From an award-winning author comes a genre-defying thriller about a father desperate to salvage what's left of his family—even if it means a descent into violence.Buried in debt due to his young daughter’s illness, his marriage at the brink, Mario reluctantly takes a job as a hitman, surprising himself with his proclivity for violence. After tragedy destroys the life he knew, Mario agrees to one final job: hijack a cartel’s cash shipment before it reaches Mexico. Along with an old friend and a cartel-insider named Juanca, Mario sets off on the near-suicidal mission, which will leave him with either a cool $200,000 or a bullet in the skull. But the path to reward or ruin is never as straight as it seems. As the three complicated men travel through the endless landscape of Texas, across the border and back, their hidden motivations are laid bare alongside nightmarish encounters that defy explanation. One thing is certain: even if Mario makes it out alive, he won’t return the same.
The Devil Takes You Home is a panoramic odyssey for fans of S.A. Cosby’s southern noir, Blacktop Wasteland, by way of the boundary-defying storytelling of Stephen Graham Jones and Silvia Moreno-Garcia.
Release date: August 2, 2022
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Print pages: 332
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The Devil Takes You Home
Leukemia. That’s what the doctor said. She was young, white, and pretty. Her brown hair hung like a curtain over her left eye. She talked to us softly, using the tone most people use to explain things to a child, especially when they think the kid is an idiot. Her mouth opened just enough to let the words flow out. She said our four-year-old daughter had cancer in her blood cells. Our Anita, who waited in the other room, playing with Legos and still wrapped in innocence. Acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Those strange words were said in a voice that was both impossibly sharp and velvety. Her soft delivery didn’t help. You can wrap a shotgun in flowers, but that doesn’t make the blast less lethal.
The young, white, pretty doctor told us it was too early to tell for sure, but there was a good chance that Anita was going to be okay. Okay, that’s the word she used. Sometimes four letters mean the world. She immediately added that she couldn’t make any promises. People fear being someone else’s hope. I understood her, but I wanted her to be our hope.
The doctor gave us a moment to process what she’d said. Silence is never as cold and sterile as it is in hospitals. My wife, Melisa, and I breathed in that silence and waited. We didn’t look at each other, but I could feel the panic setting in, circulating through my wife like she was radioactive. I wanted to hold Melisa, to comfort her and say it’d be okay, but I was scared of making any sudden movement. I gently cupped my hand over hers, but she pulled away, quick and violent like an invisible shanking, so instead I stared at the doctor’s white coat. Embroidered in blue right above the pocket, it read: Dr. Flynn.
The doctor inhaled. From the other room, the sound of Anita giggling reached our ears. It felt like God had punched me in the heart, and Melisa choked back something. A sad woman is a blade hanging over the world, threatening to fall at any moment.
Dr. Flynn inhaled again and then explained to us that acute lymphoblastic leukemia is a type of cancer that affects bone marrow and white blood cells. It’s a relatively unexceptional error in the body, the most common childhood cancer. A glitch in the bone marrow, she said. Then she looked at us and said bone marrow is the spongy tissue inside our bones where blood cells are made. You know, because she probably thought we were stupid. When you have an accent, people often think you possess the intellect of a fence post.
Dr. Flynn wanted us to know many children make relatively quick recoveries from leukemia if they are diagnosed early and start treatment immediately. But she reiterated that they couldn’t make any promises because cancer is always a tricky thing, “a slippery opponent,” she said in an attempt at levity that must have gotten a strained smile from some bewildered parent once upon a time and the good doctor had kept it in her repertoire ever since.
When your child is healthy, you think of sick children and feel like crying, like helping. When your child is sick, you don’t give a shit about other children.
Dr. Flynn tilted her head, shifted the curtain over her eye an inch to the side with her fingers, and placed a manicured hand on Melisa’s shaking shoulder. Dr. Flynn’s rehearsed sympathy looked as legitimate as her perfect nails. I knew we were just another case on her stack and she was throwing us a sliver of hope so we could hold on to it, hold on to anything at all. Still, we believed her. We needed to believe her. I looked at her snowy coat and thought about an angel. She would deliver us a miracle. There was no other option. Not believing her meant something so horrible my brain refused to acknowledge it.
When the doctor walked away, my wife started saying “Mi hija.” My daughter. She sat down. She cried. She repeated “Mi hija” again and again. She said it until it became the heartbeat of our nightmare.
Mi hija. Mi hija.
I said nothing, fear something I couldn’t or wouldn’t speak to. All I could think of was getting into the other room and scooping Anita up into my arms and holding her there forever. Melisa’s big brown eyes were wild. She gulped air and looked around, surely trying to calm down so we could go see our daughter without alarming her. Funny how parents can take a bullet and smile if they think it’ll keep their kids from worrying or crying.
Anita was only four years old and had always been healthy up to that point. She’d never had anything worse than a cold, a few ear infections, and the random teething fever or stomach bug. Chemotherapy would work wonders on her. It had to. Medical research had made tremendous advances in the field. We lived in the future. It would all be okay. All we had to do was stay strong. Our little angel would go into remission in no time. God was good. He wouldn’t let a baby suffer. No one deserves miracles more than unlucky angels. It would all be fine. God and chemotherapy, a winning duo, right? We convinced ourselves of this. Our baby was too full of life, too strong-willed, to lose that battle. Our baby was too loved to die.
Finally, Melisa let out a shuddering breath and looked at me. Something cold had crept into her eyes. She twisted her mouth into something akin to a smile as her eyebrows fought to bring her whole face down.
“Let’s go get our baby,” she said.
Melisa walked into the room and scooped our daughter up. She buried her head in her neck and tickled her with kisses to hide her red eyes and nose. I hugged them both and felt fear stab my heart.
I couldn’t breathe right for two days. I felt like an alpinist who runs out of bottled oxygen near the summit of Everest. But then I saw Anita’s smile, and hope blossomed in my chest. It was a warm, comforting feeling that allowed me to start breathing normally again.
Then came the nasty surprises.
Turns out we hadn’t caught the monster as early as they thought. It also turns out little brown girls with acute lymphoblastic leukemia tend to have a lower cure rate than children of other races. Oh, and the incidence of leukemia is higher among Hispanics. Even awful diseases are fucking racist. And you know the worst part? The wonderful doctors at the hospital couldn’t tell us why. Yeah, the difference between a curandero spitting rum in your face and a doctor looking at you with no answers is a white coat and the smell of disinfectant that surrounds the latter.
The poison in Anita’s veins wasn’t happy with invading her blood; it also wanted to know what she was thinking, to ride the contents of her dreams, so it attacked her cerebrospinal fluid. Le invadió los pensamientos. Se metió en sus sueños and it slowly killed ours.
The strangest thing about it, the thing that made me so mad I forgot to be sad for a while, was that I’ve had a gift my whole life. When bad things are about to happen, I get this cold feeling in my gut. I hear things. A word. A whisper. A waking dream. Something that keeps buzzing around me until I pay attention. Whenever that happens, I’ve kept alert, stayed sharp. Been that way since I was a kid.
My junkie mother always said I had angels floating above me. I’d been born inside the amniotic sac, and she claimed that gave me the ability to see both sides of the veil. On dark, quiet afternoons when my mother only left the beige to go to the bathroom, she would look at me and declare she could hear the angels talking, showering the top of my head with secrets of things to come. She told me I had to learn to listen to them. “Escucha a los angelitos, mijo,” she’d say. Then she’d grab her stuff from the small box next to the sofa, cook herself a fix, and plunge a syringe full of warm visions into her destroyed veins. I guess she wanted the angels to talk to her too. She wasn’t entirely right about the voices, but she wasn’t entirely wrong either. No one talked to me, but I knew things, heard things. Sometimes it was even in the absence of sound. For example, I woke up to an eerie silence one morning and knew that the lack of a second breath in our trailer meant Mom was gone. I didn’t even have to get up and check. Tears were streaming down my face before my feet touched the floor. I also thought about my friend Hector while doing homework one day and then the world stopped humming for a few seconds. I knew he was gone. The next day at school, they told us his dad had been driving while intoxicated. The man had wrapped his car around a pole, killing himself, his wife, Hector, and his baby sister, Martita.
The point is that my little angel had always been okay and I had never gotten the sense that something awful was about to happen. No dreams, no worries, no words in the wind, no whispers in the middle of the night, no fear, ni una corazonada. Whoever or whatever took care of letting me know about bad things coming had decided to keep quiet about the most important thing in my life. This time, sadly, los cabrones ángeles decidieron quedarse callados. When it came to Anita, nothing had looked out of place. Melisa hadn’t even thought to mention that the pediatrician had noticed some unusual swelling at Anita’s yearly checkup and ordered some additional bloodwork “just to be safe.” Melisa probably didn’t want me asking if our crappy insurance would cover that expense.
Within weeks of the diagnosis, our Anita went from a ball of unstoppable energy to a thin bird with broken wings. I’d hold her tiny body against mine and feel everything inside me break at once. An invisible monster was devouring her, feasting on her innocence, and there was nothing I could do about it.
So we prayed. Melisa and I prayed with clasped hands and gritted teeth. We prayed with a rosary clutched so tightly in our hands that our palms would sport tiny half-moons for hours. We prayed with spittle flying out of our mouths and tears in our eyes. We prayed and made deals, made promises, made threats. We prayed with every ounce of energy in our bodies. We asked La Virgencita to save our baby. We asked God to intercede. We asked the angels to lend a hand. We asked the saints to help us win this battle. They all stayed quiet, and death lived in that silence.
When Melisa started lighting strange candles, tying blessed ribbons to Anita’s hospital bed, and using holy water to make crosses on our baby’s forehead, I didn’t ask questions or try to stop her. She was sad and desperate. She was willing to try anything to bring the holy into that hospital room. She had carried our child for nine months, and I knew losing her was like someone pulling out her heart and lungs. On good days, I understood her and prayed with her. On bad days, I stayed in the cafeteria, sipping atrocious coffee, thinking about punching doctors for not doing their job, and having a hard time processing just how pathetic Melisa had become, begging for a miracle that was obviously not coming our way.
You don’t know horror until you’ve spent a few hours inside a hospital looking at the fitful sleep of a loved one who is being taken from you. You don’t know desperation until the uselessness of praying hits you. I stopped eating and sleeping. I became a fuzzy copy of the man I used to be, an unshaved mess full of anger and pain and tears. Me llené de odio y desesperación.
A few weeks into our new reality, a human resources specialist from my office called. It was someone I’d never met. She said she was sorry to hear about Anita’s health and then said she regretted to inform me they had to let me go because I’d used up all my sick days, personal days, PTO, and then shattered every absenteeism record in the company. I hung up. Your daughter has cancer, but you’re not being productive, motherfucker, so we’re firing you. Welcome to the American Dream.
The medical bills had already started showing up. “Every time we breathe in that hospital, someone writes us a bill for it and now we don’t even have insurance,” said Melisa. Her voice was full of quiet anger. She’d lost weight, and her cheekbones looked like weapons constantly threatening the world.
“We’ll get the money somehow.”
“You always say the same thing. We’ll get the money somehow. We’ll make it work. We’ll be okay. I’m tired, Mario. Estoy tan cansada. Every day Anita spends in there, every new treatment and test she gets, adds to the pile of bills. What we have is not enough now and won’t be enough anytime soon. It’s never enough! We’ve been doing our best for so long and we’re still more or less where we started. And now our baby—”
Her voice broke like a glass thrown against the floor, fast and sharp. I got up from the sofa and held her. It was the only thing I could do. Her body trembled in my arms. Anita’s sickness was a new reality we woke up to every day, but this scene wasn’t. Holding her felt old already, like something I’d done too much and was ready to never do again. Talking about money was worse. The discussion felt like a nightmare we’d carried from a time before we met each other, and then we’d created a larger one by putting our problems together. Every time the car broke down. Every time we needed dental work. Every time bills piled up and we felt like we were losing control, we’d end up like this. I wished I’d held her for different reasons.
Melisa looked up at me. Her brown eyes shiny, her face red and still beautiful.
“What are we going to do?”
“We’ll think of—”
She pushed me away. Hard. I wasn’t expecting that.
“Don’t say it. Don’t fucking say it. God always takes from those who have nothing to give, and I’m tired of it.”
The next day, God kept punching. We spoke to Dr. Flynn first. She said she was surprised at the inefficacy of the treatment. She had one of her colleagues, a chubby man with big ears and yellowing teeth, talk to us.
“This is a fascinating case,” he said. “The survival rate is about 98 percent, and the small percentage of deaths we see can be mostly attributed to late diagnoses. In Anita’s case, we’re not within the optimal window of time in terms of detection, but we’re also not too far from it. The aggressiveness of her leukemia is bizarre. She is truly a fascinating case.”
Something stirred in me while he spoke. The doctor droned on and on, talking about Anita the way someone would talk about a lizard with three heads. Then he pulled out some papers. As he fingered through the pages, I had the sudden urge to grab them out of his meaty hands and shove them down his throat. Anything to make him stop talking. Melisa squeezed my arm. She always knew when I was tuning out. Squeezing my arm was her way of telling me to pay attention.
“There is an experimental treatment I’d like to run by you. We’ve seen great results with monoclonal antibodies in children that don’t take to chemo the way we’d hoped. I won’t chew your ear off, but Anita could be part of this clinical trial. We’re talking about really potent man-made antibodies that can attach themselves to certain proteins found on cells. What the—”
“I’m sorry, Dr. Harrison, but who pays for these clinical trials?” Melisa interrupted.
“Insurance should pay for most of the costs. Once you meet your deductible that is, but that shouldn’t be a problem for you.” He chuckled again. “And of course you’d have to be in network and there are always the costs of extra meds—”
My hands were on Dr. Harrison before I even realized I had jumped out of my seat. “Fuck you, fuck the treatment, fuck the insurance, and fuck this damn hospital!” The papers he was holding flew up and then drifted down to the floor like wounded birds. No one spoke for a moment. Tennis shoes squeaked against the floor, and Melisa’s hands were on my shoulders. She was saying something, but it was like this thing inside me had taken over.
I wanted to hurt the asshole who’d called my baby a “fascinating case,” but Melisa pulled me away, apologizing, as Dr. Flynn looked on in horror, her one visible eye wide with fear.
“This isn’t you, Mario,” Melisa said as we made our way to the parking lot. “I need the sweet man I married with me right now, not…whoever this is.”
I had nothing to say. We reached our car and climbed in.
Melisa turned to me, took a deep, shaky breath, and squeezed my hands harder.
“Agárrate de mi mano, que tengo miedo del futuro…”
Her soft voice filled the car. It was an old Ismael Serrano song. The darkness receded.
“Look at me, Mario.” I did. “We’ll get through this. It’s what we do. We’ll make it work. We’ll get the money.”
I checked a few sites and sent out some résumés, but nothing happened. I’d gotten used to that. If your name has too many vowels, getting a job is ten times harder than if your name sounds like it belongs in the credits of a Hollywood movie.
When you’re poor, getting money occupies your mind at all times anyway, but this was different. We needed a thousand dollars a month just to cover Anita’s meds for the clinical trial, and that didn’t include insurance costs or the back-and-forth visits between our home in Austin and Houston’s med center. Finally, when it was clear even the McDonald’s wasn’t interested in an interview, I called Brian.
We’d worked together years ago at the insurance agency. Now Brian was a dope dealer and habitual meth smoker. Not exactly friends, we’d been two souls caught in the same soulless gig, and that made us gravitate to each other, to talk about movies and places we’d like to visit, celebrities we’d like to sleep with. When he got fired from the insurance place, allegedly for selling pirated movies out of the trunk of his car during his lunch hour, we kept in touch with occasional texts.
A year or so after he left, Brian had asked me to collect credit card info at the insurance company and give it to him. He had someone interested in buying it. Third parties would use the info. “They won’t be able to track it back to you,” he had said. I processed credit card payments from all over Latin America, so it would have been easy and we needed the money then too. I collected the information in no time but backed out at the last minute. I was too afraid of getting caught and leaving Anita and Melisa to fend for themselves while I rotted away in prison. Brian understood and said he always had gigs waiting. “No biggie, man,” he said. “You’re a good dude. Call if the damn poverty noose gets too tight, yeah? I got you.”
Melisa was at the hospital they’d moved us to in Houston when I finally took him up on that offer. By then she was staying most nights. At the start we alternated nights because only one parent could stay, but then getting a hotel stopped being an option because we were too broke. I often slept in the car. Every few days, one of us would drive home to do laundry and bring other things to the hospital. I was home on one of those trips when I decided to call Brian. The medical bills were too much, the insurance that we paid for out of pocket even crappier. Brian picked up on the second ring.
“How much do you need?”
“I need…as much as I can get.”
“I can get you money. That part’s easy. You willing to do anything?”
The question was unsettling, but Brian’s tone remained upbeat. I said yes. And I meant it. Those fucking medical bills stood on top of all the others. Rent, electricity, car insurance, and phone bills didn’t give a shit that our daughter was beating back death.
Brian came over a few hours later. He twitched like a broken toy as he pulled out a crumpled piece of paper. There was an address scribbled on it, somewhere on the outskirts of Waco, about halfway between Austin and Dallas. Then Brian handed me a torn photo of a large man wearing an ill-fitting blue suit in front of a beige door. The photo was damp. The man’s red nose spoke of booze, bad nights, and high blood pressure.
Brian got up with a grunt and reached behind him. His hand came back holding a gun. “That’s the dude,” he said while inspecting something on the side of the weapon. His words seemed to ignore the fact that he was holding a gun.
“Here, you’ll need this.” Brian handed me the weapon while mumbling something about the safety and making sure it ended at the bottom of a lake and not in my car. I took the gun from him and looked at it. It looked just like the guns in movies but was heavier than I expected. There was writing on it: 9MM LUGER. SMITH & WESSON. My gun knowledge was limited, but I knew the thing could spit death and that was all that mattered. We’ve been strangling and beating each other with rocks and sticks since we stopped dragging our knuckles and swinging from branches. Guns are the natural next step. There is something unsettling about how we’re given life and then spend a large part of it trying to engineer better ways of killing others. That said, the cool, hard metal made me feel good.
Brian plucked the gun out of my hand, turned it to the side, and pointed at the safety he’d been talking about. He showed me how to use it. “Two hands,” he said. “Don’t turn it sideways like the idiots in the movies, and for God’s sake, don’t forget the fucking safety.”
His hands were shaky, but I got the gist. When his little class was over, Brian told me to drive to the address he’d given me. Once there, I’d see an abandoned VW van.
“Show up late,” he said. “Go on a weekday. The guy leaves his office around seven or eight every night. He’s one of those assholes who think they can become millionaires if they put in the hours. Anyway, he always stops for a drink or three and a little ass. Fat man loves the sauce and he likes them young, but he’s usually home before midnight. Tries to look normal and shit, you know? Show up before he does and park a few blocks away. Dress like someone out for a walk. You know, like you’re trying to lose a couple pounds or whatever. If no one sees you, hide behind the van outside his house. Wait until the asshole walks up to the door and then shoot him in the back of the head. Then get your ass outta there as quickly as possible.”
The ease with which those words left his mouth shocked me. He was talking about murder. He didn’t mention the sound of the gunshot. He didn’t talk about nosey neighbors. He wasn’t worried about cops immediately pulling up to the property, lights on and guns out. He talked about killing a man with the tone others use to tell you how they prepare their favorite sandwich.
“So just…shoot him?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Show up. Boom. Get back. Collect six stacks. Easy gig. Oh, and make sure you get rid of the gun. It can be the one thing you forget about and then it comes back to bite you in the ass.”
He replied with something akin to a smile on his face. I’d get six grand for the job, which was way more than I made in a month at the insurance place. More important, it’d cover Anita’s meds. Then Brian looked at me and, placing his right hand on my shoulder, said, “This is a bad guy. You’re doing the world a favor, man. I fucking swear. You don’t even want to know what this motherfucker does when he thinks no one’s looking. Just trust me, man. This guy is scum, okay? You’re doing the world a favor.”
He was overselling it. I knew Brian was using me and pocketing more than he was giving me. I didn’t care. I needed the money. It was all about Anita. Six stacks wouldn’t be enough to get us out of the hole. It wouldn’t even make a dent in the stack of angry letters and final notices. But if it came down to Anita or this motherfucker, I knew it had to be done. I told myself that if God was busy making little angels sick instead of protecting them, there was nothing wrong with me picking up the slack and putting an end to those who actually deserved it. However, none of that worked too well. Killing is killing. I felt like I was trapped inside a skin that didn’t belong to me. I didn’t even know if this guy was as bad as Brian was saying or if he was feeding me a line to get me to do the job. Maybe the guy just owed the wrong person some money. Maybe he had crossed someone who didn’t have the guts to take him out. The possibilities were endless, and they would all stop mattering the second I pulled that fucking trigger. Bullets don’t believe in remakes or second chances. The thought traveled from my brain to my heart and wrapped itself around it like a creepi. . .
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