The Last Words
Birdie Golden’s fingers were still stained with dirt from digging her father’s grave. Tears smudged her cheeks.
“When I’m gone,” he’d whispered to her, “look through my crate. I’ve left you . . .” His fingertips had sparked one last time and gone out, leaving them charcoal-tinged and lifeless. His labored breathing had slowed, and he’d closed his eyes.
Left her what? Or maybe he’d just . . . you know. Left her. “Dad?” Her chest had tightened. She’d squeezed his hand. “Dad?”
A moment later, his eyes had fluttered. “Find your mother,” he’d said with a gasp. “Tell her . . . I did my best.” And then he’d died.
Birdie hadn’t expected him to say anything like that. Her mind had been churning the words around ever since. Through the digging. The funeral. And the burying. Today’s glorious sunshine hadn’t penetrated the numbness. Not even the call of the gray whale. Only those words: Find your mother.
Birdie would check Dad’s crate in the morning. But tonight, she left their cabin and headed for the fire pit with her ten-year-old brother, Brix, who was bouncing—not joyfully—by her side, and her tiny pig trotting behind. Only the five kids remained in the hideout built by their supernatural criminal parents. Forgotten and alone. And they had a lot to talk about.
Tenner Cordoba scraped the last serving of fish from the skillet onto his plate as the other four ate around the tree-stump table. The wind picked up, rustling the thick trees, and the surf pounded the shore at high tide. An animal howled far away. Tenner turned sharply toward the noise, narrowing his eyes.
Puerco, Birdie’s pig, stirred uneasily. Shh, Birdie said with her mind, and Puerco settled down.
At the far end of the table was Seven Palacio. He was thirteen like Tenner and Birdie and sat camouflaged by shadows and the black parachute-fabric clothes he wore. Next to him, Cabot Stone, eleven-going-on-thirty, ran a hand over her buzz-cut hair and cast a worried glance at Brix to see how he was holding up. He’d stopped crying.
Tenner dropped into the log chair next to Birdie. “Are you doing okay?” he asked her. He looked at his food, then pushed it around with his fork. For once he had little appetite.
“Better,” she said. “Thanks.” She caught his eye and smiled sadly.
Tenner lowered his gaze. “No problem,” he mumbled, then dropped his fork in the dirt and muttered under his breath. After retrieving it and wiping it off, he looked around the table. Everyone was red-eyed and exhausted. It had been the longest day. They’d never buried anyone before.
Louis had told them what to do when the time came, but that hadn’t made it any easier. Pushing dirt over his wrapped-up body . . . It had been the hardest thing Tenner had ever done. Birdie and Brix had been sobbing. Seven had leaned on his shovel, his arms shaking, unable to do anything but comfort those two. Cabot had stepped in, her face a mask. She’d dropped the first handful of dirt. Then she’d taken Seven’s shovel. Tenner had helped her with the rest of it. He’d cried in the ocean later.
Tenner wanted to go to bed and forget this day. But there was one thing that still needed to happen. A few weeks ago, Tenner had brought Louis some soup and sat next to him to help him eat it. Louis had put down the spoon and taken the boy’s hand.
“You can go your own way, Tenner,” Louis had said. His hair was only beginning to gray, and it spread wildly on the pillow.
“What do you mean?” Tenner had asked, confused.
“You’re not like your parents. You’re in charge of your decisions. I believe in you.”
“Oh.” Tenner’s face had burned, but he’d managed a smile. “Thanks, Louis.”
“Will you do me a favor?” Louis had closed his eyes and taken a labored breath. His fingers sparked.
Tenner leaned back to avoid injury. “Of course. Anything.”
“Continue the tradition. Keep telling the story of the criminals’ escape. It’s important. Do it after I’m gone.”
Tenner had promised.
And now the time had come. “Okay,” Tenner said, glancing worriedly at Birdie. He wasn’t sure she was ready for this. “I promised your dad we’d do the story after . . . well, you know. So, who’s going to start? Birdie or Brix?”
Birdie’s face was pained, but she didn’t object. The siblings glanced at each other. “Brix should do it,” Birdie said. “It’s his turn.”
Brix sat up. The story had been part of their lives since they were little. All the people in this hideaway had been supernatural, extremely rare compared to the rest of the world. Dad had said it was crucial that the children not only remember but be able to recite their family history. Knowing that, and hearing his father’s voice saying it in his head, made Brix’s throat close up for a moment. But then he began the way someone always began. “How did our parents get here?”
They all knew the answer but still looked forward to the story of the criminals’ failed heist. Or, as Louis referred to it, their successful escape.
From the shadows, Seven spoke. “Fifteen years ago, after decades of being oppressed in Estero, our parents decided to come to their hideout, where they’d be safe. But first they wanted to do one last heist—of the famous Stone Crown on display in President Fuerte’s palace. It had belonged to the first ruler of Estero over a thousand years ago, and it was the president’s most prized possession. The criminals knew they would never be able to sell it because it was well-known around the world. But they wanted to teach the country, and the president, a lesson about shunning people like them.”
He leaned forward and added a log to the fire, his face appearing to be engulfed in flames. “The plan went wrong. They were recognized and chased by police. But they made it to the roof of the hospital where Cabot’s mom worked. And then they came here.”
“In a helicopter,” Tenner added. “Cabot’s mom flew.”
“They didn’t get the crown,” said Brix, “but they didn’t need it. They’d left their stash of gold and jewels hidden in Estero, for whenever they decided to go back.”
Birdie stared at the fire. Some of the parents were there, no doubt. Like her mother.
“My mom flew the helicopter across the bay through the dark night,” Cabot said, scooting forward in her seat to tell her favorite part. “The criminals were ready to jump with parachutes, and they tied their belongings in a cargo net attached to parachutes, too. Then my mom programmed the helicopter to fly on its own, out of sight, to run out of fuel and crash into the ocean miles and miles away from here.” She sighed. That was the most romantic of all the details. Even though she hadn’t witnessed it, it was a prominent image in her mind—eight supernatural thieves jumping out of a helicopter and parachuting to the jungle beach on this narrow slice of land. Cabot was wearing part of one of those parachutes right now, fashioned into baggy trousers.
Her thoughts flickered to her parents, and her enthusiasm for the story waned. Louis Golden’s death had her pining for them again.
“They didn’t even have to slow the helicopter down,” said Seven.
Brix looked up. That was a detail he hadn’t noticed before. “Does it matter that they didn’t slow the helicopter?” he asked.
“Yes,” said Tenner. His thick eyebrows almost met in a stern expression, and he set his uneaten plate of food on the table. “Every part of the story matters.”
Birdie pulled her knees up and hugged them. “It was so anybody tracking their flight pattern wouldn’t be able to guess where they’d jumped out.”
Cabot nodded. Despite her funk, a small, melancholy smile appeared on her face after talking about her mother.
“It’s going to be different here without Louis,” Tenner said, his voice catching. Louis had been there for him when his own parents hadn’t.
Cabot and Brix nodded, eyes wet. Everyone went silent for a long, reverent moment, almost as if they’d planned it in honor of the parent who’d stayed.
After a while, Seven cleared his throat and wiped his face with his sleeve. “I’m glad we’re not going to Estero. This is our home. And we’ve been through enough.”
Birdie rested her chin on her knees and closed her eyes. Her father’s dying words pulsed in her ears like a heartbeat. Find. Your. Mother.
Kneeling on the hard-packed dirt floor of their cabin the next morning, Birdie pulled out the hand-hewn crate that held her father’s personal items. Find your mother. Why? How? That wasn’t the plan. Why wait until your last breath to say that?
A few years before, Birdie’s mother, Elena, and Mr. and Mrs. Stone—Cabot’s parents—had left their secret tropical hideout to get supplies: Fabric to make clothing. Tools, ropes, and seeds for their garden. Maybe some sweet treats if they had room in their backpacks.
Everyone knew the route would be treacherous. That was one of the reasons the group was safe here on the peninsula.
The three didn’t return.
Four more parents, the Palacios and the Cordobas, had followed to search for the missing three—or so they’d claimed. But they hadn’t come back, either. That left Louis Golden in the hideout with the five children.
Mourning the loss of the missing ones was rough. But Louis, despite his criminal past, had been a good parent. The kids had been managing—some better than others.
Birdie wiped her eyes and squared her shoulders, then drew her straight black hair back and tied it with a strip of cloth from her pocket. She began to examine the crate’s contents.
At first glance there seemed to be nothing she hadn’t seen before. On top were her parents’ old, dust-covered cell phones. Telephones, as Birdie and the other children understood them, were used by people to communicate from afar, giving you a kind of handheld telepathic ability. There were also some tightly wrapped cords that possibly went with the phones, but Birdie wasn’t sure. If so, the whole conglomeration required “electricity” to make them useful. Birdie set the cords aside to give to Cabot—she’d make something actually useful out of them.
Dad’s wallet sat next to the phones. Birdie had looked through that plenty of times and knew it contained bills with different numbers on them—he’d shown the kids when teaching them about money. But, to be honest, Birdie hadn’t paid much attention. They had no need for money here, and the plan was to stay. So why bother?
Also inside the wallet was Louis’s driver’s license and some plastic cards that he’d said were useless now. Behind the cards was a picture of Birdie’s mother as a young woman in Estero. There was a grassy area with trees around her, and tall buildings off to one side. Birdie touched her mother’s face and accidentally left a smudge on the photo, which she quickly wiped clean using the edge of her shirt. Mom’s smile was the same as Birdie remembered.
Instantly the lullaby her mother had sung to young Birdie was in her head. It had been a simple tune that Elena Golden had composed—it even had Birdie’s name in it. She longed to feel her mother’s arms around her and hear her sing it again.
Fresh pain hit like a tidal wave as she imagined telling her mom that Louis had died. She held the photo to her chest and pinched her eyes shut as a sob escaped. How on earth was she supposed to find her? Especially without her dad’s help? Louis believed she’d been captured and jailed in Estero. But . . . she could be dead. Sure, she was supernaturally fast and agile, which had made her the obvious choice to make the trek. But she wasn’t invincible. None of them were.
Birdie blew out a steadying breath, then opened her eyes and returned to the task. Underneath the phones and wallet rested a small collection of books and journals Dad had brought with him fifteen years ago. Birdie hadn’t paid much attention to her father’s personal journals, though he’d shown them to her a few times. “Someday you’ll want to read these,” he’d said not long after he’d gotten sick. “There’s some interesting stuff that might be helpful if you ever decide to go to Estero.” But Dad’s handwriting was hard for Birdie to read. She’d preferred listening to his stories of their sordid past.
She’d read all the books in the crate at least ten times, though. She lifted the familiar worn stack and looked at the books one by one. Sticking out between the pages of her favorite book, the Encyclopedia Minorica Volume C–D (which had pictures of all kinds of glorious castles, cathedrals, and cities), were two new notes: one for Birdie and one for Brix. Birdie pulled them out. With trembling fingers, she put the one for Brix in her pocket to deliver later and examined the one for her. It was written on an end page torn from one of the books. Could this be what her father had left her? After his stunning final words, she was nervous to read it. Steeling herself, she opened it.
Now that the end of my life is approaching, I have a confession to make. Fifteen years ago, right before your mother and I and the other adults were forced to leave Estero, I moved our hidden stash . . . without telling anyone. I’ve created a map that leads to it. When you are of age and feeling especially brave, I want you to go to Estero, find your mother, and give her the map.
Please be careful.
I love you, and I’m sorry . . . about everything.
The sentences were so shocking that Birdie couldn’t totally comprehend them in her grief. The few words that stood out rotated through her mind: Confession. Stash. Mother. Map.
Her focus sharpened on a water stain near the words sorry . . . about everything, and she choked up. The stain might have been caused by a teardrop. Louis had softened as he lay dying.
Feeling light-headed, Birdie set the note from her father on top of the stack of books to read again later when she could collect her thoughts. Then she moved a pile of loose papers aside and carefully picked through the journals, examining the exterior of each one curiously and noting that they were numbered and dated in the order he’d written them. She opened his most recent one to a page with a sketch of a group of trees and a mound of earth with an iron ring sticking out of it. Words, blurred by Birdie’s tears, danced on the page. The entry was dated a few months before—around the time Dad had taken ill.
The ancient lower tunnels of Estero would be a safe place to hide if any of the children decide to go. After years of searching, I found an entrance days before we became fugitives. I told Elena but no one else. I’ll never trust Troy Cordoba again . . . and the children shouldn’t either.
Another secret? Birdie closed the journal. It was too much. Too soon.
She reached back into the crate. Tucked along the bottom edge was a scroll with charred edges. Birdie picked it up and felt her father’s fire-based energy pulsing inside. Her heartbeat quickened, for it seemed as though some small part of him lived on, beyond death.
When she unrolled the scroll, it burst into flames.