to the Caribe.”
“Well, here it is,” Genesis says, gesturing at the water in front of them. “The Caribbean—you made it.”
Genesis forces a smile. She feels like a hypocrite.
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“How about you go and I hold your hand?” Genesis says, making her way into the water. “We’ll stay in the shallow end.”
She stretches out her arm and when Kayla grabs it, one of the girls nearby points and cackles.
“Look at the Venezuelans, a couple of maricas!” she yells. All the girls laugh like hyenas.
Kayla retrieves her hand and takes a step back.
“Pussy eaters!” another one shrieks. Behind her, a girl presses a peace sign to her lips and wags her tongue from side to side.
Genesis ignores them and reaches out again, but Kayla keeps her arms crossed.
“They’ll think we’re weird if we walk in holding hands,” she says.
Genesis gives her a faint smile and turns around ready to dive into the water.
“I don’t give a shit about what these girls think,” she says, and starts to swim her way out towards the buoy. At every third stroke, she comes up for air.
Before Genesis knew how to swim, her mother, Aura, taught her to float.
Born at the very tip of the continent, Genesis grew up with the Caribbean Sea sprawled at her feet like a translucent blanket. Infinite and inescapable. As a toddler, her toes dipped into the water every day, as she was often at the town’s beach with Aura, who sold jewelry to pink-skinned tourists and oiled-up women that smelled like bananas and couldn’t get enough of the earrings she made with dyed fish scales and knotted-up pearls. On the same stretch of sand, her father peddled oysters from plastic buckets doused with soy sauce and ketchup. Men with heavy accents marveled at how he cracked them open with a screwdriver.
All of them always had grains of sand in their hair.
While some in their town near Choroní had tired of the ocean, Aura couldn’t get enough of it. On days off, she loved to swim from one end of the coast to another and then back. Her arms were always a deep shade of brown, lean and chiseled.
The day Genesis turned four, Aura carried her into the water and gently laid her down, her hand steady underneath the small of her daughter’s back.
Don’t be afraid, Aura said, as she lowered Genesis’ head and water rushed into her ears. Put your face up to the sky and stretch out your arms.
Genesis obeyed, scrunching her eyes while the waves hammocked her small body.
Breathe in and out slowly, Aura told her. The water won’t pull you down if you’re not afraid.
It took her a couple of minutes, but eventually Genesis started to feel light in the water, as if she were made of air. She stayed like that for a while, hypnotized by the inhalations she heard swelling in her head. Then she opened her eyes and saw her mother no longer holding on to her, but floating by her side, her body outstretched in the shape of a star. Genesis sank immediately.
Underwater, she screamed but only bubbles escaped from her mouth to the surface. The inside of her nostrils stung and she tasted saltwater at the back of her throat. As her feet landed on the cold sand at the bottom, her arm was pulled back up by Aura’s tight grasp. Underneath the burning noon sun, Genesis clung to her mother and gasped for air.
“Nessi, I told you, sin miedo,” Aura said, while she hugged Genesis close to her chest. The two of them swelled up and down with each passing wave. Aura held Genesis’s face in front of her own and rubbed the water off her daughter’s eyes.
“Never forget,” Aura said, her powerful legs keeping them both afloat. “Without fear, you can do anything.”
They hear music before the boat even comes into view. A slow, heavy trap that grows more ominous as it nears the tiny island where the girls are waiting in their matching swimsuits. Their sequins reflect speckles of light on to the sand.
A large yacht with black-tinted windows docks at the pier. Genesis notices the words Carpe Diem engraved on the back and wonders what they mean. Out steps a formation of young men in brightly colored swimsuits and alternating white and black t-shirts. Sunglasses on every face. Some carry flasks of aguardiente in their hands, others sip champagne straight from the bottle. They are younger than Genesis is used to.
The first one to notice the girls lets out a howl.
“Uyyy they’re here already,” the one in a purple floral swimsuit yells, and they all pick up their pace towards the beach. As they near, Genesis starts counting—nine of them in total. Next to her, she can hear Kayla’s fast exhales. She takes her hand.
Tranquila, Genesis says, and runs her thumb on the top of her palm.
The girls welcome the young men with smiles on their faces.
“Chicas, ready to party?” the one in orange stripes asks. He takes a hit from his black vape and the air smells like watermelon.
“Always ready for a party,” says the girl who’s already fishing for perico. “What’s on the menu?”
“Señores, we’re going to have a good time, I can tell already!” Orange yells and the others cheer behind him.
They push the one with tiny yellow fishes on his shorts to the front. He smiles sheepishly and lowers his gaze towards the sand.
“This muchacho right here is today’s guest of honor,” Orange says in a volume that Genesis knows by now means he’s been sniffing coca. “Take good care of him—but don’t forget about the rest of us either.”
“There’s enough of them to go around,” yells one with red lobsters on his suit. “Two for each!”
The men whistle and clap.
La Turca goes up to Orange, confirming Genesis’s assumptions that he’s the one who organized today’s activities. She talks quietly, close to his ear, and a grin starts to stretch across his face. He scans the girls until his sunglasses are pointing directly towards Kayla.
“That one?” Orange asks, gesturing towards Kayla with his chin.
La Turca nods. “Yes, that’s the one.”
Genesis learned to distrust men early, when she was around eight. One morning, her father kissed her goodbye before heading up to Valencia for a job. He told her he would be back in a couple of days, but weeks passed without him walking through the door. Tired of waiting, Genesis sneaked off with her mother’s cellphone one afternoon and called him. On the other end, a staticky recorded message said his number had been disconnected.
“Look at me,” Aura told her, when she found Genesis crying once it became clear to her that her father was gone for good. She grabbed Genesis by the jaw and made looked her daughter in the eye. “I’m not going to sit here and die waiting for him,” she said. “And you shouldn’t either. Pa’lante, Nessi.”
In her father’s absence, Genesis and Aura became inseparable. During the day, they peddled jewelry at the beach, while at night, they collapsed side-by-side on their shared bed, where they religiously watched the 8 p.m. novela.
The two cycled through them all— Pasión y Poder, Dulce Enemiga, Amar a Muerte. Aura tended to favor the more suspenseful, the ones with evil twins and murder mysteries and spies, while Genesis, by then a swirl of pre-adolescent hormones, couldn’t resist a tale of forbidden love. She rooted for the bride secretly in love with her groom’s best friend, the long-lost cousins who thought they were soulmates, the secretary in love with her boss. She fell for all the handsome jefes, the sons of tycoons, the kind-hearted rich boys at school. They were all sweet and humble and always inadvertently fell head over heels for the poor, beautiful girls from el barrio. By the end, they always chose love over money.
Genesis often daydreamed scenarios where this happened to her, too. While she strolled down the sand with her mother, she’d scan the crowd looking for her potential savior. She’d choose one of the young men paddling on surfboards or running down the beach and imagine he was the one who would sweep her off her feet. In her fantasies, they were all instantly taken by her. She imagined them holding hands under the moonlight. She pictured the grand house where they would live. In all of her fantasies, there was always a large room in her home for her mother.
But her little game became harder to play once the tourists stopped coming to the beach. With each passing season, the crowds got thinner and thinner. Foreigners had been scared off by all the news of protests and crime. And after a Miss Venezuela and her husband were murdered on the highway by some malandros, even the people who lived nearby didn’t want to visit. Some days, Aura and Genesis strolled the sand alone with only the sound of jangling earrings to keep them company.
As the beach emptied, so did the market shelves. Aura, who had dealt with shortages before, wasn’t worried at first. But after a while, it became normal to go to five different bachaqueros before she could find a carton of eggs, to spend weeks without tasting a piece of chicken. And the few items they could find—a bag of corn flour here, some canned tuna there—were so exorbitantly expensive, Aura and Genesis were forced to cut down to one meal per day and soon, everyone in the town started to lose weight. Every belt suddenly tightened on the last notch.
One night, a few days before her fifteenth birthday, Genesis was in the room watching television when she overheard her mother outside talking to a friend about Colombia. Aura’s friend knew a man with a truck that could help them cross. They didn’t have to walk over, like so many others were doing, making the trek across the cold mountains with heavy bags on their shoulders. They could be there in a matter of hours.
“Aren’t you tired of being hungry?” the friend asked Aura. “They tell me there’s food there, there’s work. There’s everything.”
Genesis recalled one of her favorite Colombian telenovelas. It followed five sisters, each with a different magical power, who lived in a coastal town full of friendly people. Genesis tried to imagine herself there, walking around the streets while eating a fried empanada. She would run into a young, handsome man while turning a corner. He’d ask where her accent was from. He’d immediately be taken with her beauty.
“Maybe,” she heard Aura say, and she felt a twinge of excitement. “Maybe.”
The party kicks off. The girls are dancing. A few are perched on chairs slowly gyrating their hips, teasingly pulling at the tiny triangles covering their bodies. Genesis pulls Kayla next to one of the speakers, somewhat away from the crowd, and dances next to her. Nearby, a trio of girls twerk their thonged bottoms up and down. The gang of indistinguishable young men form an outer circle and cheer them on.
La Turca walks around, checking in with her clients, asking if they need anything else, if everything is up to their standards. She approaches the girls and commands them to open their mouths. Each of them stick out their tongues and La Turca sprinkles on some neon pink dust. They swallow obediently, as if taking communion.
Orange saunters up to Kayla and Genesis and introduces himself.
“Hola linda,” he says to Kayla and kisses her cheek, a thin gold chain peeks out from under his shirt. “You’re the most beautiful girl here, you know that, right?”
Kayla’s cheeks turn pink.
“What’s your name?” he asks and flashes her a half smile. Genesis recognizes his accent. He’s a city boy.
“Kay—” she says, but stops herself. “Esmeralda.”
“Esmeralda,” he repeats back to Kayla. “Of course, like your green eyes. Divina.” He throws her an air kiss and Kayla giggles nervously.
“And what’s your name?” Genesis interjects. She knows by now they never share their names. They never want anyone to know what they do when no one is watching.
Orange laughs, taken by surprise. Behind him, a wave of squeals interrupts their interaction.
Genesis watches as Yellow is pushed inside the impromptu circle. He starts dancing awkwardly in between two girls.
“Don’t be shy,” one of the girls hollers and Yellow grabs her by the back of her hips, pulls her close, and starts humping her from behind to the beat of a Kali Uchis song.
The cheers get louder.
Kayla watches the scene and her eyes widen. Genesis gently grabs her by the chin and turns her away.
“Keep looking at me,” Genesis tells Kayla. “Don’t pay any attention to them.”
Emboldened by the chants, Yellow pulls on the girl’s lower bikini string and the sequined bottom drops to the sand. Her bare crotch is on full display, but the girl is unfazed. She doesn’t stop dancing.
The cheers get louder.
Yellow starts to lower his shorts.
Aura and Genesis arrived in Cúcuta on a Tuesday night after spending all day in the back of a truck that smelled like rotten bananas. Aside from some clothes, the few possessions they brought along were thirty-seven dollars in cash, a wooden rosario Aura’s mother had given her as a girl, and a bag of Bimbo bread they half ate during the trip across.
They found shelter at a tent camp outside a church alongside dozens of other Venezuelans who swarmed the border city daily; all of them hoping for something better than what they left behind. Genesis and Aura slept in a tent next to three other women on top of a pile of towels and blankets they used as a makeshift mattress; their backpacks as pillows; a thin layer of blue tarp as their roof. The first few days, Genesis found it hard to fall asleep at night without the gentle lull of the ocean in the distance.
No longer in school, Genesis spent most of her day hunting down a meal while Aura sold candy or fruit that she got from the migrant shelter on the sidewalk. Genesis usually hit a few pantries and churches that gave out stale arepas and mushy soup. Somedays, she’d leave empty-handed, either because she got there too late or because there were simply too many of them to feed. When she failed to return with anything, she and Aura chewed a few pieces of gum, hoping to trick their stomachs into believing something else was coming. Their insides grumbled angrily, pleading for more than just sugared saliva.
One night, Aura told Genesis someone had offered her money to sell her hair.
“You could cut some of yours off too,” Aura said. “That way we could make double what he told me.”
“Don’t cut that poor girl’s hair,” said a woman sitting near them. Genesis recognized her face, she always thought she looked like someone who had lived in the tents for a long time. The older woman got up from her plastic chair and came towards them.
“This is beautiful, virgin hair,” she said, grabbing Genesis’s mane as if it were a horse’s tail. “Don’t cut it. Go see Juana, instead. She’ll help you out.”
“Juana? Juana who?” Aura asked.
“Juana, from the centro,” the older woman explained. “She makes pretty girls like your daughter into models. Pays well, too. Why do you think there are no girls like your daughter around here?”
Genesis had wondered before why they weren’t more kids her age. Most of the children in the tents were much younger—at night, she often heard the babies wailing.
“You think I can be a model?” Genesis asked.
“Of course, chica, look at you. So skinny.”
Genesis thought of herself walking down a runway surrounded by camera flashes.
The next morning, Aura and Genesis walked into a small office building, where on the second floor, there was a wooden door with a gold sign that read Estrella Models.
Inside, behind a large desk, sat Juana, who introduced herself as one of the managers of the agency. She explained the business was run by her family and that the girls who joined were always treated like family, too.
“We love it when we get Venezolanas here,” Juana said. “You’re all so beautiful. So many Miss Universes.”
Genesis smiled and sat up straighter, happy to be compared with the misses from back home.
Juana pulled out a catalog filled with faces of other young girls. Underneath their pictures, Genesis read their names and noticed many of them were named after flowers, such as Violeta and Margarita. None of them had a last name.
“So how does it work?” Genesis asked.
“Well before you begin modeling, you have to go to our training academy in Cartagena,” Juana said.
“Cartagena?” Aura asked. “How far away is that from here?”
“It’s in la costa,” Juana said. “Right by the water.”
Genesis felt her heart skip a beat. She didn’t know much about foreign cities, but she knew about Cartagena because it was featured in that telenovela about an ugly secretary who fell in love with her boss and was later transformed into a bombshell. She remembered the two falling in love within the city’s tall, surrounding walls; they reminded her of a castle.
“Can’t she do the training here?” Aura asked. “She’s too young to go alone and I can’t leave just yet.”
“It’s only a week and then she’s right back here in Cúcuta,” Juana assured them. “Most of the girls start when they’re around fifteen, anyway.”
Aura sat there in silence. Genesis didn’t like the idea of leaving her—they had never been apart—but she also thought anything would be better than staying here. Nothing could be worse than Cucutá.
“We provide all the girls with enough money for the trip—if that’s what’s worrying you,” Juana added. She opened a drawer and started counting out a large number of bills. By the time her fingers stopped sorting through the money, it was more than Aura and Genesis had ever seen together in one pile.
“This should be enough for the time she’s away,” Juana said and slid it over to Aura, who stared at the pile with starving eyes, but remained still. Genesis watched her mother squeeze her fingers in her lap.
“I don’t know,” Aura said, her grasp still tight, as if one hand was trying to keep the other from reaching for the money. “Let me think about it.”
But before she had a chance, Genesis grabbed the cash. She held it in her palm and ran her thumb through the bills. The pile felt thick and heavy.
It felt real.
The following morning, Aura and Genesis woke up early and embarked on the hour-and-a-half walk it took them to get to the centro while it was still dark.
Aura was quiet during the way. All night, she had tossed and turned. Dark circles adorned her eyes.
They reached the parking lot of the agency, where a van with the Estrella Models logo emblazoned on the side was waiting for them. Genesis noticed there were two other girls in the back seat already and felt a twinge of excitement about spending some time with girls her age again.
Before stepping inside, Genesis gave her mother a hug. Aura held on longer than usual.
“Make sure to behave and listen to everything they tell you,” Aura said into Genesis’s ear. “Nobody wants to work with muchachitas that aren’t serious.”
The driver turned on the ignition. She gave her mother one last kiss and turned to get in the car.
“Wait,” Aura said and grabbed Genesis’s backpack. She opened the zipper and stuffed a bag of lollipops inside.
“In case you get hungry on the way.”
Genesis smiled and wrapped her arms around her mother’s bare neck. Her jagged hair cut just above her nape.
“When you get there, ask someone for a phone and call me,” Aura said, finally letting her go. “I’ll make sure to get a payment card so the call comes in.”
“Sí mami,” Genesis said and noticed Aura’s eyes glistening. “As soon as I get there, I’ll let you know.”
The door slammed shut and the car took off.
It was the last time she saw her mother.
Under the afternoon sun, Kayla’s jaw starts shaking. Genesis knows the drugs are to blame, as is La Turca, who seemed to give Kayla an extra sprinkle of powder.
“Here,” she says leading Kayla away from the party. “Let’s get you some water.”
Genesis grabs Kayla’s hand and starts walking towards the house looming in the back, but La Turca stops them about halfway there.
“Where are you two going?” she asks. “The party is out there,” she says and points at the half-clothed mass of bodies on the sand.
“Kayla isn’t feeling well,” Genesis says. “This is her first time doing tusi and she’s not used to it.” The first night Genesis was given the bitter-tasting powder, she faintly trembled all night. She still remembers looking at herself in the mirror and not recognizing the pale girl with large, black eyes staring back at her.
La Turca turns and details Kayla. Pupils wide, hyperventilating.
“Aja and what? You want her to go take a nap inside?” La Turca says, and lets out a grotesque laugh.
“I just want to give her some water, there’s only trago out there.”
“Fine, go,” La Turca snaps. “But cuidadito, I don’t want any complaints about you today. Remember what happened last time you decided to run off from work.”
Genesis winces at the memory. She’ll never forget how the other girls watched as they made an example of her. How they all stood around her, silent and still.
“We’re on an island,” Genesis says, shrugging her shoulders. “There’s nowhere to go.”
“Keep up the attitude and I’ll throw you out with the rest of the Venezuelans begging for dicks in the square,” La Turca says and walks away to the beach.
The two girls head inside and find the kitchen, where two women in starched white uniforms are talking to each other by the counter.
“Excuse me,” Genesis interrupts and politely asks them for a glass of water.
“No, no, mamita, we don’t work for putas,” one of the women responds. She points to a stack of plastic cups on a table. “You can serve yourselves your own water.”
Kayla runs out of the room and Genesis goes after her.
Kayla arrived in Cartagena only a few days ago, right in the middle of wedding season. The sun was setting outside the city’s iconic barracks that once kept pirates and pillagers away and the air was mercifully cool, the suffocating heat of summer still at bay. Couples everywhere strolled hand in hand around cobblestone streets lined by colonial mansions dripping with bougainvillea. Everyone enjoying a taste of Cartagena’s storied romance.
Genesis remembered being dazzled by the horse-drawn carriages and the towering walls that surrounded her. As soon as she arrived and was greeted by the mustard-colored cathedral, she became convinced it had always been her destiny to end up here. She began daydreaming about the possibilities for this new life in Cartagena. She’d become a model. She’d fall in love with one of those men with straw hats and linen shirts walking around the plaza. She would finally be the star of her own novela.
Staring out from the small window of her room, Genesis now wondered if the timing was intentional. Whether they brought them all in at the exact moment when the city was awash in warm light; a cinematic welcome that gave them the illusion that Cartagena was touched by gold and a place of endless opportunities. As she watched Kayla get out of the same van that had brought her here a year ago, she saw the city for what it really was: nothing more than a glorified prison by the water.
Once Kayla made her way into the building where Genesis and more than twenty other girls lived, Genesis heard La Turca joyfully introduce herself.
“We take a small commission from your jobs to pay for your accommodations,” La Turca said from the far end of the hallway. It was part of the same rehearsed script she delivered to each of them on their first day.
A few minutes later, the door to Genesis’s room opened and on the other side stood La Turca and a young girl with bright green eyes and cheeks round like a toddler’s. The soles of her dirty sneakers were as thin as a piece of paper.
“This is Genesis, she’s from Venezuela, too,” La Turca said. “I thought you might enjoy being paired up together.” But La Turca was not one to extend an act of kindness. Genesis knew she probably did this because none of the other girls would want to room with Kayla. Genesis once heard the girls compare the Venezuelans swarming the country to a plague of pests.
“Hola,” Kayla said in a register barely louder than a whisper.
“I’ll leave you two to get to know each other, then,” La Turca said and closed the door.
Genesis stayed seated while Kayla placed her backpack on top of the other bed. She sat down and took off her shoes. Crusty blisters dotted her ankles and pinky toes.
“What’s your name?” Genesis asked as Kayla pulled out a few things from her bag.
“Kayla Maria Rodriguez,” she said, and Genesis smiled at the formality of her answer.
“Genesis,” she replied, and looked at the items Kayla was arranging on the bed: A pair of flip-flops, a few T-shirts, a scraggly teddy bear. “How long have you been here?”
“I got here today,” she said.
“No, I meant when did you get to Colombia?”
“Oh. About a week ago.” Kayla no longer had anything else to unpack so she sat down on the creaky bed opposite Genesis and crossed her legs.
“You walked across?”
“Sí,” she said, “how did you know?”
Genesis shrugged her shoulders and avoided looking at Kayla’s mangled feet.
“You come with family?”
Kayla nodded. “With my brother. Mamá is in Lima and we’re trying to make our way down there, but we need a little more money. That’s why I’m here, someone told my brother these jobs paid good money.”
Genesis wondered if the girl’s brother knew the truth. Sometimes she lay awake for hours wondering the same thing about her mother. She remembers her hesitation, the look in her eye when they said goodbye. But then she let her get in the van. Why did she let her get in the van?
“How about you?” Kayla asked, uncrossing her legs and lying down. “You have any family here?”
“It’s just me.”
Kayla rested her head on the thin pillow and closed her eyes. She so seemed tired. Genesis looked at her bony arms. A stack of pink rubber bracelets curled around each wrist. Genesis’ felt her stomach turn.
“How old are you, Kayla?”
Kayla finished a long yawn before answering: “Thirteen.”
Genesis inhaled sharply. She looked outside and didn’t even bother to consider whether it was too late to tell the girl to run off. She knew it was too late.
Someone tapped on their door.
“Time to eat,” a voice said on the other side.
Genesis got up and Kayla put her sad shoes back on.
“We eat downstairs,” Genesis said. “They give us breakfast and dinner.”
She had never been hungry here. That was what she wanted to tell her mother, if she ever got to speak to her again: She had never been hungry again.
She led Kayla down the hallway towards the kitchen, where all the girls ate while huddled next to a small TV on the corner that was always on.
“One last question—sorry,” Kayla said nervously as they walked past the rooms on either side of the hallway. “But why are there padlocks on all the doors?”
Kayla runs towards the entrance of the beach house. Genesis wants to stop her before they both get in trouble, but as she’s about to catch up with her, the door opens and Orange walks in.
“Hola linda, I was looking for you,” he says to Kayla and runs his open palm down one of her bare arms. “Why are you hiding in here?”
Kayla sighs with relief and smiles.
She still believes he’s one of the good guys, Genesis thinks. But she knows they’re all the same. None of these rich boys are like the ones on TV. Nobody here is going to save them.
“Not hiding,” Genesis says, joining them near the door. “We’re just looking around, and you? Did you come here looking for us?” she asks coyly, hoping to spark his attention. She grabs Kayla’s hand.
“La Turca told me I would find you here,” Orange says, and takes a hit of his vape. Fruity vapor snakes out of his nostrils. His hand makes its way up and down Kayla’s bare arm. “Let’s go upstairs for a little bit? There’s something I want you to see.”
Kayla squeezes Genesis’s fingers.
“I want to come, too,” Genesis purrs and kisses Kayla on the shoulder. She hates the person she is forced to become around these men.
“That’s alright,” Orange says, now running his finger down the small of Kayla’s shivering back. “I want to be alone with this chiquita.”
Genesis insists. “Isn’t it more fun when there’s more of us?”
“Not for me,” Orange replies. “But the party’s only getting started outside.”
“I want to go back outside,” Kayla says meekly. Genesis doesn’t know which option is worse.
“Not right now, linda,” Orange says, his hand now fondling her ass cheek. “Vamos arriba.”
Behind the open door, Genesis can see La Turca watching them intently.
Orange comes up to her ear. “It’s nothing personal,” he whispers. “I just like girls that are brand new—you understand?”
Orange takes Kayla by her thin wrist and leaves Genesis off to the side. He leads Kayla up the spiral flight of stairs. At the top, Kayla stops and looks at Genesis, her eyes pleading. Before she can see them disappear into a room, Genesis turns and walks out the door.
Outside, the music thunders in her ears. She feels dizzy. The drugs have started to take a hold over her, too. She looks up at the sun. It burns into her. She needs to cool down. She starts to pace towards the ocean.
“Genesis,” La Turca yells tersely at her. “Genesis, the party is over here.”
But Genesis can’t hear her. Her legs are powering her forward, taking her body closer and closer to the shore.
Pa’lante, she thinks to herself and quickens her pace. The water calling her.
She dives in and starts to push against the waves. She swims determined, the way her mother taught her, arms quickly cutting across the water. She reaches the buoy and keeps going. Her body a smaller and smaller dot in the horizon.
Once her legs and arms tire, she takes a deep breath and stops to lie on top of the water. She opens her arms and legs in the shape of the star. The waves sway under her body.
She closes her eyes and thinks of her mother. She imagines her steady hand under her back holding her afloat. She can hear her voice telling her not to be afraid.
A long exhale starts to whisper inside her ears.
She sinks. First her torso, then her legs, finally her arms.
Water rushes into her nose.
She takes a deep breath and invites it in.
She lets everything fall.
She holds on to nothing.
Rumpus original art by Peter Witte