CHAPTER FIVE

In her dark bedroom, Clara tries to convince herself of her conviction to rise from the mat she shares with one of her sisters, Valeria. Valeria is fourteen and would likely want to tag along - or rat. "I can do this. I can do this," she repeats silently in her mind. She has never snuck out of the house before, never intentionally broken any rules that she can recall, mostly for fear of getting in trouble but the thought does cross her mind: If Izzy and Frances can do it, why shouldn't she be able to?
Carefully, she lifts the light cover from her body and pushes herself up onto the bare wooden floor. Clara creeps slowly across the room, trying to make sure she doesn't wake the sleeping babes as she makes her way to the window.
A plank beneath her toes gives a small creak. Clara stands frozen, clenching her teeth, waiting to hear a little voice call out, catching her in the act.       
Margarita, only three years old and Clara's bed-mate, remains on the mat nearest to the bedroom door. She rustles beneath her blanket, searching blindly with eyes still shut for her weathered teddy bear. Once it is safely within the grasp of her tiny arms, she falls once again into her sound sleep.       
Relief washes over Clara as her baby sister resumes her adorable snoring. Clara pulls back the cotton curtain across the window and hoists herself off the floor and landing surprisingly silent on the ground outside for an unseasoned escapee. She makes her way to the front of the house to grab a pair of shoes from the porch and beings hustling toward their designated meeting spot.        
As Clara makes her way down the street, she hears a voice in the night air calling out her name in a whisper.  "Clara! Clara!"
Clara squints to makes out the speaker's face poking out from behind a tree. It's Isabel. "Come on! We've been waiting for you!" With a large grin on her face, Clara picks up the pace until she passes her cousin. They can hardly keep their giggles from erupting into resounding laughter as they continue on.       
In an instant, beams of light break through the darkness sinking Clara's heart into her stomach. She opens up her mouth to scream but it never sounds. Isabel muffles any noise with her palm over Clara's mouth.       
"Shh!" she insists to Clara. "I did say 'we'."          
Staring past the headlights that Isabel dares to walk toward, Clara can make out several figures. One of them is Frances waving enthusiastically in the front. Another sigh of relief. This sneaking out thing was proving to take a greater toll on her nerves than she thought it would. She would have to take care to manage her heart rate lest she find herself having an episode.       
Frances pops her head out the passenger side window with her arms crossed along the frame as Clara jogs to join them. "Told you I wouldn't be walking. You should learn to trust me."      
Clara opens the cab door and slides in next to Frances, sizable smiles on both their faces.       
Michael changes gears on the truck and pushes her onward to their destination.       
"Where was that smile when I first asked you to come out with us?" Frances inquires.      
"I don't know," Clara lies. "Maybe I simply needed a bit more motivation to rebel."
"And would the name of that motivation happen to start with an 'A'?"
Clara gives Frances a playful nudge with her elbow. Of course, she already knew he was the reason she finally agreed to go to the tide pools. She just doesn't have the courage to come out and say it.
"I have to say," Frances continues. "He has come a long way from the days he and Kenzo would stick geckos down the backs of our dresses."
"And we would go running around as if they were the most disgusting things in the world," Clara recalls. "He's quite handsome now, isn't he? Not that it's all about looks.
"What is it then? Frances asks, looking Clara directly in the eyes.
Clara breaks her cousin's inquisitive gaze and fiddles with the hem of her nightdress. The question caught her off guard. "I don't know how to explain it."
"With words!" Michael interjects. "It's easy. For example: I'm crazy about Fran because of how wild she is."
“I am not wild!" Frances says defensively.
"Oh, yes, you are!" he argues. "You break the rules, you challenge your parents, you have a stronger personality than half the guys in my unit - small as it is. You're out here with me right now! You're a free spirit. And that's a good thing in my book.
Frances, no longer offended by the "wild" description, leans over and plants a kiss on her boyfriend's cheek.
"So, go on, Clara," Michael insists. "What do you like about ol' Al? His charisma? His sense of humor? His smile? His eyes?"
"Slow down there, Tiger," Frances jokes.
Clara laughs. "He certainly has all of that and isn't shy about showing it," she says. "But when he talks to me, I just - I feel like he thinks I'm special."
"You know what I think?" Frances asks.
"You think I've lost my  mind to like such a flirt."      
"I think you're in love."
As the end of that word rolls off Frances' tongue, Clara's eyes flutter at the speed of a hummingbird's wings while the vehicle comes to a halt and the rest of its passengers disembark from their respective seats in the truck's bed and cab. "In love?" she echoes back.
"Who's in love?" Isabel surprises Clara outside the truck.
"Clara with Al," Michael tells her.
"Oh, everyone knows that!"
"Everyone?!" Clara asks aghast as Isabel opens the door.
Isabel nods. "Yeah. Everyone."
Frances is already on her way to the water, calling over her shoulder back at the gang, "Come on! We haven't got all night!"
In a flash, the boys soar past her and splash right into the cool ocean with their trousers still on.

After swimming for what feels like ages, Clara crawls back to shore exhausted. She takes a seat and begins wringing out her hair, watching her friends and family try to catch flying fish with their bare hands.
Michael and Frances are floating on their backs raising their voices to the sky.
"Alright," Michael starts, "You have to be ready for us to scare them up!"
"We're ready!" Timothy declares.
Michael begins his countdown, "One, two, three!" On three, he and Frances begin to break the water  with their legs so feverishly that the sounds of their movements overpower the laughter around them. Through the air, their bodies glistening in the starry sky, tiny fish soar over the water leaving trails of tiny droplets before landing again in the saline pool.
"It's hard to see them!" Isabel yells. "Don't laugh, Alejo!"      
Seated at the rim of the tide pool, Alejo throws back his head in amusement. "You're never going to catch them!"      
Clara chuckles at the scene.
Alejo turns toward her, responding to her sounds of joy with a smile before riding to walk to join her. "Hey," he says, suave as ever.
"Hey," she replies coyly.  
"Are you tired?" he asks.
"It's been a long day," she explains. "I'm surprised I had enough energy to swim half as long as I did."
"Yeah, I guess it has been a long day. But I'm glad you came. Izzy told me she wasn't sure you would."
"I wasn't sure I would be brave enough."
"I think you could be brave enough for more than this."
"You -" Clara starts. "You are a really good swimmer." The sound of her generic compliment turns her stomach inside her body.
"Thank you," he responds. "The water's not too deep here so I don't have to try that hard to make it look like I know what I'm doing."
"The water has got to be nearer thirty feet in some places!"
"Oh, yeah. That is deep, isn't it? I better be more careful."
That sense of humor Michael mentioned has Clara feeling very much at east. She laughs and slaps Alejo gently on the knee but quicker than she can pull it back, he takes hold of her hand and softly caresses the skin of her palm with his fingertips. She feels a lump in her throat, a rise in her pulse, a sudden warmth.
Timothy ruins the tender moment between them with a shout of victory, "I got one!"
Clara and Alejo turn their heads and attention back to the water.
"No way!" Michael says doubting his friend.
"It just slipped out of my hand!"
"If we didn't see it, you didn't catch it.
"I did!" Timothy says adamantly.
Clara and Alejo exchange delighted glances and laugh while Isabel and Frances return to land shivering.

Michael comes to a stop on the same dark road once more and Clara hops down from her seat in the cab of the truck. "Thank you!" she tells the driver and his copilot.
"See you tomorrow," Frances says.
Clara shuts the door and gives it a gentle tap, waving them off.
Walking down the street, reveling in the joyous events of the evening, Clara stares up at the heavens, lost in her own thoughts. So lost, that instead of climbing through the window of her bedroom that was her escape route, she waltzes up to the front steps of her home, drops her shoes and crosses the threshold.
Mere seconds pass before she hears her mother, Juana's, worried footsteps coming from her parents' bedroom.
"What are you doing out this late at night?!" she scolds in an angry whisper.
"I went out for some air," Clara fibs.
Juana gives the air around her daughter a great, audible sniff and puts it to her, "Been swimming?"
Clara gives no answer.
Juana grabs Clara's left forearm. Clara knows what's coming next: the skin test. She watches as her mother runs the nail of her forefinger down her arm to see the chalky residue left by the sea water.     
Clara drops her head in shame. It is quickly picked up again when her mother slaps her on the behind.
"Get to bed right now," she orders. "Go!"
Clara hurries off to her room. Despite the pain of the slap and the unknown punishments that would come with the sun, Clara lies down on her mat next to Valeria once more with a smile on her face. It was all worth it.

The truck stops again at the intersection to Frances’ home but still far enough so as not to wake her parents or any of their new neighbors in Sumay who might seek to put their noses in her business without having been extended an invitation. Michael lifts her from her seat in the cab and places her gently onto the ground. He takes her hands in his and smiles. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” he tells her.
“Today,” she corrects him.
“Yes,” he laughs. “Today.”
“Are you ready?”
Michael sighs. “Is anyone ever really ready to meet their girlfriend’s parents for the first time?”
“You shouldn’t say that I’m your girlfriend in front of them,” she warns. “Remember, you haven’t asked my parents for permission yet.”
“Your mom already knows!”
“Yes, but my dad doesn’t!”
Michael shakes his head.
“Don’t worry,” Frances says giving his hands a squeeze. My mom was the biggest battle anyway.” Frances flashes him a huge smile of reassurance. “Here,” she says pulling her hands from his. “Wear this.” She unclasps the chain around her neck and places it in her boyfriend’s hand, closing his fingers around it.
“I can’t take this,” he protests. “It was a gift from your grandmother, wasn’t it?”
“So, what?”
“So, put it back on!”
“I will. After lunch tomorrow. Until then, you wear it. As a good luck charm.”
Michael opens his fist. He looks down at the gold chain and its pendant: a simple golden cross that flares slightly at all four points. He raises his eyes to hers. “You win.”